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Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010

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Let it be: A Beatles cover band on stage at Sapporo Cavern Club. DANIEL ROBSON PHOTOS

Sapporo's warm welcome


Special to The Japan Times

With its wide roads laid out in a neat grid, an abundance of greenery and its sleek, modern subway system, Sapporo at first feels more like somewhere in America than in Japan.

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This tanuki statue oversees Tanuki Koji shopping arcade, Sapporo's oldest mall.

The capital of Hokkaido and the nation's fifth-largest city, northerly Sapporo is normally several degrees cooler than the Kanto region in summer. In winter, it's positively freezing — but that's when February's annual Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) draws 2 million visitors to gawp at gigantic sculptures hewn from snow and ice. Beneath Sapporo's cool exterior, though, lies a genuine warmth of heart.

I was in Hokkaido in August to cover a music festival close to the capital, and my free time in Sapporo consisted of two nights and one day, in that order. I knew not a single soul when I got there; I left with plenty of friends.

Sapporo's main entertainment district is Susukino, a small neighborhood that is home to much of the city's nightlife and a good deal of neon. My chosen lodging — Hotel New Budget Sapporo (from ¥5,200/ night; [011] 261-4953; www.newbudget.com ), a no-frills establishment with all the basics and a glorious view of the car park — was located just a few minutes from Susukino Station, whose wide subway trains trundle quietly on rubber tires.

Hokkaido is renowned for its seafood, but despite not being a fish-eater, I still found plenty to salivate over.

On my first night, I strolled along to Ganso Sapporo Ramen Yokocho (No. 4 Green Bldg, Minami 5 Nishi 3-8, Chuo-ku), a corridor in a dowdy building (it was once an uncovered, outdoor alleyway) that houses several ramen shops.

The busiest of these was Mogura ([011] 512-2570), whose clientele included drunk twentysomethings, an unconscious salaryman and, judging by the autographs that crowd the walls, assorted Japanese celebrities. I ordered butter corn miso ramen (¥1,000), a Hokkaido specialty whose sublime soup was creamy before the butter had even melted. Crunchy beansprouts, corn and scallions sat atop firm noodles, smothered by two generous blankets of tender chashu (pork slices).

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Odori Park runs east-west in the city's center.

The nearby Tanuki Koji shopping arcade (www.tanukikoji.or.jp) is the oldest mall in Sapporo. These days, it's a garish collection of karaoke booths, pachinko halls, fortunetellers, shops selling ethnic goods or hip-hop fashion, buskers and, of course, statues of raccoon dogs with unfeasibly large scrotums.

Tanuki Koji is alive even at night, and it was there that I met a friendly street urchin named Ayumu. Noticing him practicing his drumming on the ground, I asked him to recommend a bar that might appeal to a music geek like me.

The upshot was that, though I'm not a big Beatles fan, I wound up at the Sapporo Cavern Club ([011] 512-3370; www.fact-web.com/cavern ), whose walls are covered in Fab Four memorabilia that includes a gold disc for John Lennon's "Imagine," dolls, posters and all manner of vintage guitars. A very convincing Beatles cover band plays lives sets eight days a week, and ¥3,000 grants entry and one drink (check the website for an all-you-can-drink coupon). The only thing missing was a horde of screaming teenage girls.

On night two, I discovered that Amnesty International was staging a special performance by Oki, a local musician of Japanese and Ainu descent who plays tonkori, a five-stringed Ainu instrument whose sound is percussive and enchanting. The show's venue, the small Enyuu Gakusha Hall ([011] 706-2042; www.hokudai.ac.jp/bureau/info-j/enyuu.htm ) at Hokkaido University, was lit by the flicker of candles, while the rustle of the wind in the trees outside was audible over the tonkori's magical lilt and Oki's soft voice.

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Lip-smackin': Butter corn miso ramen is a Hokkaido specialty. This superb example at an eatery named Mogura in the "ramen alley" of Ganso Sapporo Ramen Yokocho featured a sublime, creamy soup, lots of veggies, firm noodles and two generous blankets of tender chashu (pork slices).

The university, known as Hokudai, was founded in 1876 and occupies 3 sq. km just north of Sapporo Station. Its alumni include astronaut Mamoru Mohri and Akira Suzuki, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Wandering its campus in the late evening, I felt a refreshing sense of calm that pervades this spacious, laid-back city. The air was clean and crisp, and the sky seemed somehow bigger than in Tokyo.

Hokkaido's abundance of cattle farms means there's a great selection of dairy products readily available, and so, back in Susukino, I went in search of cheese. And I found it. Cheese Cheese ([011] 271-0100; www.hotpepper.jp/strJ000031295 ) is part of a Hokkaido-only chain owned by the same people who own the Gyu-Kaku yakiniku (beef BBQ) joints, and the branch I happened on was permeated with the smell of pressed milk curd.

