There’s a certain magic to the Sapporo City winter. As I sit here at home writing about it now, I wish I could’ve taken the whole city into my hands and placed it in a snow-globe, so I can preserve the memory of it forever.
Everywhere you turn is a picture-perfect opportunity thanks to the balance between nature and city life Sapporo offers. The fine snow that falls from the sky gently brushes against your cheek, then turns into soft powder on the ground. The people are friendly with always-ready smiles, and even with their cold white snowy city as a backdrop, you are able to feel a lot of warmth.
There’s so much more to Japan than the big three cities of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. Today I’m sharing a taste of a city that should be included in all your must-visit lists: Sapporo City, the land of Snow and Smiles.
Sapporo City is the prefectural capital of Hokkaido, and the fifth most populous city in Japan. Sapporo was originally known as Ishikari Plain, during the time when mostly the indigenous Ainu lived in the area. Around the 1860’s, construction of a canal that ran through the city began, encouraging more settlers to establish a village. They named it Sapporo, based on the Ainu words sat poro pet, meaning a “dry, great river”.
It wasn’t until 1868 that Sapporo was officially recognised as an important city in Hokkaido. The new Meiji government was focusing on a large scale development of Japan after moving forward from the feudal era, and they had concluded that it was better to move the administrative center of Hokkaido from Hakodate to Sapporo. From a mere 7 people in 1857, the population of Sapporo has swelled up to 1.95 Million in recent years. It’s not even remotely near Tokyo’s population, which is why it’s not as crowded and I like it that way!
Located at the northern region of the country, it has some of the best year-round weather ever. Sapporo summers (June to August) are never too hot; making it as perfect as any a time to explore the city by foot. Its springtime (late March to May) is great for flower viewing and enjoying nature at its peak. I’ve been told the food in Sapporo is the best during autumn (September to November), which is why they hold a massive food festival in the city park around this time. (My next target maybe?!)
And of course, as a former host of the Winter Olympics, it’s safe to say Sapporo winters (December to early March) allow you a lot of fun in the snow too.
For those of us living in a tropical country, seeing snow is probably one of our greatest dreams. After experiencing it for myself, I think a trip to Sapporo City in the winter can really make those dreams come true! Here are some truly wonderful winter experiences in Sapporo City you must not miss!
1. Exploring postcard-worthy Historical Village of Hokkaido
The Historical Village of Hokkaido, or Kaitaku no Mura 開拓の村, is a 54-hectare outdoor museum located at the Nopporo Forest Park in suburban Sapporo. Opened since 1983, this museum aims to preserve olden day structures that showcase the major developments of Hokkaido during the Meiji & Taisho eras (1860’s to 1920’s). You enter the Historical Village through the old Sapporo Station Building and immediately get whisked away to 19th century Hokkaido.
The museum is organized into 4 sections: a town, a fishing village, a farm village, and a mountain village. Each section creates an atmosphere that effectively gives you an idea of what life was like in different parts of Hokkaido during the frontier era.
In the town area, rows of wooden and stone buildings line the streets, including a city hall. In the farm area, you can spot horse-drawn sleighs and traditional farmhouses built by immigrants from Honshu. In the fishing area, you get a glimpse of the traditional boats and equipment fishermen use to make their living… You get the picture, right?
The great thing about this museum is that you can actually enter most of the buildings, and you will see that even inside they try to convey how life was like in the old days.
There are actually many interesting events here during the other seasons as well, such as a harvest festival during the autumn. However, since we were here in the winter, it was really interesting to imagine how the pioneers of Hokkaido managed to survive this kind of cold without modern heating equipment. Even we were shivering in our layers and our boots!
The museum grounds is quite big, with over 60 structures to see. I would suggest allotting a good amount of time here– maybe a good 2 to 3 hours so you can explore in a leisurely manner. And then once you get hungry, you can hop right into the cafeteria at the entrance building, the Kaitaku no Mura Shokudo, for something to eat.
We actually had lunch here and our bento was an interesting Western-Japanese fusion, made up of a rice ball, a sausage with a bone in it, a literal onion soup, baked potato with cheese, a crab croquette, and a bowl of soba with herring.
I really enjoyed the imomochi (pictured on the right of the soba bowl below), which is a Hokkaido-specialty mochi made using potato flour instead of rice flour to give it more bite. I only enjoy savoury types of mochi, and this was one of them! A piece of nori and a drizzle of a soy-based sauce does the trick in adding flavour. I noticed they actually have these frozen and packed so you can take some home.
