Sapporo: A Walkabout

Sapporo: A Walkabout. The torii at the entrance of Hokkaido Shrine before dawn.
The torii at the entrance of Hokkaido Shrine before dawn.

If we move a little farther out, on foot, we will discover an entirely different vantage point – one that revolves around the everyday life of Sapporians. While it may seem mundane to those living in them, they are treasure to us.

For visitors coming to Sapporo, it is easy to list the major tourist landmarks that make the city famous. There is the Sapporo Clock Tower, the Ishiya Chocolate Factory, the TV Tower, former Prefectural Government Building, and Sapporo Beer Museum, among dozen others.

But if we move a little farther out, we will discover an entirely different vantage point – one that revolves around the everyday life of Sapporians. While it may seem mundane to those living in them, they are treasures to us. After all, they are the bits and pieces that makes Sapporo the enchanting city it is.

We start at the home of a local, Shirai Hiroaki. Mr. Hiroaki is a graphic designer who lives next to Maruyama Park, the western fringe of the city’s core. Among his works are communications and web design for Moerenuma Park and Sapporo International Art Festival (SIAF).

Moerenuma Park is one of the largest parks in Sapporo. It features an iconic glass pyramid by Isamu Noguchi, the artist who also designed the UNESCO headquarter in Paris. SIAF, on the other hand, is a contemporary art festival. It started in 2014 under the direction of the famed composer Ryuichi Nakamoto.

Sapporo: A Walkabout. Shirai Hiroaki's converted loft and bed in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Another view of Shirai Hiroaki's converted loft in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Shirai Hiroaki's converted loft and workstation in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Shirai Hiroaki, a graphic designer who lives next to Maruyama Park, Sapporo.

The Hokkaido Shrine exudes an air of sacredness that permeates through the virgin woods of magnolia, maple, and oak trees. Its structure was built in 1870 and reconstructed in 1978 after a devastating fire. Today, it enshrines four kami including the soul of the Emperor Meiji.

Mr. Hiroaki is part of Sapporo’s thriving service-oriented economy based on information technology, retail, and tourism. Started to develop in the 1850s, this Ishikari Plain of the Ainu became the capital of Hokkaido in 1868.

In the early 20th century, Sapporo’s agricultural industry flourished. Sapporo Brewery, Japan’s first beer brand, rose to fame and became synonymous with the city itself. Eventually, manufacturing and services start to grow, resulting in the modern economic structure we see in Sapporo today.

Walking westward towards the city centre, we first need to go through Maruyama Park. Maruyama Park is home to a number of Sapporo’s landmarks, including Maruyama Zoo, Maruyama Stadium, and Hokkaido Shrine.

The Hokkaido Shrine, in particular, exudes an air of sacredness that permeates through the virgin woods of magnolia, maple, and oak trees. This Shinto structure was built in 1870 and reconstructed in 1978 after a devastating fire. Today, it enshrines four kami including the soul of the Emperor Meiji.

Sapporo: A Walkabout. Man reading newspaper as he was in the Maruyama Park in the morning. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Another entrance of Hokkaido Shrine, Sapporo. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Inner courtyard of the Hokkaido Shrine. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Water pavilion in Hokkaido Shrine for spiritual purification. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Tied up o-mikuji (fortune papers) in front of the main shrine in Hokkaido Shrine. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Main structure of Hokkaido Shrine. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Visitors praying in the outer prayer hall of Hokkaido Shrine.

A distinctive feature of Sapporo’s cityscape is the tram network that runs on its thoroughfares. These streetcars, reminiscent of the city during its infancy, traverse Sapporo’s downtown core since 1909.

Exiting the east side of Maruyama Park, we arrive at Sapporo’s city core. Unlike a typical Japanese city, Sapporo’s urban layout adheres to the logic of Western municipal design.

