Hokkaido – Japan’s northern delight
Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan — Its early morning and the streets of Hokkaido’s capital are blanketed with a carpet of freshly-fallen snow. An icy wind sweeps down from the fortress of mountains guarding Sapporo and the sun slowly rises from behind the highest peak, fabled Mount Moiwa, into a cloudless, cobalt sky. The Yezo spruce trees in Odori Park bend under the weight of the snow — their branches appear to be bowing in appreciation of winter finally arriving.
From my hotel window, lovely Sapporo looks like a giant Christmas card.
While others may curse winter, it’s actually looked upon as a gift in Sapporo and the other fabulous ski regions of Hokkaido, Japan’s largest prefecture, which is quickly becoming a Bucket List destination for lovers of the sport.
That’s because this beautiful northern island outpost that’s dotted with lots of snow-capped volcanic mountains — six are active — offers skiers some of the best runs and resorts in the world. In fact, this land of fire and ice gets more snow — between 14m and 18m annually — then does competitors like Whistler (11.7m), Val d’Azure (7.82m), Aspen (4.3m) and St. Moritz (4.3m).
The one thing those other ski destinations don’t have, though, is Sapporo.
“You can’t spend all your time skiing. You need to eat, drink and have fun. And Sapporo has plenty of that,” Katsuko Kemanai, a local guide assures me as we set out to explore the city best known globally as the beer capital of Japan.
“All the major Japanese breweries have factories here — Kirin, Asahi, Suntory and of course Sapporo,” says Katsuko, who has been guiding visitors around her beloved city for the last 30 years.
“We even have a beer museum and it’s the most popular museum in our city. I wonder why?” asks the guide with a wry smile.
At the museum, where I get to sample some of the local brew, I learn that Sapporo’s ground water is the best in Japan and perfectly suited for making beer. Hokkaido is also where hops, the key ingredient in beer, flourish in the wild.
After a day of skiing at world-class resorts like Sapporo Teine, Sapporo Kokusai, Kiroro, Asari and Tomamu — all within a short drive of the city — skiers can dine on lots of traditional Japanese cuisine in Sapporo. Hokkaido, after all, is where the famed Raman noodle first appeared and the agricultural prefecture produces most of the country’s food supply.
No wonder Hokkaido is often called the “bread basket of Japan.”
Entertainment is never in short supply in Sapporo. And for those who are looking for some naughty nightlife, Susukino, in Sapporo’s Chuo-ku district, is the place for you. Susukino is said to rival Tokyo’s Kabukicho and Fukuoka’s Nakasu as Japan’s best red light district and, with over 1,600 bars, nightclubs and restaurants, there’s plenty to keep you up late.
“Susukino never sleeps,” says my elderly guide, who cautions me “to be careful because the prices in Susukino for food and drink is much higher than the rest of Sapporo.”
No one does winter better than Sapporo, the city that hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics and until recently was in the running for the 2026 Winter Games before withdrawing its bid.
The 1972 Olympics still ranks among the best ever held and are remembered at the city’s informative Olympic Museum, located at the foot of the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium. From the ski run, you get incredible views of downtown Sapporo. There are lots of interactive displays at the Olympic museum and the kids just love this storehouse of history.
Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival in February attracts millions of people each year and during the Christmas season downtown parks are decked out in colourful light displays. A Christmas Market, as good as anything I’ve seen in Germany, dominates Odori Park and has a direct Olympic connection.
“Munich and Sapporo hosted the Olympic Games the same year,” says Katsuko, referring to Munich’s ill-fated 1972 Summer Games, which was marred by a terrorist attack that left 11 Israeli Olympic team members dead.
“Munich and Sapporo became sister cities after that and Munich officials helped set up our Christmas Market,” the guide says.
From a population of just seven in 1857, Sapporo has grown to almost two million residents, making it Hokkaido’s biggest city and the fourth largest metropolis in Japan.
In 2019, Hokkaido will celebrate its 150th anniversary of statehood and Sapporo will be the epicentre for many of the events surrounding that celebration. Katsuko is quick to remind me, though, that Hokkaido is much older than 150 years.
“Our history dates back to the 10th century when the indigenous Ainu people arrived from Mongolia,” she says. “They were hunters and the area back then was called Yezo.”
The name Hokkaido first appeared in 1868 during the Meiji Era when this vast island frontier was made a prefecture. However, Hokkaido was not officially “united” with the rest of Japan until a high speed train tunnel was completed in 2016 at the southern gateway city of Hakodate, 310km south of Sapporo. The Seikan Tunnel, as it’s known, is 53.85km in length and 23.3 kilometres of this engineering marvel sits under the Tsugaru Strait seabed.
Relics from the Ainu people are scattered throughout Sapporo and some of the best evidence of their ancient culture can be found in concourse displays in Sapporo’s main rail station.
The best place to see all of Hokkaido’s remarkable history is at the Prefecture Museum, housed in the former Prefecture Government Office (parliament), a handsome red brick building from 1888 that dominates the entrance to Odori Park, where a version of Tokyo Tower stands.
The prefecture’s deep agricultural roots are best explored at the Clock Tower Museum (Tokeidai), the former drill hall of Sapporo’s original Agricultural College, which opened in 1878. The clock, made in Boston, was installed in 1881 and hasn’t missed a beat since. The building was moved to its present downtown location a few years ago and stands out from Sapporo’s steel and stone skyline.
Most of the high quality produce grown in Hokkaido ends up on tables in Tokyo, Osaka, Yokohama and Kyoto.
“The Sapporo ki onion is one of our most prized vegetables,” the guide says. “The word ki means yellow in Japanese and the onion is very sweet.
Hokkaido also produces the world’s most famous cantaloupes, which sell for upwards of $2,000 each in Tokyo’s boutique food shops. I fork over 3,000 yen (about C$35) to enjoy the incredible taste and it’s money well spent.
“The melon farmers actually put little hats on their cantaloupes so they don’t get sunburn,” Katsuko tells me.
Skiers who like to shop will fall in love with Sapporo’s Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, which dates back to the city’s pioneer days.
“The literal translation of this shopping arcade is Raccoon Dog Street,” says Katsuko.
The one-km-long arcade is a big tourist draw and features 200 shops, most of which sell Hokkaido souvenirs. Outside one shop stands two fierce looking stuffed brown bears and the guide tells me the beasts thrive in the forested mountains surrounding Sapporo.
“They still wander into the suburbs from time-to-time and cause problems,” said Katsuko.
The roofed arcade starts at Nishi-1-chome and ends at Nishi-7-chome, where the city’s famed Nijo fish market is located.
A small manmade canal sits across from the market and Katsuko tells me it was constructed to bring the daily catch from the Sea of Japan straight to the market. The canal, known locally as the Sosei River, is no longer used as a transport route but does divide Sapporo into east and west sectors.
Two of Japan’s most treasured symbols, the Japanese crane and the sea turtle, make their home in Hokkaido.
Both creatures are symbols of longevity and once you visit Sapporo, you hope to live long enough to visit all the fabulous places on Hokkaido.
JUST THE FACTS
The top ski areas in Sapporo are:
- Sapporo Teine is 20km northwest of downtown Sapporo and is made up of two interconnected ski areas; Teine Olympia and Teine Highland. Teine Olympia is perfect for beginners and kids, whilst Teine Highland has some awesome steep tree skiing.
- Sapporo Kokusai is 46km west of Sapporo and boasts a massive 18m of powder per season. While its in-bounds area gets a bit crowded, there is plenty of fresh snow to be found in its backcountry areas.
- Kiroro is 43km west of Sapporo and is good for a day trip. Kiroro is a modern resort and it scores full marks thanks to its incredible powder.
- Asari ski resort is near Otaru, also a good day trip from Sapporo. It has great deserted off-piste and backcountry areas. Asari is at low elevation so it’s good for really windy days when the other ski resorts are a bit nasty.
- Tomamu is another modern Japanese ski resort that has good piste runs and some great off-piste riding. Tomamu is an 100-minute train ride from Sapporo but well worth the ride. Getting there: Fly to Tokyo with Air Canada and then fly to Sapporo with a regional carrier like Japan Airlines or ANA. You can also take the bullet train from Tokyo to Hokkaido.
Information: For more information on Hokkaido, Sapporo and Japan, go to ilovejapan.ca
Marc Atchison is a veteran journalist and a seasoned traveller with more than 20 years of travel writing experience. He is Editor-in-Chief and Senior Writer for TraveLife magazine (Canada) and travelife.ca