From Sobetsu, Japan, to Vardø, Norway: Norway hosts epic snowball battle

 Photo: Knut Ramleth / Yukigassen.no The battleground in 2012.

Photo: Knut Ramleth / Yukigassen.no
The battleground in 2012.

Molly Jones
Norwegian American Weekly

More than 6,000 snowballs were thrown throughout one mere weekend in the tiny town of Vardø, located at the extreme northeastern tip of Norway. Why so many snowballs? The game is called Yukigassen and hails from Northern Japan; in Japanese, yuki means snow and kassen means battle, making for an exciting winter competition!

The game was originally developed in the mid-1980s in the Japanese town of Sobetsu and spread to Norway by the late 1990s. Although the snowball-fighting competition remains most popular in its country of origin with approximately 1,000 Japanese teams, annual tournaments are also held in Finland, Australia, Sweden, the U.S., Canada, and Norway. This year marked Norway’s 19th year as a participant in the sport, as Vardø hosted the Yukigassen Nordic Championships from March 18 to 22.

Yukigassen combines a traditional snowball fight with the more strategic game of capture the flag. The rules are determined by the Japan Yukigassen Federation, including the set field size of 40 by 10 meters and the number of players per team. Each team has ten players, including one sideline captain, seven active players with at least three of each gender, and two reserve players. Of the seven starters, there are four strikers and three defenders.

A team wins a period when one of its athletes captures the other team’s flag or has eliminated all of the opposing team’s athletes by hitting them with snowballs. Of course, it’s possible that neither team meets the objectives; in that case, the team with the most players remaining on the field wins. There are three periods of three minutes per match, and the victory goes to the team that wins two periods.

Only nine minutes? It may seem like a quick match to spectators used to watching 90-minute soccer matches, but these athletes make impressive use of their limited time. For each three-minute period, 90 snowballs are prepared in advance for each team. This adds up to a possible 540 total snowballs thrown by both teams in less than 10 minutes.

The winning team of the tournament is rewarded with a spot in the European Championships in Kemijärvi, Finland, the following year. The honor goes to Team Yeti from Vardø this year, who defeated Il Tempo Gigante in the final round. Behind Il Tempo Gigante (also from Vardø), Team Finland secured third place.

While these snow battles act as the main feature of the tournament, the Yukigassen festival also includes the Yuki Dance World Championship, Golden Glove contest, crowning of the Yuki King and Queen, and more.

The Yuki Dance is performed specifically at Yukigassen events to honor the snow. Each team must have between three and five participants who are judged on their execution of the dance, outfits, radiance and charm, and general appearance. Il Tempo Gigante earned the title of Yuki Dance World Champions, while the award for best charm went to Team Småblindingan.

In the Golden Glove contest, participants must once again demonstrate their snowball-throwing skills. Each participant has the opportunity to pitch three snowballs at a target per round. If the target is hit, it’s on to the next round! This continues until there is only one participant remaining in each class. This year, the Golden Glove awards went to Mads Novik Nilsen in the men’s class, Jorill Døvle in the women’s class, and Kevin Rottem in the youth class.

Of course, you can’t have a Yukigassen festival without a king and queen! King Tor Arild Melby and Queen Hege Igeland represented the 2015 Yukigassen Nordic Championships with pride.

The festival is an important weekend for Vardø, doubling the population and supporting the town’s economy. Looking ahead to next year, the 2016 festival will mark the 20th anniversary of the tournament and is sure to attract another enthusiastic flock of Yukigassen competitors and spectators to northern Norway.

To learn more about Yukigassen in Norway, visit yukigassen.no (in Norwegian). Check out www.yukigassenusa.com for information about the sport in the U.S.

This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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