The annual Yuki Matsuri, ‘snow festival’ in Japanese, was the main reason that I went to Sapporo, and also one of the highlights of my Japan trip. It was my first ever winter spent outside of Australia, and I never anticipated how cold it would be.
Day one in Sapporo: I left Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon, catching an express bus from Shinjuku to Narita (about 2000 yen) and took a Jetstar flight from Narita to New Chitose ($400 AUD return).
The accommodation that I had booked for my short stay in Sapporo was a hostel style AirBNB, and up until that day, I had had very little contact with them and was worried about how I was going to find the place, as the directions on their AirBNB site were written completely in Japanese.
Luckily, when I got to New Chitose airport, a woman asked me if I spoke Japanese and I said I did. She was with a small group of friends from the Philippines, and coincidentally also happened to be going to Hosuisusukino, the subway stop that I was going to. Her name was Lizette and fortunately for me, she happened to be a Couch Surfing host and offered her place for me to stay at later in the month. When we got to Hosuisusukino (about 30-40 minutes from New Chitose) we parted ways. I asked the station attendant how to read the AirBNB’s directions and he told me how to get there. My AirBNB turned out in fact to be a 3 minute walk from Hosuisusukino station. It was easy to find and very conveniently located, which I was very happy about.
Traveling on my own, I wasn’t hindered by other people’s needs, so I had decided to get out of my comfort zone and book a hostel. It was daunting at first because of the horror stories, but I had a really comfortable stay at my AirBNB hostel. It was very new, having been built only in December 2014, and the facilities, and location were very comfortable.
I checked in at Sappo Lodge on Sunday around 5pm and after settling in, I went out for dinner in nearby Susukino. Surrounded by so much good food, I was indecisive about what and where to eat, and ended up picking one restaurant called Cocochi Robata, simply because it said it had an English menu.
I ordered a few dishes which all came out at different times. The restaurant staff didn’t speak much English and couldn’t explain what it was, except that it was some kind of fish or fish part, and was a Hokkaido specialty. It was very salty and had a similar kind of taste to mentaiko, which I love.
Hokkaido, with more space than the rest of the islands in Japan, has incorporated more soil grown vegetables into their cuisine, such as potatoes. The potato was cooked nicely and served with a salty and creamy fish sauce on the side.
Like with the vast majority of seafood in Japan, the salmon and salmon roe ochazuke was extremely fresh, with perfectly cooked rice. I had a good meal here, but it wasn’t amazing. After finishing up, I walked the streets of Sapporo admiring the city lights and freezing in my boots which weren’t keeping my toes warm enough for the below zero weather.
I then walked over to Odori Park nearby, where the annual Yuki Matsuri is held. It was crowded at the park, with most of the public being made up of tourists from other Asian countries like Korea and China, with a few Americans. I regretted eating at the restaurant once I got here as I saw a lot of food stalls with cheap and delicious looking food on display.
My clothes weren’t nearly warm enough, so I decided to warm myself up with a hot drink. Amazake is a sweet rice wine with low alcoholic content that is served hot and traditionally drank in winter in Japan. It was being served at one of the food stalls and I had heard of it but never tried it before as it’s uncommon in Australia. I was excited when I saw it on the menu and ordered it, but was sickened by its sweet alcoholic taste. Amazake is usually around 2% alcohol or lower, but I could really taste it in this drink and I did not like it one bit. It was a struggle to finish it.
In front of this ice sculpture, there were girls performing a song and dance in schoolgirl outfits.
The snow sculptures had simple details and were large and impressive to behold. Fitting in with the majority of things in Japan, everything was very cute and seemingly made to appeal to children.
After walking around a little bit, I decided to head back to the hostel for the evening. There was a bar/cafe on ground level of the hostel with a lounge area as well. It was cosy and warm so I took my laptop and camera down to upload photos before bed.
