With a population of nearly two million, Hokkaidō's vibrant and booming capital SAPPORO is the fifth largest city in Japan. As the transport hub of the island, you're almost bound to pass through here. However, it's worth lingering as Sapporo is generously endowed with parks and gardens and laid out in an easy-to-follow grid plan. The mountains that attract skiers and snowboarders rise up to its south, while the coast is less than thirty minutes away.
Sapporo is perhaps best known for its beer, which has been brewed here since 1891; a visit to the handsome, late-nineteenth-century Sapporo Brewery is a must, as is a stroll through the grounds and museums of the Botanical Gardens, which date from the same era. After dark, the bars and restaurants of Susukino (pronounced "suskino") spark to life and you'd be hard pressed to find a livelier nightlife district outside of Tokyo or Ōsaka.
Pleasantly cool temperatures tempt many visitors to Sapporo's Summer Festival (usually July 21– Aug 20), which features outdoor beer gardens and other events in Ōdōri-kōen, the swathe of parkland that cuts through the city centre. This park is also the focus of activity during the fabulous Yuki Matsuri, a "snow festival" held every February.
Sapporo is one of the easiest Japanese cities to navigate because of its street system of wide boulevards connected to a compass-oriented grid of minor streets, which are numbered according to their order in relation to the major thoroughfares. Since this is one of Japan's largest cities, distances between places on the map can be quite far, but the transportation network in the city is excellent.
This district contains most of the city's entertainment and administrative buildings. City Hall and the police headquarters can be found here, but there are also many landmarks, restaurants and shops for visitors to explore. One popular attraction, Sapporo TV Tower , a major draw for those looking to snap some stunning pictures, is located at the eastern end of Odori Park , a notable destination in and of itself that hosts many local events throughout the year, including the Sapporo Snow Festival and the Sapporo Summer Festival .
To the west of Odori Park, you'll find Maruyama Park , a popular year-round recreational spot that is home to the Maruyama Zoo and a sports stadium. Hokkaido Jingu , the most important shrine in Hokkaido, is also located within the park.
A few other sights not to miss in Chūō-ku include the Sapporo Race Course for sports fans, and the Wan Nyan Fureai Park for those traveling with kids. The Stanley Market is also a must-see, with its many opportunities to experience fresh, traditional cuisine.
South of Sapporo Station
Part of Chūō-ku, some of the most interesting parts of the city can be found here in the part of downtown that stretches from the station to Susukino. If you head directly south, you will enter the main administrative area. The Hokkaido Government Buildings, including the Old Hokkaido Government Building , are on the west side. Further west are the Botanical Gardens, which hold almost 5,000 varieties of plants, and if you continue west, you will come to the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art .
Retrace your steps and you will come across the offices of the major airline companies, banks and other financial institutions, and just to the east of the main thoroughfare you will find most of the major department stores and a number of top-class hotels. Turn south and you will come to Sapporo City Hall, where you will see the Tokei-dai , one of the major symbols of Sapporo. This majestic clock tower has been tolling the hour for more than a century.
Located south of Odori Park, Susukino is one of the largest entertainment districts in Japan. It is said that there are more than 4000 establishments operating in an area of about one square kilometer. As the sun goes down, the lights turn on at restaurants, bars, cafes, discos, saunas, pool halls, peep shows, soaplands (a Japanese euphemism for brothel), and massage parlors. There are also numerous reasonably priced hotels in this area.
Further south you will come to Nakajima Park, the oldest park in Sapporo. This vast park is a superb recreational area that blends nature with culture. The excellent Sapporo Winter Sports Museum and the Hokkaido Museum of Literature are located here, as is Sapporo Concert Hall (Kitaro) , the city's premier concert venue, and home of the Sapporo Symphony Orchestra.
For those looking to escape the city center for a while, Sapporo's mountainous southern ward offers a number of great ways to fill the day and make it a memorable one at that. Ishiyama Park , located on the site of Sapporo's oldest rock quarry, has both panoramic views and an impressive outdoor sculpture gallery, while even further from the city center, Hoheikyo Gorge offers year-round hiking in a breathtakingly beautiful environment, particularly in Winter when everything is blanketed in snow. Once you've finished enjoying the scenery, the nearby Jozankei Onsen is the perfect place for a soak in one of Japan's famous natural hot springs, or for something more active, you can hit the slopes at the Sapporo Kokusai Ski Area .
Sapporo is blessed with an abundant availability of fresh seafood, locally grown seasonal fruits, vegetables and cereals, and the country's finest dairy products, so it's no surprise that the quality of the food served in the city is very high.
Sapporo has some of the best sushi restaurants in the world. Whether you eat in a kaitenzushi, where the plates are delivered on a conveyor belt and prices are reasonable, or you elect to splurge in one of the top restaurants, the quality will always be good. An excellent choice is Kikuzushi , which has been in business for 80 years, and is a legend among locals.
For seafood, no visit to Sapporo would be complete without at least one crab dinner. If you have the money, spoil yourself and head for Sapporo Kani Honke , one of the best crab restaurants in Sapporo.
To the average Japanese citizen, the word ramen is almost synonymous with Sapporo, and not without good reason: Sapporo Ramen, noodles served in a delicious miso broth, is just about the national dish. There are ramen shops all over the city, each serving the noodles in its own particular way. The best way to feed a ramen fix is to head for Shin Ramen Yokocho , an arcade of about twenty ramen restaurants. Toranoya serves traditional Japanese dishes here with no preservatives.
