Sapporo: Japan’s unsung city

Rebecca Hallett

written by
Rebecca Hallett

updated 19.06.2024

Japan is a country that lives up to your expectations. Tokyo is as frenetic and exciting as you’d hope; Kyoto is full of historic shrines and temples; Ōsaka is brash, bright and foodie.

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.

This is where Sapporo comes in. This chilled-out city is the capital of Hokkaidō, Japan’s northern island which has 22 percent of the country’s landmass but only five percent of its population.

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.

To find more interesting Japanese destinations have a look at our list best things to do in Japan.

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.

Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan © Shutterstock

Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan © Shutterstock

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.

Sapporo Snow Festival, Japan © samshutterstock/Shutterstock

Sapporo Snow Festival, Japan © samshutterstock/Shutterstock

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.

They enjoy open skies instead of skyscrapers

Though Sapporo is within easy reach of gorgeous countryside – the mountainous Shikotsu-Tōya National Park is just 80km south – there are also plenty of natural escapes in the city itself. One of the loveliest spots is Maruyama Park, home to Hokkaidō Jingū, the island’s main shrine. Wander through the leafy grounds, or pick up an omikuji (fortune) in the grand central courtyard.

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.

Lavender field, Hokkaido, Japan ©   Phubet Juntarungsee/Shutterstock

Lavender field, Hokkaido, Japan © Phubet Juntarungsee/Shutterstock

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.

Continue your exploration of Japan with our practical tips on what you need to know before travelling to the country.

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.

Rebecca Hallett

written by
Rebecca Hallett

updated 19.06.2024

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