While residents of cities across the northern hemisphere curse this winter's heavy snowfalls, the people of Sapporo are welcoming it with open arms: February 2 marks the opening of the 61st Sapporo Snow Festival, one of the biggest annual events on the most northerly Japanese island of Sapporo.
Preparations for the week-long event began on Thursday, with members of Japan's Self-Defence Forces delivering the first truckloads of snow that will be compacted into ice before teams of sculptors get to grips with it.
The first delivery, of 20 tons of snow, will be used to create a colossal copy of Germany's Dresdner Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady. Previous centerpiece ice carvings have included Japan's iconic Himeji Castle, the Eiffel Tower and St. Paul's Cathedral in London.
Organizers told Relaxnews that they expect more than 2 million people to visit the city during the festival, which is spread over three sites in the city. Around 23 ice statues will be created at the Tsudome site, close to the Sapporo Dome baseball stadium, a further 80 will be carved in the streets of the Susukino entertainment district, which will be illuminated until midnight, but the bulk of those entered in the competition will be in Odori Park, in the center of the city.
This year also marks the 37th International Snow Sculpture Contest, with 15 three-person teams - from as far afield as Thailand, Mexico, Finland, Hong Kong, New Zealand and Sweden - competing for the top prize for a work of art carved from a block of ice measuring 3 cubic meters.
The ice artists use hatchets, shovels and even chain saws to shape the rough block of ice, many working at night because the warmer daytime temperatures make the ice unstable. More delicate tools are used to carve the finer points and put the finishing touches to the entries.
The festival has grown out of an informal competition between local high school students in Odori Park in 1950. Five years later, the Self-Defence Force joined in and constructed the first massive snow sculpture - a tradition that is continued to this day and remains the trademark of the festival.
The event gained international attention after the 1972 Winter Olympic Games and has led to Sapporo forging sister-city relationships with a number of municipalities around the world, including Munich, Germany and Portland, Oregon in the USA.
61st Sapporo Snow Festival