Hokkaido

Sapporo

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Furano might be the middle of Hokkaido, but Sapporo is its economic centre – it’s the biggest city on the island, and serves as the hub for its transit links too. It’s also a pleasant, modern city that’s well worth exploring for a few days. Famous for the snow festival, held every February, Sapporo holds plenty to see even once the snow thaws – as it had when I visited in May 2014.

Transport Links

Sapporo is, appropriately, the easiest place in Hokkaido to get to. There’s a huge JR station, it’s the terminal for buses to all over the island, and of course there’s New Chitose airport, which is some way outside the city but served by loads of flights from Honshu and beyond. I rolled in on a coach from Toyako Onsen – a pleasant trip of a few hours.

Inside the city there are three subway lines, two of which serve the JR station, and the third of which cuts across from east to west, intersecting the others at Odori. Above ground, there’s a tram system.

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One thing to note is that despite the subways obviously using a FeliCa smart card system – like just about every other city in Japan – this one’s not compatible with Suica cards (and if you try, as I did, you’ll look like a proper idiot). Instead you need either a Sapica card for the subway, or a Kitaca for the train system – again, they are incompatible. A Sapica costs 2000yen, for which you get 1500 yen credit – when you leave, you can turn in the card for 300yen plus any remaining credit on it.

The Botanical Gardens

I arrived in the morning of Midori-no-hi – literally green day, and I guess better translated to Nature Day – one of the Golden Week holidays. With that in mind, I figured I’d make a beeline for the huge University botanical garden in the West of the city centre – it turned out they’d made it free for the day to celebrate.

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Free or not, this is a beautiful place, with greenhouses full of tropical plants, an area dedicated to alpine flowers and plenty of blooming cherry trees. There’s also a small museum dedicated to the garden’s American founder, which is pretty interesting if you can read English as it contains many of his letters, and a smaller museum containing Ainu costumes, tools and the like, which you can get into from just inside the park entrance.

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And speaking of parks, there’s another in the east of the city – take the subway to Maruyama Koen, then exit 1. This one contains a huge area where families and groups were barbecuing, and a pretty section full of cherry trees. Further in, there’s the Hokkaido shrine, which is obviously quite new when you compare it to the ones elsewhere in Japan, but still an elegant, pretty temple.

The Beer

But it’s not just parks, of course. Speaking of elegant buildings, the old Sapporo factory – now the Sapporo Beer-En and museum – is a glorious red-brick building. The museum’s free, and although it’s mostly in kanji-heavy Japanese it’s quite easy to make out the history of the factory and the brand. Better yet, if you’re even vaguely interested in advertising or design then the old beer labels and huge wall of vintage advertising are fascinating.

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At the end of the tour you can order up a sample of three beers – standard Sapporo, the Hokkaido-only Sapporo Classic and a slightly cloudy variety – for a few hundred yen. If you order all three together they even throw in a small cheese, for some reason – buy a ticket from the vending machine.

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The Clock

I normally stick to recomending things that I *would* go and see, but I feel I should mention one Sapporo landmark that I’d skip over – the Tokeidai, or clock tower. This is, I was told, one of the big tourist sights in town – so with two hours to kill before catching a sleeper train, I went in search of it. The clock tower is, in reality, a rather American-looking wooden building from the 1870s, part of an agricultural college founded in the city.

If you’re walking nearby, maybe take a look – otherwise there are far more interesting things to do. Apparently I’m not alone in this opinion – I’ve since learned that it has been listed in the 日本3大がっかり名所 (roughly: three most disappointing sights in Japan – link here).

Staying and Eating

Sapporo has as many hotels and ryokan as you’d expect – all the usual suspects, including several Toyoko Inns and a Sunroute. During Golden Week, though, choice was limited, so I went for the Dormy Inn Annex – as it turned out, a good choice. While just a little more expensive than a Sunroute, and quite a bit more than a Toyoko Inn, the Annex (there’s a Premium across the road) had small but nice rooms, with working WiFi internet. And, surprisingly, a really nice onsen-style bathhouse with both an indoor and an enclosed outdoor bath. It’s located in the covered shopping street a few blocks southwest of Odori.

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When it comes to eating, there are as many choices as you’d expect in a big city – but I had to pay a visit to the Sapporo Ramen Yokocho – pictured up top, and above. This small alley in the susukino area is supposedly the origin of miso ramen – it’s small and bustling (a couple of tour groups were visiting when I stopped by) and well worth your time. As well as a fantastic bowl of ramen, the owner of the stall I visited was happy to humour my terrible spoken Japanese and reward it with some free gyoza.