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Sapporo, Northern Delights

By:
Joanna Hall
 

The least developed and most unspoiled island of the Japanese archipelago, Hokkaido attracts lovers of the great outdoors with its therapeutic hot springs and excellent skiing. 

As I savour my last mouthful of a delicious cup of organic coffee, it’s almost a shame that breakfast has to end. I’m sitting in a corner of the Sky Restaurant on the 35th floor of the JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo, and the view from my table is magnificent. Below, Japan’s fifth largest city sweeps away towards a distant mountain range leaving a low-level skyline in its wake. And as the November sun pops out from behind small clusters of half-hearted rain clouds, it catches the fading traces of late autumn’s crimson and yellow hues, which have painted the city in a riot of colour. 

It’s hard to imagine, but the first snow of winter is only a few weeks away. By mid-December the city and surrounding countryside will be a sea of white. Reluctantly, I drag myself away from the view and emerge into the crisp city streets to seek out some of Sapporo’s popular sights.

With a population of over 1.7 million Sapporo is the capital of Hokkaido, the most northern of Japan’s main islands. It was the venue for the 1972 Winter Olympics - the first to be held outside of Europe or the USA - and is the entry point for many visitors who flock to the region each winter to enjoy some of Japan’s best skiing. 

But it’s a mistake to regard Sapporo as just another ski hub. While other parts of Japan are hot and humid, the city attracts visitors year round with its cool and more comfortable climate. Walking through its uncluttered, leafy streets past the Starbucks cafes and shopping malls, it’s obvious that Sapporo is a young city which has embraced western culture. 

But what it lacks in traditional Japanese architecture and history, it more than makes up for in its friendly population and a breezy self-assured air. And thanks to a convenient street grid plan drafted in the 1870’s, it’s an easy city to navigate. 

Seafood City 

I begin my explorations with a visit to the Nijo Fish Market. A must-do here is stopping by one of its many restaurants for a fresh seafood breakfast, but having already eaten I can only manage a sample of freshly cooked crab leg offered to me by one of the smiling market traders. She tells me that the Hokkaido is famous for two main types of crab - hairy and king - and is also abundant with tuna, scallops, salmon and codfish. My next stop is Sapporo’s most photographed landmark - the Clock Tower - but en-route I pause briefly to take in one of the city’s best known open spaces. 

Stretching 12 blocks, Odori Park is a grassy promenade which  traverses from east to west and cuts the city in two. Outside of winter, this is where the locals come to relax: to read, enjoy the sunshine, play with the kids and walk the dog.

It’s also centre stage of Sapporo’s famous Snow Festival. Held every February, it showcases more than 300 large snow statues drawing thousands of visitors from around the globe. 

Another of Sapporo’s “breathing spaces” is found in the grounds of the Old Hokkaido Government Building. Known to locals as “Red Bricks”, it was originally built in 1888 and the current structure rebuilt in 1911. The main draw is not the building itself but the pretty duck ponds, providing the locals with respite from city life. Older Sapporo people feed the ducks, while suited city workers enjoy quiet time alone with their newspapers and lunches on the wooden benches dotting the banks. 

Bright Lights 

From the serenity of the ponds, I head to the lively streets of the Susukino red light district. Japan’s largest entertainment zone north of Tokyo, it’s packed with shops, restaurants, and pachinko parlours (a game which is a cross between a pokie and pinball). At night, revellers spill out from its many beer halls and karaoke bars in the early hours of even weekday mornings, but by day it has a different, less frenetic energy. 

A popular lunchtime hangout here is Ramen Alley, a narrow lane with a slew of shops selling nothing but Ramen - a delicious Chinese-style, salty noodle soup. Ramen is one of several local specialities that makes you realise Hokkaido cuisine is different. Although the traditional staples are there - such as rice, fish and seafood - a popular choice among locals is a delicious lamb barbecue named after the Mongolian warrior, Genghis Kahn. 

Next morning I make a day trip to Otaru. Located northwest of Sapporo on the Sea of Japan, it’s a city of historical and cultural flavour and boasts an impressive backdrop in the 532-metre Mt. Tengu. Otaru used to thrive on fishing, and it’s said that the sea here used to turn milky white as schools of herring called “kuki” surged towards the beach. 

Today, locals enjoy strolling along the city’s picturesque canal and sandstone warehouses, imbibing in Hokkaido wine with lunch, or taking hot tea on a cold day. A must-do here is a romantic ride on the Mt. Tengu ropeway to enjoy the breathtaking view from the summit. In summer, the sky can be painted with a vivid sunset; in winter, as it’s also a ski venue, the more hardy and adventurous can ski down afterwards enjoying the night view. 

Hot Spring Experience 

If you want to experience one of Hokkaido’s best known hot springs, plan on an overnight stay in the picturesque village of Noboribetsu. Located in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park - perched 200 metres above the Pacific coastline in the south of Central Hokkaido - it’s a stunning region of natural beauty surrounded by virgin forests, active volcanoes, and tranquil lakes. 