There were people frequenting the bar who weren’t staying at Sappo Lodge, and before long two Japanese salarymen came in and sat down at the table next to me. They sat next to me for some time before initiating conversation, and I was surprised that they spoke some English. After chatting for a little while in broken Japanese and English, they offered me a beer which I didn’t want to accept, but felt rude not to. I had been drinking on Thursday, Friday and Saturday already, so this would make it the fourth night in a row. We continued chatting about our backgrounds- they were both working and living in Sapporo and had just finished work before coming to chill at Sappo Lodge. They highly recommended coming back to Sapporo in the summer time, as it wasn’t humid in the summer months, like the rest of Japan.
After finishing one beer, I was exhausted and not keen on accepting another drink which was being offered, so I hurried up to my dorm and went to sleep. There were four beds in the female dorm, with enough space beside each bed to fit a large suitcase next to it (perfect for me). On the first night, there was only one other girl in the dorm room with me and she was very quiet, so I had a comfortable sleep.
Day two in Sapporo: The next day I awoke to sounds of luggage being dragged out and things being banged against the hardwood floors and walls. I went back to sleep after this and awoke around 9 or 10am still feeling exhausted. I got ready and waited for Will to meet me at Sappo Lodge. He had arrived in Sapporo that morning from Osaka and was also coming to see Yuki Matsuri.
After picking me up from Sappo Lodge, W and I walked around the neighbourhood chatting about how we both did not miss Sydney one bit and about how much we didn’t want to go home. We found a restaurant nearby to have lunch at before going to Odori Park.
I love all the presentation that goes into Japanese meals. My meal consisted of hot soba noodles, a few pieces of sushi, tempura and seaweed + daikon to add to the soba.
After finishing breakfast, W and I walked to Odori Park and looked around for awhile. There were a few things I was able to see in daylight that I hadn’t noticed the previous night, such as this igloo promoting AirBNB.
Despite having eaten a full meal already, the food stalls were too tempting and I ended up eating more at Odori Park.
After walking around for a bit in the freezing cold, I felt as if I was going to freeze to death so I said goodbye to Will, who was going to look around the Yuki Matsuri a bit more.
I walked back to Sappo Lodge to warm up a bit and found that there was another girl who had just checked into the female dorm- her name was Lindsay and we became friends immediately and made plans to go out for dinner that night. I stayed at Sappo Lodge warming up for a little bit, before heading out around 6pm to meet Lindsay at a ramen restaurant in Susukino. I got a little bit lost but managed to get there on time. The restaurant, called Sumire, was highly recommended to us by the staff at Sappo Lodge. It specialised in miso ramen, which the region of Hokkaido is well known for.
Using a machine to place our orders (common in Japan for cheap, casual restaurants such as ramen restaurants) we paid about 1000 yen and gave our printed tickets to a waitress. We didn’t have to wait long before our ramen was served.
This was the first bowl of miso ramen that I have ever had and it did not disappoint. The broth was rich and hearty, lightened with a heap of shallots. The noodles were my favourite kind- thick, wavy and chewy yellow egg noodles. After finishing our meal, Lindsay and I walked around Susukino admiring the bright lights and ice sculptures.
After wandering the streets for a little while, Lindsay introduced me to Mister Donut, a popular chain in Japan.
After indulging in our sweet treats, Lindsay and I found a bar called Electric Sheep nearby (name inspired by Blade Runner) and had a few drinks there. The bar was modern and had a Western influence judging from the fact that they didn’t have any Japanese beers, and its neon lights, reminiscent of 80’s decor and style.
I still find it strange that more than one bar that I’ve been to in Japan does not stock Japanese beer/whiskey.
After our second round of drinks here, Lindsay and I decided to head home. When we got back to our AirBNB hostel, we met another traveller, Bonnie, who we made plans to meet up with the following day.
