The chilly, winter weather is finally hitting across many parts of the United States. For many, this is an invitation to dust off the winter sports equipment and go do some snowboarding, sledding, or even curling. These sports are entertaining and all (even curling!), but maybe I could try and sell you a new winter sport to get involved in. Hailing from the frigid norths of the Rising Sun (this is a Japanese blog, after all), is the 雪合戦 (ゆきがっせん/Yukigassen, literal translation: Snow Battle).

What is Yukigassen?

Just like the literal translations implies, it is a sport of snow battles, or more specifically, snowball battles. The difference between Yuukigassen to your typical neighborhood snowball fight is the wealth of regulations and professionalism one needs to adhere to. Two teams of seven on-field players duke it out, battle-royale style. Game mechanics are similar to capture the flag, where a team can come out victorious by capturing the opponent team’s flag or “tagging out” the opposing team. The end goal? Fight their way for one of the coveted spots on the Showa-Shinzan International and obtain the top prize, the Public Welfare and Labor Minister’s Award and Cup.

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This game is very serious business. An official international federation exists with a strong sponsorship backing. A few of the sponsors are the major media outlets NHK, HBC, Yomiuri, Mainichi, Asahi Shimbun Presses, Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Japan Airlines, and Sapporo Beer(!). There are many Japanese men who dedicate their lives to this sport, training themselves everyday for the big games that only occur for a couple days out of the year. Some even forgo having spouses and raising a family due to all the time required to dedicate themselves to perfecting the throwing strike or volley.

The sport isn’t limited to inside the borders of Japan. Many countries participate in the games, many of which have their own leagues and tournaments: Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada, and the USA.

So how did the idea of regulating snowball fighting came about in Japan?

(Short) History of Yukigassen

The idea came about in 1987 by a small, sub-3,000 population Hokkaido town called 壮瞥町 (そうべつちょう, Sobetsu). At the time, Sobetsu’s claim to fame was a summer tourist town. Nearby is Mt. Showa-Shinzan, the main attraction for many visitors.

During the long, snow-filled winters, tourism halted to a stand-still. The town’s young, aspiring population saw a need to improve Sobetsu’s economy during the long winters. Forming an ideas committee, they began brainstorming methods of luring in tourists. They already knew that their idea had to be unique and not have been implemented elsewhere in order to fully realize their goal. Days went by with no home-run idea in sight. What began to be an optimistic search to improve their town slowly spiraled into the thought that in reality they might have to settle to just being a summer town. Then the fateful day finally came.

Members of the committee took noticed that tourists were having playful sessions of snowball fighting around town. The flashing light bulb appeared in the minds of the committee, and the rest was history. The first Yukigassen tournament was held the following winter, which brought in 7,000 visitors and 70 teams for the event. Twenty-three Showa-Shinzan Yukigassen tournaments later, the event is now drawing in an annual average of 25,000 visitors, with a set 128 coed and 24 female participating teams.

How is it played?

As mentioned earlier, a game of Yukigassen is played out with two teams of seven on-field players each. Each team can have two additional back-up players and a captain, making it a total of ten players.

In a tournament style setting, three teams are grouped together and pitted against each other round-robin style. Games are played best two out of three, where each game’s length is a maximum of three minutes. Victor is decided when either

  1. The enemies flag is in possession of the opposing team
  2. All players on the opposing team are knocked out (one hit from a snowball is considered out; doesn’t matter where the source of the snowball came from, either the enemy, your teammate, or even yourself), or
  3. The time runs out one team has more remaining players than the other team.

The team with the best record moves on to face the other victors. This continues until one team comes out on top.

The map of the battlefield is pictured below.

Each blue box represents a snow-made shelters, while the red solid circles encompassed by the black bordered circles are the flagpole points. Field areas are either 40m x 10m (~130ft x ~33ft) or 36m x 10m (~118ft x ~33ft).

Team players are split into a four strikers and three defender/feeder positions. No point during the game can the 4 strikers move behind their own back line. In addition, no more than three strikers can cross the center line into the opposing team’s territory.

A few of the common position strategies are outline below in the two figures below.

Standard Position
Attacking Position

You may be wondering why one of the figures points out a snowball storage behind the rear shelter. Each team is only allowed to have 90 snowballs per match. These snowballs must be made before every match. But wait, couldn’t the players make snowballs from their environment during the game? Nope, that is against the rules. So, if the strikers are not allowed to cross their back line and they can’t make their own snow balls, then how can they attack? They are fed snowballs from the snowball storage by the defenders (or feeders, as I called them earlier). Balls can only be fed to players by rolling it to them, no tossing allowed (think of all the friendly fire that’d happen if they did!).

Ok, but wait a minute, 90 snowballs sounds a lot. Is there an efficient way to mass produce the snowballs? Yep, there sure is. The Yuukigassen Federation would be more than happy to sell your a snowball making device for US$740; produces snowballs in batches of 36.

Follow these instructions...
... And you get perfect snowballs like these! No yellow snowballs, please.

After reading and watching the videos on Yuukigassen, we are fairly pumped to start our own team. Now if only we can get snow to stick around our parts for more than a day… I leave to you a video of a complete game, for your viewing. Check out the volley skills at work! Pew Pew!

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Although Yukigassen isn’t quite ready to be a Winter Olympic sport (c’mon, Curling got in somehow!), we’ll be pulling for it every chance we get. To get into the Olympics, a sport has to be “widely accepted around the world.” Yukigassen is starting to get there, though it’s probably not quite up to the standards of whatever committee chooses this sort of thing. Still, I hope to see it sometime soon. Who thought childhood playtime could turn into something this cool, though?

So, are you ready to go out and join your local team, people-who-live-in-places-with snow? We hope to see you on the snow battlefield.

P.S. Going to dedicate your life to the game of Yuukigassen? Share it on Twitter.
P.P.S. If your team wins the Showa-Shinzan International, let us know on Facebook or Google+.

  • koichi

    omg, I want to play this sport.

  • Kali

    You don’t get enough snow in Portland?

  • koichi

    Just a little every few years, so not quite enough :(

  • Carrie

    Love your article!

  • Carrie

    Give Bend, Oregon a shout… they are thinking of hosting a tournament!

  • Kiriain

    I want to play this sport too. Maybe there’s a team that’s in Portland, but they go to Mt. Hood to play in tournaments. And practice by throwing tennis balls or something.

  • Anonymous

    This. Sounds. Awesome!

  • Shollum

    Too bad snow doesn’t stick around here (when it actually snows at all).

    If this was in the Olympics, I might actually watch them…

  • Ben Nichols

    Great article, I never knew about this sport! It reminds me of paintball, but it’s all human-powered. The snowball splash effect is also pretty awesome.

    P.S.  Just two things you may want to correct: “The faithful day” should be “the fateful day”, and below the map, “why did one of the figures points out” doesn’t need the word “did”.

  • ZA다ルﻣ

    atariyahonpo’s youtube channel has some pretty cool footage if you’re looking for more. i think it’s cool to be able to follow one team’s talent and root for them!

  • Viet

    Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the article!

  • koichi

     That’d be cool – I’d go watch that

  • JLynJoyce

    I didn’t even know this existed. I can’t wait to tell everyone!

  • Tawlar98

    and i thought you were kidding at first…………

  • R. Ali

    This is so much awesome lol

  • RedBaron9495

    It’s tranishing the whole concept of Winter Olympics with such stupid events like these