Sapporo’s the main city on Japan’s far northern island of Hokkaido, and comfortably the largest Japanese city north of Tokyo despite being in by far the least densely populated part of the country (leaving the rest of the island very sparse). It’s a long way from the capital, and therefore suffers less sweltering temperatures in summer – the 2020 Tokyo Olympic marathon events were moved all the way up here for that reason.
Sapporo has a much more laid back vibe than Tokyo or Osaka, and feels much less crowded & clustered. It may not have a wealth of historical attractions (being a relatively young city), but it’s a pleasant place to spend a few days – I used to live there (for snowboarding purposes) and even once had 0.5 seconds of fame in a sports drink commercial filmed at Sapporo Dome staring baseball pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.
Being relatively young and therefore better planned, unlike most Japanese cities Sapporo is laid out on an easy to navigate grid. Roads run north-south and east-west, and addresses are given using grid reference points indicating the number of blocks from Sapporo TV Tower e.g. Susukino Station is at South 4, West 4.
The subway has three lines, with the Nanboku Line (green on the map) running down the central north-south axis connecting the main points of Sapporo Station, Odori, and Susukino; there’s also a tram line which may be of use depending where you’re staying, and buses going wherever the trains & trams don’t. IC cards are accepted on all modes of public transportation, the local version is Kitaca (issued by JR) but your Suica or Pasmo cards from Tokyo or elsewhere are all fully compatible too (for more info on IC cards see here)
Hotels in Sapporo
Most Sapporo accommodation is clustered around the 3 main stations along Sapporo’s central north-south axis – Sapporo Station, Odori, and Susukino. Most of the sights and shopping are in the same area, the nightlife’s mostly found around Susukino, and Sapporo Station’s the main transportation hub with JR lines and a bus station in addition to the subway.
You can use Hotels Combined to search all the online booking engines (Agoda, Booking.com, etc) for the best rates; here are some search links for the above areas:
Airbnb is also a great option in Japan, in fact in Japan it seems to work particularly well – most hosts arrange self-checkin & checkout systems, allowing you to arrive & leave flexibly without needing to meet someone for the keys (the key’s often left in a lockbox for you). The wifi is always super-fast, and I’ve never had an Airbnb nightmare in Japan (have had a few elsewhere). There was a crackdown in 2018 with the introduction of new regulations which led to a collapse in the number of listings available and accordingly a jump in prices, with a lot of travellers reporting that their reservations were suddenly cancelled as a result. It was all a bit of a mess at first, but you can be confident that any listings remaining on there at this point are legit. Prices went up unfortunately, but then so did standards, and Airbnb is still my usual go to for accommodation in Japan.
New users can get a $35 discount from their first Airbnb rental through 4corners7seas, simply click here and sign up.
An array of massive department stores (Daimaru, Esta) and electronics megastores (Yodabashi Camera, Bic Camera) are clustered around Sapporo Station, with a long shop-lined boulevard running from there down to Susukino Station. More interestingly, there’s an underground walking & shopping arcade running below the street the entire way from Sapporo Station to Susukino (with a branch also running under Odori Park to the TV Tower), with free wifi and chill out spaces (this underground route is a godsend in the Hokkaido winter, and can also be a nice cool alternative on hot summer days). Another shopping arcade (this one above ground but covered) called Tanukikoji runs east-west a few blocks north of Susukino Station (see here).
The Susukino area is the city’s (and indeed the island’s) main concentration of nightlife with all sorts of bars & izakayas, restaurants, karaoke, etc, densely packed into a few city blocks.
There are a few long-established expat hangouts which will be good bets for watching the Olympics on TV; best option is TK36 near Susukino Station (the new location of the long-running TK6 which recently closed down).
On the clubbing side of things Sapporo is a bit underwhelming for the size of the city, but if you find your way to the Booty (South 7, West 4) you’ll be on the right track. If you’re still going when they close, there’s a notorious after hours joint called Rad Brothers just a 2-minute stumble to the east at the intersection – in there I once witnessed a yakuza ladyboy glassing a drunk Russian dancing on the table with his pants round his ankles… in other words, it gets pretty rowdy.
