Sapporo: Famous for its snow, but a delight in green

by Melissa Devaughn

Contributing Writer

After a long drive through remote eastern Hokkaido, I arrive in downtown Sapporo, just as the sun sets below the horizon. We’d been hiking, canoeing and cruising our way through some of the region’s most distant towns and national parks, staying in small inns and soaking in hot springs surrounded by nothing but the gurgle of creeks and the breeze off the ocean.

Now, here we are in a city of nearly 2 million. Sapporo is awakening. Flashing neon signs, music blaring from competing speakers and people — oh, so many people — energized the place. I am both fascinated and frightened.

I am an Alaskan and, in my world, wide-open spaces are of the utmost importance. From my house, I can’t see my neighbors. I can travel 2 kilometers from my front door to reach trails populated with bears and moose. So, to say I am out of my element in downtown Sapporo is a gross understatement, which is exactly why I feel myself falling in love with this far-northern city.

Sapporo balances a vibrant city feel with the quieter reprieves of lush parks, dense forests and meandering trails that speak to Hokkaido’s nature-centric reputation. One minute you’re fighting crowds at a fish market and the next you’re listening to birds chirping in the Japanese maples.

This clever design is not by accident. The city’s architects have meticulously calculated the value of creating these oxygenated havens ever since Sapporo achieved official city status in the late 1800s.

According to Ayami Saga, who works with the Hokkaido Development Engineering Center in Sapporo, the city was designed in a grid, with Odori Park as its bisecting point. To this day, this green space remains the city’s signature park. Other green spaces can be found along the Toyohira River, which runs through the city, and the western and southern edges, where the Teine, Maruyama and Moiwa Mountains dominate the skyline.

Even today, the city of Sapporo continues with its “circular greenbelt concept,” a plan that began in the late 1970s and strives to create green spaces for a healthier, more beautiful city.

Odori Park

Odori Park is a 1½-kilometer-long green space stretching east to west through Sapporo. From Sapporo TV Tower (a bit of a tourist trap but worth the 60-second elevator ride) one can enjoy a bird’s-eye view of the park and its position within the city. That being said, the real fun is on the ground. “People love the park to relax and enjoy its greenery,” Saga says. “It works like Central Park in New York.”

Central park: Sapporo
Central park: Sapporo’s Odori Park, as seen from Sapporo TV Tower, runs for 1½ kilometers through the center of Sapporo. | MELISSA DEVAUGHN

Odori Park was originally built as a firebreak to separate the southern residential and northern business sides of the city in the 1870s. And, during World War II, potatoes were planted in the park to help feed the country. For the best part of a decade, it was used as a snow and garbage dump until, finally, in the mid 1950s, a park revitalization project began, giving visitors and residents alike a beautiful outdoor place to relax.

When I visit, a political rally is taking place, and there is a small music festival and food carts set up with vendors. Families with small children walk along the promenade, checking out the flowers, the fountains and trinket stands set along the path. Teenagers practice dance moves accompanied by music on boomboxes. Elderly people ride bikes, their front baskets filled with groceries.

The vibrant, community feel of the place is captivating and the park plays a significant role in city life year round, hosting some of the city’s most popular events, including the Sapporo Snow Festival, which takes place each February.

Getting to Odori Park: The park is located just outside Odori Subway Station, or a 10-minute walk south of JR Sapporo Station.

Hokkaido University

Travel through this tree-lined campus and it is clear that the university still maintains strong ties to its beginnings as an agricultural institution.

I am fortunate to be staying at a hotel adjacent to the university and am able to take morning runs through this bucolic campus. I don’t quite know where I am going, but I pick up a paved path that first meanders through a central lawn and then onward to Ono Pond, a quiet meditation area littered with lotus flowers and a walkway that juts out into the water. From there, I reach an avenue lined with glorious ginkgo trees and populated with other morning runners, dog-walkers and cyclists.

There is so much more to this campus as well — the elm forest, which offers a short walking route; the botanical garden, which is open year-round and highlights some of Japan’s most beautiful flora; and a section called Poplar Avenue that features 70-plus poplar trees that were planted along a path after the area was devastated by a typhoon in 2004. It is hard to believe that a bustling city of millions exists beyond this foliage.

