what to do in sapporo
Where Japan and the West meet
A few hundreds years ago, the Toyohira river flowed freely through the plain where the capital of Hokkaido now stands. Sapporo grew from the seven original settlers into the third largest city (the fifth in term of population) in Japan in less than 250 years, and thus became the symbol of the rapid colonization of Hokkaido as a whole.
Learn about the history of the city of scroll down to find a guide of the best things to do in Sapporo.
The Japanese originally expressed very little interest for the northern island of Hokkaido and although their first settlement dates to the 10th century, they did not actively pursue extension toward the North for century. This is maybe due to the fact that Hokkaido was already populated by the Ainu people, but also most probably to the island’s inhospitable climate, as its cold winters made traditional houses and their paper windows inhabitable.
To understand why that changed, we must go back to 1641, when shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa drafted a policy of isolationism known as Sakoku (“closed country”) that would be enforced by the shogunate until 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry and four warships entered the bay of Edo (the city we now know as Tokyo) on the behalf of the United States Government.
In short, Perry’s mission was to open trade routes between Japa
n and the United States by means of gunboat diplomacy, which means, by threatening to destroy the capital with US warships unless they give in to their demands.
How exactly all of that happened is a long but extremely interesting story, which you can check out in a dedicated article here 😉
Commodore Perry’s fleet for his second visit to Japan in 1854
Long story short, although the Japanese were forced to open a few ports to international trade with Western empires, they limited their troubles by choosing the ports that were farthest from the central government. One of such port was Hakodate, one of the first colony the Japanese made on Hokkaido.
Because it was amongst the first and only cities to trade with western civilisations, Hakodate benefited from many new techniques (such as the making of glass panel windows for instance) much earlier than the rest of Japan.
At the time, the colonisation of Hokkaido presented many interests to the young regime of Emperor Meiji: firstly, it would provide employment as farmers to all the samurais that had been deprived of occupation by the fall of the Shogunate, but it would also strengthen Japan’s claim for the northern island which Russia was also interested in, whilst benefiting the economy by increasing the country’s output of grain, minerals, and other natural resources.
As Hakodate started to be considered more of a backbone than a reach into new territories, it was decided in 1868 that a new capital for the island would be created in the vast and well drained Ishikari plain (a favourable topology that is otherwise rare on the mountainous island), and that is how Sapporo was born.
From the 7 original settlers, the city grew into a large capital through intensive migration from Honshu (the central island where Tokyo is situated). It developed along a recognizably western grid plan, with a large green stretch, Odori Park, cutting through the city centre.
The city long maintained a pioneering and western aspect, as it was the 4th city in Japan to have a subway system and was also the 1rst Asian city to host the Winter Olympics, in 1972, making it a true “one-of-a-kind” city in Japan.
Nowadays, the city is famous for its Snow Festival: every February, artists and amateurs gather and turn the ice and snow into gigantic, illuminated sculptures and beautiful landscapes. The city is also known worldwide because of the eponymous beer that used to be brewed there and for the quality of its winter resorts (ski-slopes above a shinto shrine, anyone ?).
Grab your KITACA (the local version of the IC card) and discover Sapporo, the city where Japan and the West meet !
Hokkaido is a popular destination during the summer, as most of Japan get terribly heated during the season, but the true beauty of the island might only appear when its covered in snow. I'd nonetheless suggest you do not repeat my mistake and go at winter's worst, or you'll be facing negative temperatures and thick layers of ice making walking a perilous occupation. For that reason, I'd suggest you either visit Sapporo in December, March or from May to September.
Spot odori Park, the tv tower and the toyohira river
If you've been wandering around Japan a bit, walking through a city organised along a grid might just surprise you, (or make you feel somewhat home if you're from the US, I guess). Take a walk through the city to spot the major landmarks such as the Sapporo's linear central park and the TV tower that sits on it.
The banks of the Toyohira river are also quite a sight in winter, as you can sometimes spot a huge love message written in the snow that can be seen from the other side of the water (that might not be a thing, but I did spot one, and couldn't resist leaving my own !)
learn about brewery for free in sapporo's beer museum
Brewing has meant a great deal to Hokkaido, thanks to the availability of grain, clear spring water and of European brew-master and their technique, as they came to the island to trade with the whole of Japan. Depending on your tastes, you might want to consider visiting either one of the beer or whisky breweries.
