Sapporo: The Savvy Insider’s Guide
Located on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, Sapporo is often portrayed as a cold, snowy and remote city most famous for the 1972 Winter Olympics and the Sapporo Snow Festival. This could not be further from the truth. With one of the biggest entertainment districts in Japan, Sapporo not only offers a vivid nightlife, but also some beautiful scenery and a year round, activity-packed environment to fit anyone’s needs, with the beautiful nature of Hokkaido serving as a backdrop for the entire city. Like most of Japan’s major cities, Sapporo is safe, with a good public transportation system that makes it easy to get around.
Despite the fact that there are not that many foreigners live in Sapporo, the city still feels very international. The reason for this is that much of Sapporo’s buildings and structures were built by Westerners, and therefore many areas might resemble American or European cities. Many have commented on how the city resembles Toronto, not your typical crowded Japanese city. Big companies have set up their offices in Sapporo to cut back on expenses, which have led to growing business ventures in the city. When I first moved to Sapporo I was stunned by how the city reminded me of Europe, which is a big help if you sometimes feel too far away from home. So what should visitors get up to in Sapporo? Let’s look at some of the most popular spots.
Odori Park and Sapporo Station
Odori Park is one of Sapporo’s most visited places, both during the summer and winter seasons. Popular for hosting the famous Sapporo Snow Festival each February, and Christmas and illumination markets in December, the park also offers plenty of summer activities. Food and flower festivals and beautiful flower and art installments can be seen all around the park. Sapporo’s non-humid summers enable you to enjoy the hot weather with a famous Sapporo beer in your hand and the Hokkaido specialty of grilled corn, sold in many food stalls around the park. Families, teenagers, skateboarders and musicians all gather around Odori Park, creating a nice atmosphere for you to enjoy some relaxation after shopping at Sapporo Station or walking from the lively Susukino.
At the end of Odori Park you will find a famous Hokkaido landmark: the Sapporo TV Tower. A beautiful view can be seen from the top of the TV tower, with the entire park laid out before you and the beautiful Maruyama Mountain in the background. The park stretches from the city center to the nice Maruyama neighborhood, famous for the Hokkaido Shrine and many organic and vegan restaurants. If you get the chance and you are not afraid of heights, a trip up to the TV tower’s observation floor is highly recommended. Another tip for seeing the entire city from above is the top floor of the famous JR Tower, located at Sapporo station just a ten-minute walk from Odori Park. Enjoy the wonderful city view for an entrance ticket of just ¥700. This spot is also popular at nighttime, when especially couples or first-daters come to view the illuminated skyline. If you don’t want to go the top of the JR Tower, the rest of the station enables some serious shopping activities, with big shopping malls including everything from designer shops to youth fashions and electronics.
Susukino Entertainment District
My favorite place in Sapporo is the downtown area, called Susukino. The neighborhood is known as one of Japan’s largest entertainments districts, jam-packed with bars, nightclubs, hotels and restaurants. If you want to go shopping, try some of the city’s underground shopping streets that start from Susukino Station and run until Sapporo Station. The nightlife has a lot to offer, with all sorts of music clubs and fast-food places to get you through the night. Hokkaido’s specialty ramen cooked in miso soup is also available everywhere in Susukino, starting from just ¥400 a bowl. Susukino feels like a miniature version of Tokyo’s Shibuya, Harajuku and Kabukicho all in one. If you are used to these busy and colorful Tokyo areas, Susukino will cure your Tokyo homesickness.
There are not many foreigners living in Sapporo, but the few there are, are welcomed and included by the locals, especially in some of the great, relaxed bars of Susukino. My favorite place to go for a drink is Irish pub BrianBrew, a popular bar among expats that nonetheless has a quiet indoor environment, enabling some good conversation with those at the table next to you. It’s a place I take all my new friends, to meet my old friends.
Susukino is also famous amongst young people who are into fashion trends you might see in Harajuku, offering many recycle and artsy shops and creative people on the street performing everything from music and dancing to basketball tricks.
With a climate much like that of Europe, Sapporo offers non-humid, warm summers and snowy days in the winter. The winter attracts winter sports enthusiasts from all over the world, with the city being famous for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics. Skiing holds the spot as the most popular winter activity in Sapporo, but snowboarding is rapidly increasing in popularity. Despite hailing from Scandinavia where winter sports are very common (there’s a saying that Scandinavians are born with skis on their legs), I have to admit that it was only last winter in Hokkaido that I put on a pair of skis for the first time in my life. If you’re more of a watcher than a doer, there is always the Winter Sports Museum in town to give you an idea of how important the winter sports are to Sapporo and Hokkaido.
Why to Go
Sapporo is different from many other major cities in Japan. The relaxed atmosphere is immediately noticeable, and the locals are warm, friendly and approaching. It is not difficult at all to make friends if you are a foreigner or even a Japanese wanting to meet foreigners. The Japanese locals are not afraid to approach you even if their English skills are limited—which is a refreshing change from many other places in Japan. Even if you just go for the weekend, the laid-back environment gives you the feeling that you truly have explored the city. If you are staying for longer, you should take advantage of the many activities for foreigners such as free Japanese classes, social meetings and cultural evenings arranged all over town. I’ve met many foreigners in Sapporo—many who have lived there longer than me—who say that once you have experienced Sapporo, you never want to leave. I highly agree with that.
Getting there: Sapporo is about a 90-minute flight from Tokyo, with airlines such as JetStar, Air Do and ANA offering several flights a day and various deals and discounts throughout the year.
Where to stay: Sapporo has many hotels, especially located in the Susukino and Odori areas. Regular and traditional inns, as well as apartment hotels fit for families, all start at low prices to suit different needs. If you’re only in Sapporo for a short stay, a hotel in this area is recommended, as most of the famous spots are within walking distance.
More info: Visit the Sapporo activity calendar website issued by the Hokkaido International Women’s Association to get monthly details about what’s on in Sapporo. This is especially recommended if you want to do more than dine and visit the typical tourist spots. For more general information, also check out the official website of Sapporo Tourism.