Sapporo Lilac Festival and Sapporo Ramen Show

Sapporo’s biggest spring event is the ‘Lilac Festival’, which celebrates the lilac as the tree of Sapporo. It began in 1959, and is an outdoor festival where you can enjoy food, music and activities whilst viewing the lilacs. It is also a wonderful opportunity for foreigners to experience Japanese culture through the variety of workshops that are offered.

The main venue of the lilac festival is down ‘Odori Park’, which has around 400 lilac trees. The festival booths and activities run down Odori 5-chome to Odori 7-chome, the area within the park and also at Kawashimo park in Shiroishi-ku.

At 5-chome you can learn how to correctly serve Japanese tea from a professional at a workshop which is running from Wednesday 20th till Friday 22nd, from 10am till 4pm. If you are more interested in the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, you can watch and take part in one during the weekend between 11am and 3:30pm. On the same Saturday and Sunday, you can have your portrait drawn between 11am and 4pm by manga artists, learn the art of origami (Japanese paper folding) at a workshop from 11am to 4pm, or try your hand at “wa-chigiru” (Japanese paper tearing art) in a lesson between 11am and 4pm. There will also be stalls of crafts and antique items on sale.

lilac festival sapporo

There is a stage at 6-chome, where many brass bands from schools, professional musicians and singers will be performing during Thursday 20th and Sunday 24th, and an “international food court” of stalls serving a variety of dishes from overseas, such as Spanish and German. A large cluster of chairs and tables, including those within tents or parasols are also available for you to eat, drink and relax at.

The ‘Wine Garden’, one of the biggest attractions at this festival, is at 7-chome, which gives you a chance to taste a number of different wines from 9 different wineries and farms from around Hokkaido. Do note that a ticket system is used to buy wines;

  1. First buy 500 yen or 800 yen tickets at the “ticket counter”, located next to “cheese corner”.
  2. At the “wine selling corner” (stall), you exchange your ticket with a glass of wine of your choice. With a certain number of wine tickets, you can also buy a bottle of wine.
  3. The glasses are all rented out, therefore you must pay an extra 500 yen along with the purchase of your ticket as deposit, and when you return your glass to the “returning” stall, you get your money back.
  4. As well as the stall selling wine, there is a large number of food stalls here, all with menus that should suit your wines – from cheese, meat and finer foods to more filling dishes like risottos, hamburgers and paella!

Within Odori park, there is also a “lilac photograph corner”, a “stamp rally”, and stalls or shops selling fresh vegetables and farm produce.

The Shiroishi-ku venue is quite a while away from Odori park, and you would need to access it via car or subway. There will be a few activities such as an art and craft workshop and small concert held on the Sunday. Events are also only held for the last 2 days of the festival, although the lilac tree exhibition will be on display until June 14th 2015.

Running right next to the ‘Lilac festival’ down Odori is the ‘Sapporo Ramen Show’ at 8-chome. Ramen, as in Japanese-style noodles in soup, is one of the most well-known and popular dishes in Hokkaido and Sapporo, and at this “Ramen show” noodle shops from around Japan line themselves up against big ramen names of Hokkaido. This year, there are 12 ramen shops participating from Tokyo, Fukuoka, Shiga, Osaka, and from Hokkaido there are shops from Hakodate, Asahikawa, Furano and Sapporo. Entry is free, and it is 800 yen per bowl of ramen. Like with the Wine Garden, buying the ramen also goes by a ticket system, so you must line up and buy a 800 yen worth ticket at the ticket counter first before exchanging it at the ramen shop of your choice.

As there are many activities and workshops running throughout the 2 weeks, it can get very busy. The food stalls, Wine Garden and Ramen Show can get especially busy at the weekends, and even at prime lunch time hours on the weekdays – expect lots of lines and queues for the ticket booths! If you wish to avoid the crowds, it is probably best to buy food in the morning or mid-afternoon, and to not go to the Wine Garden in the evenings. As it is the warmer season in Sapporo it is not too cold to eat and move around outside, however temperatures can still drop from the evenings, so it is still advised to take extra clothing to keep warm.

