They’ve got beer (and wine) instead of sake
Let’s start with the obvious one: yes, it’s Sapporo like the beer. If you’re interested in the brewing process you can visit the Beer Museum and Biergarten to the east of the city centre, set in the brewery which opened back in 1891. If you just want to enjoy a nice cool brew, though, you can pop into any bar, restaurant or convenience store; unsurprisingly, it’s sold everywhere.
Hokkaidō’s climate also makes it ideal for viticulture, unlike much of the rest of Japan, and there are several wineries in Sapporo. You can visit one for a tour and tasting, or pop into one of the city’s many wine bars.
They have ice cream instead of mochi
Japanese cuisine is famously light on dairy, but Hokkaidō is definitely the exception. Large-scale farming was only introduced in the late-nineteenth century, and the combination of a cooler climate and European and American involvement led to a radically different type of agriculture. Now, you’ll see the island’s outline stamped onto butter, cheese, milk and ice cream containers throughout Japan.
Sapporo, unsurprisingly, is the culinary capital of Hokkaidō, and the perfect place to sample some surprisingly un-Japanese Japanese dishes – and not only dairy. Batā-kōn ramen is a bowl of noodles heaped with corn and butter, while jingisukan (“Genghis Khan”) is lamb barbecued on an unusual domed grill, said to be shaped like the famous warrior’s helmet.
In shops and department stores throughout the city you’ll see delicious fusion foods like miso-marinated cheese and soft cream (soft-serve ice cream) in flavours like yuzu, matcha and lavender.
They prefer skiing to sumo
There are plenty of sports you might associate with Japan – sumo, judo, karate, even the perennially popular baseball. But up here, winter sports rule.
There are several places to brush up on your skiing or snowboarding skills near the city, and as winter comes round you may be tempted a little further afield by the world-famous powder at Niseko, only a couple of hours away.
For more low-key winter attractions you can stay within the city limits. Some of the best spots include the open-air museum Kaitaku no Mura, a historic village where you can ride a horse-drawn sleigh; Hitsujigaoka, an observatory hill with amazing views and slopes which will tempt even the biggest kids to go sledding; and Ōdōri-kōen come mid-February. This is when the annual yuki matsuri, or Sapporo Snow Festival, is held, and the whole park is filled with stunning ice sculptures.
The festival also uses two other sites, one just south at Susukino and one further out at Tsu Dome, where you can try snow rafting and snow slides after admiring the sculptures.
They have sunny days instead of sticky heat
If you don’t fancy having to contend with several feet of snow on your holiday, maybe consider a summer visit instead of a winter one. Unlike the rest of Japan, Hokkaidō doesn’t have a rainy season – so there’s no need to endure those days of sticky heat, humidity and sudden downpours. Bliss.
If you don’t mind the crowds, try to time your visit to the summer festival. Held in late July and early August, this matsuri is centred around a huge beer garden in Ōdōri-kōen, the long line of parkland cutting through the city – a refreshing way to end a summer’s day.