A thick covering of snow, warming comfort food, stunning natural surroundings and easy access to some of Japan’s best ski resorts and hot springs have made Sapporo one of Asia’s top winter destinations. Throw in cool art venues, hip cafes and shops, and you get a city break far away from the rest of glitzy, high-rise Japan.
Here’s a selection of the very best experiences in Sapporo and Hokkaido to add to your itinerary.
THE THRILL: Moerenuma Park
The Isamu Noguchi-designed Moerenuma Park in Sapporo is a lovely spot all year round, with art installations and play equipment spread over undulating man-made hills and lawns. Explore the park – a laidback alternative to Niseko’s skiing – in snowshoes, sleds or cross-country skis.
THE DRINK: Otaru Beer
Sapporo Beer is the big brand in the north, but Japan’s growing thirst for craft beer has also made a mark in Hokkaido. Try Otaru Beer’s German-inspired brews in its canal-side brewpub. For something hoppier, North Island Beer, which has a bar a few blocks south of the landmark Sapporo TV Tower, does a great IPA and creative tipples like a coriander stout.
THE COFFEE SHOP: Morihiko
The artisanal cafe bug has also bitten Sapporo. Morihiko opened here long before single-origin brews took Tokyo by storm, serving coffee and simple desserts in a creaking 70-year-old house. It’s since branched out with an ex-warehouse venue called Plantation and a couple of other hip outlets around the city.
THE SHOP: Space 1-15
Each of the roughly 20 flats at Space 1-15 – an old block-of-flats-turned-mall in central Sapporo – is an independent boutique, cafe or gallery: like the sweetshop Matsukaze in flat 403 or Scandinavian-influenced ceramic shop Mano in flat 205. Visit on a weekend, as some shops are closed during the week.
THE EVENT: Otaru Snow Light Path
No, not the famous Yuki Matsuri (Sapporo Snow Festival). Otaru, about 40 kilometres northwest of Sapporo, has a mellow winter alternative on evenings during 9-18 February, when the Otaru Snow Light Path sees much of the snow-covered town lit by lanterns and candles, with igloos, snowmen and other small snow sculptures scattered about.
THE HOT SPRINGS: Jozankei
Just over an hour from central Sapporo by bus, the pretty Jozankei area is ideal for warming winter bones. Many of the town’s hotels and traditional ryokan open their natural hot spring baths to non-guests, although if you can, spend a night here to enjoy an intricate multi-course kaiseki dinner in a tatami-matted guestroom.
THE DISH: Miso Ramen
Sapporo miso ramen: the name alone makes ramen aficionados weak at the knees. The mix of slightly springy noodles, miso-flavored broth and roast pork slices – possibly topped with corn or a knob of Hokkaido butter – is perfect on a cold winter’s day. Try it at Ramen Yokocho, a narrow alley in the Susukino area with 17 tiny ramen joints to choose from.
Chome Minami 5 Jonishi, Chuo-ku, Sapporo
THE RITUAL: Barbecue
A Hokkaido culinary classic, jingisukan takes its name from Genghis Khan. The grilled-at-your-table mix of lamb and vegetables is great comfort food on a cold night. For an authentic Sapporo experience, take a seat at the oval counter of Daruma, where they’ve been serving the mutton barbecue with lively chatter for over 60 years.
THE DESIGN RYOKAN: Zaborin
Hokkaido has some very contemporary takes on the traditional ryokan. In Niseko, the 15-suite Zaborin is one of the latest (and most luxurious) on the scene, mixing peaceful wooded surroundings and in-room (and on-balcony) hot spring baths with fine, kaiseki-style dining.
THE INSTAGRAM SPOT: Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium
The observation deck at the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium, which was used for the 1972 Winter Olympics, gives dizzying views over Sapporo – the very same views jumpers got before pushing off.
THE DRINK: Whisky
Nikka Whisky’s Yoichi Distillery, about 50 kilometres west of Sapporo, is a chance to learn about the roots of one of the country’s top whisky makers. The distillery includes the original vats from the 1930s and the house that the founder and his Scottish wife once lived in. Better still, it also does tastings and sells Nikka varieties only available in Yoichi.
THE WALK: Hokkaido Snow Tour
Explore rarely visited east Hokkaido with this wintry Walk Japan tour. The guided eight-day walk – all while wearing snowshoes – is a gentle hike through Hokkaido’s snow-covered flatlands and pristine winter environment.
● 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 might also be an option if your hotel is on one of its stops.
● Walking Sapporo’s icy winter roads can be a challenge without proper footwear. To avoid slipping, buy a pair of non-slip cleats in Hokkaido’s convenience stores and stick them to the soles of your shoes.
● 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.
Cathay Pacific flies to Sapporo from Hong Kong up to 14 times a week