A few days after my arrival in Tokyo, I hopped on a full day of trains to make my way north. Three trains, ten hours, and the world’s longest, deepest underwater tunnel later, I reached my destination: Sapporo. And let me just get this out of the way right now: I love Sapporo. I FUCKING LOVE IT! Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was the drinks (see below), but Sapporo had just what I needed. It was freezing cold – snow on the ground – and I think it was here that my body temperature finally returned to a normal level after so long in the heat and humidity of Asia.
Sapporo is Japan’s fifth largest city and sixth largest metropolitan area with a bit over 2.5 million people. It is definitely not on the international tourist circuit like other parts of Japan are, with the notable exception of its major snow festival in February each year. Many foreigners do fly into Sapporo just to head to the ski fields in other parts of Hokkaido and this helps make the Sapporo to Tokyo (Haneda) the world’s busiest air route. Despite the lack of international tourists in the city proper, Sapporo is still quite famous: for its beer, for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, and (of course) for its snow. One of Elcid’s friends – a beautiful girl named Miho – is originally from Sapporo and gave me a great list of tips before I set out from Tokyo.
A few highlights of my time in Sapporo:
If you know anything about beer, you most likely know Sapporo beer. If you don’t know Sapporo beer, then go to your local store and get some. Now. I’ll wait.
Brewed right here in its namesake city, Sapporo was Japan’s first beer and has been going strong since 1876. While the new brewery is outside the city and conducts tours only in Japanese (thus illustrating just how little foreign tourists pay attention to Sapporo), the old brewery has been converted into a great little museum complete with an English translation sheet for the displays and a tasting room. I dabbled in all three options on offer including the Sapporo Classic which is only available on Hokkaido Island.
When it’s this cold outside, a nice cold beer doesn’t always sound appealing. That’s where whiskey comes in. A one hour train ride from Sapporo landed me in the little town of Yoichi, home of Japan’s first whiskey distillery. The award-winning Nikka Distillery is open for visitors with a museum, displays on whiskey production (many in English!), and (of course) a tasting room. Yay! The delicious whiskey was definitely worth the train trip each way.
The 1972 Winter Olympics Ski Jump sits high on a hill just outside the main city. It has a chairlift to the top with stellar views of the city. At the base, the Winter Sports Museum looks really cool… but it’s all in Japanese so I was in and out in about ten minutes. Bah!
In the city:
I’m not going to lie: the Sapporo TV Tower isn’t all that tall or that impressive, but its central location does provide cool views of the city surrounding it. I went up twice: once by day and once by night. Particularly cool was the view of the “Illumination” – the elaborate Japanese version of Christmas lights that go up in December. Back on the ground, the Illumination was accompanied by a German-style Christmas market complete with mulled wine. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Also of note is the Sapporo Clock Tower. The Japanese apparently commonly refer to it as one of the three most disappointing tourist attractions in the country, but I rather enjoyed the little museum inside the crappy little clock tower. English captions told the history of the building including its substantial ties to the United States. Note only was the clock made in the USA, but the building served as an agricultural college during part of its lifetime and saw many American teachers make their way here from a sister school in Massachusetts.
Aside from that, I just enjoyed walking around the city. There were several large parks and quite a few cute neighbourhoods with nice shops and cafes (it reminded me of Portland or Seattle but on a quieter scale), including Kurashiki Coffee which was conveniently located across the street from my Airbnb and had the friendliest Japanese wait staff that I encountered during my entire time in the country.
Given its distance from the other major population centres and its distinct ethnic identity (the Ainu people – not the Japanese – are the original inhabitants of the island), the food in Hokkaido is a bit different to the rest of Japan. Soup curry is a local specialty and I tasted it twice: once at a famous restaurant called Suage+ and once at the Nikka Distillery restaurant. Soup + curry = foodgasm. Jingisukan (Japanese for Genghis Khan) is another local speciality. Jingisukan consists of thin slices of raw lamb and an assortment of vegetables that you have to “burn” (aka cook) yourself on a little grill at your table. I think it’s called Jingisukan because of the perception that Mongolians eat a lot of mutton, which actually makes sense because they do. The most important find for me was a sushi restaurant called Hanamaru. Famous in Hokkaido, the restaurant has a handful of locations across the island and is known for having top quality sushi at beyond reasonable prices. I was so pleased with this find that I looked them up online and discovered they have one location in Tokyo as well. I went there twice upon my return. Win. I also had my first tempura in Sapporo as well as some chicken hips and chicken hearts at a more traditional restaurant. Yikes.
For dessert, The Fruitscake Factory (complete with the font and colour of the logo of The Cheesecake Factory) focuses on desserts featuring fruit, and Yukijirushi (Snow Brand) Parlor has a wide assortment of parfait… because everybody loves parfait. Yes, it was freezing. And yes I had ice cream. It won’t melt at -2 degrees Celsius. I think that’s perfect ice cream weather.
I had four nights and three full days in Sapporo and I tried to extend my stay by a day or two at the end. Unfortunately, my Airbnb was booked up so I opted to stick to my original plan and head back to Tokyo to have Christmas dinner with Elcid. Sapporo is definitely at the top of the list for my next visit to Japan. I will start daydreaming about that trip soon. But first, let me take a selfie.
To see more photos of my time in Sapporo, follow this link: