Planning a holiday can be frustrating, as well as exciting. There’s only so much that can be fit into any trip, and deciding what to see and what to leave out can be a challenge. My partner and I had 40 days to explore Japan, but we still struggled to design our itinerary.
The Raincity Software Engineer didn’t have too many requirements, but he did want to visit Sapporo, the largest city in the northernmost island of Hokkaido. I only knew of Sapporo in connection with two consumable productions – Sapporo Ichiban instant noodles and Sapporo beer!
We quickly discovered that Sapporo is filled with things to see and do, even in the depths of its long and bone-chilling winter. Here’s what we got up to during our all-too brief stay in the city.
We couldn’t come all the way to Sapporo and not get to know its eponymous beer a little better. The beer museum offers free guided and self-guided tours, and we opted for the self-guided route, which allowed us to explore the exhibits at our leisure. We had visited the Kirin brewery in Yokohama on a previous trip, so we focused less on the process of beer making and more on the story of the Sapporo brewery itself. The Japanese beer industry is fairly recent, but it is filled with its own colourful characters and stories.
The real highlight of the museum, though, is a visit to a beer hall! In one of several cavernous beer halls you can enjoy a delicious Genghis Khan (Jingisukan) dinner, which is essentially heaping plates of lamb and side dishes which you grill at your table. Come hungry and leave satisfied!
2. Sapporo Ramen
It seems like almost every region in Japan has its own take on ramen. Sapporo or Hokkaido ramen is miso-based, with a rich, intensely salty fermented soy flavour. You will find miso ramen everywhere in the city, and our first taste of it was courtesy of Sapporo Ramen Republic, a curious attraction located in the ESTA shopping centre at Sapporo station. This indoor recreation of a ramen alley features eight teeny-tiny little ramen joints, each serving a different style of ramen. It’s hardly authentic, but the indoor location is perfect for frozen tourist seeking a respite from the frigid Sapporo winter.
One of the highlights of our stay in Sapporo was the White Illumination. Cities across Japan fill the dark winter evenings with beautiful light displays, and Sapporo is famous for the size and scale of its winter illumination. The Sapporo illumination dates back to 1981, and has become a local institution. The contrast between the black night sky, the crisp white snow and the bright, colourful lights is breathtaking, and it really is a sight to see. The illumination typically runs from late November to late December each year. Dress warmly!
We visited several Christmas markets during our Japanese adventure, but the Sapporo Christmas market was without a doubt the most impressive. Stall after stall offered delightful trinkets and knick-knacks, including an impressive array of European crafts and ornaments. One of the stall keepers let us in on a little secret – the organizers of the market regularly hire local European international students from the local universities to work at the market running the stalls, to create a more “authentic” European Christmas market atmosphere. We sampled hot spiced wine and cider, and nibbled on sausages and other German delights. Christmas music played on loud speakers, while a Japanese Father Christmas wandered the grounds taking photos with delighted locals. The market is free to explore, and it filled our hearts with so much seasonal joy. Highly, highly recommended.
5. Hokkaido Milk Products
Hokkaido is the agricultural heartland of Japan, and the island is particularly proud of its dairy products, which can be sampled and enjoyed in several different ways. We chose to enjoy local milk in steaming hot coffee beverages! The absolutely charming Hokkaido-based coffee house Baristart allows you to choose the kind of milk you want in your coffee – milk from different parts of the island is said to have different flavour profiles, and work best in different kinds of drinks. It’s a delicious, and warming, way to enjoy some of Hokkaido’s natural bounty!
Sapporo is a modern, welcoming city filled with things to do and see. Due to a last-minute change in our plans we only really had one full day to explore, and only barely scraped the surface of all that the city has to offer. With the extension of the Shinkansen bullet train to Hokkaido in 2016, travellers can now get from Tokyo to Sapporo in about 7.5 hours. You can also fly from Tokyo to Sapporo, but seeing as most foreign tourists purchase a JR Pass, it can be more cost effective to take the Shinkansen. The trains are quiet and comfortable, and both signage and announcements are in English.
I hope I’ve inspired you to consider adding Sapporo to your next Japanese itinerary. There’s more to Japan to Tokyo and Kyoto, after all!