Hours: 0900 to 1700 (usually closed on Mondays)
Fees: 680 yen in the winter; 830 yen the rest of the year
How to get here: From Shin Sapporo Station, take the No. 22 Kaitaku no Mura bus (about 15 minutes, 210 yen) to the last stop. Alternatively, you can take the local train from Sapporo Station to Shirin Koen Station (about 15 minutes, 260 yen), then take the No. 22 Kaitaku no Mura bus (210 yen) to the last stop.
You can see more of my favourite snapshots from the Historical Village of Hokkaido HERE.
2. Trekking towards the Hokkaido Shrine
The Hokkaido Shrine北海道神宮 is one of the major Shinto shrines in Sapporo. Originally, it enshrined three gods chosen by the Emperor Meiji as the protecting deities of Hokkaido, namely Okunitama (god of the land), Onamuchi (god of development), and Sukunahikona (god of healing). Later on, the soul of Emperor Meiji was also enshrined here.
For a reason that remains a mystery today, the shrine was set on fire in 1974, but it was restored 4 years later. Today, it is the site of the Sapporo Matsuri in June, and it is a favourite spot for cherry blossom viewing too. The winter brings a stunning aesthetic to the shrine grounds as well, with the many tall snow-capped trees making it look like a movie location.
Before heading into the main hall, it’s customary to cleanse the hands, sometimes even gargle, at the stone wash basin located outside.
At the Main Hall, those who offer their prayers usually advance towards the enshrined god, then drop some money into the offerings box. They bow two times, clap their hands twice, then bow more deeply one last time. They say that you’re not supposed to walk at the center pathway towards the temple because it’s reserved for the gods, so many people keep to the sides.
To the right of the shrine you will find the typical ema wishing planks and the omikuji fortune papers. The ema are those wooden planks where worshippers write their hopes and wishes, then left hanging in the shrine so the kami or Shinto gods may receive them. Omikuji are randomly-drawn papers that predict a person’s fortune, ranging from really good to really bad. Customarily, when a person draws a bad omikuji, they will tie it to a tree or the metal wires in the shrine and leave it there, in effect leaving all the bad fortune behind.
Hours: Open throughout the year, usually from 0700 to 1630
How to get here: Take the Tozai Subway Line to Maruyama Koen, then go to the Maruyama Bus Terminal through Exit No. 2. Hop on Bus No. 14 or No. 15 to Jingu Mae. Alternatively, if you want to take the scenic route, head for Exit No. 3 (Maruyama Park/Maruyama Zoo/Hokkaido Jingu), then walk for about 15 minutes through Maruyama Park.
3. Witnessing the International Ski Marathon near Sapporo Dome
The only experience I’ve ever had of seeing skiers is on the television, which is why I was pretty curious and excited about the fact that we were going to witness a Ski Marathon during this trip. The Sapporo International Ski Marathon had its first race back in 1981, using the same tracks that participants in the Olympic Winter Games did in 1972.
Apparently this course is as difficult as it is scenic, because the terrain drops and rises throughout. The founders and organisers of this Ski Marathon even went all the way to Norway to study how they mounted their races, just to ensure the ones held in Sapporo would be at par, if not better.
36 years since its first race, the Sapporo International Ski Marathon continues to attract skiers from all over the world. I spotted a mix of people at the starting line, and it was really fun to see them do their warm-up rituals as they waited for the gun-start. There were indeed a lot of people, and you could feel nothing but excited energy as they stood there in their colourful outfits.
Skiing must be a really exciting and fun sport, although I haven’t really had the opportunity to try it out. For the moment, I was satisfied seeing the participants gliding through the snow with their technicolour skis.
After the main ski competitions, we made our way back towards the Dome and spotted participants of the Open Ski Event. They ranged from the very young to the more elderly, racing through the snow at their own pace. How exciting it must be for skiers to have something to look forward to every winter season! A surprise appearance was even made by Polly Polaris, one of the mascots of the Hokkaido Nippon–Ham Fighters Baseball Team.
Walking distance from the ski tracks, the massive Sapporo Dome 札幌ドーム stands in all its glory. This dome can seat a whopping 41,000+ people; making it a perfect venue for big sports events like football and baseball for the coming 2020 Olympic Games.
Currently it is the home field of local baseball team Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, and football club Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo. You will see their memorabilia displayed beside the West Gate of the Dome. There are also commemorative items collected from the various concerts that have been held here, both by international and Asian acts like The Rolling Stones and popular K-Pop group Big Bang.
