It seemed to me on a recent winter’s visit to Sapporo that everyone was a performer: from the flamboyant gestures and bullhorn announcements of the tour guides, to the showy dismembering of crabs by vendors, to the owners of the cubbyhole restaurants in Ramen Yokocho, the alley of mostly one-man operations to which we repaired on our first night in the capital of Hokkaido to sample its trademark pork noodles in a thick miso broth.
In our chosen niche, the master tossed, sprinkled and doused his ingredients with the rehearsed precision of someone who knows he is being carefully watched by a hungry audience.
Although the Sapporo table includes local specialties such as Ishikari nabe (salmon stew), jingiskān (Genghis Khan, a Mongolian-style lamb barbecue) and a seafood concoction called dosanko nabe, most travelers will be drawn back to its signature noodles, with some variations coopting ingredients as surprising as cheese, butter, milk, asparagus and corn.
Ramen Yokocho is located in Susukino, a nightlife district whose repute (or ill repute) is such that almost every Japanese person has heard of it. A seedy area of so-called soaplands (brothels), porn shows and massage parlors, its vibrant carnival atmosphere and friendly streets lure people of all ages and backgrounds to its hundreds of restaurants, pubs and coffee shops.
Before we ever got to Sapporo, though, our first stop was at the 50-hectare Northern Horse Park at Tomakomai, close by New Chitose Airport, the island’s main aerial gateway. All kinds of interactions with horses are to be had there, including watching jumping and dressage and seeing mares and their foals together. Visitors can also wander the outbuildings, peering into stables and storerooms with their orderly racks of saddles and tack.
As well, there’s all manner of attractions and activities available, from putt-putt golf to laser shooting and snowmobile-drawn “rafting” in season — while simply strolling the park’s beautiful grounds is invigorating on a crisp and clear winter day.
Between the trees, a large glass atrium containing the figure of a lifesize jockey and steed, gilded in gold, would seem the oddest thing to find in this setting. It was, however, upstaged by the sight of a vehicle once owned by the Salisbury Omnibus Company in faraway western England just down the road from Stonehenge.
This elegant transport of delight was covered with advertising for tweed knitwear and the Salisbury Journal newspaper — “Every Thursday since 1729″ (and still going). Yet quite how this vintage piece of English transportation history ended up here remained a mystery.
Visitors to the park can even take a tour of the grounds in a long sleigh pulled by dray horses, the kind of heavy draft animals that some British breweries use to this day to haul cartloads of kegs to nearby pubs.
From one dreamland to another, though: Seeing those sleighs decked out with festive bells being pulled through the forested grounds inevitably evokes images from that epic 1965 drama-romance film “Doctor Zhivago” — an unlikely parallel until we consider how close the island is to Russia, and the long relationship it has had with that country.
Indeed, Russian sailors were the first foreigners to take an interest in the Hokkaido coastline, and the first Russian vessel dropped anchor in Hakodate Bay as early as 1740, while the Russian presence in that city after it opened as a treaty port in 1854 was significant.
The smell of horses, fresh hay and cold snow at the park was a powerful reminder, if one were necessary, that these spacious northern parts are distinctly different from other regions of Japan.
Where Japan’s ancient Imperial capital of Kyoto was laid out according to Chinese geomantic principals, Sapporo — now, with a population of almost 2 million, Japan’s fourth-largest city — was conceived along far more practical lines. In fact, after development of the site began in 1869, many foreign experts, engineers and educators arrived to help, and in the late 19th century it was American advisers — a pragmatic breed of pioneer-influenced men — who came up with Sapporo’s firm grid of rectilinear streets which makes negotiating the city very easy.
However, the straight roads and right-angle intersections have not pleased every visitor. The English writer Ethel Manning, exploring Sapporo on foot in 1959, struck a sour note, complaining that the layout resulted in “streets of an interminable length.” Others have been less critical. For his part, the acclaimed U.S. writer and academic John Lowe stated simply: “I liked everything about Sapporo.”
Similarly loathe to find fault are the throngs who flock to the city center’s Odori Park in mid-December to enjoy the annual wealth of Christmas decorations that delightfully complement the tamped snow under foot.
The park, whose name simply means “Large Street,” is a broad median flanked by boulevards that extends around 1½ km East-West through the city — and, most famously, it’s the chief venue for the Sapporo Snow Festival that’s been held every year in February since 1950.
