You may or may not have heard the news, but a humble little sporting event is heading to Japan in 2020. All eyes may be on Tokyo as the neon-lit capital gears up to host the 2020 Olympic Summer Games, but the Japan National Tourism Organization wants to remind international jetsetters that there’s a whole lot more to discover outside of the frenetic confines of Tokyo (and Kyoto, for that matter). Enter Sapporo.
Presiding over the mountainous island of Hokkaido, the dynamic urban center is a bustling hot spot that offers all of the charms of Japan’s more frequented cities on a much more manageable scale. Known for its incredible culinary scene, year-round adventures, top-notch cultural attractions, premier shopping, and countless day-trip options, it’s a destination that’s definitely worth adding to your bucket list.
If the name rings a bell, perhaps you remember when the city hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics—or maybe you’ve washed down your favorite sushi roll with the city’s ubiquitous Sapporo beer. These days, Sapporo is best known for its neighboring epic ski resorts—and for organizing the annual Sapporo Snow Festival each February (which just wrapped its 70th anniversary). But despite its reputation for being a winter wonderland, the impressive city is a safe bet any month of the year. So pack your bags and follow our guide to make the most of your next visit to this under-appreciated corner in the Land of the Rising Sun.
If visiting from North America, chances are you’ll be catching a flight through Tokyo, so you might as well build in some time to soak up as much of the city as possible. As you can imagine, the massive metropolis is bursting at the seams with hotel options. But while you’re there, you might as well treat yourself to the best. Do exactly that by booking a suite at the jaw-dropping Ritz-Carlton Tokyo. Sitting atop the city’s tallest building, the hotel is home to a stunning spa, incredible restaurants (including newly redesigned, Michelin-starred Azure 45), and a luxurious Club Lounge on the 53rd floor (complete with views of the sprawling city and Mount Fuji).
Long before hopping on your connecting flight to Sapporo, you’ll want to scope out the perfect property. For an elevated stay, reserve a room at the JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo. Connected to Sapporo Station in the heart of the city, it’s a straight shot from the airport and offers all the bells and whistles you could want. Cross Hotel Sapporo is another solid option that’s conveniently located; it features modern amenities, a sophisticated bar, and sleek rooms available in “urban,” “natural,” and “hip” styles.
The city is also teeming with comfortable contenders that can suit any budget (and oftentimes cost less than $100 per night). Some top-rated favorites include the English-inspired Hotel Monterey Sapporo, Sapporo Excel Hotel Tokyu, and Hotel Gracery Sapporo. And for a revitalizing stay just outside of the hustle and bustle of the city, visit Jozankei Tsuruga Resort Spa MORI NO UTA, replete with Japanese and Western-style digs and a private onsen (or hot spring) in their spa.
Evening: After landing at the New Chitose Airport and dropping your bags off at the hotel, you’ll want to fuel up for a long weekend of exploration. Keep things low key and seek out a piping hot bowl of ramen, one of Sapporo’s signature dishes. Slurp down a traditional miso ramen finished with semi-thick, curly noodles at Ramen Senju; try shoyu ramen made with a soy sauce-based broth at Noodle Lab Q; or line up with the locals to sample a bowl of “Sapporo Black” at Isono Kazuo—an onyx-tinted ramen variety topped with sweet chashu pork slices. If sushi is more your style, you’re also in luck. Head to one of Sapporo’s top-rated sushi restaurants, such as Sushizen Honten or Kaitenzushi Toriton Hiragishi (yes, there’s a conveyor belt).
Friday: Explore the Streets of Sapporo
Morning: Hopefully the jetlag doesn’t hit too hard so you can get an early start to the day. The citizens of Sapporo love a seasonal festival. And visitors seem to enjoy them just as much. While the Sapporo Snow Festival dominates the winter months (drawing more than two million curious spectators each year), the city hosts a diverse range of other worthwhile events throughout the year. In the spring, highlights include the Sapporo Moiwayama Ski Area Festival, the Hiraoka Park Plum Festival, and the Sapporo Lilac Festival. The short summer season is jam-packed with outdoor activities, like the Sapporo City Jazz Festival, the Hokkaido Marathon, and the Sapporo Craft Beer Forest Festival. And autumn is abuzz with lineups, like the Sapporo International Short Film Festival and the Sapporo Art Stage.
