The capital of the north

We landed safely at New Chitose airport 75 minutes after leaving Tokyo. We caught the train straight to the centre of Sapporo and made our way via the streetcar to our apartment for the next five days. We booked through Airbnb and luckily found a small one room apartment with kitchen and bathroom for just £25 per night. We had everything we needed to cook and make a good breakfast. We had originally intended to spend our time in one of the National Parks on Hokkaido island but unfortunately accommodation options were a bit pricey and fairly limited so Sapporo was the next best thing.

Autumn in full swing

Sapporo has two main claims to fame: one being hosting the winter olympics and the other being the best beer in Japan. We were lucky with the weather as it was warm and sunny for most of the time we stayed. On our first day we took a walk up to mount Moiwa to get a view of the city and see some of the famous autumn coloured forest. At the start of the path there was a small car park with signs warning us abour pit vipers and bears. There were bear bells which were free to borrow and would hopefully let the bears know were we were. The path went through some lovely autumnal forest (although we missed the true peak of the colours) with bamboo and vines, before climbing to the top of the hill where there was snow. It was a fairly easy walk both up and down but most people seem to visit mount Moiwa via the ropeway instead. It was nice to see lots of locals getting their daily exercise in the hills and everyone we passed greeted us with a happy ‘konichiwa’.

We even found a tree swing!

Ted guarding us from wild bears

The next day we visited the university botanical gardens and museums which were a bargain at just 600 yen. Ther was a beautiful garden with some very old trees and a rock garden along with a musuem about the Ainu people (native to Hokkaido) and the animals of Hokkaido and Japan. Interestingly Hokkaido used to be part of the Asian continent before moving south and breaking away. Because of this the plants and animals are more like those of Russia and continental Asia than the rest of Japan, but you also find subspecies found only in Hokkaido such as the Ezo Sika deer and Ezo wolf (now extinct). 

Colonial style museum with lots of native animals

We then walked along to see the old government building surrounded by more autumnal coloured trees, Ginko avenue and Odori park. Sapporo is a fairly compact city so it’s easy to walk around most of the sights. For dinner we visited one of Sapporo’s sushi restaurants. With a little apprehension on Zoe’s side and concern for cost (sushi can cost thousands of yen) we opted for a conveyor belt restaurant. Despite our lack of Japanese we managed to figure out that we could take plates from the conveyor belt or choose from the menu and order directly from the chef. We arrived mid-afternoon so the belt was fairly empty but there were a few people eating and the 3 chefs were hard at work. We ordered a selection of dishes including prawns, california rolls, tuna rolls and pork rolls. They were all delicious and with prices ranging from ¥130-¥550 per plate also quite reasonable. In order to help our budget we stuck to the lower half of said range. The options were still very varied and tasty. We think these restaurants are a good way to try real sushi for the first time without a huge price tag. Although, we were also starting to realise that when Japanese eat out, they eat a lot, maybe 10-15 plates of sushi per person, but when food is this yummy we can see why.

Old government building surrounded by a beautiful park

Following our city tour we made a trip out of town to the Morenuma sculpture park where various examples of modern art have been created. These include a glass pyramid, a new mountain and a metal tripod. They have all been done on a grand scale and are great to wander about. In summer there are also a few fountains but sadly these were turned off a week before we visited in preparation for the deep freeze that Hokkaido gets every winter. The park was very easy to get to with several bus lines passing the nearby road and gates. We got a good city map from the tourist info at the train station that explained all the options. One of the bonuses of this park is the view of Sapporo with the hills and sea in the background.