A major part of Japanese culture, natural hot springs are believed to have medicinal properties. But to use one you’ll have to put away your modesty as they are almost always enjoyed naked. Noboribetsu’s most famous hot spring is located at the Dai-ichi Takimotokan Hotel, which has grown from a tiny inn 147 years ago into an impressive resort hotel. It has 30 different baths occupying an amazing 5000 square metres, some of which have impressive views of one of the region’s most unusual natural attractions - a gaping volcano mouth known as Hell Valley, where yellow-grey volcanic gas spews upwards from cracks in the surface of the rocks. 

Keen for a taste of tradition, I opt for authentic Japanese accommodation comprising of a spacious room with a futon, feather-filled doona, and floor covering of straw-woven tatami mats which means no shoes allowed. In keeping with the tradition of a Japanese inn, guests are provided with a yukat, a cotton kimono which can be worn anywhere in the hotel including the restaurant. But it’s important to wear it correctly, layering the left collar to the outside, or you’ll draw concerned looks from the locals. The other way is reserved for burying the dead and considered bad luck. The hot springs can be used any time of night or day by guests, but a pre-bed soak is the best way of ensuring a good night’s sleep. 

Powderhound Heaven 

Refreshed and revived, the following day I head to one of Japan’s premier alpine resorts at Niseko. Word is spreading among powderhounds from around the world about just how good the snow is here. It welcomes 700,000 ski visitors mainly from China and Korea, with some 4,000 Australians among them. 

Hokkaido benefits from super-cold air thanks to Siberian storm systems which blast out of Russia and across the Sea of Japan with amazing regularity between November and March. Niseko receives the brunt of them, and the result is an abundance of dry snow with a scant water content (less than 10 per cent so I’m told), which means it’s rated among the best powder in the world.

Add to that the fact that Niseko is only two hours behind AEST, which means that there’s no jet lag to contend with, for many Australians it’s becoming a serious alternative to the resorts of North America, Canada and Europe. Niseko has three main ski areas - Hirafu, Higashiyama and Annapuri - with Hirafu regarded by many as the best with its extensive array of runs catering for all levels from beginners to experienced skiers. 

It also has a vibrant village atmosphere with plenty of funky bars and restaurants. Another draw is that accommodation in Niseko is all on-snow, meaning you can literally ski to your front door, and you can choose between chalets and resort hotels with both western and traditional Japanese rooms. 

The influx of seasonal ski instructors starts in early November, and many of them are Antipodean. They describe the experience of skiing in Niseko as unique; at only 1200 metres, it may lack the height of Mont Blanc or Whistler but its always cold and rarely experiences whiteout conditions. They wax lyrical about the joys of night time skiing, how long days of activity are rounded off with hot bowls of ramen from the noodle shops at the base of the mountain, and how aching muscles are eased by natural hot springs. 

Standing at the snowless, grassy foot of one of Hirafu’s popular runs, I imagine enviously how different the scene will be in a matter of weeks. But just as Sapporo isn’t only a gateway to Hokkaido’s best skiing, Niseko isn’t just a place to ski. The snow may rule in winter, but in summer it’s a popular destination for lovers of the great outdoors. 

Activities such as hiking, mountain biking, fishing, canoeing and white-water rafting attract visitors in droves. While Sapporo isn’t one of Japan’s most beautiful cities, it has a certain laid-back charm and character of its own making it an interesting stopover pre or post skiing, and a worthwhile destination in its own right. 

As for the regional Hokkaido, its rugged natural beauty is both a joy on the eyes and a feast for the soul. Next time I return, though, I’ll dust off my skis and give that powder a go. 

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Getting There:

Japan Airlines operates daily direct flights to Tokyo Narita from Sydney and Brisbane, with connections to Sapporo. Call Japan Airlines on 1300 525 287 or visit www.au.jal.com/en. Qantas also operates direct flights between Australia and Tokyo. Call Qantas on 13 13 13 or visit www.qantas.com.au

Where To Stay:

JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo is a comfortable four star located right above JR Sapporo Station which is directly linked to Sapporo Chitose International Airport on the JR line.  Call (81) 11 251-2222 or visit www.jrhotelgroup.com/en/101.html.

To find a ryokan in Hokkaido, visit the Japan Ryokan Association at www.ryokan.or.jp.

Getting Around:

Sapporo has an extensive public transport system including three subway lines, a railway network and buses. Central Hokkaido’s major tourist destinations can be reached by train or bus, or you rent a car. For more information visit www.jnto.org.au.

Vacation Packages and Travel Deals:

Also visit the Japan Year 2010 campaign website (www.vjy2010.jp/eng) which gives details of the special offers, vacation packages and gifts available during the campaign at participating department stores, restaurants, tourist attractions, and hotels and ryokan across Japan. The website lists the experiences Japan offers under the categories of sightseeing, gourmet, activities, entertainment, shopping, and accommodations to facilitate easy travel planning.  The website also features a series of short interviews with 50 people who talk about what they love about Japan and recommend to visitors.

Currency:

Bring plenty of yen with you; although most major credit cards are accepted in Sapporo, they are not in regional areas of Hokkaido including Niseko. There are also only a handful of ATM machines in Sapporo and none in many regional areas.

For the latest exchange rate on the Yen, visit our partners at XE.com

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