Head to winter wonderland Sapporo for a snow vacation

Frozen fairylands, great food, family fun and bright-light buzz… the snowy capital of Sapporo is much more than a jump off for the famous ski resorts of Hokkaido in northern Japan.

Sapporo at night in winter.
  • Tracey Withers
  • October 2019

Word to the wise: the sound of ice splitting beneath your boots is more a quick, high-pitched hiss than the ominous crack that movie references lead you to expect. So I miss the warning.

I’ve made the rookie, i.e. idiot, move of traipsing out to an untrodden patch of white to get a trophy photo of myself standing intrepidly atop this frozen river – and now I’m up to my left ankle in it. Possibly sinking. There’s only a second of panic before Yoshi Okada, the guide from Fun Hokkaido who’s showing me around his hometown, yanks me out by my sleeve. “I’ve got one!” he says with a laugh.

I’m supposed to be with a crew of ice fishers inside a little dome, angling for tiny wakasagi or smelt. It’s a winter tradition first set by the indigenous Ainu people who lived independently on Hokkaido before the island was colonised by the Japanese in the 1860s (and who smartly used salmon skin to make waterproof shoes).

An ice fishing camp near Sapporo, Japan.
Ice fishing is a winter tradition of the indigenous Ainu people.

When I take my tiny perch, there’s intense concentration in the tent. Cold fingers are mushing half portions of something the locals are calling “caterpillar” – but it looks a lot like chubby maggot – onto microscopic hooks before lowering them through small round holes in the ice into the watery depths below. I mush. I jiggle. We wait as it begins to snow. Then I hook one. Triumph! I rush it to the cook’s tent where a woman huddled over a camp cooker flash-fries my mighty tiddler into crispy golden tempura on the spot. It’s so incredible I forget all about the maybe-maggot in its belly that’s now in mine. Numb left foot included, this feels like a peak “cultural authenticity” moment that leaves me with goosebumps (and the temperature has nothing to do with it).

I’m on the frozen silent Barato River, which splinters off the mightier Ishikari River as it runs from the remote Taisetsu mountain ranges in central Hokkaido to the Sea of Japan. It’s hard to imagine I’m only 30 minutes from Sapporo, the blink-blink-flashing centre of Japan’s fifth-largest city, amid a sprawl roughly the size of Hong Kong.

A father and his children ice fish.
You can try your hand at ice fishing just 30 minutes out of the city.

The capital of Hokkaido island, the largest and northernmost prefecture of Japan, is surrounded by nature. Slow-melting ice caps trickle sweet, clean mountain water into the city’s taps. And Yoshi tells me bears sometimes wander into urban space.

At its northernmost, Hokkaido is only 43 kilometres from Russian territory and each winter, flurries from Siberia unload an average 600 centimetres of dry, smooth and light snow on the Sapporo side of the island. This is champagne powder, skiers say. It brought the Winter Olympics to town in 1972. But you don’t have to be on piste to get into it.

At Snowmobile Land Sapporo, 10 kilometres from the city centre, I get my revs on a guided snowmobile tour to a 600-metre summit. As my small group guns through woods of scented pine and Japanese birch that has been frosted like a fairy cake by last night’s fall, snow crystals sparkle in the sunlight before fluffy clouds dust more snow over our tracks. It’s a fairyland, I think, falling backwards into cushy white to make snow angels like a big kid at the summit.

A family snowmobiles.
Snowmobile Land Sapporo offers guided tours with unbeatable views.

After a hearty barbecue lunch inside Snowmobile Land’s igloo (a real igloo), I pass up the opportunity of a tasting at Sapporo Beer Museum, which celebrates Hokkaido’s brewing culture, instead opting to visit a Shinto shrine.

“We’re passing from our everyday world into the divine world,” Yoshi explains as we bow and walk under the heavy wooden torii gate at Hokkaido Jingu shrine. Before entering, we cleansed our hands and mouths at the stone ablution basin “because we all have lies to wash away” before we speak to gods. “This is the resting place of four deities: Okunitama, god of nature; Onamuchi, god of developing the land; Sukunahikona, who reclaims land and Emperor Meiji, who was very important to modernisation,” Yoshi says, explaining the etiquette – offer a coin, bow twice, clap, then bow deeply again – as we approach the shrine. Shinto is the native religion of Japan but many people who also worship at Buddhist temples or another faith come here on important dates.

