Situated on the largest and most northerly of the islands in the Japanese chain, Sapporo is a gateway to what most people do not consider Japan to have when they think about this East Asian nation: clean air, peaceful mountain scenery, and sparsely populated wilderness.
Yet, the island of Hokkaido, of which Sapporo is the capital, has all three of these things in spades, making it a favoured destination for people escaping the oppressive humidity that plagues the southern islands in the summer, as well as the high levels of stress that predominate in Japanese work culture in general.
As a traveler, Sapporo is a great place to get acquainted with the newest portion of Japan by far, as this island has only been settled for little over 100 years, and to prepare for adventures into Japan’s backcountry.
But before you do, walk along its wide boulevards, breathe in the cleaner air of the north, and quaff a few of this cities’ signature beer before heading off into the wild.
The time when most people in Japan plan a trip to Sapporo is when its most famous event, the Sapporo Snow Festival, is ongoing. This event, made possible by being situated within one of the most abundant snow belts on Earth, takes the copious amounts of snow and cold that Hokkaido gets dealt every winter and turns it into a positive. Watch as professional sculptors and creators from around the globe shape humongous piles of the white stuff and ice blocks into world class pieces of art. Book early for this event, as all accommodation books out completely for this festival well before opening day arrives!
While Sapporo and Hokkaido Island does not have much of a back history, the Hokkaido Pioneer Village does an admirable job of telling the story of the pioneers that first settled on this wild island little more than a century ago. This historical park is divided into four sections, each representing a community type that has existed on Hokkaido: a standard town, and fishing, farming and mountain villages. This tour is self-guided, but that’s just fine, as the information on the reliefs and the many types of pre World II structures that are different from traditional Japanese architecture will keep you busy for hours.
Another interesting day trip for the artistically minded is Sapporo Art Park, a perfect place to go if you’re looking to kill time until your departure into many national parks and mountains of Hokkaido. This park contains a wide variety of modernist representations of people, and while some can be quite revealing compared to the sculpture art that we are used to in the West, this place is not to the degree of Loveland on Jeju Island. Apart from this, it’s a great place to go get out of the urban core for the afternoon during the summer.
With much of the history of this area being quite recent, Sapporo’s strengths lie not in its past, but in its present, and in the surrounding natural assets that await visitors beyond city limits. Apart from the Snow Festival, this young city is most famous for a brewery that has been cranking out high quality pints of beer for decades. To that end, the kind people at Sapporo have put together the Sapporo Beer Museum, a place where the history of this lager has been chronicled (this city is the first place where beer was brewed in Japan), as well as the process that goes into producing each can of this fine tipple. Naturally, samples are provided after the tour, and the beer garden next door makes for a great place for a post-tour meal / sociable hour.
Those with a sweet tooth should drop by the Ishiya Chocolate Factory, where one of the better known chocolate makes in the country produces its sweet treats. After the tour, which includes a look at operations on the production floor, you can also sign up for a workshop where you can get to create your own chocolate cookies.
Finally, with all those mountains peaking up on Sapporo’s horizon, you are surely itching to go hiking in the summer, or skiing in the winter. If you’re here in the warmer months, there are many outstanding trails that lead up Mount Teine, granting you an excellent view of the cityscape of Sapporo below. When it’s cold and snowy, there are ski hills within easy reach of the city, with Mount Teine having alpine ski facilities that were used in the 1972 Winter Olympics, and Japan’s most famous alpine resort, Niseko, being within a two hour bus ride from the centre of Sapporo.