Sapporo is Japan’s most popular winter city, but that doesn’t mean Hokkaido – the northernmost island in Japan – is a winter-only destination. In spring and summer, Sapporo is easier to navigate, with the white snow capping the mountains replaced by lush greens and flowers in bloom – cherry blossom season arrives a month later than in southern Japan – while the seafood is as fresh as ever.
Here’s a selection of the very best experiences in Sapporo and wider Hokkaido to add to your itinerary.
THE MUSEUM: Sapporo Art Park
Snowshoeing around the Art Park in winter is a treat, but with 40 hectares packed full of things to see and do, there’s no better time than early summer to take in everything here – without frostbite. Start with the Sculpture Garden and the Craft Hall, then try making your own glassware, ceramics and dyed cloth. Alternatively, wander around and soak up the vast natural surroundings in their seasonal glory.
THE ROAD TRIP: Rusutsu
A 90 minute drive southwest of Sapporo, Rusutsu is an alternative to ever-popular Niseko for a hit of the great outdoors. From late April, the skiing is replaced by summer activities that range from rafting and fishing to hot-air ballooning. And when the weather isn’t cooperating, Rusutsu has plenty of family-friendly indoor options, including cheesemaking, ice cream-making and craft workshops.
THE RESTAURANT: Jyogai Ichiba seafood market
A contender for Sapporo’s most Instagrammable site because of the 60-ish stalls and small restaurants full of fresh crab and colourful fish, Jyogai Ichiba is also a great place to sample Sapporo’s seafood without breaking the budget. You can get fresh oysters, in-season sushi sets and great donburi – bowls of rice topped with a mix of raw cuts of fish like salmon and tuna, fish roe and sea urchin.
THE Bar: Bar Yamazaki
A Sapporo classic, this old-fashioned bar in the Susukino entertainment district has several claims to fame. The first is a menu that features more than 200 original cocktails, including the signature Sapporo, a slightly sweet vodka-based concoction created decades ago by the late owner, Tatsuro Yamazaki, a legend in Japan’s bar scene who could be found mixing drinks here into his 90s. To that you can add more than 50 whiskies.
THE HOTEL: Unwind
Modelled on a mountain lodge, Unwind, which opened last year close to Nakajima Park, is not your typical city centre hotel. Design-wise, expect antique furnishingsand lots of brick and wood – especially in the bar, where you can get comfy by anopen fire. On a warmer night, take your cocktails to the rooftop terrace.
THE INSTAGRAM SPOT: Mount Moiwa
From its position in the southwest of the city, Mount Moiwa delivers sweeping views north over Sapporo. Reached by a ropeway, the 531 metre peak rewards daytime visits with a landscape of thick forest, which gives way to the sprawling city and a far-off glimpse of Ishikari Bay. By night, it’s even better, revealing a tapestry of lights over central Sapporo.
THE RITUAL: Cherry blossom viewing
The cold north takes a little longer than the rest of Japan to shake off winter and embrace spring. While Tokyo and Kyoto get their annual dose of sakura (cherry blossoms) in late March and early April, Sapporo saves it for a month later. From late April to early May, the wave of pink blossom is especially pretty alongside the outdoor art in the Isamu Noguchi-designed Moerenuma Park, while in Maruyama Park, right by Hokkaido Shrine, you can join the throngs gathered for picnics and drink under the blossoms.
THE NEIGHBOURHOOD: Nakajima Park
In central Sapporo, Nakajima Park is a laidback spot full of places to soak up culture. Besides the greenery, the 21 hectare park has attractions including a boating pond, a Japanese garden and teahouse, an observatory, outdoor sculptures and a concert hall. Surrounding it are mellow cafes like Marumi Coffee Stand and small contemporary galleries such as Gallery Sou and To Ov.
SAPPORO IS THE OLDEST BEER BRAND IN JAPAN, FOUNDED IN 1876
THE MALL: Sapporo Factory
Despite being a four-level glass atrium that resembles a giant greenhouse, Sapporo Factory actually takes its name from its location, on the site of Japan’s first brewery. The complex mixes everything from fashion boutiques and interior design shops to a multiscreen cinema. Giving a nod to its roots, Sapporo Factory even has a shop that sells beer brewed specially to taste like the original batches from the 1870s.
THE FESTIVAL: Sapporo Lilac Festival
If you miss the cherry blossoms, wait a couple of weeks and see the lilacs instead. Taking place at the end of May, the Sapporo Lilac Festival marks the official start of summer in the city. The festival, held in Odori Park (16-27 May) and Kawashimo Park (late May), dates back to 1959. Visitors can enjoy a music festival, a tea ceremony and other events including quizzes and guided tours.
● When you arrive at New Chitose Airport, the best way to get into the city centre is on the JR Airport Express to Sapporo Station (37 minutes; every 15 minutes), but the slower Chuo Bus route is also an option if your hotel is on one of its stops.
● New Chitose Airport’s sprawling souvenir mall has got all the bases covered for pre-flight shopping, from local Royce chocolate, Otaru Beer and regional sake to giant frozen crab, bottled sea urchin and many other Hokkaido specialities.
● Sapporo is a lovely city to cycle around in spring. For ¥1,080 (HK$80) per day and with dozens of pick-up and drop-off ports around the city, the Porocle community bicycle system is handy. It also organises guided cycling tours. porocle.jp/en
Cathay Pacific flies to Sapporo from Hong Kong five times a week