June 24, 2018

On a mild Saturday evening strolling through Sapporo’s Odori Park, I felt an emotion I don’t often experience on a tourism trip: I was sad to be leaving.

During the last week of May I visited Japan for the third time, basing myself at a business hotel in Sapporo and touring a few other places around Hokkaido. Unlike on my past trips, I came by myself and didn’t visit anyone living in Japan. As a result I was singly focused on discovering the sprawling sights and distinct culture of northern Japan.

My trip began with an unexpected 20-hour layover in Seoul. When I bought my tickets I was only planning to stay at Incheon International Airport for a few hours, but a schedule change required me to extend my trip a day earlier. I booked a night at a Western-style hotel in central Seoul, an easy and cheap express train ride from the airport, and spent a humid Saturday evening taking in a few sights including Deoksugung Palace and Namdaemun, home to a historic gate and a 24-hour market offering thousands of fake Supreme garments. Since I know virtually no Korean, I stayed close to the tourist areas and had some excellent (and expensive) barbecue for dinner with the help of some very patient restaurant staff. I had to return to the airport on Sunday morning but I would love to return and see more of South Korea.

It’s clear upon arrival that Sapporo isn’t a big trans-Pacific destination. New Chitose Airport’s international terminal has only six gates and serves East Asia, Southeast Asia, and Honolulu. The immigration and customs experience seemed dated and clumsy, and for some reason every passenger was asked whether they were importing any gold. Unlike other passengers I saw, I was also asked whether I was transporting any of a dozen illegal drugs; a polite agent then searched my bag.

Sapporo is a fascinating city to explore. Home to nearly 2 million people, the city is also a popular domestic tourism destination for skiing, seafood, and a much less humid climate than Tokyo’s during the spring and summer months. The central city is on a neat logical grid with miles of underground passageways full of shops and restaurants. Unfortunately, a lot of the attractions were designed with drivers in mind; the beautiful Isamu Noguchi-designed Moerenuma Park, for example, required me to take a train to a bus and then walk through a series of parking lots. I never rented a car, although I did try cycling around on a rusty rental bike for $5 a day. Like most adults I didn’t wear a helmet and I largely rode on the sidewalks, so Strava shows my first chaotic ride through Sapporo had an average speed of under 7 mph.

The city of Sapporo and its island prefecture of Hokkaido have a complicated history. Although originally populated by an indigenous people today known as Ainu, Hokkaido was forcibly and awkwardly integrated into the rest of Japan, culminating with the island receiving its present name 150 years ago. Today the government appears to be reconciling its past actions, adding Ainu artifacts to public works and opening museums and historical sites that celebrate the island’s history. I was surprised to see so many Americans as historical figures, particularly at Hokkaido University, where William S. Clark (whose exhortation “Boys, be ambitious!” is a local catchphrase) is commemorated in sculpture.

I made a two-legged trip out to Yoichi to visit a large Nikka Whisky distillery, another unusual blending of East and West that has lasted for over 80 years. I had to transfer at the touristy coastal town of Otaru, known for its canals and its excellent sushi (if you go, visit Tatsumi Sushi for a delicious and affordable omakase). The local “one-man train” that connects Otaru with Yoichi is so called because most stations are unstaffed, so the train’s driver also collects fares in cash like a bus driver would. Sapporo itself is still a thriving city but smaller towns in Hokkaido have struggled to stay going as the population ages and urbanizes. Even Yoichi, dominated by the Nikka distillery, has many commercial buildings that just look abandoned.

The Sapporo Dome is home to the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters, who moved from Tokyo 14 years ago to a stadium that was originally built for the 2002 FIFA World Cup. I scored an infield ticket to a Friday afternoon “value” home game for only about $28. The stadium itself is beautiful and modern but also fully enclosed; I hadn’t seen baseball in such a sterile environment since I saw the Fighters play at their old home, the Tokyo Dome, in 2014. Raucous cheering sections and beer-keg-toting vendors kept the energy going, though, as the Fighters thrashed the Chunichi Dragons. An upside of Sapporo being so car-oriented: I had plenty of room on the train back to my hotel. It was also great to see that unlike in Tokyo, which is awash in professional sports, the Fighters are truly a big deal in Sapporo. Logos, goods, and even fast food featuring the Fighters are found throughout the city.

I had a great time visiting northern Japan and I’m glad to be home. Someday I’ll finish off the cookies and whisky I bought there, but until then, they’ll remind me of a surprising multicultural place.