The Sapporo International Snow Sculpture Competition: The ALTs who became “Team New Zealand”
by Sofara Aiono
It’s not every day that one is asked to represent their country in an event in which they have absolutely no experience, or knowledge about. So when I was asked to fill a spot on a special team and told casually, “Yeah, nah, you’ll pick it up in no time”, I excitedly made preparations for another level of cold. The team was the New Zealand Snow Sculpture team, and we became part of the 65th Sapporo Snow Festival – a major highlight of the Japanese calendar. Having to borrow all my snow gear from fellow team members, it would seem bizarre for a guy coming from the tropical islands of the South Pacific to want to go anywhere near the sub zero conditions of Hokkaido! However, my whole experience in Japan so far has been lived according to the principle of ‘YOLO’, so I eagerly jumped on board.
In its 41st year, the International Snow Sculpture Competition welcomed nine national and municipal teams: Hawaii, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Poland, Singapore, Thailand, and Sapporo Sister City teams Daejeon, Korea and Portland, Oregon. Unlike other sculptures at the Snow Festival that are prepared well before the opening day, the International Competition is a work in progress over four days, giving attendants the chance to interact with the competitors. Although it can sometimes feel like being an attraction in a zoo behind a roped area, it is a fantastic opportunity for Japanese visitors and local elementary schools to practice their English. Internationalization at its best!
As with anything typically Kiwi, our three man team was made up of three JET ALTs with no funding, decent tools or team uniforms; but what we lacked in professional sponsorship, we made up for in enthusiasm and the ability to support the local economy with a love of Sapporo beer. Mata has participated in the event four times since coming to Japan and has a background in the art of traditional Maori carving, whilst our second team member Simon Daly (Hokkaido ALT) has been part of the team for five years, and like me, had joined as a first year ALT with no experience. It should be stated here that the teams we were up against were highly skilled professionals with some heavy financial backing. I’m talking about artists and speciality chefs (the ones that craft butter/ice/sugar sculptures in fancy restaurants), who are selected from many applicants. Team Hawaii were flown to Sapporo in business class by their major sponsor, Hawaiian Airlines, and they were even being paid overtime to be at the event! By comparison, our team took five days of nenkyu each and paid our own travel arrangements.
Although the team largely decides the design of the sculpture, most team sponsors request that it reflects an aspect of their home country. This year, our master sculptor Matarahi ‘Mata’ Skipper (Saijo ALT), proposed a classic rugby ball and the iconic Silver Fern: two symbols that are largely synonymous with our country in the international sporting arena.
So how did three giant Kiwi lads find themselves competing against some renowned sculpture professionals? Long story short, funding cuts and a change of leadership from our primary sponsor meant that the only way to still have a team, was to have a team that could fund themselves. Luckily, the New Zealand Embassy in Tokyo were willing to sponsor our entry, even though they couldn’t provide financial back up.
From my experience this year, it would be inaccurate to call this event a ‘competition’, because there were no bitter rivalries to be found. Even on the first day, we were borrowing tools from our better-equipped Singaporean friends, sharing Cantonese and Korean meals, kampai-ing over Polish vodka and laughing big hearty laughs with the Hawaiians and Portlanders.
Although Team New Zealand didn’t get a placing, (see winner on the left by Daejeon, Korea), I feel truly blessed to have been part of this event, and the festival as a whole. Making new friends and sharing cultural experiences in one of the most aesthetically beautiful, foreign-friendly and open-minded cities in Japan has become one of my best memories here so far. It reminded me why I made the decision to become a ‘gaijin’ in this special country.
I highly recommend visiting the Sapporo Snow Festival, or at least visiting Sapporo once during your time in Japan – with a liberal atmosphere in the night-life district of Susukino, some of the best seafood and beverage in the land, a fascinating history of the indigenous Ainu people, and of course, that classic Japanese omotenashi that we’ve all come to appreciate, there are many great reasons to visit.