With a population of nearly two million, Hokkaidō’s vibrant capital SAPPORO (札幌) is the fifth-largest city in Japan. As the transport hub of the island, you’re almost bound to pass through here. It’s worth lingering as Sapporo is generously endowed with parks and gardens. The mountains that attract skiers and snowboarders rise up to its south, and the dramatic coastline around the Shakotan Peninsula is less than thirty minutes away.
Sapporo is also synonymous with its beer, which has been brewed here since 1891; a visit to the handsome, late nineteenth-century Sapporo Brewery is a must, as is a stroll through the grounds and museums of the Botanical Gardens, which date from the same era. After dark, the bars and restaurants of Susukino (pronounced “suskino”) spark to life and you’d be hard pressed to find a livelier nightlife district outside of Tokyo or Ōsaka.
Pleasantly cool temperatures tempt many visitors to Sapporo’s Summer Festival (usually July 21–Aug 20), which features outdoor beer gardens and other events in Ōdōri-kōen, the swathe of parkland that cuts through the city centre. This park is also the focus of activity during the fabulous Yuki Matsuri, a snow festival held every February.
Sapporo’s name comes from the Ainu word for the area, Sari-poro-betsu, meaning “a river which runs along a plain filled with reeds”. The city’s easy-to-follow grid-plan layout was designed in the 1870s by a team of European and American experts engaged by the government to advise on Hokkaidō’s development. Statues of these advisers can be found around Sapporo; the most famous (overlooking the city from atop Hitsujigaoka hill in the south) is the one of the American Dr William S. Clark, who set up Hokkaidō University and whose invocation to his students – “Boys, be ambitious!” – has been adopted as the city’s motto.
Seeing central Sapporo’s sights will fill a day – most visitors make a beeline for the Sapporo Bier Garten and Beer Museum but also make time to explore the Botanical Gardens or the entertaining Sapporo Winter Sports Museum. Head out of the city centre to see the Historical Village of Hokkaidō, a huge landscaped park featuring more than sixty restored buildings from the island’s frontier days. Moerenuma, a park designed by the late Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi, also makes for a pleasant half-day trip.