Sapporo is the main city in Hokkaido and the 5th largest city in Japan. While weather conditions can be harsh this far north, the city itself has lively nightlife and several vibrant festivals. Sapporo is also home to some of the best eating and drinking outside Tokyo, as well as excellent winter sports facilities, so even if the weather is bad you are sure to have a great time.
Sapporo – A Quick History
Until the 19th century, Hokkaido was populated by native Ainu and Sapporo was non-existent. The Japanese colonization of Hokkaido was devastating for the Ainu and much of their traditional culture and lifestyle was lost. Recently there has been political recognition of the Ainu as the original inhabitants of the island and some of their rights have been restored.
Sapporo was founded in 1866, and identified as an administrative capital soon after. The Japanese authorities drafted in American and European town planners to help design and build the city, which resulted in an easy to navigate grid system.
Sapporo suffered some bombing in WWII, but this damage was quickly restored. Since then, the city has gone on to host the first Winter Olympics in Asia (1972) and several world cup games in 2002. While Sapporo is somewhat removed from the rest of the country, it has developed a reputation as one of the most vibrant and attractive cities in Japan.
The easiest way to get to Sapporo is by plane. New Chitose Airport is 40km south of the city and the majority of international and domestic flights arrive here. The quickest way to Sapporo is by JR train (35 mins). There is a bus but this takes over an hour and is not much cheaper than the train. Okadama airport is only 8km from the city centre (30 mins by bus) but mainly serves local flights around Hokkaido; there are some services from Tokyo and Sendai that land here.
The large JR train station to the north of the city provides regular and punctual services around Hokkaido, as well as trains that run through under-sea tunnels to Honshu. Therefore it is possible to travel to Hokkaido and Sapporo from Tokyo using your Japan Rail Pass.
There are also several ferries that run to Hokkaido from other islands in Japan – these are run as private lines so are not included in the Japan Rail Pass. However some of the bigger ferries can be very luxurious and can be a fun way to see a different side to Japan.
Where to Stay
Sapporo hosts several festivals, notably the Snow Festival in February and the Summer Festival in July/August. Accommodation can be busy during these times, so book ahead to get the best deals and hotels.
The majority of hotels are near to Sapporo JR station which is convenient for most of the main attractions. However the Susukino district has the best nightlife so if you are in town for partying this might be a better choice.
Must See Sapporo
Sapporo Bier Garten & Beer Museum
Beer was originally brewed in Sapporo to supply the expat community in Tokyo at the end of the 19th Century. However the Japanese soon developed a taste for beer and a trip to the Sapporo brewery is hugely popular. Only a small amount of brewing takes place here as most of the building has been turned in to a museum about beer and brewing. There are also several restaurants and a sample bar where you can try the different types of beer.
Botanical Gardens and Ainu Museum
In the north west of the city centre, the Botanical Gardens contain several museums. The Ainu Museum is perhaps the most interesting, with hundreds of Ainu artifacts on display with English captions. The gardens themselves are pretty with several water features and greenhouses.
Running west-east across central Sapporo, Odori-koen is a pleasant place for a stroll at any time of year. In February it hosts the Snow Festival, with elaborate and intricate snow sculptures filling the park. The park also features the Sapporo TV Tower with its viewing platform, and the Boston-built Tokeidai clock tower.
Winter Sports Museum
Situated in one of the ski jumps used in the 1972 Olympics, this fun museum looks at the history of winter sports. There are several simulators such as ski jump, bobsleigh and speed skating if you fancy trying your hand at some of the sports covered. It’s also possible to visit the top of the ski jump and see the view for yourself.
Historical Village of Hokkaido
Take the No3 bus from Sapporo station to reach the Historical Village, about 14km from Sapporo. This museum has a collection of pioneer style buildings from 1850 to the early 20th Century, that have been relocated and restored. There are areas that represent a town, a fishing village, a farm and a mountain village. Each area tries to recreate how life would have been in Hokkaido for early settlers and there are English signs and explanations beneath the exhibits.
Find out more about Sapporo by visiting the official tourism website.