Sapporo is a city, you thought, not a ski town? Well think again! Everybody who skis or boards knows Hokkaido is the powder capital of the planet, and Sapporo is a worthy powder capital of Hokkaido.
There is great skiing at some of the snowiest resorts in all of Japan (which therefore means all the World) right on the city’s doorstep at Kokusai and Sapporo Teine. Both around 45 minutes cheap bus ride from the city centre, these areas provide fantastic skiing that midweeks is often very uncrowded.
Sapporo Kokusai skiing
Kokusai seems to have got on European powder radars big time. Every time we go there we meet groups from all over in the gondolas and competing for best lines. Swedes, Danes, Dutch, they are all onto it. But that’s OK, it snows so much at Kokusai – almost as much as nearby Kiroro – that it fills in fast.
So get there early and bomb a few lines on the top hooded express quad that went in for the 2016-2017 season. Then head out skiers right from the top of the gondola after the little 30m hike up the knoll.
Stay skier’s left from here, closer to the main run at Kokusai, and you can’t get lost or into much trouble. Heading skier’s right – which as it gets tracked you need to do – you end up with a long gully traverse line out which crosses the creek several times and so really should go with someone and know what you are doing. Hiking further out go with someone who knows the way, it’s deceptive how little a change in your line from the top equates to way more traversing back out.
Even with the European competition getting 3 or 4 top chair powder lines and another 3 – 4 gondola powder laps in the close side country should be very achievable. By then it will often be snowing so much on an average day that things are filling in again, and the Euros will be inside eating pizzas at the great food court. So skip lunch and often there’s more on offer. For example, out the other way to skiers left it often snows plenty over the top of the grooming, and you can try the other express quad from the base for variety.
That’s the powder side of things at Kokusai, for cruising there are nice long runs back to the base off the gondola. As there is so often fresh snow on top of the grooming it’s usually a good way to work on acquiring some powder skills and confidence.
On the downside sometimes local school groups can crowd things up for a lap or two on the gondola, but they soon get moved around. Some of the new western guests queue like they were at home these days too which is pretty rude. Some Russian guy climbed in with his skis and got them stuck under my leg, then instead of apologising or anything he just shoved my knee aside to yank the ski out, so I let him have it – the first time in 15 years of Japow skiing I have ever lost it with anyone in a lift situation! The same group had stomped all over the school kids waiting patiently in line on the get on apron too, so I was doubly cranky at them.
Sapporo Teine skiing
Sapporo Teine, the other major resort option close to the city, is visible from many downtown hotels. If the weather lifts off you get an instant ski report, able to see where you will soon be enjoying some of the best lift-accessed tree skiing in Hokkaido. The back side ‘Kitakabe’ or North Face run off the Highlands lift at Teine runs up to 36° gradient on the official run, with maybe 1000′ vertical feet at a decent pitch steeper than that depending on your line.
We arrived at lunchtime midweek and I was amazed how few people were there. Off the sides off the main run there were still knee deep fresh laps to be had and almost no one else skiing it.
Even Niseko locals who watch the weather patterns will sometimes make the 2 hours plus drive over to enjoy far less crowded runs then they would be contending with back there.
The resort is split between two separate section, the lower Teine Olympia area – which boasts a summer theme park, and the upper Teine Highlands area. A gondola up and green trail down links the two, but unless you are a beginner it’s best to head straight to the Highland zone. That said, the steepest official course in the whole resort is the Olympics Cauldron run at 38°. You can get a 6km long cruise over 680m vertical if you ski all the way down top-to-bottom.
There are plenty of facilities here, designed to cope with weekend crowds, including another nice big food court operating on the usual ticket system to get what you want. The custard filled hot cake/cookie stand by the doorway is perfect for a sugar hit before heading out again.
Apart from the great North Face run and associated side country, the Teine Highland zone has the H1 and H2 pair lifts up top. These access cruisy ridgeline runs that have spectacular views over the city and Ishikari Bay.
Getting to Teine is simplest using the Big Runs return bus & full day lift package for ¥6,900 or ¥4,400 primary school age kids – picks up from downtown hotels, for example for the Sapporo Prince at 8:20am gets you to Highlands at 9:20am. Check the link here for booking details/times.
Without the bus day passes are ¥5,200 adult, ¥2,500 primary school, ¥3,700 middle school or seniors 60 plus.
A taxi from downtown is around ¥5,500 each way, 40 minutes, or ¥2,700 around 15 minutes from Teine JR station.
Teine is also only 60 minutes or so by car from New Chitose Airport for first or last day fun, or a bit longer via rail.
There’s a bit more variety overall at Teine than Kokusai, and between them they are certainly worth 3 or 4 days. Which makes Sapporo a fully-fledged ski ‘resort’ in our book. After many fleeting visits, usually as last or first night in Hokkaido option, for the past couple of years we have stayed the extra nights to allow more skiing here, and discover more of the restaurants and nightlife as well.
Sapporo nightlife and dining
No other ski area in Japan can compete with the range of restaurants, shopping and nightlife in Sapporo. It’s a city of 2 million after all.
