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My trip to Japan began in Sapporo, in Hokkaido, because I didn’t want to get swallowed up by excessive Tokyo on my arrival. I wanted to relax to adapt to Japan smoothly, and I, therefore, chose this large island in the north, snowy, almost uninhabited, and ultimately not that Japanese…

Yeah, because Hokkaido is actually home to the Ainu, the indigenous people made a minority when at the end of the XIX century, the Japanese, in search of fortune, began to colonize it by forcing the integration of the natives. The Government recognized their cultural specificity only in 1998; many museums, cultural centers, and sculptures were designed to make this culture live and spread.

Once I landed in Tokyo, I took a direct Vanilla Air flight (65 €) from Narita Terminal 3 and arrived at New Chitose-Sapporo in 1h40.

What to visit in Sapporo

It’s the capital of Hokkaido and, architecturally speaking, is a  newly designed very Western city, where wide tree-lined boulevards regularly cross parks and gardens. Despite the winter frost, I found it very liveable and lively, with always open countless shops and restaurants and many izakayas, literally shops where you sit to drink sake. Still, here they also serve delicious typical snacks.

My favorite site was undoubtedly the Hokkaido-Jingu shrine, a small oasis of peace among the trees of Maruyama Park, down the central Odori avenue. Between the park entrance and the sanctuary, there are also many smaller temples, and discovering them in the middle of the snow was a joy!

Also very nice the old court of the city, with its snowy garden. Inside, you can visit a free museum about the city’s history, but it’s pretty much all in Japanese … same thing for the Akarenga museum in the ancient government seat, where, however, the old prints are stunning.

I liked the nineteenth-century clock tower, now surrounded by skyscrapers and therefore looking really like a small bijoux! Unfortunately, in wintertime, it closes at 4:30 p.m., and I could not enter it.

I also liked the university campus, in the city center, with many buildings in traditional style and a great motto: be ambitious!

The main attractions of the city, according to the locals, are, however, the Stellar Tower, the commercial tower-mall of the train station, where I followed my first class of Japanese cuisine at the ABC Cooking Studio (!), and the TV Tower, the television tower that marks the center of the city. This is a mini Eiffel Tower, with multicolored lighting in the evening and a big digital clock on each side. As soon as I saw it, I found it super kitsch, but the truth is that I found myself looking for it every time I passed by.

The central Odori-kōen, the park avenue cutting the city from the television tower to the Maruyama Park, and housing the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri every February, the famous snow festival with its mega constructions in frozen snow, food stands, and lots of music. Impressive!

From my guesthouse, the Yuyu Guest House steps away from the Ni-jō Ichiba Fish Market, I could walk to visit everything in a day, and it was very relaxing. Still, Sapporo is also dotted by tram lines, metro and bus stop, and even the laziest won’t have problems. I didn’t take any public transport, but two taxis: the basic fare is 670 yen, and it increases by 100 yen per kilometer.

For people hating the cold weather, from the Odori-kōen stop to the station, the city is split into the ground, in the Montreal style.

Tours around Sapporo

Otaru

Otaru is a port town 45 minutes by train from Sapporo (1280 yen the return ticket). I’ve visited it in a crazy snowfall, and I really liked it. Despite the weather, I loved walking along the canal, discovering the island’s history and the objects in the Ainu Museum Ungakan (300 yen), the ancient seat of the Bank of Japan, and the Carillon Museum.

Noboribetsu Onsen

Noboribetsu Onsen is a spa town in the mountains of central Hokkaido, about two hours by bus from Sapporo (bus to Noboribetsu 3500 yen the return ticket + bus to Noboribetsu Onsen 500 yen the return ticket or 260 yen each way  – by train it’s 1h10 + bus, but it cost 3360 yen each way and I hadn’t activated my Japan Rail Pass yet). It is a modern and not that nice village, a bit like Cervinia if you know it. Still, the spa complex is really with it and is locally famous for having taken care of the veterans of the war against Russia and, after that, all the veterans of the Japanese wars.

Following the advice of a local guy I met in the morning, I went at the Sagiri-yu (400 yen) and I recommend it.

Due to the spectacular sulfur spring that flows between the Jigoku-dani mountains, the town is considered to be under the devil’s power, and you can actually find several devil sculptures of every shape, size, and color all around Noboribetsu Onsen. I counted fifteen, but I think there are many more!

Niseko

Actually, my trip to Japan began with a day of skiing on the slopes of Niseko, 2h30 by bus from Sapporo (3850 yen the return ticket to the village of Annupuri + 5400 yen for the Niseko United daily ski pass + 2000 yen to rent the equipment). I spent the budget of the five following days for this, but I really enjoyed it! The slopes are beautiful (and packed with Australians!), and it would have deserved more days, to be honest, but it was a whim …

Where to drink and eat

My favorite venue was Ohiso, that according to Italian standards, one could define a dive… It is a small restaurant in the fish market, with some western tables and a tatami area in the center. The fish soups and the huge bowls of oyakodon (rice covered with salmon, fish eggs, and often crab or sea urchins) are delightful, and the prices are contained.

But you can also eat at the market directly from the fish stalls, choosing sashimi, curly, or scallops cooked upon your request on some camp kitchenettes. A real treat!

Another key step in the city is the tiny Ramen Yokocho, in the Susukino neighborhood, where you only eat ramen. There are actually two lanes, a more modern one for tourists and the original one, so ask for directions to the Ganso Ramen Alley, and everyone will send you to the “true” one.

The only place where I found western people, not only for lunch/dinner but throughout the city (!), is the Sapporo Beer Garden, in the ancient Sapporo brewery. Here you’ll find several restaurants, but I was advised that “the right one to drink beer” is the Genghis Khan, which offers a wide selection of meat and fish to be grilled at the table and pints of beer (given the strong barbecue smell waiters provided me with plastic bags to protect my jacket and the bag, while the rest of the clothes and my hair had to be quickly washed as soon I got back to the guesthouse!). Supposedly, to act as a purist, I should have ordered mutton, but it’s not my cup of tea, and I had chicken instead, disappointing the cute waitresses …

Before or after the meal, I also recommend a visit to the adjacent brewery museum. With 200 yen, the visit also includes a tasting, but you can also opt for the free version without any beer.

There are also many smaller and larger restaurants specializing in local fish, meat, and soups, and near the tracks, you will find kiosks selling take-away food for the train journey. The one selling onigiri on the right of the door of the track is my favorite!

P.S. As you can see from my photos and videos, in winter it’s freezing! In this post, you’ll find all the information on how to dress and what to pack to visit the Hokkaido 🙂

For a GPS version of this post, check GPSmyCity, an app I heartily recommend!

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Silvia's Trips

Hi there! My name is Silvia and after 15 years between the Paris Opera and the Palau de les Arts in Valencia I now run a boutique hotel in Cinque Terre, deal with tourism management and blogging, sail, horse-ride, play guitar and write about my solo trips around the world. For more info about me and my travel blog check my full bio.