Trial by ice: the Yuki Gassen snowball fight

By Jonathan Baker

What was it? A crazy Japanese festival that takes a childhood pastime and turns it into a competitive international sport. What were we doing? Training for weeks on end (well, does walking to school count?) with the Hokkaido-based national championships within our sights… or you know, just trying to survive and have a laugh.

Let’s begin by painting a brief picture of the contest. The Yuki Gassen is basically a 2-day hardcore snowball fight, the winners of which go on to compete in the national championships in Hokkaido where teams from all around the world come to participate. The pitch is similar in length to a basketball court, and half the width. Within those confines are seven free-standing walls, behind which crouch two 7-person teams, each equipped with an arsenal of 90 snowballs ready to be frantically hurled at the opposition within the 3-minute game. Each match consists of 3 games. A game is won when a team manages to grab their opponents’ flag. Failing that, the team with the most players unscathed by snowballs at the end of the 3-minute match is crowned victorious.

Our team consisted of Tyler Reed (Canada), Marshall Higa (US), Dennis Horton (Australia) and Isaac Reichenbach (US) in attack, with Cybil Litwiller (Canada), Martyn Reynolds (NZ) and me (UK) in defence. Nick Bradley (UK) and Nikki Swift (US) stood in reserve. A big thank you also to the dozen or so others who very kindly turned up in support.

The contest was held in Takano-cho, a small village north of Shobara. We were scheduled to compete on Sunday morning, so we spent Saturday trying to pick up any hints and tips from the seasoned Japanese teams at work, and sampling the food stalls.

Sunday morning kicked off at 8:45 with an opening ceremony introducing the teams (we are in Japan, after all – what’s an event without an opening ceremony?). Our team name was Henna Gaijin (which translates as ‘weird foreigner’), and we did our best to live up to the title, with lots of screaming, and a particularly boisterous pre-match war dance. In the first round we were to compete in two matches; two victories would move us into a knockout tournament. Our first match was a relatively civilised affair, and we won without too much difficulty. Having entered with the modest hope of not disgracing ourselves, we were over the moon with this unprecedented success.

Our second match, however, proved much more of a challenge. Seconds after the whistle sounded, one of our opponents rushed forward and swiped our flag, handing us an embarrassingly rapid defeat. Our mistake lay in our immediate quick-fire release of the two snowballs that each team is provided with at the beginning of each match: before we’d been able to restock they had made their move and we had no defence. It was a shock, but, with fervent crowd support, we were determined to bounce back in the second game.

In Game 2, they tried the same thing again, but we held them off, and eventually pinned them down. We won that game, and then the following one too, with a brilliant move from Isaac to take their flag just at the end. With the sweet smell of victory wafting all around us, we got somewhat carried away after that, and I ended up throwing my gloves into a very appreciative crowd!

I won’t dwell too long on the third match as, quite simply, we got hammered. We were disappointed to lose, but still overjoyed to have done as well as we did. We had a great time, and I think the crowd enjoyed our unique team spirit. There will be another contest next year, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who likes… extreme entertainment! Think “paintball on ice” and you’re half way there; think “Japanese game show with snowballs” and you’re somewhat nearer the mark.

Fellow Henna Gaijin team-members, otsukaresama – same time next year?