Words by Chuck Tannert.
Forget the snowball fights you knew as a child. Those are bush league compared to the sport of yukigassen, the Japanese word for snow battle.
Every February for the past 30 years, teams from around the world descend on Sobetsu, Japan, where they hold the international snowball fight tournament, the Showa-Shinzan International Yukigassen.
The Showa-Shinzan tournament is, as Ky MacMaster, forward for the Canadian Snowbattlers, puts it, “the Stanley Cup of snowball fights.” And just like the Stanley Cup, it’s a tough competition. “Winning involves a lot of precision and strategy,” he says, “just like any other professional sport.”
MacMaster has been a competing in yukigassen tournaments since 2011. But how did he first get into it? “The [international] association was having a tourney in our hometown of Edmonton,” recalls the 35-year-old, who’s a heavy machine technician by day. “My friends and I fielded a team.”
They lost that match, but they were hooked. They went on to win the Canadian national tournament a year later, which allowed them to compete in the world championships in Japan for the first time. “We’ve been four times [since then],” says MacMaster. “We were the first international team ever to win a match and the first to win a bracket. Otherwise, the Japanese teams dominate.”
The sport of yukigassen was created in 1988 as a way to attract more tourism to the Hokkaido region of Japan in the colder months during the off-season. According to local lore, town leaders watched visitors start an impromptu snowball fight. From that, yukigassen was born.
The first Showa-Shinzan round robin elimination tournament was held in 1989. Today, it’s a worldwide sensation. Countries like Australia, Canada, Finland, Sweden and the United States host their own national competitions, and the winners get to compete for the world title in Japan.
Essentially, yukigassen is a combination of dodgeball, paintball, and capture the flag. A match takes place on an NBA-sized court (30 meters long by 10 meters wide) of snow, dotted with a variety of barriers and hurdles, and lasts three minutes. Each seven-person team is given 90 pre-packed snowballs that must last the entire match.
One way to win is to “tag” everyone on the opposing team with a snowball (obviously). But you can also win by capturing the opposing team’s flag or having more players untagged when the clock runs out. The team that wins two out of three matches advances to the next round of the tournament.
MacMaster and the Snowbattlers are headed back to Sobetsu in 2018.
Looking to become the ultimate snow warrior this winter? Take a few tips from the master. The… MacMaster. (Sorry, Ky. We had to.)
1. Build an arsenal.
The snowballs used in competition aren’t your backyard variety. They use a specialized press to produce multiple balls of consistent size and shape. But you should be able to scoop and form snowballs with a teammate like an assembly line for a decent pile.
2. Find the perfect snow. Moisture content is key. “The snow can’t be too wet or too dry,” says MacMaster. “Tacky, and a little wet is perfect.”
3. Pack snowballs with your bare hands, especially if it’s cold. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. Cold weather creates snow that’s loose and unpackable. The heat from your hands melt the snow just enough to pack it.
4. If you must, use gloves, not mittens. Mittens allow less heat to escape, which is great for keeping your hands warm, but bad for forming snowballs.
5. Work strategically. Don’t throw snowballs willy nilly, and don’t blitz. Work with your teammates and utilize obstacles.
6. Perfect the master throw. Fastballs look impressive, but the other team expects them. A high and soft lob is confusing. And when you mix the two, it’s unbeatable. First throw a high lob. While your opponent is looking up to see where it’ll land, nail them with a fast one. They’ll never see it coming.
And most importantly… Have fun. Be safe.