Day three: It turned out that Lindsay and I both had plans to visit the beer museum in Sapporo, so we decided to go together the following day. We caught the subway from Hosuisusukino to JR Sapporo station and looked around for something to eat. One of the things I love most about Japan are the large, bustling train stations with restaurants and shops galore- if you miss a train, there’s always something to amuse yourself with. Linds and I decided to grab something in JR Sapporo station. We found a soup curry restaurant and decided to eat there. Soup curry is a Hokkaido specialty and Japanese food not commonly found in other regions of Japan. Our AirBNB hosts had highly recommended trying it while we were in Sapporo.
I am beginning to feel like everything I write about food in Japan is generic (because it is all delicious) so I’ll keep it brief. The soup curry was thick, hearty and peppery, with tender, fatty meat and perfectly cooked vegetables. It was a heavy dish and Linds and I had to try our very best to finish everything on our plates.
After our delicious meal, Linds I met Will at the station, and the three of us walked from Sapporo station to the beer museum using Google Maps.
Entrance to the beer museum was free, with the option of a guided tour for 500 yen, which we declined.
I noticed more Western foreigners at Sapporo beer museum than I had seen in the past two days- they must have all been hiding here. The museum was mostly filled with foreign tourists and only a small handful of Japanese people.
After looking around the museum, Linds, Will and I proceed to the beer hall, where we were given two choices- one full sized beer, or three mini beers. The single beer was less than 500 yen, and I think the choice of three small beers was 500 yen.
There was also an ice creamery in the beer hall, and me being me, I couldn’t go past without having some.
The three of us finished up at the beer museum around 2 or 3pm and walked back to JR Sapporo station. Will went back to his friend’s place, while Linds and I caught a train to the port-side town of Otaru. From JR Sapporo station it was 30-40 minute train ride to JR Otaru station. When we got to Otaru station though, Linds wanted to check out a cafe with stained glass, and we ended up having to catch the train back one stop in the direction we had came from.
Bonnie joined us at the cafe, and from there, the three of us walked to the canal light up. It began to get very cold as it soon as it started getting dark, and I was freezing, even while wearing my warmest jacket.
It was incredibly crowded at the canal, and it was very difficult to get this one photo of the river. Linds, Bonnie and I were pressed up against people and couldn’t get to the edge of the bridge to get a good picture, people weren’t budging even after they took pictures either, so we didn’t stay in this spot for longer than five minutes. The crowd was mostly made up of Chinese tourists.
The three of us walked down to the riverside and looked at the snow sculptures along the way.
After doing this walk, my hands and feet were freezing. I had never been so cold in my life, and was glad when we finished it and the girls and I decided that it was time to eat dinner. We had specifically come to Otaru to eat sushi, as we’d heard that the seafood here was very fresh. In my experience all the sushi in Japan has been fresh and much better than sushi in Australia, but Otaru sushi was supposed to be top rate.
We found a restaurant nearby and went inside. There were no foreigners there and no English menu either. I think all of us felt reassured, knowing that it was a restaurant that the Otaru locals were going to.
At this restaurant I ate shirako for the second time (the first time was in Osaka). I found that the texture had been very different to the first time I ate shirako. The Osaka shirako had been creamy, whereas this one popped in my mouth, similar to eating ikura.
Whilst eating, the three of us agreed that the sushi was definitely very fresh, some of the best I’ve ever eaten. After dinner, we caught a train back to Sapporo and decided to have an early night.
Day four: I awoke early on Wednesday morning feeling a little sad as I was going back to Tokyo that afternoon. Bonnie, Linds and I got ready and had our last meal together at a restaurant nearby called Ohiso.
The salmon belly was flaky, fatty and delicious. The rice was cooked perfectly (as it always is in Japan).
After eating, the three of us went back to our AirBNB hostel and said goodbye to each other. Bonnie was checking out to go to Niseko, I was going back to Tokyo, while Lindsay was staying in Sapporo for one more night.
After that, I checked out of Sappo Lodge and Linds and I went to Sapporo station together and said our goodbyes there. I caught the train to New Chitose airport and flew back to Tokyo, ready for another week of adventures.