Things to Do in Sapporo
Powder: if you’re there in winter, Sapporo is snowboard heaven. Hokkaido powder is justifiably famous, and you can hit some steep & deep at Teine Highland on the edge of Sapporo. For details of a few more nearby resorts see here
The three towers: Sapporo’s two most famous sights are the TV Tower & Clock Tower, and to be honest they’re nothing much to get excited about. But they are the symbols of the city, and for Instagram posers those are the must-get Sapporo selfie spots.
The Clock Tower (see here) is really just a small building with a clock on the roof, but it’s one of the oldest buildings in the city and houses a small local history museum (it’s located near the TV Tower at North 1, West 2); the TV Tower’s an actual tower (like a smaller version of Tokyo Tower) standing at the end of Odori Park, the centre point of Sapporo’s grid reference system, and you can go up to the observation deck (from where I took the pic at the top of this page) for 720 yen (see here).
The JR Tower at Sapporo Station (see here) is the city’s tallest building, and the observation deck on the 38th floor is almost twice as high as the TV Tower’s, for the same entrance fee.
Sapporo Beer Museum & Beer Garden: this was the site of a Meiji-era brewery, now a beer museum (see here). It’s free to browse the exhibits, and for 200 yen a glass you can try various beers in the tasting room. The attached beer garden (see here) has all-you-can-eat-and-drink deals, serving Sapporo Beer with Genghis Khan lamb BBQ (Genghis what? See food section below). It’s a 15-minute walk south from Higashi-kuyakusho Mae Station on the Toho Line (and there’s a massive shopping mall next to it called Ario).
There’s also the Sapporo Factory, a shopping mall built on the site of the very first brewery in Japan. It’s a pretty cool building, and it has a beer hall too in addition to all the usual fashion stores. The above two are better, but this one’s a bit more convenient being just a few minutes’ walk north of Bus Center Mae Station on the Tozai Line, or a 10-minute walk northeast of the TV Tower (it’s at North 2, East 4).
Mt Moiwa: small mountain on the southwestern edge of town, with a ropeway you can ride up to see the views from the observatory. There’s also a restaurant up there, and it’s 1700 yen for the ropeway (see here). The lower ropeway station’s a 5-minute walk from Ropeway Iriguchi (ロープウェイ入口) tram station, 25 minutes from the Susukino terminus.
Otaru: a small port town half an hour west of Sapporo with a historical canal district. It’s nothing too special, but if you’re looking for an easy half-day trip out of Sapporo it fits the bill. A few blocks northeast of Otaru Station there’s a ramen restaurant called Ramen Kyoya (らー麺京や) that I once stumbled into after a 21-hour ferry journey from Kyoto; the owner shouted me several glasses of beer while drinking a few himself and chatting (in excellent English), and the noodles were delicious. If you do visit Otaru, it’s a good lunch option on your stroll down to the canal (you can find it on Google Maps).
Eat: one of the best things to do in Sapporo is stuff your face. Obviously the entire country’s great for this activity, but Sapporo is particularly so with Hokkaido being notable for the following dishes…
What to Eat in Sapporo
Ramen: one of the representative dishes of Japanese cuisine, with differing local styles throughout Japan’s regions. Sapporo is miso ramen country, usually using thicker noodles served in a heavy miso-based broth with the standard toppings (chashu pork, bamboo shoots, soft-boiled egg, etc) often complimented with local Hokkaido ingredients like sweet corn and butter. Many Sapporo ramen joints also serve spicy versions, which is quite rare in the rest of the country. Spicy Sapporo miso is my favourite style, and cracking bowls of ramen can be found on random corners all over the city; the most obvious place to get a fix, though, is Ramen Yokocho (Ramen Alley), an alleyway in the Susukino nightlife district (at South 5, West 3) packed with famous ramen shops. It has its own homepage here
Crab (and seafood generally): the cold waters around Hokkaido are home to large and famously delicious crabs, and Hokkaido’s seafood is generally considered to be of particularly high quality. If you pay a visit to Nijo Market (near the TV Tower at South 3, East 1) there’s an entire crab section where you can have them cook you up a whole crab, or a claw, or a bowl of crab meat on rice. Also highly recommended is the kaisendon at the stalls within the market, which is basically a bowl of rice topped with assorted raw fish & seafood. For more on the market see here
Soup curry: curry rice is popular throughout Japan, which is recognisable as a fairly generic curry dish but a mild Japanese version. In Hokkaido it’s often served as a soup instead, and usually much spicier; essentially, think of a spicy curry-flavoured soup containing all the usual veggies and whichever you order of meat/shrimp/tofu, served with a bowl of rice on the side. Might sound odd but it’s actually really good. Try Garaku near Susukino Station at South 2, West 2.
