Kids defend their flag while attacking their opponents. (Hokkaido Shimbun Cup Elementary School Yuki-gassen Tournament Secretariat)
Kids who live in cold places have always enjoyed making snowballs and having snowball fights (yuki-gassen in Japanese). Recently, rules for snowball fighting have been drawn up, and people are having snowball fights as a kind of team sport. In this sport, players throw snowballs at their opponents and try to capture their flag. Sport snowball fights are becoming very popular among kids these days. When the season turns to winter, tournaments are held all over Japan, especially in Hokkaido, the country's coldest and northernmost island.
The city of Asahikawa in Hokkaido is home to the nine elementary school students who belong to the Asahikawa Higashimachi Poplar Baseball Club. In the winter, when snow piles up and prevents the team from playing baseball, they become a snowball fighting team instead. One member of the team, Hattori Yosuke, who is in the sixth grade, explains: "In the winter in Hokkaido it's cold, and there is a lot of snow, so we can't play baseball. This is fun, because it gives us another way to run around outside." Sixth-grader Kawasaki Ryohei explains the appeal of the sport: "It's the thrill of really nailing someone with a snowball and the moment when you capture your opponent's flag." The team is currently practicing for the Elementary School Yuki-gassen Tournament that will be held on March 5 as part of the Hokkaido Shimbun Cup.
Victory! The flag is captured. (Hokkaido Shimbun Cup Elementary School Yuki-gassen Tournament Secretariat)
A snowball fighting court is 36 meters wide and 10 meters long. Teams have four forwards and three backs who throw snowballs at the players on the opposing team. The players carry snowballs and can take cover behind 90-centimeter-high "shelters" (walls made of snow) in different locations around the court. While trying to protect themselves from their opponents' snowballs, they advance into the other team's territory and try to capture the flag. Players who are hit by a snowball are out, and must leave the court. If all the players on one team are out, they lose the game at that point. When adults play, a match consists of three sets of three minutes each. Each team can use 90 snowballs per set. The rules for kids are generally a bit easier than those for adults.
Even kids who live in places with no snow are into snowball fighting. For example, elementary school students in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward practice using tennis balls in a gymnasium. They are aiming to go take part in Snow Battle 2006, a snowball fighting tournament for elementary school students that will be held on February 12 in Odate City, Akita Prefecture. In schools in regions without snow, the sport is played mainly in gymnasiums, using vaulting boxes for shelters and soft practice baseballs instead of snowballs.
Throwing snowballs from behind a "shelter". (Hokkaido Shimbun Cup Elementary School Yuki-gassen Tournament Secretariat)
The rules for snow battle were devised by people in a town called Sobetsu, which sits at the foot of Mt. Showa-Shinzan in Hokkaido. In 1989, the first Mt. Showa-Shinzan International Yuki-gassen was held. The popularity of this new sport spread quickly across the country, and there are more and more tournaments for elementary school children.
The annual International Yuki-gassen features 190 teams from all over Japan and overseas that have got through the preliminary rounds. The sport has already caught on in other countries, and Kemijarvi, Finland, which is a sister city to Sobetsu, hosts the European qualifying round. If snowball fighting continues to gain in popularity, it's not impossible to imagine that it could eventually become an official Olympic sport.
(Updated in February 2006)