The modern pyramide with great scenery

Modern art in a park

On our way back home we had one must see to visit: the Sapporo brewery. The brewery is no longer in operation but instead houses a museum and a few restaurants. The current brewery is located on the edge of town and is a bit far away for a visit. The old buildings look just as a brewery should although the smell of brewing beer is missing. Inside there is the choice of a Japanese tour including two tastes (one special beer is only available with this tour) or a free self guided tour around the museum. We opted to move at our own pace and try the standard beers as this included Sapporo classic which is only available in Hokkaido. The museum was very interesting telling the story of how one well travelled Japanese man brought German brewing secrets to Japan and how the Sapporo brewing company is firmly rooted in Hokkaido due to the fact that they needed a cold climate for cooling and storage. At the end we tasted three beers; Sapporo black, Sapporo classic and Kaitakushi (a recreation of the very first beer brewed there). They were all tasty but the Sapporo classic was Ted’s favourite.

Everything seems upside down after some beer…

Our final day staying in Sapporo was a day trip to a hot spring town located an hour south. It’s easy to reach by bus and there are two hot spring locations within 2km of eachother. We bought a combi ticket at the bus station, just 1800 yen for the bus and one onsen. Considering the bus costs ¥840 and entry to an onsen ranges fromm ¥500 to ¥1000 this is a great deal. We got off the bus at Jozankei to have a wander around the town and use some of the free hand and footbaths. Unfortunately the first footbath we found was closed and the handbath was luke warm at best. We continued down to the river and found a riverside footbath complete with a steaming buddha statue. The water was lovely and warm so we took off our shoes and plunged our feet straight in.

We had read that eggs can be cooked in the hot water from the springs so Matthias bought some eggs to give it a go. The footbath water was only around 60 degrees (when it came out the ground; the foot bath was a little bit colder) so egg cooking was a failure and we almost ended up with a raw egg in the footbath when it cracked. After a little more research it seems the Japanese cook eggs when the spring water is around 70 degrees but it can take up to 40 minutes to get a semi-boiled custardy consistency egg.

The picturesque valley of Jozenkai

Next we walked along the river valley, over a bridge and then along the road to the onsen we wanted to visit. Hoheikyo has a single hot spring which is available for day visitors. The onsen has chill out rooms, a cafe, an Indian restaurant, a Japanese restuarant and baths for men and women. In Japan bathing is done in the nude and therefore sexes are separated. On the day we visited the men had two outdoor baths (rotemburo) while the women had one large outdoor bath. They are swapped every day to keep it interesting. Each side of the fence also had an indoor bath which was a scalding 42 degrees and very steamy. Thanks to the lovingly decorated suroundings the rotemburo were much more appealing so we spwnt most of the time outside. The water contained so much minerals that it had formed an up to 2cm wide lip around the edge of the pools. Before bathing there is a washing area where you sit on a small plastic stool and shower or throw bowls of water over yourself. The women certainly did this very thoroughly, some shaving or exfoliating or scrubbing off most of their skin. Once clean you are ready for a bath. The outdoor baths were all situated in gardens with view of the surrounding hills which was lovely and relaxing. The Japanese all take their wash cloths (tiny modesty towels) into the baths with them and sit with their cloths folded on the top of their heads whilst bathing. We spent around 2 hours bathing in the spring water which is said to cure many illnesses. We spent some time cooling off and relaxing before catching the bus back to Sapporo.

Outdoor bath at Hoheikyo onsen (Copyright: Hoheikyo onsen)

Back in Sapporo with skin as smooth as a babies bottom we went to the entertainment district of Susukino for dinner. Hokkaido is famous for ramen (Japanese noodle soup) with 3 famous ramen cities; Sapporo (miso), Asahikawa (soy sauce) and Hakodate (salt). Thanks to this Sapporo’s ramen alley has been prospering for years. The only diffculty is deciding which of the 15 or so restaurants to eat in. All of the restaurants offered the traditional trio of broths and some had specialisations such as crab, tempura or butter corn. We picked a restuarant with the butter corn ramen and also tasted the miso ramen. The chef spoke a little English and was very friendly. The ramen was super tasty and only 800 yen per bowl. It’s defintely worth a visit to this tiny alley if you are in Sapporo.

Back home we packed up our bags and got ready for our next destination.

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