Sure, Aomori Prefecture has its charm: The “blue forest” boasts some of the most breathtaking natural scenery on the main island of Japan, and the fresh seafood and friendly people are hard to beat. But what Aomori does lack is the magnetic pull of a large metropolitan city. For “city people” like myself, living in Eastern Aomori-ken leaves something to be desired. But luckily, I've discovered that I don't have to travel all the way to Tokyo to get an urban refresher.
Sapporo, Japan's fifth-largest city with 1.9 million people lies just a few hours north of us. Since it doesn't have the PR clout of southern cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, it often gets overlooked as a travel destination for foreigners. So it came as a surprise when I discovered just how much Sapporo has to offer. In fact, a four-day trip packed with activities only left me wanting more! And there was certainly more to be seen. So if you find yourself craving the hustle-bustle, wide streets, and urban feel of a “real city”, then Sapporo is just a hop, skip, and a jump away.
In the center of the city lies Odori Park, a narrow stretch of green that bisects central Sapporo and is the site of its famous yearly Snow Festival. This year my husband and I were determined to catch a glimpse of the famed ice sculptures, so we planned our visit far in advance, as hotels and transportation sometimes fill up two months before the festival.
There were several possible ways to get to Sapporo from Hachinohe, the most affordable (and most adventurous) being an overnight ferry from Hachinohe to Tomakomai, followed by a bus or train ride to Sapporo. Having never taken an overnight ferry, I was both excited and a bit reserved when I booked us a reservation on the Silver Ferry, wondering how we'd sleep. To ease my mind, I booked “2nd Class with bed” tickets (6,000yen), priced just above the cheapest 2nd Class option (4,500yen), for which passengers sprawl out on a carpeted floor. Upon embarking, I was pleased to find a small, yet surprisingly cozy and semi-private bunk bed -- I highly recommend spending the extra 1,500yen for the bed! After wandering around the vessel and discovering an onboard onsen and a small restaurant, I retired for the night and actually got some quality sleep. The best part was that when I awoke we were docking at Tomakomai.
The Sapporo tourism board has got it figured out. Knowing that a ferry was arriving in the early morning, a tour bus was parked just outside the ferry terminal waiting to board clueless tourists like us who were looking for a ride to Sapporo. After a quick Japanese breakfast at the terminal's cafe, we were on our way to Sapporo Station. Not knowing much about Sapporo or its layout, we had found a business hotel near Sapporo Station and reserved a room online. This turned out to be a good decision, as many of the city's desirable attractions are just a short walk, bus or subway ride from its main station, and the city's grid design makes navigating its streets extremely easy. Odori Park was in fact only a 10-minute walk from our hotel. Nakajima Park, Susukino entertainment district, and Nijo Fish Market were all also within walking distance.
Without much delay, we headed to Odori Park to check out Sapporo's most prominent seasonal feature, the Sapporo Snow Festival (or Yukimatsuri). Ice sculptures and food stalls lined the entire length of the park, some 10 square blocks or more. Foot traffic was directed so that movement was fairly easy considering the large numbers of spectators. I recommend checking out the sculptures at night, since artistic lighting heightens the grandeur of the larger sculptures. But if you're interested in close inspection of the ice, visit the festival during daylight hours. One of the most popular tourist destinations in Sapporo -- for good reason -- is the Sapporo Beer Museum. Just hop on the #88 bus in front of Tokyu Department store, and 15 minutes later you're there. The museum houses a quick, self-guided tour that chronicles the history of Sapporo beer and ends with an opportunity for a leisurely beer tasting. Next door to the museum, you can make a reservation for a Genghis Kahn-style dinner: 2 hours of all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink, cook-your-own mutton and beer. I highly recommend the experience; but don't wear your favorite article of clothing because it will inevitably end up smelling like cooked meat!
For a day trip, visit Sapporo's Winter Sports Museum near Maruyama Park. A quick subway ride to Maruyama-koen station followed by a short bus ride (which passes the Maruyama Zoo, another popular attraction) will land you at the foot of the 1972 Winter Olympics alpine ski jump. Not only is the ski jump an awesome sight from below, you can take a chair lift to the top of Mt. Okura for a view down the slope, accompanied by a breathtaking panorama of Sapporo from 300 meters up. Then head back down to ground level and enter the museum to experience several interactive exhibits, including an alpine ski jump simulator! The museum is a great place for kids, with lots of hands-on activities.
Finally, you wouldn't be a tourist in the true Japanese sense if you didn't make an effort to sample the local food specialties while in Sapporo. Of course, Hokkaido is known for its dairy and potatoes, but most notably Sapporo boasts its own take on a favorite noodle dish. “Sapporo ramen” is characterized by its thicker noodles, usually submerged in a miso base, and topped with some creative ingredients. Take for example butter corn ramen, which tastes exactly how it sounds -- delicious! You can find ramen shops on practically every corner in the city, but there are several good options right in Sapporo Station. For another chance to eat some local specialties, visit Nijo Fish Market and pop into one of the tiny food stalls in the market's interior for a lunch of fresh uni donburi (sea urchin over rice) and crab soup. Finally, soup curry is a must-eat. The warm, spicy dish is the perfect way to warm up on a cold Sapporo winter day.
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