Mother Nature turns up the heat on Sapporo's acclaimed Snow Festival

This year it was almost the Snow Festival that wasn't when an unexpected thaw struck 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 withered away 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 -3.5 degrees Celsius (26 degrees Fahrenheit) in the city, but climbed to a balmy 5 degrees (41 degrees Fahrenheit) on Tuesday as the 58th annual Snow Festival opened its doors.

Yet even the warmest of heat waves would take weeks to melt the mammoth winter wonderland on display complete with 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.

The warm temperatures kept professional ice sculptors busy slapping on new snow and re-carving the melted images. Then, on Wednesday, the notorious snow squalls of Japan's northernmost island struck, pushing the mercury below zero 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," name of the 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 visit Sapporo for the open air festival when stretches several blocks through a downtown city park. Included in the milieu are thousands of foreigners; this year, 17 international teams, including groups from the United States, Malaysia, Finland and China, vied for the coveted best-ice-sculpture trophy, reports AP.

Top honors were awarded Thursday to Hong Kong for their 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, referring to the warm spell that caused headaches for the artists.

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."

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