Sapporo festival in Japan

"The Lone Sailor" snow sculpture.
"The Lone Sailor" snow sculpture.

Sapporo festival in Japan

by: Matthew M. Burke | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: May 08, 2012

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan -- Last week, sailors from Naval Air Facility Misawa made the daylong journey to Sapporo, Japan, to play in the snow. However, it was by no means a vacation.

For the past 28 years, sailors from Misawa have traveled to the Sapporo Snow Festival, located on the northern island of Hokkaido, and participated in their snow-sculpture showcase, which draws world-class snow sculptors and tourists from around the world.

This year was different, however, as some of the sailors involved carried with them the emotions and fellowship of having participated in relief operations after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated northern Japan.

As the six-sailor delegation finished their bust reprisal of the Navy's iconic "Lone Sailor" statue, which is located at the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C., Chief Christopher "Billy" Knox said they decided to make a last-minute addition to the meticulously planned work of art.

They added "Tomodachi," the name of the relief operation, in Japanese script under the sailor's chin.

"Incorporating that into it was a super meaningful thing," said Knox, a Seabee from Chapin, Ill. "I think it was real meaningful to the locals and it meant a lot to us, as well."

Knox, the team leader, spent three months in Iwate prefecture following the disaster, helping the Japanese dig out and rebuild. Seeing the smiles on the faces of Japanese spectators as they viewed the sculpture, and explaining it to them, was very gratifying, despite the effort needed to build an ice sculpture in freezing temperatures.

This year's Misawa team, dubbed the "Sapporo Six" by base leadership, featured five sailors and a Navy airman with no snow-sculpting experience. Knox was the only one. In fact, many team members came from warm-weather states like California, Hawaii and Florida. In addition to battling the frigid temperatures for eight hours a day, they had to deal with the fact that their6-foot-cubed piece of snow wasn't perfectly square, which hampered their efforts to transfer their scale graph onto the snow during their first day of work.

The sailors also had to race the clock as they had only four days to complete the sculpture. Petty Officer 2nd Class Alvin Zuilan said they just kept moving and walked to a nearby convenient store to purchase hand and feet warmers.

Knox said his team came through and built the best snow sculpture to date, erasing the troubles of last year when their snow anchor melted and crumbled.

"They knocked it out of the ballpark," Knox said, smiling proudly. "It turned out phenomenal."

Senior Chief Dan Sanford, a base spokesman, said more than 200,000 people are expected to visit the festival, which began Monday and runs through Sunday.

"I'm really proud," said Zuilan, an aviation machinist. "I'm really proud of the team and of the community's reaction to what we've accomplished."

The San Diego native said it was especially emotional when elderly Japanese would thank them for their help following one of the worst disasters in recent history.

"I love Japan," Zuilan said. "It's an overwhelming feeling."

Tags: Travel
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