Location of the main venues:
1) Lilac festival in Odori park: 4 chome till 7 chome
2) Ramen show in Odori park: 8 chome
3) Lilac festival in Kawashimo park: Shiroishi-ku, with buses (no. 22, 23, or 24) running to the park from Shiroishi subway station
Opening Dates:
1) Lilac festival in Odori park: May 20th – May 31st 2015
2) Ramen show in Odori park: 19th – 24th May 2015
3) Lilac festival in Kawashimo park: May 30th – May 31st 2015

Opening times:
1) Lilac festival in Odori park: Most events begin at 10:00am, with the Wine Garden and food stalls running from 11am to 8pm on weekdays, and from 10am to 9pm on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, although it closes at 7pm on the last Sunday 31st
2) Ramen show in Odori park: 10:00am – 9:00pm (last order at 8:30pm)
3) Lilac festival in Kawashimo park: May 30th – May 31st 2015

Official ‘Lilac Festival’ website in English
Official ‘Lilac Festival’ website in Japanese
Offical ‘Ramen Show’ website in Japanese

The Obihiro “Butadon”

Obihiro butadon close-up

If you live in New York, London, Paris, Chipping Sodbury or countless other places scattered over the earth’s surface then Obihiro is probably at best, a place, in a country. If you live in Japan it’s a place, up north and if you live in Hokkaido then it’s normally, but not always, a place, out east with slow horses and great fireworks. You’d be about right as well. There’re no real landmarks of renown either man made or natural. In tourism terms it is overshadowed by the more photogenic Tokachi plain and Daisetsusan national park. The nearest ski resort worthy of the name is Sahoro and that’s a bit, well, we’ll save that for another time. But there are some great little bits to the city, many of them culinary. There’re a few streets that have these tiny one room restaurants which are always packed but look fantastic from the cheap seats. There’s fresh produce a plenty owing to the almost embarrassingly fertile and productive farmland in the area. But, if there’s one food which is synonymous with Obihiro it would have to be 豚丼 – butadon.

For those who don’t know, butadon is Obihiro’s fish and chips, pies and mash, poutine and beer, coffee and doughnuts. It’s a bowl of rice with some sliced pork which was cooked in a sauce of varying degrees of sweetness layered very neatly over the top. Sounds simple you say; it is, all great things are, well fire and the wheel were. So, I have made it my mission to A: pretend I know loads about food, B: pretend I know where all the best butadon places in the city are and C: eat loads of it in some odd, half arsed homage to that film that bloke made about eating McDonalds every day. Here we go.

#1 Kakashi

obihiro butadon "Kakashi" obihiro butadon "Kakashi"

The first restaurant I visited was a small place called かかし (Kakashi). The restaurant is in the main entertainment district at Nishi 2 Jo Minami, 10 Chome-20-7. It is run by a group of very sweet ladies and as such you could carry out an impromptu Mary Poppins style dust check in any nook, cranny or crevice and the silk glove would come back even whiter than when it went a searching. This place is clean. Being run by a group of women of a slightly advanced age means that certain items are guaranteed. Plastic floral arrangements, odd bits of paraphernalia which no-one seems to know about and chopstick holders with little messages welcoming you to the shop on them are all to be found in tasteful scarcity. I’m just saying, you don’t get these things at a truckers’ café, so, onto the butadon.

I opted for the meal set which came with yellow daikon (big radish) and tonjiru (pork soup) soup. The sauce had a very heavy caramelised onion flavour to it and the meat was well done, nice and tender. The sauce gladly wasn’t too heavy on the salt. The rice was all light and fluffy and it went down rather well. The tonjiru on its own would have been fantastic enough, so get the set.

#2 Nameless

nameless butadon place in Obihiro nameless butadon place in Obihiro

I went to the second place on a cold Friday afternoon for a late lunch. It didn’t seem to have a name, just loads of signs for butadon and ramen (noodle soup) outside. It is just down the road from the station with the alluring address of Nishi 2 Jominami, 10 Chome-20. This place can be described in one word: bloke! Manly, masculine or any other some such gender specific word wouldn’t even come close. This place, by Japanese standards goes beyond such petty descriptions. It has got bloke pouring out of its sweaty little pores. It’s as close as I’ve been to a greasy spoon in Japan.
First thing first, the pub is next door. Next thing next, even though it was quiet when I went all the ashtrays managed to have been used. There were bags of food on the bar, the chap that owns it didn’t seem best pleased about having to serve someone. All in all it’s a bit raggedy. None of these things are criticisms I’m a huge fan of spit and sawdust. The price is decent, with the rice bowl and some stock which is classed as soup for 800 yen. It’s quick too, worryingly quick. I walked in, ordered, jotted down some initial observations and bam! bowl of rice and some pig on my table. It doesn’t do fancy crockery and frilly bits neither.