Otherwise, the park’s leading permanent landmark is the red-painted Sapporo TV Tower, a 147-meter steel structure that is also decked out with lights at Snow Festival time, but whose huge clock provides a temporal core to the city year-round.
A clock with more time on its hands is the Tokeidai (Clock Tower). A few blocks south of Sapporo Station, this wooden 1878 building with its timekeeping device bought from a firm in Boston, Massachusetts, has become a city landmark. The vaguely U.S. East Coast appearance is no coincidence, since the clapboard building was designed by a professor from Boston.
Visitors can step inside, where, besides being able to glimpse the inner mechanism of the mighty clock that has chimed on the hour since 1881, they can also explore the museum and a small remaining corner of a library once housed there.
A few minutes’ walk away, the former Hokkaido Government Building, an 1888 redbrick structure, is a fine example of the fusion of European and New World neo-Baroque styles with the aspirations of the modernizing Meiji Era (1868-1912). Based on the design of the Massachusetts State House, the structure is made exclusively from local materials. The well maintained, wood-paneled interior, restored after a fire in 1911, echoes with the kind of space and amplitude the visitor starts to get used to after a few days in Hokkaido.
Other late 19th-century buildings are scattered about the campus of Hokkaido University, located northwest of the railway station. Its museum, which dates from this period, is another big clapboard structure suggestive of a strong U.S. influence on its design. Appropriately, the grounds contain an imposing bust of Dr. William S. Clark, the American academic who set up the university, and who has become inexplicably beloved by every Japanese person for uttering to his students, by way of encouragement, the three-word imperative: “Boys, be ambitious!”
Oblivious to today’s equally driven girls, Sapporo has taken up the phrase as its city motto.
As in most northern climes, the harsh winters are accompanied by some hard drinking. However, with the exception of the growing but still tiny craft-beer sector. Japanese beers for the most part are pleasant but somewhat similar in taste to light pilsner varieties.
The Dutch were the first to drink beer on Japanese soil, brewing it themselves in their trading post at Dejima in Nagasaki. The real thirst for beer, however, took hold after the arrival of the U.S. Navy’s so-called Black Ships started to open the internationally isolated country in the 1850s. Among the tokens of friendship offered to the Japanese representatives were liberal toasts of champagne, red wine and brandy. Beer was also consumed during the negotiations.
Then, in 1876, a government-run brewery that opened in Sapporo in 1876 would become the home of today’s global Sapporo Breweries Ltd. Students of the beverage can visit the Sapporo Beer Museum, where tour groups politely listen to explanations of the history and methods of brewing there before getting down to some serious tastings.
The Sapporo Bier Garten, a staple of TV programs in Japan, needs little introduction to most people in the archipelago. In its eatery seating around 3,500, the famed all-you-can-eat jingiskān set comes with a free plastic bag to stow away coats that might otherwise end up reeking of grilled lamb.
For more intimate drinking experiences, you can explore the city’s myriad bars, cafes and restaurants. Beer and Food Higurashi, a cafe-bar on the third floor of the Shako Kaikan Building near the Susukino crossing, is a good place to start. The selection of beers there is impressive, even including the relatively rare Indian brew Minoh Beer Double IPA as well as a range of Hokkaido craft offerings, including Coriander Black.
Finally, to round off our brief but very sweet vacation, a short stroll from downtown Nakajima Park — with its lake, streams, museum, observatory and host of beautiful trees — brought us to Mugishutei, which is undoubtedly a good place to finish off the evening.
Run by a voluble Californian named Phred Kaufman, who opened the bar more than 30 years ago, Mugishutei claims to have the largest stock of beer in the Orient. That may well be true, thanks to its more than 300 bottled varieties from all over the world and six on tap. Of these, world-famous Tokyo-based beer expert Chris Bunting recommends a glass or three of the award-winning “rich, velvety” Shakespeare Stout brewed by Rogue Ales of Newport, Oregon.
If you’re worried about finding this prime watering-hole, though, don’t be: Kaufman is a local character who almost everyone in Sapporo seems to have heard of, so locating the bar is easy in a city whose straightforward grid can facilitate even the most benignly inebriated finding their rooms.
Getting to Sapporo: New Chitose Airport is 40 km southeast of Sapporo, which can be reached by train in 35 mins., or by cheaper but twice as slow buses. Trains arrive at JR Sapporo Station, long-distance buses at the Chuo Bus Terminal. Ferries from numerous ports in Japan dock at Otaru, 30 mins. by train to the northwest of Sapporo, or at Tomakomai, 45-60 train mins. south.