SAPPORO – Every year, tens of thousands of tourists flock to the Sapporo Snow Festival, attracted by some 200 large but intricate ice sculptures.
But this year, there was a problem: no snow.
With high temperatures that festival-goers put down to climate change, organizers were forced to truck in powder from distant towns for their signature sculptures in an unheard-of ice crisis.
“This lack of snow is unprecedented,” said Yumato Sato, an official in charge of organizing the festival, which normally uses 30,000 tons to create sculptures ranging from anime characters to famous racehorses.
“We had to bring in snow from places we had never reached out to before” such as the town of Niseko, about 60 km (40 miles) away, known for its ski resorts, he said.
Adding to the problem was the need for pristine snow, perfect for sculpting.
“The snow needs to be free of dirt, otherwise the sculptures can break up,” he said. “We barely managed to scrape together enough snow.”
Record low snowfall in Japan this year has also forced many ski resorts to shut their pistes. According to Weathernews, a quarter of the 400 resorts surveyed have been unable to operate.
The shortage also had a knock-on effect on one of the festival’s main attractions — a 100-meter-long, 10-meter-high slide that had to be reduced in size.
Snowfall in Sapporo has been less than half the annual average, according to the Meterological Agency’s local observatory. High temperatures melted the snow in mid-December and the mercury is expected to stay above average.
This posed a major challenge for the 125 local Self-Defense Forces troops who painstakingly build the sculptures each year. Some of them can be as high as 15 meters, according to commanding officer Col. Minoru Suzuki.
“Due to record warm weather this year, we didn’t have much snow and the snow contained more water, which made the statues melt easily,” said Suzuki.
His troops spent about 100 days planning and building a 15-meter-tall, 20-meter-wide statue modeled on the palace at Lazienki Park in Warsaw to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Japanese-Polish diplomatic relations in 2019.
“We had to keep repairing the statue so we struggled. It was difficult to attach parts because it was so warm,” he added.
The festival has been running for 70 years and is a major draw, attracting 2.7 million visitors last year.
Sunao Kinoshita, 75, who had traveled up from near Osaka, said he “had to see it once before I die.”
“Northern Japanese cities have been hosting snow festivals every year. It would be a shame if such events ended” due to global warming, he said.
A regular festival-goer from the region also laid the blame on global warming. “I was worried the climate was different this year,” said Ayaka Muto, 31.
“Usually we have more snow. I think it’s strange. I feel global warming is happening,” she added.
The main theme of this year’s festival, which ran through Tuesday, is the Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido.
Japan recently built its first national museum dedicated to the ethnic minority’s history and culture and is preparing to open it in April.
“We’ve never before had statues with such powerful Ainu characteristics,” Sato said.
One featured a giant Blakiston’s fish owl spreading its wings and watching over sculptures of the new museum and a ship. The owl is considered a god in Ainu culture.
Another was based on the Ainu myth of a thunder god and a forest princess.
The snow shortage is so bad that some have been turning to the nature gods of Shinto to pray for more snow.
In mid-January, a ski resort in Hyogo Prefecture invited a Shinto priest to hold a ceremony to ask the gods for snow, as did the organizers of the Yamagata Snow Festival in Tohoku.
“It’s not that we don’t have enough snow — we don’t have snow at all. It’s serious and it’s a disaster,” Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido told reporters last month.
The organizers of the Sapporo festival hope they can continue the famed event in the future, despite the warming climate.
“This year marked the 71st event. It’s a festival that we want to carry on for future generations,” Sato said.
“(But) this is about weather, so all we can do is to pray.”