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.
A ten-minute walk southwest of Sapporo Station is the compact and pretty Botanical Gardens (植物園), Kita 3, Nishi 8. Immediately to the right as you enter is the small but interesting Ainu Museum, known as the “Batchelor Kinenkan” in memory of the Reverend John Batchelor, a British priest and author of The Ainu of Japan, considered to be the definitive work on Hokkaidō’s indigenous people. The museum has a collection of around 2500 Ainu artefacts (though only a fraction is displayed at any time), ranging from clothes made of bird skins from the Kuril islands to a sacred altar for performing the ritual slaughter of a bear cub – there are English-language captions. Following the red-gravel pathway around to the right of the museum leads you to Miyabe Hall, with intriguing displays of letters and journals belonging to Professor Miyabe Kingo, the first director of Hokkaidō University, who established the gardens in 1886. Miyabe’s descriptions of his travels abroad, written in English and illustrated with photographs, make fascinating reading.
The gardens themselves are very attractive, with a long pond, a greenhouse, a rockery, shaded forest walks and neat flower gardens, including a collection which shows the plants and flowers used by the Ainu in their daily lives. In the centre of it all stands the Natural History Museum, housed in a pale green wooden building dating from 1882. Inside you’ll find a staggering collection of bizarre stuffed animals, such as snarling wolves and huge sea lions, as well as other curiosities including a dog sled from Sakhalin.
One of Hokkaidō’s highlights is the Historical Village of Hokkaidō (北海道開拓の村), some 14km east of the city centre. This impressive museum, laid out across a spacious park, gathers together some sixty buildings constructed around Hokkaidō between the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as large-scale immigration from Honshū cranked up. Wandering around the village’s four main areas, representing town, farm, mountain and fishing communities, will give you a strong impression of what Hokkaidō looked like before prefabricated buildings and concrete expressways became the norm.
The buildings have been restored as beautifully inside as out and spruced up with displays related to their former use, be it a sweet shop, a silkworm house or a woodcutter’s shanty. There are guides in some houses (explanations in Japanese only) and written English explanations in all. It’s a good idea to wear slip-on shoes, as you’ll be taking them off a lot to explore the interiors. In summer, you can hop aboard the horse-drawn trolley car (¥270) that plies the main street – in winter this is replaced by a sleigh. Some of the houses are shut from December to April (hence the reduced admission fee), but the village is worth visiting even then for its special atmosphere when blanketed in snow.
To cover the whole site will take you at least half a day; you can bring a picnic or there are a couple of inexpensive restaurants and refreshment stops within the village. You can extend your visit by exploring the neighbouring grounds of Nopporo Forest Park, created to commemorate Hokkaidō’s centennial, which contains the mildly interesting Historical Museum of Hokkaidō and Centennial Memorial Tower, a 100m-tall metal spike which you can ascend for a free view of the city.
The upscale suburb of Maruyama-kōen is where you’ll find the island’s principal Shinto shrine Hokkaidō Jingū (北海道神宮) amid a leafy park where 1400 cherry trees break into spectacular blossom each May.
From Maruyama-kōen subway station hop on bus #14 to reach the fun Sapporo Winter Sports Museum. Occupying the Ski Jump Stadium at Okurayama (大倉山) built for the 1972 Winter Olympics, the museum’s highlight is a ski jump simulator that gives you an idea of what it’s like to participate in this daring winter sport. There are also simulations for bobsledding, cross-country skiing and speed skating, among other things – it’s all a hoot, and afterwards you can ride the passenger lift (¥500 return) to the top of the ski jump to see the view for real. From the bus stop the museum is about ten minutes’ walk uphill; a taxi from Maruyama-kōen station is around ¥1000.
Lamb is an uncommon meat on Japanese menus but not in Sapporo, home of the jingisukan, or “Genghis Khan” barbecue. This delicious feast of flame-grilled meat and vegetables gets its name from the convex table grill on which it’s cooked, said to resemble the Mongolian-warrior’s helmet. All of the restaurants at the Sapporo Bier Garten next to the Sapporo Beer Museum offer the dish, as does the rival beer garden Kirin Biiru-en (キリンビール園). You’ll be provided with a plastic bib to protect against dribbles from the dipping sauce, but it’s still best to dress down, since the smell of sizzled mutton lingers long after you’ve left. The big beer gardens, packed with tourists, have a boisterous Germanic quality; for a more intimate jingisukan experience try Daruma.
A forty-minute subway and bus ride northwest of the city centre, Moerenuma Park (モエレ沼公園) is part playground, part sculpture garden, displaying the works of internationally renowned artist Isamu Noguchi. In the giant glass pyramid, with observation decks and a library/lounge, you can peruse English-language books about the artist, who died shortly after completing the masterplan for the park in 1988. With massed plantings of cherry trees, wide lawns, the spectacular Sea Fountain water sculpture and a shallow pebbled bathing beach, the park is popular with local families, and a convivial spot for a picnic.
