New Emissary

Sapporo, Japan: Worth a Visit

Recent Features

New Emissary

Sapporo, Japan: Worth a Visit

This often forgotten Japanese city to the north is surprisingly modern, friendly and design-savvy — and well worth a visit.

Wallpaper* City Guides are lightweight travel books aimed particularly at design-savvy travelers. I like that they’re pared-down—at just eight chapters each—and tend to cover 'secret' local haunts that others often don’t. High-value, without taking up too much luggage space.

I recently got a hold of the latest guide for Japan, which zeroes in on Sapporo, the largest city on the northern island of Hokkaido. Though it once gained international attention back in 1972 as the host city of the Winter Olympics, compared to cities like Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka, Sapporo just doesn’t tend to get much travel coverage or hype of its own these days, at least not internationally.

However, it’s a city that has some surprising cultural offerings and unexpected modern elements to it—such as being one of the most 'female-friendly' cities in Japan. I spoke to the author of the Wallpaper* City Guide Sapporo, Gordon Kanki-Knight to learn more about the Japanese destination:

Many of the venues you highlight in the Sapporo guide were quite recently established. Why has Sapporo experienced a cultural boom in the 2000s?

Around the mid-2000s a few small but important things occurred in Sapporo that boosted tourist numbers, like it hosting the Nordic World Ski Championships in 2007, a new air route with South Korea and more domestic budget flights being made available to and from the city as well.

You could see this reflected in something like Sapporo’s popular Snow Festival, which attracts around 2 million visitors yearly. The event saw an increase of about 100,000 people per year around this time, and the numbers have remained high.

So this increase in visitor numbers is what prompted the creation of new hotels and restaurants—the best of which were chosen for the guide. And it’s worth noting that a surprising number of new buildings and interiors created in Sapporo in the late 2000s were designed by architects under 40 years old. So the mid-to-late 2000s saw not only a cultural boom, but also gave a leg-up to a new generation of creatives.

You raised a fascinating idea in the book—since the cold Sapporo winters force people indoors, residents might have developed a particularly keen interest in things like design or technology. How would you say that this unique lifestyle is reflected in the city’s culture?

Cold winters seem to play a part in many societies having a keen interest in design. In Helsinki, for example, you can spend the cold winter days in architect Stephen Holl’s Kiasma Museum (–one of the 15 major museums in the city of around 500,000 people—dressed in Maija Isola-designed Marimekko clothing before retiring to your hotel to relax on a sofa by Alvar Aalto or Eero Saarinen—and the locals there will know what you’re wearing and what you’re sitting on. Tromso, in northern Norway, has a similar love of design, with key design groups such as Tank ( working out of the tiny city. The same can be said of Luleå in Sweden.

The residents of these small, cold cities take their design seriously; they know who designed what.

But then in Sydney, Australia for example, few people would even know who designed the Harbour Bridge—it’s not the sort of thing you contemplate while surfing a break at Bondi Beach!

Even in Tokyo you’d be hard pressed to find someone who could name the designer of Tokyo Tower. In contrast, in Sapporo, you can take a seat in a carefully created cafe filled with design magazines that you can read over a hot chocolate; hotel lobbies leave copies of the design journal Casa Brutus on their coffee tables and, as is the case in most of Japan, food is prepared as a feast not only for the taste buds but also the eyes.

Interestingly, the city’s parks boast buildings and sculptures created not only by locals, but also artists and architects from across Japan and the rest of the world. This city of two million has pieces by British sculptor Antony Gormley, Catalan sculptor Joan Miró, the world-renowned architect Tadao Ando, English architect Nigel Coates and many more. There’s a willingness to embrace design ideas from around the world as well as to embrace home-grown talents.

Sapporo, Japan: Worth A Visit
If you had to just choose a few, what are your own personal favorite Sapporo picks from the book?

Moerenuma Park by the Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi is the standout place. The whole park can be viewed as one Noguchi artwork, but it’s also a fantastic place to go for a picnic, play tennis or go for a run. There’s a hill from which you can view the city, and a museum where you can see Noguchi works and playgrounds for the kids.

Sarou Homura café is another pick. I’ve never been to a better café. Mrs. Homura, aged 60 or so, runs this cafe and gallery space located well outside the city centre. Her passion for architecture, her space and for creating a special world for café guests is impressive.

I must also mention Phi restaurant. This place is so hidden you could walk past it a thousand times and not notice it. Even the staff were surprised that my wife and I found the restaurant. Phi normally refuses to appear in guidebooks, but the owners are big fans of Wallpaper* magazine, so we managed to get them to agree to being publicized. In a way, I want to recommend this place to everybody, but I want to keep it secret at the same time.

Other places include the Sculpture Garden—I’d never worn kanjiki snowshoes before visiting the park. It was quite an experience to walk around in deep snow in minus 10 C weather! The N43 bar is also a must-visit—the owner runs this modern space perched on a hillside with unbeatable views of the city.

Can you tell us why Sapporo, though often not on Japan visitors’ travel itineraries (at least for now), is worth the visit?

Sapporo welcomes many tourists every year, so it knows how to deal with people who don’t speak the language and aren’t used to its customs. Signs and information are often written in English and Chinese and locals are always happy to help with directions and other helpful information.

It’s also a city of immigrants. Sapporo city dates back only to 1869 and, with the exception of those with Ainu (aboriginal) roots, few families go back more than a handful of generations—so new visitors are always welcomed.

The extreme weather the city experiences also adds to its charm. The summers are hot and dry, perfect for a game of baseball in one of the city’s large parks before retiring with a can of (what else?) Sapporo draft beer. Sapporo also has a great reputation for food, from ramen (noodles) to kani (crabs). So whenever you go there, you can enjoy something seasonal.

Perhaps the key reason to visit this city though is that it offers a new window on Japan and a relaxed atmosphere. The mainland cities are old and established, but Sapporo is still developing and is taking a different path to the other cities. A small example is if in Sapporo, a young woman goes to a bar alone and orders a pint then no one bats an eyelid—which isn't the case in Tokyo or Kyoto. So if you’re a woman traveling alone, you might find Sapporo is the easiest city you’ll visit—it’s safe, friendly, forward-thinking and particularly welcoming.


Images: the N43 bar (top), the Sarou Houmura cafe (bottom) both courtesy of Phaidon (Wallpaper* City Guides).