Sapporo Snow Festival 2019: What is the annual ice sculpture extravaganza in Japan?

Event started by schoolchildren took off when military joined in the fun and now attracts 2 million visitors to exhibits and stunning light displays

Joe Sommerlad
Monday 04 February 2019 13:32
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Sapporo Snow Festival 2019 opens in Japan

The spectacular Sapporo Snow Festival is underway in Japan.

Running between 31 January and 11 February, the country's largest winter wonderland event on the northern island of Hokkaido is now in its 70th year, and is regularly attended by around 2 million people.

The festival takes over the city's downtown Odori Park, Tsu Dome and Susukino district every year.

The first area houses several hundred brilliantly-crafted ice statues, often of iconic characters or famous figures like baseball legend Hideki Matsui, Darth Vader or Mickey and Minnie Mouse, all spectacularly lit up by night; the second is given over to snow slides and downhill sledging; the third to competitions.

One of Susukino's centerpiece events is the International Snow Sculpture Contest, in which teams of competitors from all around the world descend to build enormous monuments.

A beauty contest to crown the Susukino Queen of Ice is also staged every year.

The Sapporo TV Tower at the eastern end of Odori Park is a popular attraction as it serves as an observatory deck from which to view the landscape by night. Tickets to the top are always highly-prized.

Now an established winter tradition, the event was begun on a whim by schoolchildren, who came together to build six sculptures after a heavy blizzard. Their work proved a surprise local hit, drawing a crowd of some 50,000 spectators.

The city's reputation for snow sculptures really took off when members of Japan's Self-Defense Forces from the nearby Makomanai military base joined in in 1955. Four years later, as many as 2,500 people were taking part.

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Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympic Games, televised around the world, and the local ice displays stole the show. The event has grown ever since, attracting tourists from across the globe.

This year, the festival's most popular displays have been of US and Australian Open tennis champion Naomi Osaka and a replica of Helsinki Cathedral built by the Ground Self-Defense Force to commemorate a century of diplomatic co-operation between Japan and Finland.

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