The Shikoku “Yukigassen” Snowball Fight – Part 1 | A Winter Event in the Iya Valley
Despite being in southern Japan, Miyoshi City’s Iya Valley often gets a fair amount of snow in winter due to its location within the deep mountains. Accordingly, the biggest event of the season is the annual “Yukigassen” Snowball Fight Tournament, when teams from not just the local region but from all over Japan come in to compete.
A snowball fight in the middle of Shikoku
When most people think of Shikoku, many imagine a climate warmer than other parts of Japan due to its southern location. But within the dense mountains of Shikoku’s interior, the winters can actually be rather harsh.
Surrounded by some of the tallest mountains in western Japan, the Iya Valley of Tokushima Prefecture is no exception, having some of the most severe winter conditions for anywhere in Shikoku. But the residents enjoy taking advantage of the snowy conditions, and for the past 20 years the deeper part of the Iya Valley (Higashi-Iya) has been hosting Shikoku’s “Yukigassen” event, which is an official snowball fight tournament.
“Yukigassen”: an international snowball sport
While children since times immemorial around the world have been having snowball fights, in the late 1980s the first ever official “yukigassen” (“snowball fight”) competition was established in northern Japan. To do so, specific rules and guidelines were created such that it became a defined sport that required both skill and strategy, instead of just a chaotic free-for-all.
In the years that followed, Yukigassen competitions spread across Japan and eventually even into other countries (where its also called “Yukigassen”), with annual tournaments now also held in Scandinavia, Canada, and the US.
The competition itself is a mixture of a capture-the-flag game and dodgeball, with matches between two teams played on a defined field (about the size of a basketball court) which has specified barriers set up on it. Each team consists of 7 players, as well as up to 2 alternates and a coach.
Teams gets a limited number of snowballs at the start of each 3 minute long match, with a game between the two teams consisting of a best-of-three matches. If a player gets hit with a snowball then they are taken out of the match, and the winner of each match is determined by which team can either capture the opposing team’s flag, or which team has the most number of players remaining at the end of the time.
Blizzard conditions in Iya add to the challenge
The Iya Valley’s Yukigassen Event is held annually during the final weekend of January, but in the week leading up to this year’s tournament it so happened that Japan experienced a severe cold spell, and Iya got a pretty hefty amount of snow dumped on it.
Snow fell for several days in a row and continued right through the day of the event. As a result, the road going out to the playing grounds was particularly snowy, but the wintery conditions certainly made everyone excited for the ensuing competition.
A long-awaited return to play
This year marks the 19th Shikoku Yukigassen tournament in Iya, but due to the coronavirus, this was the first time in the past three years the event was held. Due to lingering concerns about the virus when plans were being made last summer for this years competition, it was decided to reduce the size of the event this year by only having a limited number of teams.
“It’s nice to see the staff and teams come out to do this together, and that the coronavirus didn’t permanently stop things,” explained Kenji Fujimura, who is the local Yukigassen committee chairman and was busy coordinating all the team rosters.
“So even if it’s a bit smaller than usual, we’re just happy to be finally doing it again.”
After a short welcoming ceremony, the first two teams entered the field and took their positions at the back end of both sides. All the players clutched a couple snowballs in each hand as the sense of anticipation started to fill the air as much as the still falling snow.
With the sharp sound of the referee’s whistle signaling the start of the match, an initial volley of snowballs was immediately launched between the opposing sides as players rushed forward towards the barricades.
Within seconds the calm of the winter’s morning became suddenly excited, as snowballs whizzed around, players jumped and slid, and the thumping sounds of snowballs pelting both the barricades and the players grew in intensity.
After a three year waiting, the Yukigassen was finally underway!
In Part 2 we follow the tournament and meet some of the players.
Held the final weekend of January in Higashi-Iya, Miyoshi City, Tokushima Prefecture.
Team applications are in the autumn, starting about mid-September.
Foreign players are welcome to participate, but at least one team member should be able speak and read Japanese for understanding the rules and requirements.
For more information and applications, check their website:
(Text & Photos by: Shaun Lamzy)
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