The Susukino District is Japan’s largest entertainment district north of Tokyo, packed with bars, restaurants and stores. Last year we ended up in a salsa bar, this time round a funky little Italian restaurant bar.
Our favourite area to wander at night, especially if it’s snowing, is the historic covered Tanukikoji arcade. It runs east to west in downtown Sapporo from Nishi-1-chome to Nishi-7-chome for about a kiloometre. Being covered, it’s great when the weather is bad. It was developed during the frontier period of the late 19th century when merchant houses and restaurants began to pop up in what is known today as the Tanukikoji. Tanuki means a raccoon dog, those cute critters you see on the road signs. The arcade is great to explore, with lots of funky shops, karaoke bars and tiny little restaurants. They seem to share various facilities from toilets to entrances, but it all works well and every night is a different experience here.
Another good venue to check out is the enclosed old beer factory site which has shops, eateries, and cinemas.
Sapporo International Ice Festival
Remember to wear clip on crampons walking around the city, it’s icy. Well of course it’s icy, otherwise all the magnificent Sapporo International Ice Festival sculptures would melt!
Apart from the amazing artwork, they feature light show illuminations some of which are next level. These feature stories from popular video games. This year Final Fantasy XIV: Arctic Armageddon proved a winner – the game popular in Japan since 1987 now claims over 30 million worldwide accounts. It had the best display in our book, and we don’t even play it.
The whole thing goes for 12 city blocks, 1.5km, along Odori Park.
There are lines of food, drink and souvenir stores a bit like a big fair. Apart from great Japanese food you could choose from the French Moet Ice Lounge or the humbler Aussie Yellowtail wine stall among the offerings this year.
Throngs of happy people move along checking out the different zones and performances on offer. There’s a massive big air event structure, slides, an ice rink, and the whole thing is lit up from sundown to 10pm nightly. 2019 will be the 70th anniversary, so it’s likely to be even better than usual.
The famous international ice sculpture competition takes place at the Susukino Ice World site a few blocks away.
The separate family fun Tsudome Site, with tubing, ice sliding and Waku-Waku (sled) sliding is open 9:00 – 17:00 and accessible via the Toho Subway line.
All the big department stores, underground arcades, and lots of those only-in-Japan shopping experiences adds up to plenty for all those who love shopping as much, or more, than snow stuff. It’s all a lot more accessible than in sometimes overwhelming Tokyo. For couples where enthusiasm for shopping varies it’s another great reason to stay here for a few nights. One skis, one shops, both happy.
The centrally located Nijo seafood market is a must to see where all your sashimi and everything else is coming from, one of the easiest accessed big seafood markets in Japan.
Hokkaido is of course renowned for its fresh food and produce from the veggies to the dairy to the meat to the seafood and this is as good as it gets for the latter, apart from maybe the crab street along the canal in Otaru. There is a huge choice of eateries to sample it all around the area.
Sapporo other sites
One of the biggest thermal spring areas in Japan is just outside town in the Jozankei valley area. This is on the way to Kokusai, and staying in one of the many onsen hotels here works well to ski there and beat the Europeans to first tracks. Or drop into one for an onsen on the way down.
Suzuran Park, 40 minutes from the city, offers a change of on-snow pace with cross country ski tracks. The little base lodge has plenty of ski & boot sets for hire, even fitting my size 11 feet, but no rental clothing. Not to worry, XC skiing is energetic, so I whipped off my jeans and headed out in just the trusty Vigilante thermals. There’s a 5km track to a frozen waterfall, an easy and scenic skate on skinny skis through a beautiful forest.
It got me thinking in the scheme of things Sapporo is quite like Vancouver as an active lifestyle city with so much right behind town.
Where to stay in Sapporo
Japanese cities generally have some great value hotels, which offer much more than you would get for the money in most western countries. We like the Sapporo Prince for its great location, big buffet breakfast and nice hot bath. Plus the distinctive round tower is easy to spot for finding your way home at night. At around $AUD 90 a double its pretty awesome value.
But there are plenty of options to pay less or more.
Getting to Sapporo
The international flight options to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport keep increasing, with plenty of Asian airlines flying there. For inter-continental visitors from Europe, North America or Australia these may be as quick as connections via Tokyo.
The shinkansen is coming, already reaching Hakkodate now, and with a JR East / South Hokkaido Rail Pass offering 6 days travel in 14 days you can easily make two island itineraries using the rail pass.
Hokkaido Resort Liner buses are a relaxed way to get between the major resorts, the airport and Sapporo.
If 600cm average snowfall a season in the city centre doesn’t faze you then self driving is pretty easy too, it’s well laid out.
Sapporo useful links for more info
The Sapporo Travel site is a great start www.sapporo.travel
The Hokkaido Travel site is also good
Hokkaido Ski Promotional Council have info on the local areas
The Tourist offices around town are very helpful too. If you are planning to visit and stay in Ice Festival time book well ahead, otherwise there are usually no problems.