Taste wise, well, the stock tastes like stock with a bit of leek chopped in it, so that’s fine. The main attraction isn’t great though. The sauce tastes of bottle, the colour of the bottle I can’t be sure of but it definitely had that processed flavour about it. The meat was very fatty and not in a good way it also had ominous shades of pink in it. The rice tasted like the stuff that comes out of my rice cooker when I can’t be bothered to wash it first, which is frequently. So all in all, apart from the price and the pub being next door it didn’t have a lot going for it, but that could just be me being a snob.

#3 Butaichi

Obihoro butadon "Butaichi" Obihoro butadon "Butaichi"

The next place on the list was called ぶたいち (Butaichi). It’s out on route 151 on the same side and just after Bikkuri Donkey as you are going out of town. It has got a yellowy franchise feel to it from the outside. This was confirmed when I went in to be faced with one of those ticket machines which dispense your lunch voucher. I panicked and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The choice was too much. My kanji (Chinese character) brain, which isn’t great at the best of times collapsed and I just pressed the first thing I saw with the butadon kanji on it. It was all a bit of a farce, there were coins falling out of my wallet and being chased around by the young lady who stood next to the machine, ready to pointlessly take my ticket and shout its contents to the man who was behind the counter. If I had taken a bit of time I might have found some unique dish special to the restaurant but as it was I ended up with the standard set of butadon, soup and pickled yellow things. If you are a better human than me, stand at the machine and take a moment, I’m sure there’ll be something for you. Anyway, all the things at the seating counter have sticky labels on them, like when you were at primary school so you know what to do with what. There are a few piccys hanging up but apart from that it’s all Nitori (Japanese Ikea) dining sets and sanitisation. It feels new, even smells a bit new, like it needs a group of drunken people in there to dirty it up a little. There is also an eerie sense of Germanic efficiency. I get ticket, give girl ticket, girl shouts ticket contents, man shouts order, chef makes order, chef gives to man, man gives to girl, girl gives to me, no jokes, no slip ups just smooth as like start to finish. Price and size are decent. The machine starts at about 700 yen and ends up somewhere around the 1,500 yen mark for something with all the trimmings.

The rice was good and tasted like it had been cooked over a flame as opposed to coming from a cooker, which I sincerely approve of. The meat was well cooked, no blood this time. The sauce had a nice peppery taste but again was overwhelmed slightly by the salty taste of packet. I got caught taking notes by the man that runs it and couldn’t even use the idiot foreigner excuse as he spoke perfect English, I panicked again, gochisosamadeshita’d and ran away. All things considered, it was rather good (gochisosamadeshita is something said after a delicious meal).

#4 Men

Obihiro butadon restaurant "Men"

The penultimate stop on this culinary tour was at a restaurant called めん (men). It’s on route 38 which is the main thoroughfare for Obihiro, on junction 22 west. It’s on the left as you are going out of town and make sure you are going out of town if you decide to stop there as if you are coming into town it’s a misery to get to.
First impression, well, my first impression was that it smelled of cats. If you like cats and/or are an old widow who knits of an afternoon then it’s a good thing, otherwise not so much. This cat theme was cemented by the heavy presence of feline paintings decorating the walls. It’s got a touch of the 80’s about it as well. There was an oval breakfast bar style counter encircling the kitchen. It is apparently just for decoration though as my friend and I went to sit there and we were very quickly ushered away to an apparently more appropriate location. It’s quite tough to describe as a place. It feels as if it may have been designed and upholstered over a period spanning generations, much like a cathedral or catacombs. There is an old school family restaurant at the back, the aforementioned breakfast bar in the middle and present day consideration given over to stuff to keep the kids amused with a little toddlers play area at the far end.

Obihiro restaurant "Men" Obihiro restaurant "Men"

Food was ordered at a respectable 820 yen and came with the addition of a little bowl of salad containing a slightly suspicious looking dressing. The meat was fine. The sauce had clearly been made in house as you could taste a lot of fresh herbs in it but it is possible that the chef’s mate jogged the chef’s elbow when pouring in the soy sauce as it was quite strong in that department. Rice was light and the soup, of the miso variety whilst not being standout was good enough for an accompanying side dish. The menu has all sorts of fun little combos. You can have a mini butadon with ramen or a mini ramen with butadon or a mini this and large that with a midi other. But my lingering memory of the place is mainly just cats.