Afternoon: Spend the afternoon strolling through Sapporo and checking off its must-see attractions. Some of its most popular lures include the massive Odori Park, the sculpture garden at the Sapporo Art Park, the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium, and the Tokeidai Clock Tower (which serves as a symbol of Sapporo’s pioneering spirit and houses a historic museum). To make the most of your time, consider hiring an English-speaking professional guide (like Kumie Kimi, through a reputable agency such as JTB).
Evening: Carve out some time to stop into the Sapporo Museum and tour the brewery, or arrange a visit to the Nikka Whisky’s Yoichi Distillery if your prefer the stronger stuff. Then, wrap up a successful first day with a pit stop to Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill. The scenic escape is perched high above the city and offers sweeping panoramic views of Sapporo. It’s also home to flocks of grazing sheep, the Sapporo Snow Festival Museum, and a bronze statue of Dr. William S. Clark, who’s often referred to as the father of Hokkaido’s pioneers.
Morning: One of the draws of Sapporo is that as Hokkaido’s capital city, it serves as a well-connected gateway to some of the region’s other top destinations. Consider taking a quick day trip to one of its nearby retreats—like Otaru, a cozy port town revered for its old-world charm and quirky attractions. Another popular winter alternative is to purchase a day pass to the Sapporo Teine Ski Resort or Sapporo Kokusai Ski Resort, where holidaymakers can spend a few hours skiing along the snow-covered slopes.
Afternoon: In Otaru, pay a visit to the colorful Sankaku Fish Market and grab a stool at Otaru Takeda once hunger strikes. The hole-in-the-wall eatery is likely to be swarmed with locals enjoying regional specialties, like king crab, buttery hokke fish, and donburi bowls overflowing with uni, salmon roe, and prawns. After getting your seafood fix, spend the afternoon strolling along the Otaru Canal or getting lost in the Otaru Music Box Museum. And any traveler with a sweet tooth will surely want to stop by LeTAO for a slice of their award-winning cheesecake.
Evening: As the sun begins to set, take the train from Otaru back into Sapporo for a night out on the town. Jingisukan (or Genghis Khan) is another must-try dish that’s extremely popular in the Hokkaido region. It’s a type of yakiniku (or grilled meat dish) typically made by barbecuing mutton and assorted vegetables. As its name suggests, Sapporo Genghiskhan serves up some of the city’s best. After, venture into Susukino, Japan’s largest and most sought-after entertainment district north of Tokyo. Here, you can catch a buzz wandering through neon-lit streets and stumbling upon an eclectic mix of bars, clubs, and—of course—karaoke.
Morning: We don’t blame you if you want to sleep in after a rowdy evening in Susukino, but try to collect yourself in time to enjoy breakfast at Sky J. Located on the 35th floor of the JR Tower, it’s famous for its unparalleled views of the city below. Spend the rest of your morning recouping as you meander through Nijo Market, a public market in central Sapporo that spans an entire city block.
Afternoon: Finally, it’s time to relax. After all, you’ve earned it. No trip to Japan would be complete without visiting a traditional onsen (or hot spring). Unwind with a visit to the Jozankei Onsen tucked away in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park—just be sure to brush up on onsen etiquette before you show up.
Evening: Now that you’re feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, you should be able to muster up the energy to stop into one more izakaya before your trip comes to an end. These Japanese pubs are an essential staple in Japan’s gastronomic identity and play an important role in everyday life. Swing by Sapporo Washu Dokoro or Hachikyo for a quick, casual bite (like yakitori, or chicken skewers) paired with a strong drink (we recommend sipping on a local Japanese whisky, obviously).
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