But the problem with visiting world-famous cities whose reputations precede them is that… well, their reputations have preceded them. If you really want to surprise yourself, you’ll need to head somewhere a little different.
Your reward for heading so far from Tokyo is a completely different vision of Japan, one which keeps all the best bits while maintaining its own way of doing things.
Here are just a few things you might spot – but to really feel the difference, you’ll just have to go there yourself.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Alternatively, head to Hokkaidō University Botanical Gardens, established in the nineteenth century, a large and relaxing space surprisingly close to the main station. Within the gardens is a small museum with exhibits on the Ainu, Hokkaidō’s main indigenous population – shockingly only officially recognised as such by the Japanese government in 2008.
Sapporo balances these natural escapes with all the advantages of a big city: it has an exciting restaurant scene, well-established arts and cultural venues, the largest nightlife area north of the capital (Susukino), and a healthy, if low-key, LGBT scene.
But the city’s green spaces, friendly locals and more relaxed pace of life mean you can take your time and enjoy all these things, rather than feeling like you need to rush from one to the next. And that’s Sapporo in a nutshell: even in the summer heat, it’s the perfect place to chill out.
Rebecca flew between London and Tokyo with Finnair, and travelled to Sapporo with a JR Pass. If you want to do some research before you go, try checking your nearest JNTO office, and explore more of Japan with The Rough Guide to Japan. Compare flights, book hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to purchase travel insurance before you go.