Next year, thousands of domestic and international rugby fans will descend on friendly and laid-back Sapporo, Japan, one of the 2019 Rugby World Cup host cities.
Visitors could be forgiven for thinking that the main draw in between matches would be the city’s iconic beer museum which tells the story of local brewing since 1876.
While the museum is indeed worth visiting, there’s plenty more to discover across this historic and cultural capital.
Just a 90-minute flight from Tokyo, Sapporo is Japan’s gateway to the northern island of Hokkaido and all its natural beauty.
Whether it’s markets, museums or mountains, here are seven ways to get the best out of this Japanese gem.
Odori Park and Sapporo TV Tower
Its name translates as “large street,” but Odori is actually a mile-wide park that stretches through the heart of downtown Sapporo.
Even though Sapporo lacks a hectic big-city feel, Odori still provides a welcome escape with its acres of gardens, sculptures, fountains, lawns and regular festivals.
Foremost amongst them is the Sapporo Snow Festival – there’s snow on the ground in Sapporo for roughly a third of the year – which attracts global visitors for its remarkable illuminated ice sculptures.
The city’s most visible landmark also sits on the eastern side of Odori, the 147-meter Sapporo TV Tower that dates back to 1957. The viewing platform is not to be missed for panoramic vistas and Instagram opportunities.
Sapporo TV Tower, Odori Nishi 1-chome ~ Odori Nishi 12-chome, Chuo-ku, Sapporo; +81 011 251 0438
Sapporo Beer Museum
The Sapporo Sugar Company’s handsome redbrick factory dates back to 1890 and remains one of the city’s most striking and historic architectural legacies.
Since 1987, however, it has served as Japan’s only beer museum, celebrating the nation’s brewing industry and arguably the city’s most famous global brand, Sapporo Breweries Ltd.
Tours highlight the history of beer production, from pioneering 19th-century brewers right up to the present day. And yes, you do get to taste the company’s produce at the end of the tour.
Visitors can then kick back in the multiple venues within the Sapporo Beer Garden – quite possibly sampling more of the brewery’s produce – enjoying food such as Genghis Khan lamb or snow crab and sushi.
Sapporo Beer Museum, Kita 7-jo, Higashi 9-chome 1-1, Higashi-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido; +81 011 748 1876
Odori Park was the original home of an historic, elegant wooden guest house called Hoheikan. Today it sits in Nakajima Park, just south of the city’s main train station.
It was built in 1881 in the Western style by a local master carpenter using Japanese techniques in order to accommodate visiting dignitaries, notably Emperor Meiji who was the first guest to stay the night.
The picture-perfect blue and white façade of the building has made it a popular spot for weddings and corporate events, but it can be visited by the public free of charge.
It’s well worth it for its architecture and beautiful interiors featuring spiral staircases and ornate decoration, underlining why it was designated an “Important Cultural Property of Japan”.
Hoheikan, Nakajima Koen 1-20, Chuo-ku, Sapporo; +81 011 211 1951
For many visitors to Sapporo, the first stop is the atmospheric 100-year-old Nijo Market. In the heart of the city and within walking distance from most major sights, it serves as the perfect introduction to Hokkaido’s legendary bounty of seafood and other produce.
Charismatic stallholders entice locals to stock up on daily needs, while foreign visitors are drawn by the mind-blowing maritime treats such as king crab and scallops, or beautifully arranged vegetables from the rich local soil.
When you’re done stocking up on culinary souvenirs, take your pick from small food stalls selling brilliant sushi and sashimi, but most of all sensational donburi rice bowls, which are most frequently topped with local crab, sea urchin and salmon roe.
Nijo Market, 1 Chome Minami 3 Johigashi, Chuo Ward, Sapporo; +81 11 222 5308
Sapporo Clock Tower
With its red roof and white walls, the city’s clock tower is a big draw for visitors and a distinctive sight in the city’s skyline. In fact the humble but elegant construction has seen the city grow up around it, as it dates back to 1878.
It started life as a training center of the Sapporo Agricultural College, forerunner to the prestigious Hokkaido University, and an exhibition inside charts the tower’s history.
It also explains why its design looks American as it was commissioned by the school’s second vice-principal, Professor William Wheeler, who previously led the Massachusetts Agricultural College.
The bell rings on the hour, as it has done since it was installed more than a century ago, while it’s especially picturesque when illuminated at night.
Sapporo Clock Tower, Kita 1-jo Nishi 2-chome, Chuo-ku, Sapporo; +81 11 231 0838
There’s no better introduction to the culture and history of Hokkaido than at the impressive Hokkaido Museum.
Its collection spans millennia, starting with skeleton reconstructions of two giants that once roamed Hokkaido, Naumann elephants and mammoths, before chronicling the island’s unique ecosystems.
Of particular interest is the focus on the Ainu, an indigenous people who have lived in the region for millennia. The museum – along with a dedicated Ainu Heritage Museum that provides a deeper dive – explores the generations of Ainu culture, deepens historical recognition and celebrates their unique story.
Hokkaido Museum, Atsubetsu-cho Konopporo 53-2, Atsubetsu-ku, Sapporo; +81 011 898 0466
Just a short ride from downtown, Mount Moiwa is covered in primeval forest and offers spectacular views over the city, particularly at sunset as Sapporo begins to light up beneath you.
Once you get there, you take a combination of a ropeway car and then a mini cable car for the final stretch up to the summit.
It’s home to an observation deck, planetarium and restaurant serving plates with a pretty romantic view.
Talking of romance, there’s a ‘Bell of Happiness’ that you can ring together with your beloved, while they even encourage couples to leave a padlock on the railing declaring their love. Aw.
Mt Moiwa, Yubinbango 064-0942, Chuo-ku, Sapporo Fushimi 5-chome No. 3, Sapporo; +81 011 561 8177