Local Industry2020 Venue
Made in Hokkaido technology adds color and cool to Olympics
Throughout the summer, residents and visitors to Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido were treated to some unseasonal sights.
As August temperatures soared past 34 C in Hokkaido’s capital city Sapporo, exquisite cherry blossoms, Japan’s veritable symbol of spring, decorated a shopping arcade and other parts of the city as well as nearby New Chitose Airport.
A few days later, children at schools and nurseries in Bibai City, 60 km northeast of the Hokkaido capital, were given the opportunity to beat the heat when hundreds of tons of snow landed on their playgrounds.
Neither were a consequence of climate change, or irregular weather patterns. Rather, they were the product of a unique Hokkaido project that aims to add a bit of cool and color to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, while at the same time turning snow, a local nuisance, into a benefit with potentially global ramifications.
Hokkaido is famed for dozens of varieties of sakura (cherry blossom), including numerous indigenous ones, which lure visitors from around the country during the annual cherry blossom viewing season.
It’s also known for its abundant snowfall, with some remote parts receiving upward of 1,000 cm during the long winter months. While this makes it a winter sports wonderland, it can wreak havoc on railways and roads, not to mention isolating communities and damaging properties.
Sapporo is particularly impacted and is renowned for having the globe’s heaviest snowfall among cities with a population of over 1 million, experiencing some 125 days of snow each year.
That comes at a cost. In 2019, the city earmarked some ¥21.5 billion (US$204.4 million) for snow-related countermeasures – a 64 percent increase over that spent a decade earlier (¥13.1 billion).
Finding alternative uses for Hokkaido’s snow has led to some innovative ideas, including the internationally renowned Sapporo Snow Festival.
It’s also being tapped into by local businesspeople and researchers.
Among more recent projects are those employing snow as an alternative mode of air conditioning. These include facilities such as data storage centers as well as retirement homes and an apartment building – the first of its kind worldwide – in Bibai.
A similar system also chills the uber-cool “Hidamari” glass pyramid in Sapporo’s Moerenuma Park and a section of the city’s Maruyama Zoo where heat-sensitive red pandas are kept.
Meanwhile, snow-cooled storage units in Hokkaido are being used to preserve agricultural products, including vegetables, to slow down the ripening process, which enhances flavor.
Furthermore, a fruit farm in the southeastern town of Otofuke uses snow to lower soil temperature in summer to control the growth of mango trees so they will bear fruit in winter. “Hakugin-no-taiyo” (“snowy sun”) mangoes sell at a premium in the New Year – a traditional gift-giving season in Japan – due to low off-season competition.
The sakura project, too, is among these initiatives. Cherry tree branches collected from around Hokkaido early in the year are stored under snow at vast snow disposal stations, explains Fumio Ochi, who heads the public-private consortium driving the “Hokkaido Seppyo-zakura Project” (Hokkaido Snowpack Cherry Blossom Project).
It’s an idea that Ochi believes could lead to an entirely new business culture in Hokkaido, especially because it’s environment-friendly.
Every year, sakura trees in Hokkaido are pruned and hundreds of thousands of branches discarded in the process, says Ochi, who is also CEO of Hokkaido-based Akarimirai, which specializes in strategies to achieve sustainable development goals (SDGs), such as introducing energy saving lighting to its clients.
“So this has nothing to do with destroying nature or the environment, but rather preserving nature that otherwise would have been thrown away. Using snow means you can shift time quite easily and create a new culture from Hokkaido’s nature. It’s a win-win idea that anyone can do.”
In March 2020, members of the consortium gathered some 3,200 sakura plants from 34 municipalities and preserved them along with some 210 tons of snow.
The plan, says Ochi, was to unearth them in time for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, when they would be handed out to children and other members of the public to wave and cheer along athletes along the marathon and walking courses and “demonstrate the Japanese sense of omotenashi (hospitality)” through an iconic symbol that couldn’t normally be seen in summer.
The idea had already been successfully trialed in 2018 during an event in Tokyo, where the races were originally to take place before concerns about the Japanese capital’s stifling summertime temperatures forced Olympics organizers to relocate them to the cooler climes of Sapporo.
However, with the postponement of the Games until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic, consortium members decided to use the stored sakura for local enjoyment amid fears the blossoms could be affected by melting snow, Ochi says.
Instead, branches will be collected again next winter, when around 179 municipalities have already vowed to donate dozens of different types of sakura for the Games to be held in 2021.
“That’s very much in keeping with the spirit of the Olympics,” says Ochi, adding around 30,000 sakura branches will be distributed during the Sapporo events. “This is the kind of project that can only be born in a place like Hokkaido, and that the (Olympic and Paralympic) events are being held here makes it all the more special.”