The higlight of my year in Japan is the ‘Yuki-gassen’ the snowball competition. Every year in the prefecture of Tottori in a small eastern town, people gather in Wakasa, to hurl snowballs at one another for fun.
However, it is not just for fun as this is a national competition. I have never been in a winning team – in fact I have never been in a team that has won a game – but this is a serious business.
When you arrive at the tournament – you are entered in as teams of ten – you are given a huge ‘snowball making machine’. This machine is in two halves. In each half are 50 semi-circular holes. You pack each hole with snow, and then you put both halves of the machine, one on top of the other, thereby making whole snowballs. Snowballs not correctly made are illegal – snowball judges come around to check and see if they are being made correctly – and bad snowballs are dispensed with.
You are allowed 100 snowballs for your team. In the actual game both teams line up in separate halves of a small football pitch, which is covered in snow, but has walls placed all across the pitch. These walls are important because they are your protection. The rules of the game are simple: Do not get hit by a snowball or you are out, or try and hit all the other team with a snowball so you win. If you cannot get everybody – and it is tough – then you can go for a flag which is in the opponents half. If you get the other team’s flag you win automatically.
Playing against baseball teams in particular is suicide, there is often no point even turning up. A snowball made by these guys hurts, and if you are hit in the head, they meant it. The games I played in were fast affairs, the slowest member of our team – me – made a run for the flag and got knocked senseless by all those fastballs. Even so however cold it is, spurred on by hot green tea and yakitori which are sold at the event makes for a great day out. Although Tottori has a hell of a lot of snow, and I have been dug out of my house twice now by Shogaksei, the Yukigassen makes it worth it.
The finals I have seen are tentative affairs, with fast runners trying to steal flags and snowballs flying in all directions. Winners are cautious teams who have spent hours practising at throwing snowballs at moving objects from behind a snow wall. One day I’ll get to the national final.
The winners of this local tournament then have their travel paid for to go to the national finals. But if ever you have a chance to play – do so and Gambatte Kudasai!
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