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SAPPORO, Japan — Warm weather is the bane of a snow carver’s existence. It can melt a Frog Prince into a frog puddle.

A sunny 40-degree day last week made for beautiful strolls along Sapporo’s slushy streets but found the U.S. Snow Sculpture Team hoping for a cold spell while they shaded their three-cubic-meter snow block like a fair-skinned princess of old. This year’s mild winter had Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival down to a third of the snow of last year.

The international snow carving competition can be “heated” among this year’s 18 teams, but participants prefer freezing working conditions, said David Russo, the team captain and spokesperson, who works at University of Maryland University College at Yokota Air Base, Japan.

“You get used to working in the cold,” Russo said of the four 13-hour days each team has to fashion their snow block into a work of art using only hand tools. “You wear layers. You protect your eyes in winds and blizzards.”

The U.S. team — rooted in Yokota — has carved snow for more than 30 years since the world’s most famous snow festival began allowing foreigners to enter the contests, Russo said. Besides the fact that everyone on the team has a day job that doesn’t involve ice carving (many members of other international teams carve ice in fancy restaurants for a living), the U.S. team has a fluctuating membership that changes year to year and contest to contest as people move, Russo said.

“Not too many people know about us,” Russo said.

The U.S. Team includes Yokota civilian artists Ronald Miyashiro and Geoffrey Chandler and Misawa’s Maj. Danny Eller, a dentist who was willing to commute to Yokota for planning meetings.

Senior Master Sgt. John Host and Master Sgt. Timothy Burns also are team members, but were not at Sapporo. They sculpted at China’s Harbin Ice Festival in January with Chandler and Miyashiro.

“It’s not like working with clay — it’s a subtraction process. You look at the block and decide what gets taken away,” said Eller, who carves ivory figurines in his spare time. “Plus, time and weather are big factors — snow focuses light like a magnifying glass, and on a warm day, any detail you carve will fall apart.”

Their design, “The Frog Prince,” had plenty of detail to contend with, including an ornate fairy-tale tree, the princess’s flowing hair and the crown-wearing frog.

The details were blurred Wednesday night when a snowstorm dropped a layer of powder on the sculptures. Teams had an extra hour to clear away snow before the judging began.

Winners were announced Thursday afternoon with Hong Kong taking first place, Thailand second and China third.

The last time the U.S. team won was seven years ago but the team puts the experience first, even though “bragging rights” are always nice, Russo said.

“Competition is fierce but friendly,” he said. “It’s not cutthroat.”

Team members raise the money to come to the competition themselves and always bring enough chili to feed 100 other competitors as part of their tradition, he said.

Chandler and Miyashiro never had carved snow before and thought it was great, they said.

“I never in a million years thought I'd be carving a block of snow in Japan,” Miyashiro said. He was recruited for the team through his job at Yokota’s Arts and Crafts Center. It’s not like two-dimensional painting, he added. “It’s cold work — you have to work fast before your fingers turn to frozen sausages.”

Chandler joked that if the money was better, he’d switch careers. He taught a painting class at Yokota last year.

“Basically, we’re playing in the snow,” Chandler said. “And even if we don’t win, we put on a good show.”

Visit the team’s Web site at for photos of past sculptures.


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