The Hokkaido Jingu shrine in Sapporo, Japan.
A fortune bought at the Hokkaido Jingo Shrine will reveal future blessings (or curses!).

Today it’s busy yet so hushed that I can hear the strips of white paper, bought to reveal future blessings or curses then tied to trees, fluttering in the wind. Akari, a kind local, offers to read me the fortune foretold on my strip of paper but it’s either difficult to explain in English or she reckons I’m better off in the dark. “Just tie it here,” she instructs, patting my arm and bowing.

Maybe the fortune teller saw what the rest of the night had in store for me and didn’t want to give away any spoilers.

Back in Sapporo city that evening, I stroll along gridded streets past landmarks like the mid-western American-style Clock Tower from 1878 and the neo-baroque Former Hokkaido Government Office building, which tells of the city’s relatively modern history. Come dusk, lights at the Eiffel-esque TV Tower come on (its observation deck is open until 10pm most nights) and between November and mid-March the twinkling White Illumination festival makes snow-blanketed Odori Park and other locations look magical.

A view of the TV Tower in Sapporo, Japan.
The TV Tower in Sapporo bears more than a little resemblance to the Eiffel Tower.

Subways pump and spurt after-work crowds into throbbing late-night shopping districts like arteries. In Susukino, the biggest entertainment district north of Tokyo, neon signs shout karaoke! Clubs! Izakaya pubs! But first, I need to eat.

The Susukino branch of revered Suginome restaurant serves melt-on-the-tongue sashimi in a traditional tatami setting. Across the road, the massive kid-pleasing DEN Buffet invites binge fests on snow, hairy or king crab, shabu-shabu and zangi fried chicken.

It’s a bitter -7°C though and I’m craving a bowl of hot ramen – Sapporo’s signature is a twisty medium-width noodle in thick miso soup. I wander through the incredibly narrow Shin Ramen Yokocho (New Ramen Alley), where nook kitchens put their spin on the city’s classic dish, and land in a five-metre shop with a yellow sign showing a noodle-slurping bear. The cook has been throwing flavour bombs with Japanese disco tunes since 1972 – the ramen is some of the best I’ve ever had. Before calling it a night, I stop at Café Noymond to sample a Sapporo dining trend, “shime parfait” – carefully constructed desserts matched with booze.

A bowl of ramen.
You can find the best ramen in Sapporo in Shin Ramen Yokocho in New Ramen Alley.

In the sea-bound, green-pastured landmass of Hokkaido, home to almost 5.5 million people, the unique food culture is heavy on seafood – everything from scallops and prawns to sea urchin and crab – but the cornucopia is also made up of other oddities like raw milk ice-cream, Jingisukan (a barbecued mutton dish), tripe and vending machines cranking out hot cans of specialty corn soup.

Another quintessentially Japanese way of warming up on a cold day is, of course, the onsen (a natural hot spring). The next morning I hop on board the Kappa Liner Bus at JR Sapporo station for the 70-minute trip into onsen territory. Volcanic Hokkaido is hot-spotted with mineral springs and the village of Jozankei is famed for ryokans (traditional Japanese inns with private onsen) and free public footbaths that look like fancy bus stops, where you soak for longevity or friendship.

Bathing is about wellness but also bonding – and inside Hoheikyo Onsen, a mountainside bathhouse open to day-trippers, I commune. Naked. Dropping the towel in the women-only section (men have their own), I copycat the ritual of scrubbing before soaking and by the time I expose myself to the open-air onsen I’m feeling loose and liberated. Ta-da! This is bliss.

The Hoheikyo Onsen in Sapporo, Japan.
The steamy waters at the mountainside Hoheikyo Onsen are great for your skin.

Steam from the 39°C water swirls into frigid air and blooms of sodium, calcium and hydrogen carbonate – a miracle for the skin, I’m told – dissolve as I wallow in the idyllic winterscape. Even with my head resting on a pillow of snow, falling snowflakes sizzle on my aura before touching my face. When it approaches over-hot, I snap an icicle off a rock and let it melt down my back. Hiss, crack. That’s more like it.