The streets are arranged into a semi-grid system with arterial thoroughfares, such as Kita-Ichijo Miyanosawa Dori, running across the city’s east-west corridor. Although the smaller streets run parallel to those thoroughfares, they are usually discontinued after several blocks, resulting in a grid system with jagged lines.

A distinctive feature of Sapporo’s cityscape is the tram network that runs on its thoroughfares. These streetcars, reminiscent of the city during its infancy, has been in operation since 1909. They used to be drawn by horse until 1918 when the whole system was electrified.

After the opening of Sapporo’s subway system and the spread of automobile ownership, the tram network shrank from 11 lines to the 3 currently in operation. For many, This tram network is a relic of Sapporo’s former self.

Sapporo: A Walkabout. A distinctive feature of Sapporo’s cityscape is the tram network that runs on its thoroughfares. Sapporo: A Walkabout. A small street in Sapporo. Sapporo: A Walkabout. A back alley in Sapporo, Hokkaido. Sapporo: A Walkabout. A restaurant in Sapporo. Sapporo: A Walkabout. A barbershop in Sapporo.

People in Sapporo would often leave their personal belongings inside their bicycle baskets when they go into a neighbourhood grocery shop. A norm, yes. But unthinkable in the West.

Walking into the smaller streets, we see the concrete mid-rise apartments common throughout the city. They are often new and incorporate small restaurants, barbershops, or other small businesses on the ground floor. The side of the buildings are parked with vending machines and bicycles. Bicycles are common transportation for locals, regardless of weather. They are often parked outside unlocked.

Sapporo, as well as most part of Japan, has such a low petty crime rate that bicycle thefts are rare. It is even rarer not to have missing bicycles recovered by the police. Another example is how people in Sapporo would often leave their personal belongings inside their bicycle baskets when they go into a neighbourhood grocery shop. A norm, yes. But unthinkable in the West.

As we move further east, buildings become taller. Soon, we reach the commercial core of Sapporo, anchored by the Odori Park, a mini version of Manhattan’s Central Park. It stretches over 13 blocks of city core, from Sapporo TV Tower on one side to Shiryokan on the other. Shiryokan is the former Court of Appeals and now an archives museum.

Because Sapporo is a relatively young city, it does not have the traditional architectures seen in other parts of Japan. This, as well as considerable European influence during Hokkaido’s development in the Meiji Era, led to most of Hokkaido’s historical building styles to be of European origin. The most iconic example is the former Hokkaido Prefectural Government Building, constructed with red bricks in an American Baroque Revival style in 1888.

Sapporo: A Walkabout. A food alley in the heart of Sapporo city. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Restaurants in Sapporo's food alley preparing to open for the night. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Frozen ice on the hood of a restaurant in Sapporo. Sapporo: A Walkabout. A restaurant in Sapporo's dining district.

Sapporo is a young city. What it lacks in tradition, it makes up in inexperience. This city is energetic and modern, always experimenting, always evolving.

Walking south from Odori Park, we can window-shop along the underground pathway to Susukino, Hokkaido’s largest entertainment district. There, we can enjoy some of the best meals Sapporo has to offer. One option is Hokkaido’s very own Genghis Khan – a traditional cuisine of grilled mutton. Though this district is controlled by the yakuza, it is safe for people to visit, even at night.
In all, Sapporo is a young city. What it lacks in tradition, it makes up in inexperience. This city is energetic and modern, always experimenting, always evolving. It is a refreshing contrast to the more settled undercurrent of Tokyo and Kyoto. And let’s not forget Sapporo’s legendary snowfall in the winter seasons, which essentially turns this global metropolis into one of the most beautiful fantasyland on earth.

Sapporo: A Walkabout. Sapporo's central entertainment district. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Sapporo's central entertainment district. Sapporo: A Walkabout. These streetcars, reminiscent of the city during its infancy, traverse Sapporo’s downtown core since 1909. Sapporo: A Walkabout. Ramen Alley, Sapporo.

 

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