Welcome to the town of Nishiwaga

Nishiwaga is a town in Iwate, with a population of 5,363 and an area of 590.74 km2, that is famous for its abundant nature, ranging from wild plants such as bracken, to wildlife, such as deer and bear. The town’s mountainous terrain makes it the perfect place for outdoor activities, including mountain climbing and SUP (stand up paddle board) on lakes. Asides from the town being blessed with nature, it’s also famous for having the most annual snowfall out of any municipality in Iwate Prefecture, with a yearly average of about 900 cm in the town’s Yuda district. Nishiwaga is just about an hour drive from the proposed ILC site, and neighbors Kitakami City.

*The population and snowfall statistics refer to the time the article is published.

Map showing Nishiwaga in relation to the ILC site

Nishiwaga’s winter scenery

The author, next to a huge snow-wall in Nishiwaga.

The Waga River

Snow-buried rice fields in Nishiwaga

While having to deal with the snow all throughout winter (which, in Iwate, lasts for about half the year) is in no way easy, the town also holds a couple events to celebrate the snowfall. In addition to a snow light festival, the town annually holds a snowball tournament (known as Yukigassen in Japan), the “Hot Yuda North Japan Yukigassen Tournament”. Since moving to Iwate from the US, I’ve had the honor to compete in the tournament twice, in 2019 and 2020. While Nishiwaga’s snowball tournament is usually held for two days in January, it unfortunately had to be canceled in 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

About the sport: Yukigassen

If you’ve never heard of snowball fighting as a sport before, the idea might sound confusing at first. While snowball fights often refer to the games played by children, Japan’s Yukigassen has been turned into an official sport, and even has tournaments held in several countries throughout the world. Avid Yukigassen fans even hope to turn the sport into an official Olympic game someday.

A match at the Hot Yuda North Japan Yukigassen Tournament.

To compare Yukigassen to other common games, it could be explained as a combination of dodgeball—only with snowballs—and capture the flag. Teams from around the prefecture, and even the country come to compete in matches that are set up as 7 versus 7. The scoring system allows several paths to victory, with two main ways to win: to get every member of the opponent team out by hitting them with a snowball, or to capture the opponent team’s flag. Each match consists of 3 rounds, where the team with the highest total points wins and moves on to face more competitors. When I participated, there were local products as prizes for the grand winners, such as high-class meat.

Strategy is key to victory. This photo shows a team from Hiraizumi—including the mascot for their World Heritage Site, Kerohira—huddled together before their next match starts.

My team and our flag. Our team name is “Sandanbara”, which translates to ‘triple belly’, inviting a similar image to a double chin, only with a stomach. Despite our silly name, which gets some laughs out of kids who come to see the tournament, we do our best to put up a good fight.

While the matches themselves are physically demanding, a lot of energy also goes into making the snowballs before the matches even start. Teams are responsible for making their own snowballs, by shoveling and packing snow into trays, and stomping them to harden the snowballs.

These are the devices used to form the snowballs. Each team is allowed 90 snowballs per match set. There’s a limited amount of time to make them, so teams need to rush to make them. Many teams also have ally teams so they can help each other make snowballs. As such, when you consider the time spent helping out ally teams, more time goes into making snowballs than actually participating in the matches.

The Yukigassen Snowball.

By the time the snowballs are formed, the phrase “ice-ball” would be much more fitting, as they end up harder and heavier than a baseball. Once the snowballs have been carved out after being stomped into the tray, members reinforce each snowball by hand-packing it, to make sure they won’t fall apart while it’s being thrown through the air. Because the snowballs are essentially ice-balls, they tend to be too slippery to hold with normal snow gloves. Many compete with gardening gloves for the grip, or even their bare hands. I have even had team members mention that they damaged their skin while preparing the snowballs, to the point that their electronic devices won’t register their finger prints anymore. As one can imagine, it’s excruciatingly painful to get hit by these snowballs. I have also been unlucky to be left with a couple bruises which lasted for months after the tournament.

Packing the snowballs by hand.

In addition to the withstanding the pain that comes from getting hit with these monstrous snowballs, teams also have to bear the freezing cold, as all of the matches and preparations are done outside. I remember my first time participating in the tournament—it was about -10 degrees Celsius all day, so despite my nerves, I was desperate for my match to start so I could get warmed up from running around the court!

Getting a warm bite to eat at the food stalls which come to the competition is a great way to stand the cold.

Enjoy the town during the tournament!

While having to put up with the pain and cold might not sound the most appealing, the exhilarating sport, team comradery and lovely town of Nishiwaga is sure to make the snowball tournament a highlight of every participant’s winter. Complimenting Nishiwaga’s harsh winter, the town is abundant with hot springs. As such, most of the Yukigassen participants stay in hot spring inns throughout the town—the perfect way to relax after a fulfilling day of matches.


Relaxing at the natural hot spring foot bath at the Hot Yuda Station, while enjoying ice cream made with the town’s specialty: Yuda Milk. Nishiwaga is so full of hot springs, there’s even a hot spring inside of the station building!

Even for those who don’t compete in the tournament, Nishiwaga is the perfect spot to experience nature and a winter wonderland in Iwate. If you’re interested in participating, then gather your friends to make a team, and start practicing—I hope to see you in a match!