The house specialty is fondue (¥1,050) over a charcoal burner: a pot of melted Emmental with white wine, garlic and nutmeg — unfortunately augmented by a generic cream-cheese base that made it congeal in a slightly odd way. Nice, but not exactly authentic. Into this I dipped bread, wieners, broccoli and sweet potato; I also tucked in to a tasty potato gratin (¥700) made from mozzarella, parmesan and that same cream-cheese base.

I finally got to see Sapporo in daylight 36 hours later after returning from a trip to the Ainu village of Nibutani (see The Japan Times for Oct. 24, 2010, or visit jtimes.jp/nibutani ).

Sapporo may be smaller and less densely populated than Tokyo, but it has plenty of distractions for the discerning tourist. I'm not talking about its many art galleries — I hate art galleries almost as much as I hate seafood — but a generous smattering of free attractions spread around the town.

Odori Park is a wide, 1.5-km-long strip of green that stretches east to west across 13 blocks, bisecting the city into north and south. The 1-Chome block houses Sapporo TV Tower, which you can ascend for a fee; 8-Chome boasts a statuesque children's slide called "Black Slide Mantra" that was created in 1988 by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi; and the almost deserted 13-Chome is home to the Sapporo City Archive Museum ([011] 251-0731; www.welcome.city.sapporo.jp/ english/sites/shiryokan.html ).

This last spot, a beautiful stone courthouse built in 1926 and repurposed as a museum in 1973, is crammed with historical information, including a replica of the original 1926 courtroom, photos of Odori Park dating back to 1878, and of the first Yuki Matsuri, in 1950. Its various galleries include pieces by Hiroshi Oba, a graphic artist whose career began in the 1940s and went on to include work for many leading brands such as All Nippon Airways.

Sapporo is a great city if you have a sweet tooth. In the Aurora Town underground shopping arcade near Odori Station, Sapporo Sweets Cafe ([011] 211-1541; www.sweets-cafe.jp ) gathers cakes from many of Sapporo's most distinguished confectioners. Its annual Grand Prix in June chooses the best of these each year; my favorite was 2009's winner, Haskap Fromage by Pa^tisserie Jeunesse. Haskap, or blue-berried honeysuckle, is a native Hokkaido berry, and this cheesy cake with its biscuit base and fruity topping definitely hit the sweet spot.

But a chap can't live on cake alone, and Picante ([011] 737-1600; www.picante.jp ), a restaurant near Hokkaido University, is famed across the city for its take on another local specialty: soup curry. Select a soup base, add your choice of meat and/or vegetables, and pick a level of spice; most variations work out at around ¥1,000. The restaurant refers to its rich Indian-style dishes as "psychedelicious," which is a fair assessment: I ended up buying several packs of its take-home version (also available by mail order for ¥945).

Meanwhile, on the outskirts of Sapporo, the ambitious Moerenuma Park ([011] 790-1231; www.sapporo-park.or.jp/ moere/english.php ) was landscaped by the aforementioned Noguchi shortly before his death in 1988, but was not completed until 2005. Built on a reclaimed garbage dump, it feels almost like a relaxing resort, with a bowl-shaped kiddies' pool, a gigantic fountain hemmed by trees, a 62-meter man-made hill, and a Louvre-esque glass pyramid that houses a gallery of Noguchi's work. The peaceful atmosphere was unlike any park that I know of in Tokyo.

It seemed right to end with a prime tourist spot: the Sapporo Beer Museum ([011] 731-4368; www.sapporobeer.jp ). Built in 1876, the Sapporo brewery was part of the Meiji government's Westernization drive. Today, Sapporo and its sister brand Yebisu are headquartered in Tokyo, but the museum remains replete with history.

Surreal exhibits include whimsical models (seemingly made under the influence of LSD rather than beer) that illustrate the brewing process, a selection of ingredients to sniff, displays of beer bottles and posters through the ages and a massive vintage wort kettle in which malt and hot water were fermented to make beer. Best of all, the bar sells Kaitakushi Beer, Sapporo's original 1870s brew (light with a slightly bitter, hoppy taste), for just ¥200 a glass. The museum is basically a drunkard's dream come true.

With just enough time left for a quick souvenir dash, I loaded up on fresh Hokkaido cheese at the Hug market store ([011] 242-8989; www.s-hug.jp) at Tanuki Koji, boxes of Shiroi Koibito chocolate biscuits and packs of Sumire ramen before returning to New Chitose Airport for the 100-minute flight back to Haneda and Tokyo's cloying summer. I slept from takeoff to touchdown, and dreamed of Hokkaido's wide-open sky.



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