24 Hours in Sapporo in Winter

As cold wind from Siberia blows over the Sea of Japan, it picks up a tremendous amount of moisture. When this moist air runs into the mountains of Japan, it releases the moisture in the form of snow. This effect makes Japan one of the snowiest places on Earth. If you are like me and love the aesthetic of fresh snow, there aren’t many places in the world better than Northern Japan to see it. During my winter vacation in 2020 I decided to travel to northern Japan to experience this snow for myself. I planned to first fly into New Chitose Airport in Sapporo. Then, over the next nine days, I would slowly travel south by train before ending the trip in Tokyo.

Unfortunately for me, 2020 ended up being one of the least snowy years on record. Sapporo, home to the yearly snow festival, had to import snow from other areas in order to build snow sculptures. This was a disappointment for sure, as I traveled to northern Japan specifically to see the snow. However, the trip was already planned so I would still see what I could despite the lack of snow!

My planned route for my nine day trip starting in Sapporo and ending in Tokyo while stopping at various towns and points of interest along the way.

24 Hours in Sapporo

I arrived to Sapporo early in the morning so that I would have a day to explore the city. The first thing I always do when arriving in Japan is picking up a rail pass. Train travel in Japan can be very expensive. However, this cost can be mitigated using one of various different rail pass options available exclusively to tourists. For this trip I purchased a JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass that would give me unlimited train rides on my choice of six days over a ten day period. By planning my route around these days I saved myself a very considerable amount on train fares.

JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass
Picking up my JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass after arriving at New Chitose Airport.

With rail pass in hand I hopped on the train to head directly to Sapporo city. My plan was to drop my luggage off at my hotel, find somewhere to eat, and then head out to explore. On my short walk to my hotel, my route took me by a man holding up a sign for a ramen shop. He noticed that I was a foreigner and struck up a conversation with me in English. He told me about his small ramen shop just down the street and recommended their specialty – crab ramen! It sounded good to me so I followed him to the shop and ordered the crab ramen. A nice hot bowl of ramen tastes amazing on cold winter days. Feeling warmed by a hearty meal, I continued on to my hotel.

Japanese ramen noodles
My bowl of crab ramen. It was quite good!
Japanese temple
A large temple that was next door to my hotel.

If you walk around any relatively large city in Japan you will always find interesting temples. I found this one right next to my hotel. Unfortunately due to its location in a dense city, I didn’t have any good angles to take a picture from.

Walking Around Downtown Sapporo

My first destination in Sapporo was Sapporo Odari Park, which is home to the Sapporo Snow Festival. I would wager that the overwhelming majority of visitors to Sapporo in winter come to visit the Snow Festival. However, I came a few weeks early due to when I had days off work from teaching English back in Korea. It would have been nice to see the festival in all of its glory, but I did get to catch a sneak peek as preparations for the festival were already underway. The usual open walking areas were roped off. Heavy machinery lifted large amounts of snow as construction on snow sculptures began. They were too early in the build to know what they would become, but I enjoyed watching the builders work.

Sapporo Snow Festival
Builders working on giant snow sculptures for the upcoming Sapporo Snow Festival.
Sapporo Clock Tower
The famous Sapporo Clock Tower behind scaffolding as workers prepare for the Snow Festival.

While most of the cities in Japan are centuries old, Sapporo was founded only in the late 1800s. Because it is a relatively newer city, it lacks much of that distinctly Japanese architecture that you see in other parts of the country. One of the most famous buildings in Sapporo is the Former Hokkaido Government building. First built in 1873, it is designed to follow architecture that was popular in America at the time. As someone who has traveled to almost every corner of Japan, walking around Sapporo and seeing these buildings with western architecture makes it almost feel like you aren’t even in Japan at all.

Former Hokkaido Government Building in Sapporo in winter
The former Hokkaido Government Building. A combination of its unique to Japan architecture with Japanese style landscaping is an interesting sight!

The Sapporo Beer Museum

After enjoying a walk around the Sapporo city center, I started to make my way towards the Sapporo Beer museum. It’s located about 2.5km away from downtown Sapporo, so I decided to just walk to see the sights along the way. I’m not a big beer drinker myself, but I had heard that the museum is worth a visit so I decided to check it out. I usually don’t take any pictures within museums and just enjoy the experience. Museum websites always have better pictures without crowds anyways! Overall I enjoyed my time there, and, given that it has free entry, I’d say it was worth every penny! Definitely stop by if you have the time when you are in Sapporo.

Sapporo Beer Museum with snow
Arriving at the Sapporo Beer Museum after a long walk in the cold.
The gift shop in the Sapporo Beer Museum sold a few varieties of Pringles featuring famous Hokkaido flavors. This one looked to be some kind of butter clam flavor. I didn’t buy any, but looking back at the picture now as I write this I almost wish I did.

