Sapporo is the fifth largest city in Japan, with almost two million people. It’s the main city on the northernmost island of Japan, called Hokkaido. The region gets a huge amount of snowfall in the winters, has amazing skiing (it hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics), and the city holds an annual Snow Festival with amazing snow and ice sculptures (called the Yuki Matsuri). The summers are fairly mild, making it a popular destination to escape the crazy heat for people from the more southern islands of Japan.
Sapporo is not the modern city that Tokyo or Osaka are, nor is it the cultural enclave that Kyoto is. You can’t help but feel like much of the city (especially the hotels) were built for the 1972 Olympics and haven’t really changed since then. Everything is clean and in good shape, it just feels a little bit like a step back in time. It’s a real city, with real people who are friendly and talkative. They’re really into their local sports teams, they love craft beer, dairy and meat. If Sapporo were an American city, it would be somewhere between a Chicago and a Cleveland (in the best possible way!). I love Sapporo, and highly recommend a stop in Hokkaido if you’re planning a trip to Japan.
There are a few local dishes that Sapporo is famous for, so make sure you indulge in these five foods as often as possible!
1. Soft Cream. The island of Hokkaido is known for its dairy, and soft cream is the best possible form of dairy to indulge in (there’s plenty of cheese, but the Japanese cheese scene is not as evolved as Europe’s or even the US’s). Sweet cream is the standard flavor, and besides being outrageously creamy you can somehow truly taste the sweetness of the cream. You can also find a wider range of flavors in some places, like matcha, lavender, chocolate and strawberry.
The best soft cream that we’ve had in Sapporo comes from Ice Cream Penguin-dou, which starts the day at 12:30 as a soft serve parlour, then converts into a small bar in the evenings. They pair sweet cream soft cream with homemade gelato in seasonal flavors. No need to choose sides in the soft cream v. gelato debate!
2. Miso Ramen. Different areas of Japan have slightly different takes on the iconic Japanese dish, and Hokkaido uses a rich miso broth (usually finished with a pat of butter). There’s the ubiquitous Japanese ramen alley, but we found our favorite miso ramen at a local chain called Tetsuya Brothers Ramen, or Ramen Tetsuya (the different locations have slightly different names). They also offer a salt broth, which is equally delicious. The noodles are perfectly chewy, the broth is rich without being too heavy, the pork is meltingly tender and the eggs are what every ramen egg aspires to be.
3. Crab. Hokkaido’s cold waters are perfect for crab fishing. The types of crab vary with the season and the freshest catch, but it’s always sure to be delicious (the crab in the photo is horsehair crab). There’s a small fish market in central Sapporo (Nijo Market) where you can buy a crab from one of the vendors then take it to one of the nearby restaurants to have them prepare it for you.
If that sounds daunting, I highly recommend the famous Kani Honke (Crab House) restaurants. There are two in the city, and I suggest the Ekimae location (unless you’d like to see the seedier part of Sapporo, with strip clubs and girl bars, in which case you should go to the Susukino location!). The restaurants have open tanks with a selection of live crabs. You can catch your own, or you can order from an extensive menu and let the restaurant do the work. The crab is incredibly fresh, perfectly cooked and nicely cracked for you already. You can also order tasting sets that have a variety of dishes using crab in different preparations, from tempura to dumplings, and gratin to giant crab legs. I’ve tried both the tasting menu and just ordering a la carte, and my personal preference is the a la carte option. I’d rather spend the money on a whole crab and order a few appetizers that I’m really excited about to go with it. Most of the dishes in the tasting set were unremarkable, but any of the fresh crab is amazing.
4. Donburi or chirashizushi. If your seafood craving isn’t satisfied with just crab, grab donburi or chirashizushi. They’re bowls of rice seasoned with sushi vinegar. You can pick a few toppings for donburi (above), such as different kinds of sashimi, crab, uni or fish roe. Chirashizushi translates as “scattered rice,” which means that it’s topped with a mixture of lots of different kinds of fish, a thin egg omelette sliced into ribbons, and sometimes even various vegetables. If you’re headed to the fish market, you can grab one from a stall there, but they’re not necessarily the best in the city. Ask your hotel’s concierge for suggestions.
5. Jingisu Kan. The Japanese way to say “Genghis Khan,” this is a really interesting preparation of lamb. Your table will have a cooking station with a cast iron dome, and you order different cuts of thinly sliced lamb and vegetables. You cook the meat yourself at your table and wash it down with some draft Sapporo beer for an authentic experience. It’s a warming dish in the winter, and you can find it in one of the city’s many outdoor beer gardens in the summertime.
A bonus tip: Sapporo beer tastes better in Sapporo than anywhere else I’ve had it! There’s a thriving craft beer scene in Sapporo, so maybe you’ll have some great beer options when you dine out. But do not despair if you must drink Sapporo in Sapporo though!
Have you been to Hokkaido? Are there any must-try foods that I missed?