Northern delights of Sapporo

by Chris Bamforth

Despite its easy proximity, brought by the relatively short flying time from Tokyo, an air of remoteness still hangs over Hokkaido. Physically the island is more a last outpost of Siberia than an integral part of Japan. In Hokkaido, little rice grows, scant cherry trees bloom, no rainy season descends, few cockroaches scamper.

And for most of Japanese history, Hokkaido was hardly more than a frontier trading point on the nation’s periphery. Surprising it is, then, that a vigorous and lively city like Sapporo should have sprung up at the end of the 19th century as the island’s urban hub.

Sapporo is Japan’s fifth biggest city, and the northern metropolis carries a breezy, practical, self-assured air. Appropriate for the frontier town it once was, Sapporo is today an uncluttered city, a city of wide-open spaces dating from when the town was first laid out in the 1870s according to a grid plan of streets that still survives today.

Best known among those city spaces is Odori Park, the site for Sapporo’s famed Snow Festival, held in February each year. But when the long Hokkaido winter has finally thawed itself out, the park is an agreeable green expanse at the city’s heart. This is where Sapporo comes to relax: to read, enjoy the sunshine, walk the dog, play with the kids. If Sapporo gets peckish, though, it has to content itself with corn-on-the-cob since, oddly, that is pretty much the only snack available at the numerous stalls flanking Odori Park.

If the Snow Festival is Sapporo’s most famous event, the city’s best-known district goes by the name of Susukino. This entertainment area is a place of remarkable energy: Even at 1:30 a.m. on a weekday morning, the streets can be jampacked with people. Susukino is sophisticated, without the slightest trace of provinciality. And it is an agreeable place to go out in the evening — think Kabukicho with less sleaze, Roppongi minus the attitude.

As often happens with such districts, certain dining establishments are less keen to accommodate foreign clientele than others. However, one Susukino delicacy that comes without any entrance requirements is the regional specialty known as Genghis Khan. Essentially consisting of strips of mutton and vegetables barbecued on a griddle at your table and then dipped in a sauce, Genghis Khan is as messy a repast as you are ever likely to find.

With all the fat that is likely to go flying, customers are supplied with large aprons and a big box of tissues to keep themselves clean. Coats have to be stowed in cupboards so you don’t emerge smelling like a roasted sheep. But Genghis Khan is good, tasty fare.

While Susukino is the youthful, exuberant side of Sapporo, the historical heart is identified with the wooden Clock Tower. Built in 1881 as part of Sapporo Agricultural College, the tower is the symbol of Sapporo and a de rigueur photographic backdrop for most Japanese tourists.

The college itself was established in 1876, when American William Clark Smith became its first president. Smith is famous for his farewell exhortation to his students: “Boys, be ambitious!” – historic words that have been inscribed in the nation’s school textbooks and inscribed also onto any number of Sapporo’s souvenir knickknacks.

My own ambition in Sapporo was the more modest one of wanting to sample the city’s most famous product on its home turf. It was another American agriculturist of the 1870s who noted that Sapporo had perfect conditions for brewing beer. And so it was in 1877 that the first Sapporo beer hit the market, which then was almost entirely made up of foreigners.

The original Sapporo Brewery is located a little outside the town center, and even aside from the commendable business that goes on within, the building itself is a splendid, rambling old structure in red brick, full of engaging decorative detail and with period gas lamps standing outside. Inside the structure is located the brewery’s main Beer Garden Calling a dim, interior brick hall a “garden” is like the real-estate agent who told me with a straight face that my first tiny ramshackle Tokyo flat was a mansion. But the brewery goes out of its way to create a jolly, German, thigh-slapping oompah atmosphere courtesy of a street organ that is frequently cranked into life. The beer itself was fine and fresh, but not cheap.

A good collection of buildings from the days when Sapporo was brewing its first beer is located in the city’s botanical garden. Among these rather graceful, pioneer-style wooden structures are some Important Cultural Properties. But by far the most outstanding attraction in the garden is the small, fascinating Ainu museum called the Batchelor Museum (named after the British Ainu scholar Reverend John Batchelor).

Unfortunately, the museum has only enough space to display a fraction of its artifacts at any one time, but it does provide a remarkable insight into the lives and culture of Hokkaido’s original inhabitants.

Among the various exhibits are spectacular Ainu textiles of woven bark and animal skins, and there is a reconstruction of the sacred hearth once found in every Ainu household. But the most impressive exhibit is a 1936 film showing the bear ceremony. The bear was the Ainu’s greatest deity, and their greatest rite was the ceremonial killing and eating of their god, freeing the bear to return to its spiritual home. The silent film of the event is utterly absorbing — a view into some lost, distant world, a poignant record of a once-living culture that is now no more.

Peculiarly, the Japan National Tourist Association (JNTO) thinks so little of what is arguably the city’s best attraction that it does not bother to mention the museum in its leaflet on Sapporo. A place JNTO is keener to recommend is the palatial pile of red brick nearby known as the Old Hokkaido Government Building. This structure originally dates back to 1888, just 17 years after Sapporo itself was first laid out. But the grand structure of the building was clearly meant to announce that, though the city might have been relatively small at the time, Hokkaido’s capital had most definitely arrived.