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 on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido one of Asia’s top winter destinations.
But that doesn’t mean it’s 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. 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 things to do 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. In winter, eExplore the park – a laidback alternative to Niseko’s skiing – in snowshoes, sleds or cross-country skis.
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 in 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.
THE RITUAL: Jingisukan
Among the things to do in Sapporo, jingisukan barbecue is a classic Hokkaido culinary experience, which 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, which has 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 most luxurious on the scene, mixing peaceful wooded surroundings and in-room (and on-balcony) hot spring baths with fine, kaiseki-style dining.
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.
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 reason not to visit during the rest of the year when you don’t have to worry about 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, Bar Yamakazi is an old-fashioned bar in the Susukino entertainment district that 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 in 2017 close to Nakajima Park, is not your typical city centre hotel. Design-wise, expect antique furnishings and lots of brick and wood – especially in the bar, where you can get comfy by an open 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-tall 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 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.
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
Photographing seasonal blooms is high among the popular things to do in Sapporo. 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 and Kawashimo Park, 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, summer and autumn. 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.
- 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.