Getting to Hokkaido University: Take the west exit of Sapporo Station and walk less than 10 minutes northwest to the main gate of Hokkaido University.

Moerenuma Park

We arrive at Moerenuma Park on a sunny weekend day and the parking lot is almost full. Families stream out of their vehicles and, in the background, the loud crack of bats hitting baseballs, followed by wild cheers, fill the air.

The park is an artistic vision, brought to life by Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi who, in the late 1980s, was commissioned to turn this 188-hectare former landfill into a family-friendly park. Noguchi died in 1988, before the park opened in 2005, but his vision gained awards from experts and accolades from users.

A couple uses a rod to pluck seaweed from a tributary of the Toyohira River, which bisects Moerenuma Park.
A couple uses a rod to pluck seaweed from a tributary of the Toyohira River, which bisects Moerenuma Park. | MELISSA DEVAUGHN

“Noguchi was a world-renowned artist,” Saga says, before telling me that among her favorite places to explore in the park is Mount Moere which, at 62 meters, is the highest point in the park and accessed by climbing a long set of stairs. The park’s most outstanding feature is what locals call “The Glass Pyramid.” The building is a piece of art in itself and houses a French restaurant, recital hall, museum and numerous pieces of art.

The park is vast. Rent a bicycle and explore the bike paths or walk the park to make use of its 120 pieces of playground equipment and see the 3,000-plus cherry trees. Needless to say, it’s a dream in the Hokkaido spring, when the blossoms are out.

Getting to Moerenuma Park: The park is an hour’s drive from Sapporo Station. It’s easiest to take the Toho Subway Line to Kanjodori-higashi Station and then catch the no. 69 or 79 bus.

Maruyama Park

Hokkaido Shrine and the Maruyama Zoo earn the most attention in this 6-hectare park that is seemingly plopped down in a busy section of upscale shops and homes. What draws me in is a section of park completely enveloped by virgin forest. After leaving the shrine, where a large ceremony and festival is winding down, the board-walked section of this forest comes as a cool and quiet escape from the busy surrounds.

“The forest is designated as a National Natural Monument,” Saga says. “The forest of Maruyama is a sort of shrine forest. It’s related to Japanese traditional Shinto beliefs.”

Saga says that, according to the Alliance of Religions and Conservations, “it is the forests, and not the buildings, that mark the true shrines of Shintoism. The deities are invited to these forests, where they and their environment are protected by the local community, which, in turn, is protected by the deities.”

It’s easy to appreciate the importance of the area. The park’s oak, katsura (Japanese Judas tree), magnolia and maple trees, among others, offer a rich tapestry of colors and shapes. The park has a way of masking out city sounds and smells, leaving one feeling rejuvenated.

Getting to Maruyama Park: Take the Tozai Line to Maruyama-Koen Station and follow Odori avenue two blocks to the park entrance.

Mount Moiwa

Close to Maruyama Park is Mount Moiwa, which, at 531 meters high, is perhaps the best opportunity in all of Sapporo to experience a green space along with some more intense aerobic exercise.

A view of the Moiwa Primeval Forest and Ishikari Bay from the observation deck atop Mount Moiwa, Sapporo.
A view of the Moiwa Primeval Forest and Ishikari Bay from the observation deck atop Mount Moiwa, Sapporo. | MELISSA DEVAUGHN

Most visitors are drawn to this natural area for its incredible night skyline that is, when seen from the mountaintop observation deck, simply breathtaking. However, there is little “green space” about the mountaintop. Be prepared to pay a fee and take the ropeway, which is often full with other visitors.

“We visited on the weekend,” Saga says. “On the weekdays it is probably not as crowded.”

“Many people enjoy hiking up to the peak,” Saga says. It takes about an hour, and at the top is a restaurant and planetarium worth checking out.

Getting to Mount Moiwa: Take the Tozai Line to Maruyama-Koen Station, then take a JR Hokkaido bus (Loop line 10 or 11) and get off at Jikeikai-mae bus stop.