Yuriko Nakao  /  Reuters
Visitors brave the rain with umbrellas Tuesday at the start of the annual Sapporo Snow Festival in Sapporo, northern Japan.
updated 2/8/2007 9:13:15 AM ET 2007-02-08T14:13:15

It was almost the snow festival that wasn't when an unexpected thaw struck the opening day of the internationally renowned Sapporo ice sculpture fair.

Blame it on climate change or just bad luck, but temperatures well above freezing and a steady drizzle reduced thousands of visitors to slushing through coffee-colored mud. They watched helplessly as the lovingly hand-crafted crystalline artworks shrank before their eyes.

"I was really worried. Parts of the sculptures were falling off," said Masaya Ishikawa, chief of promotion at the Sapporo Tourist Association, which administers the event.

February temperatures normally average 26 degrees Fahrenheit in the city, but climbed to a balmy 41 degrees on Tuesday as the 58th annual Sapporo Snow Festival got under way.

Yet even the warmest of heat waves would take weeks to melt the mammoth winter wonderland on display: sparkling three-story Japanese castles, stately Chinese palaces and elephant-sized Disney characters. It takes weeks, thousands of tons of snow and thousands more workers to make the biggest pieces.

And after the final details are chiseled into the frigid facades, the job's still not done.

Work gets buried
The warm temperatures kept ice sculptors busy slapping on new snow and recarving the melting images. Then, on Wednesday, the notorious snow squalls of Japan's northernmost island struck, pushing the mercury below freezing but burying everything in pillows of powder.

"We're busy around the clock," said Noriyuki Hiyoshi, 32, brushing off snow that obscured the ice relief spelling "Nissin," the name of an instant noodle maker that sponsored a towering sculpture called "Freedom."

In his hand was a bucket of wet snow the consistency of concrete, known in the trade as "sherbet," that he meticulously smoothed over the letters to rejuvenate the surface.

Every year, 2 million people, including thousands of foreigners, visit Sapporo for the open air festival that stretches several blocks through a downtown city park. This year, 17 international teams, including groups from the United States, Malaysia, Finland and China, vied for best sculpture.

The honor went to Hong Kong Thursday for its rendition of a coiled dragon.

"I'm sure impressed that all the teams did their best despite this unusually bad weather," said Snow Festival Chairman Tsuneo Fujita.

For some visitors, however, good weather was all a matter of perspective.

"In Singapore you never see anything like this," said Charlotte Yap, 19, who flew up from the tropics to tour the lighted sculptures with her mother. "It's so cold my toes are dropping off."

Demise by dump truck
The Sapporo Snow Festival dates to 1950, when local high school students built six snow statues in Odori Park. Five years later, Japanese soldiers joined in, trucking in snow and helping in the packing and carving. Wooden frames, metal scaffolding and even power shovels are often involved.

Aside from the big sculptures, the park is dotted with dozens of smaller works, often made by citizen groups. To entertain the kids, there is a giant snow mountain for climbing and an ice slide to whiz down.

No matter what the weather, it all ends Monday. After that, the thousands of dump trucks that brought the snow in from the mountains start their return trip to cart the white stuff back.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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