Genghis Khan: named for the great Mongol lord (who according to local legend was actually born in Hokkaido, though there doesn’t seem to be much evidence for this) and pronounced Jingisukan in Japanese, this is basically barbecued lamb, sometimes on skewers, sometimes in strips on the grill. It’s usually eaten in an all-you-can-eat system where you pay a flat rate per person and they keep the food & beer coming until you tap out. The easiest place to try this is the Sapporo Beer Garden (see above). Highly recommended!
Hokkaido Side Trips
If you get the JR Pass you can take some really cool trips around Hokkaido before flying out of Sapporo, or you could also use it to travel overland from Sapporo down to Tokyo via the Tohoku region (see here for cool places to visit in Tohoku). Alternatively, Hokkaido’s also great driving country so you could rent a car and take a road trip to some of the following:
Daisetsuzan: Japan’s famous autumn colours don’t hit Tokyo & Kyoto until late November, but they actually start at Daisetsuzan National Park in the centre of Hokkaido in late September. If visiting during the Olympics you’ll see summer wildflowers covering the alpine meadows, and the conditions should be nice for hiking. The park’s huge, with a number of 2000m peaks criss-crossed by a multitude of hiking trails; if you’re not in for a multi-day trek, the easiest way to visit is to go up the Asahidake Ropeway and do one of the short hiking circuits from the upper ropeway station. From Asahikawa Station (a 40-minute train ride from Sapporo) take a bus (1 hour) to Asahidake Onsen at the base of the Asahidake Ropeway, or it’s a 3-hour drive from Sapporo. See here for park info
Abashiri & the Shiretoko Peninsula: Abashiri was the site of Japan’s most notorious prison, now a museum, and is also the nearest city to Japan’s truest piece of wilderness on the Shiretoko Peninsula. Abashiri’s an interesting place to visit on your way to Shiretoko, though for visiting the peninsula itself base yourself at the towns of Shiretoko Shari (which has the closest train station) or Utoro (a 40-minute drive or bus ride north of Shari); search & book hotels in Shiretoko. Utoro’s the northernmost town on the peninsula, from where you can take boat cruises up the coast or drive/bus over to Rausu on the east coast for whale watching and views of the controversial Russian Kuril Islands that Japan still claims. See here for more on that.
Wakkanai & islands: Wakkanai is Japan’s northernmost town,
from where you can take the ferry over to Russia’s Sakhalin in the summer months (update: ferry service discontinued); from Wakkanai Park you can see Sakhalin on the horizon in clear weather. You can also take the short ferry trips over to the beautiful little Rebun & Rishiri islands, known for their excellent hiking. Search & book hotels in Wakkanai
Hakodate: this port city at Hokkaido’s southern tip is an obvious place to stop if you’re travelling overland between Tokyo & Sapporo. Take the Mt Hakodate Ropeway up to see the view of the city – the night view is Hakodate’s claim to fame. Also check out the star-shaped Goryokaku Park (it’s mostly known for being a great cherry blossom spot in spring, but also nice in any other season). Search & book hotels in Hakodate
Any questions about Sapporo? Give me a shout below and I’ll get back to you.
Useful Links for the Olympics in Sapporo
Click the banner to pre-order your JR Pass and save 40 dollars, or see here for full details on buying & using the pass:
Search Hotels Combined for the best hotel deals in Sapporo
How to get online in Japan