Sapporo beer opened a museum in their former factory, which you can visit for free. You can participate in a tasting session at the end of the tour and try up to 3 varieties of beer, some of which are not produced commercially anymore for ¥200 a glass only, if I remember correctly !
learn more about the COLONIZATION of hokkaido at the Clocktower, Akarenga and ainu village
Although the relationship between the Japanese people and the island of Hokkaido is fairly recent, it had been populated by the Ainu, a Russo-Japanese aborigine people that still exist today but is on the brink of complete absorption by the Japanese. Learn about the island's multiple occupants by visiting any number of those three historical places.
try a heartwarming curry or an omurice
So if you decided to be as bold as to defy Hokkaido's winter, chances are you're going to spend a large amount of time freezing your balls off and purchasing any new layer of clothe you can use to shield yourself from the cold.
Now, imagine you have less than ¥2000 (for food, clothes, shelter,...) available until your return ticket.
That was the situation I ended up in, and yet, the best decision I made might have been to go out of my way and try an omurice (an omelette flipped over flavoured rice and covered with tasty veggies and sauce) from a nearby restaurant. It warmed me up for the rest of the day !
Uncover Hokkaido Jingu's secrets
Sitted at the feet of Mt. Sankakuyama, Hokkaido Jingu's shinto shrine is simple and yet wonderful. Depending on the season, you might find the temple's premises covered in cherry blossoms and packed with visitors participating in hanami (observation of flowers) or, in December, you might stumble upon preparations for New Year's Hatsumode's celebration that includes the first prayer, incent purification, glass of sake and fortune telling.
The shrine is consecrated to four divinities, amongst which the godly soul of Emperor Meiji.
Marvel at the city night-scape from mt moiwa
Recognized as one of the most beautiful night-sky in Japan, the view from Mt. Moiwa is certainly stunning. To get to the platform, you can either hop on the ropeway that will carry you to the top for ¥1700/adult or trek through Moiwa's primeval forest (during daytime). You can also have a ride on a free shuttle bus picking up passengers every 15 minutes.
In the station at the top, you'll find souvenirs shops, a luxury restaurant and a planetarium. On the observation, there's an spot called the "bell of happiness" where couples can ring the bell whilst taking in the view to "deepen their bond". God knows how that works, though !
My Special advice: marumugi & morihiko
Sometimes the smallest things are the ones that sticks to you memory best.
On my last day in Sapporo, on the way to Hokkaido Jingu, I decided to spent the few ¥ens I still had on a nice breakfast. Out of sheer luck, I found what might be two of the best off-the-beaten-path places in Sapporo, namely, Marumugi’s bakery and Morihiko’s coffee parlor. The former is so tiny that you can barely stand in the bakery’s building, but there’s still plenty to chose from (as long as you show up early, as the bakery is now quite successful among locals). In the later, a very small but cosy house, you can get a hand-brewed cup of coffee from carefully selected beans that will make you feel at home.
To be honest, I loved that break so much it inspired me a poem !
« Un moment qui se meut lentement,
Trois souffles qui se mêlent
L’un amer, l’autre âcre et le vivant.
Le bruissement d’une coupe sous la neige. »
Day trip ideas
Otaru is a lovely city just an hour and a half north of Sapporo if you hop on a train.
Historically, it was renowned for its production of high quality glass-works and although the sector is now largely extinct because of the progress of industrialization, you can still find numerous shops where you can learn about the making of glass and even craft your own props !
The numerous canals that can be found in the city add a lot to its charm. Moreover, because Otaru stills has its own fishing port, the fish served in nearby restaurant is one of the freshest in the whole of Japan, allowing great dishes such as sushi to be served for a decent price.
For more information on Otaru, read the dedicated article here 🙂
There are numerous onsens (hotsprings) around Sapporo.
You can reach the closest ones (such as the Hoheikyo Onsen or Jozankei Onsen) by taking a long distance bus for cheap. Impressively enough, the bus will usually still be operating even in dire conditions, but as it means drivers have to slow down, allow enough time for you journey back and forth (I tried to go to Hoheikyo’s by the late afternoon and had to hop off my bus and go back to Sapporo because it was getting so late it would have been closed and I would have been stuck in the mountains ^^’).
Alternatively, you can take the day to visit Noboribestu, a thermal city with a large range of onsens, out-door bath and the likes. Definitely a great destination for a day trip !
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