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.
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.
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
- The enemies flag is in possession of the opposing team
- 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
- 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.
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.
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!
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.