After spending a couple hours at the museum, the sun had begun to set. My next plan was to take the ropeway to the top of Mount Moiwa, which is supposed to have the best night view of Sapporo. As I walked back to the Sapporo city center from the beer museum, snow began to fall on the city. On one hand, I finally got what I had asked for in coming to northern Japan in winter. On the other hand, this snow might ruin my view from the mountain! Because I would soon be leaving Sapporo to begin the journey south, I wouldn’t have another opportunity to go up the ropeway. I decided it would be best to just try anyways despite the weather and hope for the best.

Snowy streets of Sapporo
It took less than 24 hours in Hokkaido to experience my first snowfall!

Mount Moiwa – The Best View in Sapporo

Upon arriving in the building that sells tickets to go up the ropeway, I instantly noticed a live camera from the summit. While the view wouldn’t be perfect, it was good enough for me. Only a couple other people stood in the line to buy tickets; I’m guessing others stayed home due to the weather.

TV with view of Mt Moiwa in Sapporo
The ticket office for the cable car had a TV to show what the view looked like from the top. They posted a warning that the view tonight probably wouldn’t be great due to the snow and fog, but my time in Sapporo was limited and I had no other choice.
Cemetery in snow from above
As the cable car ascended the mountain I could start to see the views below. I think this is a cemetery of some kind.

As I left the cable car station at the summit of Mount Moiwa, a grand view of Sapporo awaited me. The clouds had just blown away enough to catch the incredible view. Visibility didn’t extend much beyond the central city, but it was enough for me. After enjoying the view for a few minutes, the clouds rolled back in to completely obscure the view. Another few minutes and it cleared up again. This cycle continued for the entire time I stayed on the mountain. I was just happy that I was able to catch the full view, even if just momentarily.

View from Mount Moiwa in Sapporo Hokkaido Japan
Despite some clouds, I still had an impressive view of Sapporo from the top of Mount Moiwa!
People on Mount Moiwa Observatory Sapporo
People enjoying the partially obscured view of Sapporo on the Mount Moiwa Observatory.

Aside from the view of the city, people stood in line to take pictures with a bell that shined bright with lights. The stories say that ringing this bell with your lover will ensure that you stay together forever. Or something to that effect. I came here solo so I don’t think it worked for me, but it still made for a decent photo opportunity.

Fortune Bell on Mount Moiwa in Sapporo Japan
Ringing the fortune bell on Mount Moiwa. If you ring this bell with your lover it will supposedly make your love last forever. I went solo on this trip so I did not receive such a blessing.

January in Sapporo is quite cold as is, but then add on the fact that it’s night time and windy on top of the mountain and you have a pretty cold experience. After enjoying the view while it lasted, I decided it was time to head back down to Sapporo and find something hot to eat. When I picked up my rail pass earlier in the day, the cashier recommended that I try soup curry while in Sapporo as it is one of the city’s specialties. Curry is one of my favorite foods, and soup is always good on a cold night, so I felt this to be a perfect opportunity to try it. I found a restaurant not far from my hotel and made my way back to the cable car to return to ground level.

Night view at mount moiwa in Sapporo Japan
Clouds kept rolling in to obscure the view for a few minutes, but then quickly dispersed before repeating the cycle anew. I didn’t have the clearest view overall but still good enough that it was worth the trip!

Returning to Downtown Sapporo

I ended up eating at a restaurant called Suage, which started locally in Sapporo but has since expanded to have more locations in Tokyo and one in Seoul! The restaurant was quite crowded, which I usually take to be a good sign. If locals are lining up to eat there, it must be good. I can’t remember what exactly I ordered, but it tasted great and warmed me up after a long day in the cold. I definitely would recommend trying it if you ever visit Sapporo!

Suage soup curry
My soup curry. I don’t remember exactly which kind I ordered, but it was delicious and a great way to warm up after walking around in the winter cold for so long.

For my two nights in Sapporo I stayed at Centurion Hotel Sapporo [Affiliate Link / Non-affiliate Link]. If you travel to Sapporo during the Sapporo Snow Festival, hotels tend to be quite expensive. However, I traveled a few weeks before the festival started, so hotels were cheap. I only paid $50/night for my stay at Centurion! For a nice room in a great, central location I could not complain with the price. It felt great to lie down after walking around all day. I needed to stay well rested for the next day when I would go on a day trip to Otaru, a small port city to the northwest of Sapporo.

Hotel room
My hotel room in downtown Sapporo that I got for a great price, Centurion Hotel Sapporo [Affiliate Link / Non-affiliate Link]. I think it was so cheap because nobody travels to Sapporo in winter just before the snow festival.