Just about every major European and American cuisine is represented in Sapporo. Great views over the city complement the food served up at Sky Restaurant Ambrosia . If you feel like a burger, and not just the fast food variety, check out Nuts Cafe , which is as close to a real American eatery as you will find anywhere in Japan.
Odori Koen and Higashi-ku
Have a hamburger the traditional Japanese way, bun-less, at Bikkuri Donkey , a restaurant that is well-suited for adults and children alike. Another option, Kairinmaru, specializes in serving delicious and artful sushi rolls and sashimi platters in a rustic atmosphere. Both of these restaurants also brew their own beer, so be sure to sample it for something truly unique. But if you have a big appetite, head over to Kagurashokudokusha , for an all-you-can-eat buffet by day and kushiyaki (broiled meat and seafood skewers) accompanied by plenty of beer by night. Hanagi , which offers Southern Japanese cuisine from the island of Kyushu, including basashi (thinly sliced raw horse meat!) and shochu (a distilled liquor similar to vodka), is also nearby.
For something other than Japanese food, Sapporo has many excellent restaurants that specialize in food from different regions of China. Gyoza, dumplings filled with meat and vegetables, is a specialty in many places. Korean restaurants are also very popular, and they generally serve yakiniku, which is a Korean-style barbecue, as well as fabulous rice dishes like bibimba and the fiery pickled cabbage known as kimchi. If you haven't tried Korean food before, check out Yakiniku Tokuju .
Sapporo, with its vast dairy industry, is also a paradise for those with a sweet tooth. You will find cafes specializing in cakes and desserts, such as Calcio D'angolo , dotted throughout the city. Because of its location in the far North of Japan, Sapporo offers an experience that is in some ways different from Japan's other islands, but that doesn't mean there's any lack of opportunity to try tastes from all over. Whatever you crave, you will find it in Sapporo.
While Sapporo does not have the depth of ancient monuments or temples that some Japanese cities do, it does have an almost unrivaled wealth of natural beauty, much of which is within an hour or two of the city center. You could just about cover all the most important historical and cultural sites within the city in one day, but don't forget to save time for more adventurous tours in the surrounding countryside.
Odori Park is the perfect place to start a tour because of its location in the dead center of the city, plus if you happen to be in Sapporo at the right time, you might be able to start the day by taking in one of the many festivals the park hosts. From here you can take in the Tokei-dai , a Sapporo landmark that has been chiming the hour for well over a century now. Stop in at the museum at the ground-level after snapping some pictures, then move along to Sapporo TV Tower , which at almost 300-feet tall offers a perfect panoramic view of the city, the surrounding countryside and shoreline.
Also, while in the Odori Park area, be sure not to miss Sapporo Kaniya in Susukino, where everything on the menu features crab. Whether ordering a la carte or one of the set meals, the variety and taste of the food here will definitely not disappoint. But if crab isn't your thing, there are plenty of other options. One of the best, Kikuzushi , also located in Susukino, has been serving some of the freshest, most satisfying sushi in Sapporo for over 80 years.
Next, head to the Old Hokkaido Government Building (Akarengo) , which was constructed in 1888. Be sure to stroll through the lovely gardens that are open to the public. From here it is only a short trip to Hokkaido University, where you will find a bust of Dr. William S. Clark, an American who pioneered Western education methodologies in Japan.
For the next stop on your tour, check out Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill to the south, with its fabulous views over the city. Then, stop by the Historical Village of Hokkaido , an outdoor museum that features reconstructed, authentic buildings from the Meji Restoration in the late 19th Century. They have various events here year-round as well, so be sure to check out what's happening before you go.
After you have seen all there is in the city, why not head south to experience all the delights of Hokkaido's mountainous terrain?
You can start by taking the Chuo Bus from Sapporo Station to Noboribetsu Onsen , where you can enjoy the atmosphere of Jigokudani, which means "Hell Valley," although this place is much nicer than the name suggests! The onsen (natural hot springs) here are part of an old crater that still emits smoke and steam from fissures in the rock surface. The mineral water that can be found in the natural hot springs here is supposed to have beneficial health properties, and can be found in many hotels and bathhouses in the area.
The next day, before you head back to Sapporo, be sure to take the time to check out some of the other great attractions south of the city, like Hoheikyo Gorge , a year-round hiking spot that is most beautiful during the Winter, when the landscape is blanketed in snow. Already eager to return to the relaxing comfort of a hot spring? Not a problem! Jozankei Onsen with its famous yu-no-taki (hot waterfall) is only 7-kilometers/4.3-miles downstream from the gorge, but if you are a ski enthusiast and lucky enough to be visiting Sapporo during the Winter months, you might instead consider heading to the Saporo Kokusai Ski Area , which has some of the best slopes around, only one hour south of the city.
City of Sapporo (http://www.welcome.city.sapporo.jp/english/access/wide_range.html)
Chuo Bus (+81 11 231 0500/ http://www.chuo-bus.co.jp/)
Sapporo Guiding Service (+81 11 210 7255/ http://www.taxi1.jp/citytour.html)
BFH Tours (+81 11 222 0618/ http://www.bfh.jp/tour/en/index.php)
Japan Guide Association (+81 33 213 2706/ http://www.guidesearch.jp/index.php?language=english)
Air Hokkaido (+81 11 781 1247/ http://www.hokkaido-koku.co.jp/vip3.htm)