I’ve never been inside a stadium this big in my life! I used to follow football so I do have an idea of how big stadiums can be in countries that are really into football, but being inside is a completely different matter. I found it very cool that Sapporo Dome uses what they call a “hovering soccer stage”, wherein the grass pitch slides into the stadium when there’s a football game. (More info on their website.)
In any case, we came here for the Observation Deck, which is a futuristic-looking tube hanging close to the dome’s ceiling. You get up to the Observatory by taking a 60-meter long escalator that makes you feel like you’re riding up an intergalactic starship.
The Sapporo Dome Observatory is the first in Japan built on top of a dome, and at 53 meters above ground level, you will get a nice enough view of the city.
I truly love how the buildings of Sapporo seem to coexist peacefully with the mountains. The modernism in the city feels present, but it never obstructs the majesty of nature Sapporo is so abundant with. Doesn’t it look like a picture from a storybook?
You can actually spot the Observation Deck from the outside, sticking out like a cylindrical glass case on the side of the Dome. It’s like a giant telescope on a spaceship!
Hours: Observation Deck is open from 1000 to 1800 (there are Dome tours offered here as well)
Fees: 500 yen for entry to the Observation Deck
How to get here: From JR Sapporo Station, take the Toho Subway Line to Fukuzumi Subway Station (about 15 minutes). The Sapporo Dome is 500 meters away by foot.
4. Taking the skier’s lift up the slope of Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium
The Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium大倉山ジャンプ競技場 was the site of the 90-meter ski jump competition during the 1972 Winter Olympics. Looking at it from below is quite intimidating, because the slope is incredibly high! I can only imagine the number of people from all around the world who have set records on this hill. Amazingly enough, competitors can actually use this hill to practice ski jumping in the summer!
Of course, we did not come here to try out this extreme sport. Instead, we were about to experience something more calm—a ride on the chair lifts going up to the Okurayama Observatory. On days when there are no events and competitions here, you can go around the grounds and make your way up the Ski Jump hill.
This was my first time riding up a ski lift and I really loved the feeling of my feet hanging high over the snow. You kind of just plop down, use the metal rail to seal yourself into the double lift, and go on your merry way. The view became lovelier the higher you climbed! It was only a five-minute ride, but because you just sit in silence to appreciate the view it felt like a long and relaxing one.
When you finally reach the Okurayama Observatory, you get treated to a beautiful panoramic view of Sapporo.
Throughout this trip, Sapporo has offered me views I will never tire of.
You can also look down at the slope of the Ski Jump. I’m not particularly afraid of heights but the idea of hurtling down at a fast speed with just your body against all the elements is pretty daunting. Yikes!
Here’s another thing I’ll never tire of: Japan’s soft serve ice cream. In particular, Hokkaido’s super luscious and creamy soft serve. Hokkaido is well known for being the best dairy producer in Japan, so anytime you spot a soft serve shop—go for it!
At the bottom of the hill is the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum. We didn’t have time to visit, but inside you will find exhibitions about the 1972 Olympics with tidbits about winter sports. (Not quite sure how much of that is in English though.) You can even try out winter sports simulation games, which is something I want to do next time I return!
Hours: 0900 to 1700
Fees: 500 yen for the roundtrip chair lift; 600 yen for the Museum
How to get here: Take the Tozai Subway Line to Maruyama Koen Station (210 yen), then take Bus No. 14 to Okurayama Kyogijo Iriguchi (about 15 minutes, 210 yen) where you can walk uphill to the Stadium for about 10 minutes.
You can see more of my favourite snapshots from the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium HERE.
5. Frolicking in the snow at Moerenuma Park
Located at the outskirts of Sapporo, Moerenuma Park モエレ沼公園 is widely considered one of a kind thanks to its unique design combining modern art and Japanese zen. I have seen photos of this park in other seasons and I feel like another visit will cement its status as one of my favourite parks in the world. This is all thanks to Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.
Noguchi was responsible for drawing up the plans for this park on top of what was once a landfill. Sadly, he did not live to see the park come to life when it opened in 2005. I am quite certain though that the smiles on the faces of every child and adult who has ever visited this park can be attributed to him.
The main building here is called the Hidamari; a 3-story glass pyramid that allows you to relax and appreciate the nature outside regardless of the season. Hidamari also houses an information center, a gallery space dedicated to Noguchi, basic amenities, as well as a rental station for snow play equipment. Think skis and sleds and snow boots.
In winter, the park becomes completely blanketed in a thick layer of snow, making it a prime spot for snow-related activities. While the park has a 62-meter Mt. Moere for skiers, lots of kids and their parents flock to the smaller Play Mountain to have fun in the snow. This 30-meter “mountain” is the perfect location for sledding, which I was able to try for the first time in my life.
