Photo: Visit Sapporo

First Time to Sapporo

What to do on your first visit to Hokkaido’s capital

Photo: Visit Sapporo
By Tom Roseveare    - 5 min read

Sapporo City is the capital of Hokkaido and the gateway to Japan’s northernmost region. If you’ve never stepped foot this far north, read on to find out what to expect, where to go on your first visit.

The Big City of the North, Sapporo, has all of the memorable spots, including unique culture and arts, gourmet foods, and hot springs. The harshness and enjoyment of nature and snow are always next to each other. There are many suitable urban winter resorts with a lot of snow, which is rare in the world, and you can choose a course that suits any level, so it is an attractive spot for winter sports fans.

Gateway to Hokkaido

Sapporo is considered the gateway to Hokkaido, thanks to great access provided by New Chitose Airport, just 40 minutes by rapid train from the city center.

This makes Sapporo the ideal base for travelers during their Hokkaido stay, who can conveniently reach other regional gems, like taking a day trip to Otaru.

Sapporo’s reputation as a regional base is only likely to increase, once the Hokkaido Shinkansen extension to the city is completed by 2031 (expected). This will make it possible to take a direct train all the way from Tokyo (via Aomori) — the service currently terminates in Hakodate to the south. Read more in our Sapporo access guide.

Top Attractions in Sapporo

Sapporo City has something for everyone, being perhaps one of Japan’s most attractive winter resort destinations. As well as a variety of ski resorts within quick access to the city center, Hokkaido’s capital delivers on culture, art, and stunning nature too.

Come for the snow….

The annual Sapporo Snow Festival is a huge attraction for winter lovers. Marvel at the multitudes of snowy sculptures across Odori Park. The Snow Festival brings much more than sculptures though, anticipate skating rinks and Sapporo-style gourmet foods that will warm you up in the wintry wonderland. After the festival, try your legs at some more snowy fun.

You’ll find half a dozen ski resorts to choose from, all within easy access of Sapporo’s city center, offering excellent powder snow thanks to Hokkaido’s white winters. Some, like Sapporo Moiwa Ski Resort, even overlook the city itself and stay open late, allowing you to admire the illuminated cityscape as you speed down the slopes.

Once you’re done, Sapporo has you covered for nightlife too — just head for the Susukino quarter. With a range of bars and restaurants—all serving local favorite Sapporo Beer—Susukino is also home to Ramen Yokocho, a tiny alleyway crammed full of ramen shops serving the local miso ramen. It’s a great starting point for a food scene brimming with local dishes and trends, from fresh seafood at the morning markets to a late-night treat (Shime Parfait), you’ll be refueled in no time.

Photo: Visit Sapporo

…stay for the culture and art

As well as its winter sports image, Sapporo delivers on traditional culture too. All around the city you’ll find great examples of both culture and nature in harmony. Take downtown’s Hokkaido Shrine and the nearby Mt Maruyama, which makes for a perfect short hike in the warmer months. Check out the Tadao Ando-designed Hill of the Buddha at Makomanai Takino Cemetery and get a glimpse of the lavender rows — another Hokkaido favorite reminiscent of Biei and Furano. Admire the juxtaposition of art and greenery at either Moerenuma Park or Sapporo Art Park. The former is great for family outings, the latter suited to art aficionados looking to get hands-on too.

Photo: Visit Sapporo

Discover more about Sapporo’s great attractions in this guide.

When to go to Sapporo

Hokkaido sees impressive snowfall throughout the winter, making Sapporo in particular—along with neighboring resorts—a popular destination between the months of December and March. Sapporo is home to a variety of ski resorts, many within easy reach of the city center, and its reputation as a world-class winter resort was cemented following the 1972 Winter Olympics. Early February also sees the iconic Sapporo Snow Festival take place, with parts of the city taken over by impressive snow and ice sculptures that are illuminated in the evenings.

Photo: Visit Sapporo

Beyond the winter, Sapporo is a great time to visit any time of the year. Spring promises cherry blossom views at many of its parks, with the full bloom arriving around the Golden Week period (much later than central Japan). Summer promises more outdoor events thanks to the cooler weather. Expect fireworks displays and beer garden festivities — defining symbols of summers in Japan. Autumn turns many of Sapporo’s parks over to red/yellow foliage and a final opportunity to explore the region’s countryside before the temperatures drop.

Find out more in our Sapporo seasonal guide.

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Tom Roseveare

Tom Roseveare @tom.roseveare

Creative Director at Japan Travel, based in Tokyo. Feel free to reach out about living, working or travelling in Japan – just book a time.

Join the discussion

Elizabeth S 2 months ago
I'm tempted to escape the blistering heat of Tokyo this summer. Sapporo looks like the place to go.
Kim 2 months ago
I've visited Hokkaido in summer and winter - enjoyed both trips very much. Will have to aim to visit in spring and autumn at some point, too!
Kim 2 months ago
Definitely! My summer and winter trips were both so different, I think it can honestly feel like you're in a completely different location.
Sander van Werkhoven 2 months ago
One of my favorite cities in Japan! Been 4 times, twice in summer and twice in winter, always enjoyed those visits. And even when some cities might have more to offer for tourists, if I had to move to Japan, Sapporo would be my preferred city to live. Even if it was only for the food :-)