Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, has a population of over 2 million people and a yearly average of 6 meters of snow. This is very unusual worldwide; cities in Europe and North America known for heavy snowfall have populations in the hundreds of thousands and only get around 3 meters.
You can fly into New Chitose Airport from most major airports around Japan and be in the city center in 40 minutes. If it is your first visit to Hokkaido, consider a stay in Sapporo. Sapporo’s central location and good transportation network make it the perfect base for exploring the rest of the island. Have fun in this city of unparalleled snow, distinctive culture and fantastic food.
There are a large number of ski slopes and resorts within 60 minutes of central Sapporo. These range from smaller resorts with a local feel, to a large facility that staged the Winter Olympics. Ease of access to multiple ski resorts is one of Hokkaido’s distinctive characteristics. Many of the major hotels in central Sapporo offer direct bus or taxi services to ski resorts, meaning you can be on the slopes in the morning, and shop and sightsee downtown in the afternoon
For 10 days in early February, Sapporo comes alive with the Sapporo Snow Festival. This very popular annual festival of nearly 200 snow and ice sculpture draws millions of visitors — 2.7 million visitors attended in 2019 — who come to see the large and intricately designed works of ice. The largest event venue is the 1.5 kilometer Odori site in the city center where you can see around 100 snow and ice sculptures. Revelry reaches its peak at the weekends where many gather to have fun in the snow and eat some of Hokkaido’s best street food from the stalls set up at locations across the city. The festival began in the 1950s when high-school students created snow sculptures in Odori Park and has grown into one of the main events of the winter season.
Sapporo is a fantastic food destination and visitors to the city can taste some of the best fare Hokkaido has to offer. Warm up with a bowl of Sapporo ramen or soup curry, taste the freshest sushi and sashimi and feast on barbecued lamb — a dish synonymous with Hokkaido called Jingiskan or Genghis Khan.
Hokkaido is also known for its game meat, in particular the Ezo-shika deer which is only found on the island and can only be hunted in fall. Venison is low calorie, low fat, and high protein, making it a popular choice for health-conscious foodies. The city’s French, Chinese and Japanese restaurants have their own take on Ezo-shika cuisine, so be sure to order a dish for a taste of authentic Hokkaido winter.
One way to explore the winter landscape at a more leisurely pace is by strapping on a pair of snowshoes. For a more authentic experience, you can try a pair of kanjiki — traditional, wooden Japanese snowshoes. The Sapporo Art Park holds a Kanjiki Art Walk event every winter in the park’s sculpture garden. The garden is usually closed during the winter months, but the doors open for the kanjiki event and participants can explore the hilly garden with its 74 works of art. Kanjiki and long sock rental is free of charge. The park is a 15-minute bus ride from Makomanai Station on the Namboku subway line.
Alternatively, head to Takino Suzuran Hillside Park Snow World (32 minutes by bus from Makomanai Station.) The expansive park is home to a 200-meter-long slope — one of the largest snow tubing and sledding slopes in the country — and you can ski, snowshoe and cross-country ski within the grounds. At the Sapporo Hitsujigaoka Observation Hill, you can enjoy snow activities such as snow tubing and cross-country skiing. Access the facility via a 10-minute bus ride from Fukuzumi Station on the Toho subway line.
Susukino is the entertainment district of Sapporo and is a hub of nightlife and revelry. After nightfall, around 80,000 people descend on the area around Susukino Station to warm up with steaming bowls of ramen, seasonal crab cuisine, mutton and other Hokkaido specialties — all washed down with Sapporo-brand draft beers. There are plenty of izakaya (Japanese-style casual restaurants), bars, and clubs to keep you entertained until the early hours of the morning. With so many options, it is worth getting a local opinion, so ask for recommendations at your place of stay.