As a fan of roller coasters and similar types of things, I found sledding to be SO MUCH FUN! Quite possibly my favourite part of the whole trip! My only regret is not climbing all the way to the top of the hill to sled down, because the higher you go the more thrilling the ride becomes. And I love that! It’s been a long time since I’ve felt this kind of unadulterated child’s joy! In the end, I must’ve ridden the sled downhill at least four times; each time going higher and higher.
Although it can be quite exhausting climbing up the snowy incline, I think it’s definitely worth it. Some spots are knee-deep though, so consider renting snow boots from the Hidamari if your boots are low-cut. In an case, my suggestion is to walk in the same path somebody has already taken.
Hours: Open year-round from 0700 to 2200
Fees: Entrance to the park is free, although you may need to rent some snow equipment
How to get here: From JR Sapporo Station, take the Toho Line to Kanjo dori Higashi (about 25 minutes, ), and then take the Chuo Bus No. 69 or No. 79 to Moerenuma koen higashigushi East Entrance (about 25 minutes, 210 yen).
You can see more of my favourite snapshots from Moerenuma Park HERE.
6. Seeing ice carved wonders at the Sapporo Snow Festival
The highlight of the winter season at Sapporo, the Sapporo Snow Festival (or Sapporo Yuki Matsuriさっぽろ雪まつり) attracts millions of visitors from all over Japan and the world every year. You can expect lots of ice and snow sculptures and fun in the snow! The Festival typically happens during the coldest week in February, with the main site being Odori Park.
The first Sapporo Snow Festival happened in Odori Park in 1950, featuring only a few snow statues built by high school students. In recent years, the Snow Festival has become a large scale commercialised event, with brands and sponsors putting up their own ice sculptures. This year there were Star Wars sculptures, and many other sculptures with the “PPAP” theme.
The main attractions of the Festival are the gigantic sculptures in Odori Park that mount light shows in the evening, but because the Snow Festival has become so big it has extended to two other sites, namely Susukino and Tsu Dome. We were able to visit only the main site in Odori Park, but to give you an idea, the Susukino site focuses more on ice sculptures, hundreds of them! Meanwhile, the Tsu Dome site has lots of fun family snow activities you can partake in, plus more snow sculptures.
In Odori Park, the sculptures can be as big as 15 meters high and 25 meters wide. A good example is this massive snow sculpture of the Arc de Triomphe at HBC Square. To further showcase the friendship between Japan and France, a sculpture of a jockey on a horse stands to the right of the arc. This symbolizes the hope that a horse born and bred in Hokkaido can one day win at the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
The vibe is very different when you visit in the daylight and at night, when they turn on all the lights. There’s a particularly impressive snow reproduction of the Central Golden Hall of Nara’s Kofukuji Temple, built by Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Forces. This is what it looks like:
But when they started the light show it became jaw-dropping thanks to the special effects.
Many of the sculptures displayed here in Odori Park are “branded”, and there is always one large-scale sculpture that celebrates a popular anime or game. These are two things Japan is also known for after all. Last year it was Attack on Titan; this year it’s this Final Fantasy masterpiece, featuring Cloud Strife and Sephiroth.
There was also an ice sculpture of Taiwan’s Taipei Guest House; a building designed by a Japanese architect in 1901 that served as former residence of Taiwan’s Governor-General. The detail on the ice sculpture is quite amazing, but I can say that for all of them.
There’s a reason why this snow festival is already on its 68th year. There’s a bit of something for everyone to enjoy, including lots of food! The stalls here are a wee bit on the expensive side, but there are lots of interesting food choices.
You can take a leisurely walk through the whole park which stretches 12 blocks, and if you get hungry along the way you won’t really have problems. The cold and navigating the slippery snowy paths can really make you feel famished!
Apart from that, there are also stalls selling souvenirs (and food actually) that feature iconic items from different parts of the globe!
At the end of the 1.5 kilometer Odori Park stands the Sapporo TV Tower. It’s one of the icons of Sapporo City, and I normally use it as my landmark when I’m heading somewhere. Heading up the tower to its observation deck is the best way to get a view of the entirety of Odori Park.
Time: Usually held on the second week of February every year
How to get here: The closest station to Odori Park is the Odori Subway Station. It is also just a 10-minute walk south of JR Sapporo Station. Since all of Sapporo’s three subway lines intersect at Odori Subway Station, you can easily visit this park regardless of the season.
