Yukigassen is a Japanese word, but Kemijärvi has made yukigassen a delightful Finnish winter sport. Teams are competing in the European Championships this weekend.
ARCTIC STORIES Snowball fight is fun. When you build a court, read a rulebook, gather a team and start playing against others before a live audience, you call it yukigassen. Devotees claim that it is epic fun.
This extraordinary sport originated in Sobetsu, on the island of Hokkaido, Japan in 1988. Sobetsu happens to be the twin city of Kemijärvi in Eastern Lapland, and the twins brought the game to Finland in 1992.
As fun cannot be contained, the discipline has spread to neighbouring Russia, Norway and Sweden, and tournaments are held in Canada, USA and Australia. This weekend, dozens of teams have geared up for the European championships that happen in Kemijärvi for the 23rd time.
Ari Pöyliö, chairman of the Yukigassen Federation of Finland has practiced the sport ever since the federation was formed in 2002. He is a qualified referee trainer, so he is also qualified to explain the rules of the game.
“The rules are simple. Each match consist of three sets of three minutes each. The first team to win two sets wins the match. In the European Championships the teams are mixed, at least three out of the seven players on the court must be female. The players throw snowballs at each other, and a player struck by a direct snowball hit is eliminated from the set. The team with more remaining players wins. A team can also win by capturing the opponent’s flag.”
There are so-called shelters on the court for the players to hide behind. Even if a period only lasts for three minutes, all team members will break a sweat.
“You have to be alert and you have to move fast”, Ari Pöyliö explains.
“This is also a very tactical game. The teams practice their tactics all year.”
There are eight referees on the court, and they all have their own sectors they watch. The snowballs hurtle so fast on both sides of the court that the losing teams will always complain about the referees being partial, but luckily, the protests are humorous rather than serious.
Bruises are inevitable, although the players wear yukigassen helmets with visors and other protective gear.
“The best thing is that yukigassen is a team sport. Groups of friends or schoolmates register their teams; a football team may try this game for laughs. They are having fun, yet following a strict set of rules.”
One thing that fosters team spirit is the fact that all teams make their own snowballs – up to 90 snowballs for each set.
“I have yet to meet the person who has not enjoyed the game. Even the members of the losing teams walk out of the court with smiles on their faces”, Ari Pöyliö assures.
If you cannot make it to the European Championships, no worries. The yukigassen enthusiasts in Kemijärvi are already preparing for summer yakigassen. They gather piles of snow that they preserve under a blanket of sawdust. When the tournament starts in July, there is plenty of cool snow available. An exotic experience indeed.
Yukigassen Federation of Finland
Photos © Valokammi Oy Kemijärvi