Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido island and by far the largest city north of Tokyo. With a population of about 2 million it offers it is one of the most modern of all Japanese cities. It is also an excellent starting point for exploring the island of Hokkaido.
Hokkaido was once largely a wasteland populated by hunter gatherers called the Ainu, when Japan modernized, so did Hokkaido, today it is mainly an agricultural region. Owing to its northern latitude and agricultural focus, it does remind one of Northern Europe, Siberia or Canada.
You should find plenty of things to do in Hokkaido, from the cosmopolitan city of Sapporo to the charming historic Hakodate in the south, you can go camping in the wilderness, or skiing on one of the islands many mountains. You can enjoy fishing, lavender fields, hiking, you will find more icecream shops than you can imagine, explore traditional Ainu culture and national parks. In short you will find something of interest.
The Shinkansen does not run to Hokkaido terminating at Aomori on the northernmost point of Honshu. From there you can take the local train to via the Seikan tunnel to Hakodate, or Sapporo. As Sapporo is quite a distance from Tokyo flying is probably the most popular way to get there. Todays low cost airlines can get you tickets for as low as 15.000 Yen one way, but 20.000 plus is more common. Another way to reach Sapporo is by bus which takes about 16 hours from Tokyo, expect to pay 10-15.000 Yen for a one way trip.
Things to see and do
Sapporo is not the most historic city in Japan being largely built from the 1860s onwards, as a result it is largely devoid of shrines and temples. It does however have its share of attractions. If you are there during February you might want to check out the Snow Festival held every year. During it the citizens of Sapporo construct large snow statues of buildings and other things. The snow festival started back in the 1950s, by now it attracts two million visitors every year. The snow festival is centered on Odori park located in the center of the city.
Another popular site is the Moerenuma Park, a large modern park designed by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. If history is your thing then Sapporo has the Historic Village of Hokkaido, an open air museum with buildings from all over Hokkaido, most of the buildings are no older than 150 years old though, nonetheless they are interesting in their own right. To get to the museum take the train to Shinrin Koen station and board a bus to the museum. For beer lovers there is the Sapporo Beer Museum, Hokkaido being the birth place of beer in Japan and Sapporo Beer being the oldest brand of the golden stuff in the country. The museum tells the history of beer in Japan (mostly in Japanese) and you can taste the beer. The beer museum is a 25 minute walk from JR Sapporo station. Entry is free.
Also, a trip to Sapporo should not be considered complete without a visit to Mt Moiwa with its spectacular view of the city. You can reach it via the Mount Moiwa Ropeway, take the streetcar line to Ropeway Iriguchi” station to get there. Price is 1700 Yen for the ropeway and mini cable car.
Outside of Sapporo
While Sapporo is certainly a nice city, it isn’t the main attraction of Hokkaido, its beautiful nature and smaller towns are. The most historical place on the island is the charming town of Hakodate, which was briefly the capital of the short lived Ezo republic. Hakodate lies at the southern most extreme point of Hokkaido, and is an excellent stop on your way from Tokyo to Sapporo. Attractions there include the star shaped Fort Goryokaku, Japans first western style fortress, Motomachi area, former residential area of foreign traders and Mount Hakodate providing a beautiful view over the city. It also has so many icecream shops you would be forgiven to think that its the staple food of people. On top of that it has a local burger joint on every corner which offers among other things whale burgers, which might be, depending on your view of things a novel thing or horrendous.
Close from Hakodate, even further down south is Matsumae the only former castle town on the island. Like every other castle town in Japan it does have its share of castles, shrines and temples, it also has a Seikan tunnel museum where visitors can learn everything there is to learn about the tunnels between Hokkaido and Honshu, currently the longest underwater tunnels in the world.
West of Sapporo, only an hour away by the train is the small town of Yoichi were the Nikka whisky distillery is a popular destination. The distillery is the second oldest in Japan being founded in the 1930s by the first Japanese expert o Japanese whisky, Masataka Taketsuru. Besides learning how whisky is made visitors can also take a look at a small museum dedicated to Masataka and his Scottish born wife Rita Taketsuru. Rita is today almost a household name in Japan due to a recent popular television show about the couple named Massan. Entry to the distillery museum is free of charge.
East of Sapporo the whole interior of the island awaits you. The small charming town of Furano located roughly in the center is a popular place, during winter it is mainly a destination to do some skiing, in the summer the massive lavender fields (where you can among other things taste Lavender icecream) are the most popular. North of Furano is the city of Ashiyama, the second largest city in Hokkaido chiefly known for its ingeniously constructed Ashiyama Zoo which allows visitors to view the animals for many different angles. Its winter festival in February when you can perhaps see the most ingeniously constructed snow sculpture anywhere in the world, and its delicious Ashikawa Ramen. Finally on the far east of the island you will find quite a nice collection of national parks, the most famous of them perhaps being the Akan National Park an which includes a beautiful volcano crater.
Hokkaido has no shortage of attractions, being about the size of the island of Ireland, it has everything from the ultra modern city of Sapporo to the unspoilt nature of its national parks. You can be sure to find something of interest there.