You can see more of my favourite snapshots from the 2017 Sapporo Snow Festival HERE.
7. Dreaming by candlelight at the Jozankei Shrine
The Jozankei Onsen 定山渓温泉 is quite a popular hot spring destination for tourists, located near the border of Sapporo City. Within the onsen grounds is the Jozankei Shrine, which started holding its yearly Jozankei Yukitouro to coincide with the Sapporo Snow Festival in early February.
Roughly translated, yukitouro means “Snow Candle Way”. Going up the hill, you will indeed see rows of candles lighting your way towards the shrine.
And the really novel thing is that the candles are inside “snow lanterns”, formed by molding snow inside a plastic bucket. When all 2,000 candles are lit together inside their “lanterns”, it forms a dreamy maze of twinkling lights. Add to that the falling crystals of snow from the sky, it begins to feel quite romantic!
That evening, I was lucky enough to spot Kappon, the cute mascot of the Jozankei Onsen. This character is based on the Japanese deity of forests and water, named Kappa. I’ve read that Kappon always appears during festival seasons to greet guests and play games with them, even gifting them with prizes.
It should be quite interesting to get to live in and explore the whole of Jozankei Onsen in earnest someday.
Hours: The Yukitouro is held in early February from 1800 to 2100
How to get here: From Sapporo Station Bus Terminal, take Jotetsu Bus No. 7 or No. 8 bound for Jozankei Onsen (about 75 minutes, 770 yen)
8. Taking in the stunning night view from Mt. Moiwa
Japan has some of the most scenic ropeways in the world and the Mt. Moiwa Ropeway 札幌振興公社 is no exception. While Mt. Moiwa isn’t as high as another famous Japanese mountain I’ve visited previously, it isn’t short on views. Standing at an altitude of 531 meters, this mountain is a famous spot for locals and tourists alike. It was considered a sacred mountain where gods dwell by the first settlers of Hokkaido, the Ainu people.
You make your way up the highest point of the mountain by riding a series of aerial lifts, starting from the base station. The first ride brings you to the Mid-Station where a gift shop and rest area are located. From here, you take the Morris Mini Cable Car to the Summit Station Observation Deck.
I was surprised by the number of visitors who came up this mountain while we were here. The carts were always so packed it was hard to move! Good thing each trip only took 5 minutes, and there were gorgeous views to keep you busy.
At the Observation Deck there is a Lover’s Sanctuary at the center. On it is the Bell of Happiness, guarded by a fence that has a number of love locks on it. Apparently, if a couple rings this bell together, their love will flourish even more.
As for the padlocks, the belief is that couples who have their names written on them will never break up.
From here, the panoramic view of Sapporo City is rather romantic as well, and you can spot the nearby ski resort tracks and the hiking paths.
I’ve seen many nightscapes before, but somehow, something about this particular one struck a deep impression. It doesn’t have that big-city vibe but that is precisely what makes it so unique. It doesn’t look “manufactured” or overcrowded. I’m afraid for the first time in my travels I have failed to capture the sight in a photograph because I was too busy staring at it with my own two eyes.
Hours: 1100 to 2200
Fees: 1700 yen for the roundtrip ticket for ropeway and mini cable car
How to get here: From the Maruyama Koen Station on the Subway Tozai Line, go to the bus terminal and take the JR Hokkaido Bus Circle No. 10 or No. 11 (about 15 minutes) to the Moiwa Sanroku OR the Ropeway iriguchi bus stop. If you alight at the Ropeway iriguchi bus stop, you can walk to Mt. Moiwa Sanroku Station from there.
Sapporo is a beautiful city. Even as it lays underneath piles and piles of white glittering snow, it exudes an unmistakable charm. I didn’t really know what to expect at first, but now I think I’ve fallen in love with the Sapporo winter after all. It was difficult transitioning back to everyday life after this trip, but this memento we received really does a good job reminding me of the precious beauty of Sapporo in wintertime.
This is actually paper soap but I don’t think I’ll be using it any time soon. This is by the brand Sapporo Style, which boasts creations by artists, designers, and person with special needs. Looking through the catalogue, I see how their products can make really impactful gifts for people back home!
I’ve had such an amazing time in my short stay in Sapporo that I’m already looking for the next opportunity to visit! Being given an unforgettable taste of Sapporo only fires up my wanderlust, and now I can’t wait to go back. I hope you all make Sapporo a part of your holiday plans this year, and who knows, maybe we’ll bump into each other? 😉
Full disclosure: This post was brought to you by the Sapporo City Tourism Office. Learn more about the beautiful Sapporo City on their official website!