#5 Matsunaga

Obihiro butadon and Ramen "Matsunaga"

And so, to the last place on my odyssey of pork in a bowl. This restaurant is to the east of Odori at south 15 – east 6 which is normally a no go area for me. It’s a bit like living in London and not crossing the river. Anyway, there is a large shopping complex nearby, ignore that and on the same side of the road just past it there’s a small shop called まつなが (Matsunaga).
From the outside it looks like a right old fashioned affair so I conjured up images of tatamis and low tables before entering. Turns out this café was stolen from some place in Devon that normally sells cream teas to family holiday groups. It has even got floral patterned plastic table cloths in case the kids spill their fizzy pop. It is clearly a family run place as mum seems to be doing the cooking whilst the now adult children run the place. It looks like they don’t get out much though as all the framed pictures hanging off the walls are of menu items.

I ordered the standard set of soup, and yellow bits for 800 yen. In truth I wasn’t expecting too much; shows what I know. It leaves all the others apart from Kakashi in its tasty wake. The butadon comes in something ceramic and substantial which is a good start. Secondly there is attention to detail, the pork is presented as a very ornate and meaty spiral staircase, think lady gaga does interior design. Finally, whilst the meat is cooked, very decently too I might add in your standard butadon sauce there is a little side pot of the sauce so you can flavour your meal to taste, it’s the little touches isn’t it. To my eternal shame I took a picture of the outside to be greeted by a dead battery notification straight after and so was not able to record just how pretty the butadon was. Go there, but be careful not to go into the large chain one which is about two doors down in the shopping centre.

And so, there we have it, five places to get you started should you ever wish to dine solely on butadon for a few days. In truth there are a whole plethora of butadon restaurants in Obihiro. I have no idea if the ones I picked were already famous, already infamous or on some health and safety watchdog list. They were just the places that I went to, all have their qualities and their drawbacks which is as far as I can make out is half the charm of going to small unknown entities. Bon appetit.

Asahikawa Snow Festival

Asahikawa Winter Festival sculpture

Asahikawa, being the second largest city in Hokkaido right after Sapporo, also holds the second largest snow festival. Though not as grand as the Sapporo one, it is still very impressive, and from a personal view of having visited both festivals in the past, Asahikawa seems to have the most skilled sculptures.

Asahikawa Snow Festival ice sculpure

It will be holding its 56th festival this year, running shorter than the Sapporo festival, for 6 days in February. As with Sapporo, it is one of the coldest months in winter, but the temperatures drop even lower in Asahikawa – the lowest temperature being -15°C (5°F) at night! As with all festivals, most of the festival is outside, therefore warm clothing is extremely important. It is advised to wear a wool sweater or pullover, or even ski or snowboarding wear.

Yet the even colder temperatures of Asahikawa add that magical touch to the winter festival, as the sculptures seem to glisten more in the frosty air, and are less likely to melt or fall apart, which can been a problem with snow festivals in warmer areas.

The main area of the festival is the ‘Asahibashi Site’ which is near the Asahibashi Bridge. There, you will find the one main, huge snow sculpture, with this year’s theme being “Protectors from the land of light” featuring the children’s, or perhaps more so adults’ favourite hero, “Ultraman”. Ultraman is a superhero TV series which originally aired in Japan in the mid 1960s, and there has been new versions and remakes ever since, hence loved by young and old. Relating to this theme, there will be a special “project mapping” lights entertainment show on the main stage, called ‘Utraman The Live’, which will be on every evening of the festival from 7pm. Be sure to catch either the opening or final night of the festival, as there will be the added bonus of fireworks.
Throughout the course of the festival schedule, there will be other shows such as music performances, dances, and kids’ entertainment.

As with the other snow festivals, there will be many snow sculptures created by teams as well, which will be judged. Some snow sculptures may even have slides or steps where little ones can play or take pictures.

There is also an area where you can enjoy the snow and winter hands-on, by going on the big ice slide, finding your way around in the snow maze, or taking a ride on a horse-pulled sleigh. You can even put your skills to the test by trying to make some ice sculptures yourself!
Food stalls, like with all outdoor festivals in Hokkaido, will be available, with hot beverages and dishes to help you defrost.