Five blocks south of Sapporo Station, opposite the Sapporo International Communication Plaza, is the Tokeidai (時計台), Kita 1, Nishi 2, a wooden clock tower that’s one of the city’s key landmarks. You’d be right in thinking that this wood-clad building would look more at home somewhere like Boston, because that’s where it was made in 1878; inside is an uninspiring exhibition on the building’s history. One block south lies Ōdōri-kōen and the contrasting 147m red steel Sapporo TV Tower at Ōdōri Nishi 1. During the snow festival, the viewing platform provides a lovely vista down the park, particularly at night.
The neon-illuminated excess of Susukino (すすきの), the largest area of bars, restaurants and nightclubs north of Tokyo, begins on the southern side of Ōdōri-kōen, and is best explored at night. If you’re here during the day, you could follow the covered shopping arcade Tanuki-kōji to its eastern end where you’ll find the lively Nijō Fish Market (二条市場), Minami 3, Higashi 1-2, ideal for lunch or a fresh sushi breakfast.
Four blocks west of the end of Ōdōri-kōen, the large, white Hokkaidō Museum of Modern Art (北海道立近代美術館), Kita 1, Nishi 17, holds a modest but absorbing collection of paintings and sculptures, some by Japanese artists. The nearest subway station is Nishi Juhatchōme, on the Tozai line.
If you’ve not yet had your fill of parks, Nakajima-kōen (中島公園), Minami 9, Nishi 4, is the third of central Sapporo’s large-scale green spots and is worth visiting to see the Hasso-an, an early Edo-period teahouse.
Finding your way around central Sapporo is easy compared to many other Japanese cities because every address has a precise location within the city’s grid plan. The city blocks are named and numbered according to the compass points, the apex being the TV Tower in Ōdōri-kōen. Sapporo Station, for example, is six blocks north of the TV Tower and three blocks west, so its address is Kita 6 (North Six), Nishi 3 (West Three), while Nijō Fish Market is Minami 3 (South Three), Higashi 1-2 (West One-Two).
The hugely popular Sapporo Bier Garten and Beer Museum (サッポロビール博物館) stands just east of the city centre. It was an American adviser to Hokkaidō who noted the hops growing locally and realized that with its abundant winter ice Sapporo was the ideal location for a commercial brewery. When the first brewery opened in 1876, locals didn’t touch beer, so for years Sapporo exported to the foreign community in Tokyo, which is where the company’s headquarters are now.
Built in 1891, this grand red-brick complex was originally the factory of the Sapporo Sugar Company; it’s now Sapporo’s smallest brewery since much of the building has been turned over to an exhibition on the brewing process and the history of the company, not to mention several restaurants, pubs and souvenir shops. At the end of the exhibition, while sipping beer samples (one for ¥200, three for ¥400), you can admire a wall coated with a century’s worth of colourful ad posters.
Bus #88 runs every 30 minutes directly to the complex (¥200) from behind Tōkyū department store, near Sapporo Station. The bus goes via the Sapporo Factory, Kita 2, Higashi 4, the first of Sapporo’s breweries in the city, converted in 1993 into a shopping and entertainment complex.
More attractive late nineteenth-century buildings are dotted throughout the campus of Hokkaidō University, at Kita 8, Nishi 7, northwest of Sapporo Station, including the one housing the university’s museum. Also look out for the Model Barn, a big wooden structure built in 1877.
On your way to or from the gardens, swing by the Former Hokkaidō Government Building (赤れんが), at Kita 3, Nishi 6. This palatial red-brick building, dating to 1888, is a fine example of the local architecture that fused the late, nineteenth-century European and New World influences flooding into the country with Japanese traditions. Inside, the wood-panelled interiors have been nicely maintained and hung with large-scale historical paintings.
Sapporo’s famous snow festival, the Yuki Matsuri, has its origins in the winter of 1950, when six small snow statues were created by high-school children in Ōdōri-kōen, the city’s main park. The idea caught on and by 1955 the Self Defence Force (the Japanese military) was pitching in to help build gigantic snow sculptures, which included intricately detailed copies of world landmarks such as the Taj Mahal.
Running from around February 5–11 and spread across three sites (Ōdōri-kōen, Susukino and Sapporo Tsudome), the festival now includes an international snow sculpture competition and many other events, such as snowboard jumping and nightly music performances in the park. Arrive one week in advance and you’ll be able to see the statues being made, as well as take part in the construction, since at least one giant statue in Ōdōri-kōen is a community effort – all you need do is turn up and offer your services. Book transport and accommodation well ahead of time: with two million visitors flooding into Sapporo during the matsuri, finding last-minute options for both can be a challenge.
If you don’t make it to Sapporo’s snow festival, there are several others around Hokkaidō that take place in January and February, including at Abashiri, Asahikawa, Otaru, Shikotsu-ko, and Sōunkyō.