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When traveling in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, Sapporo appears as a mirage. It’s the fifth-largest city in all of Japan, housing 2 million residents year-round, and it rises up unannounced, a day’s drive (and ferry ride) from the nearest city that could be considered its equal. On an island dominated by rural farmland and untouched wild, it’s a true little-Tokyo, set at the center of the triangle formed by the fishermen of Otaru, the ski bunnies of Niseko and the furniture makers in Asahikawa. No trip to Hokkaido is complete without stopping over for a baseball game, ducking around the seedy red-light district or just taking a stroll through Odori Park.

Visitors during the winter should be forewarned: the snowfall in Sapporo is unrivaled for a city of its size. Underground mazes of shops, art and eateries attest to the fact that much of the city above can shut down completely during the snowiest months. But snowfall aside, this centrally located city is the best base of operations for visiting the thriving northern prefecture. Here’s how to make the most of a weekend in the home of beer, sushi and neon lights.

Where to Stay

Cross Hotel

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Despite being Hokkaido’s largest city, Sapporo has a surprising dearth of modern hotel options. But there is Cross Hotel, a boutique property that merges art, fashion and modern design. It was awarded a “comfortable” rating by the 2012 Hokkaido edition of the Michelin Guide. The rooms come in three types, of your choice: “urban” with minimal, clean design and a spacious working desk; “natural” with warm wood tones to reflect Hokkaido and a bathroom with a panorama window; and “hip” with the most modern design and flexible layouts that allow guests to easily transform the room to host parties or events.

The hotel has open-air spas with views of the city below, a cozy bar for meeting clients or friends and a restaurant, the Agora Restaurant, which focuses on local, seasonal food that tends toward western-style (the breakfast buffet is also western-style). And most important, the hotel is situated five minutes from the JR Subway Station, making it a convenient base for traveling throughout the city, or staying close by, where much of the nightlife is within walking distance.

JR Tower Hotel | From $234 | Book Now
Centrally located, with dominating views of the city.

Hotel Ibis Styles | From $53 | Book Now
Incredible value, located on a subway line, spacious rooms.

Jozankei Tsuruga Resort Spa | From $278 | Book Now
Outside of the bustle of the city, set in the forest with a hot spring and free shuttle to Sapporo and surrounding mountains.

Where to Eat

Sushi Tanabe
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This sushi spot was one of only four restaurants in Hokkaido to be awarded three stars in a 2012 special edition of the Michelin Guide. There are a number of private rooms for intimate dinners, but the best experience is had sitting at the soft wood counter where Chef Watanabe prepares a omakase-style sushi dinner that rivals any on the island. It begins with an appetizer, then features five kinds of sashimi, a grilled dish, 12 pieces of sushi and miso soup, before wrapping up with dessert. The total cost will run you 16,500 Japanese yen, or about $150, but it is well worth it.

Rojiura Curry Samurai | $$ | Learn More
Pick your soup, pick your protein and dial up the spice for a stick-to-your-ribs bowl of curry.

Ramen Tetsuya | $ | Learn More
Began in 1997 and spread to six locations throughout the city. This is classic, low-key ramen, through and through, with Hokkaido-style noodles available.

Sapporo Beer Garden | $$ | Learn More
Touristy, but it’s a must. Hokkaido-exclusive Sapporo served with platters of grill-it-yourself meat.

What to Do

From the Highest to the Lowest Point
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Some of Sapporo’s best attractions are below ground, which may seem unusual until you realize the city receives among the most snowfall per winter than any city of its size in the world. For the shopper, Sapporo Chikagai Underground Pedestrian Space, made up of Pole Town and Aurora Town, is a 700-meter-long underground bonanza of shops and eateries with entrances at the Odori and Susukino subway station, although you will probably accidentally come upon it. For the art gallery version of this underground city, head to the Sapporo Odori 500m Underground Walkway Gallery, which has featured a variety of Japanese art since it opened in 2006.

Café Morihiko | $ | morihiko-coffee.com
The house is old and covered in ivy, but inside it’s a fixed-up coffeehouse that’s served nel drip coffee since 1996. A true originator of the cafe culture.

Mount Moiwa Ropeway | $ | welcome.city.sapporo.jp
Ride to the top of Mount Moiwa in a lift that opened in 1958. The view on top, a 1,742-foot-high observation deck, includes all of Sapporo and, on a good day, Ishikari Bay.

Arte Piazza Biba | Free | artepiazza.jp
Established as part of an effort to revitalize an old coal-mining town, some 40 sculptures from internationally renowned sculptor Kan Yasuda dot the plaza surrounding a still-functioning kindergarten.

What to Pack

The Gear You’ll Want

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Apex Lawson by Herschel Supply Co. $179

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Ice Cutter Boot by Red Wing Heritage $373

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Promaster Navihawk GPS by Citizen $1,395

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