From towering Star Wars sculptures and a 100-meter-long snow slide to food and parties, the annual Sapporo Snow Festival has long been a major tourism magnet for Japan’s northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido.
But this year, even after the week-long festivities opened on January 31 amid fears over the coronavirus outbreak, the climate crisis threatened the future of a festival that attracts upwards of 2 million international visitors annually.
In 2019, Japan saw record low levels of snow, according to the country’s public broadcaster, with snowfall in Sapporo less than half the annual average. In December 2019, snowfall was the lowest along the Sea of Japan coast since the Meteorological Agency began keeping records in 1961.
This lack of snow, combined with unusually warm weather, threw some wrenches in the plan for the snow festival organizers. This year, they had to source and tow snow from other towns to create 200-plus signature snow sculptures.
The warm winter will also usher in an earlier start to the cherry blossom season, which normally begins in March or April. It is not unusual for sakura-loving travelers to book hotel rooms far in advance, despite not knowing for sure when the flowers will begin to bloom.
The show must go on
The blockbuster snow sculptures are different every year.
This year, among the sculptures on display in Sapporo are a giant Ramen Cup Noodles and a 15-meter-tall and 20-meter-wide replica of the palace at Lazienki Park in Warsaw.
The latter took the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) almost a month to make and created was in celebration of 100 years of diplomatic relations between Japan and Poland in 2019.
To make the sculptures, festival organizers use around 30,000 tons of snow from Sapporo. This year, they towed it in on trucks from dozens of places outside of Sapporo.
Some came from near Niseko, a town around 60 kilometers (37 miles) away that is popular among tourists and locals for its ski slopes.
Festival organizers went to these extraordinary lengths as they need pristine snow for their creations, according to Isshin Yamagami, a spokesperson from the Sapporo Snow Festival. “It can’t have any gravel or dirt,” he told CNN