The second area for the Asahikawa Winter Festival is just in front of the station, down the ‘Heiwa Dori’ pedestrian street. A personal recommendation to go there, as the levels of skills of the ice sculptures lined up along there have been spectacular in the past.

Though the sculptures are lit up at night it can get extremely cold in the evenings, so I recommend you go to the main area in the day time, although going to see the ice sculptures in the dark are beautiful, and there are a few restaurants or bars nearby you can escape to!

Asahikawa Snow Festival ice sculpure

Location of main snow sculptures: Asahibashi Site, 10 mins by foot from station, shuttle buses from station also running
Location of ice sculptures: Heiwa Dori pedestrian street, straight in front of the station
Opening Dates: February 6th – 11th
Opening times: 9:00am – 9:00pm (till 8:00pm on 11th)
Official information can be found here.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo Snow Festival Sculpture

One of the best ways to enjoy the snow of Hokkaido, aside from all the winter sports, is by going to the Snow Festivals. There are many held all over Hokkaido, and Sapporo, being the largest city in the prefecture, holds one of the greatest every year.

2015 will be its 66th time, and it will run for a week during February, one of the coldest months in winter, with the average temperature being -3.1°C (26°F). The majority of the snow festival is outdoors, so be sure to keep warm by wearing a thick coat and gloves, and a hat or hood is recommended in the case of sudden blizzards.

Cold as it may be, the magnificent snow sculptures are sure to take your mind off it. There are around 5 massive snow sculptures across Odori Park, all sponsored by big companies such as local Hokkaido television broadcasters. Each year the sculptures have a different theme, from Disney to Star Wars. They are about 15 metres in height, and use about 500 5-ton truckloads of snow! Most of them are stages where numerous events take place, such as kids shows, music performances and contests. Over the years, a handful of famous Japanese celebrities and musicians have taken part. Not forgetting the actual contest of the smaller snow sculptures, that you will find lined up down Odori by teams from all over Japan, and the world.

Sapporo Snow Festival  Sapporo Snow Festival
As with most events in Odori park, there will the usual stands of food and drink, known in this festival as the ‘Hokkaido Winter Food Park’. This time, the focus will be on Hokkaido cuisine from a variety of areas in the prefecture, including hot dishes such as Hokkaido-born ‘Soup Curry’, the famous ‘Genghis Khan’ (Mongolian mutton barbecue), and ramen noodles.

There are three main areas that make up the Sapporo Snow Festival, one of which is great fun for the kids and families. If you head to ‘Tsudome’, the Community Dome, you can experience snow activities, which is brilliant for tourists who are not used to a winter wonderland. Open every day during the festival from 9 am to 5 pm, people can take a ride on the ‘tube slider’, go snow rafting, try skiing, and more!

For those without families or who prefer a more relaxed way to spend their time, there is the Susukino zone, the main nightlife area of Sapporo. Along the streets will be a display of fabulous ice sculptures, which, as with the snow sculptures, will be judged. There will even be ways for you to experience the fun of ice by physically walking through, sitting on or touching it. In past years there have been ”ice bars” and outdoor stalls, so you can enjoy a drink or two as you view the beautifully illuminated ice pieces.

Sapporo Snow Festival (Susukino)

Both the ice sculptures in ‘Susukino Ice World’ and the snow sculptures in Odori Park are lit up at night. It can get extremely crowded, perhaps the most crowded event of the year in Sapporo, so if you prefer to stay away from the swarms of people and can withstand the colder temperatures, a weekday evening would be best to go.

Location of main snow sculptures: Odori Park, from 1-chome to 12-chome
Location of ice sculptures; Susukino, Ekimae-dori (Station Avenue), from Minami 4 to Minami 6
Opening Dates: February 5th – 11th
Light-up times: 4:30pm – 10pm
Official Snow Festival website in English:
Location of “Tsudomu”: 885-1 Sakaemachi, Higashi Ward, Sapporo

Sapporo’s Beermuda Triangle

Image of beer bottles

The site of Japan’s first national brewery and the country’s most popular export brew, Sapporo is synonymous with beer, all of which you can read about here. Partnered as a sister city to Munich, Sapporo hosts an annual beer garden where revelers down hundreds of thousands of liters of light pilsner style lagers. In onsen lobbies, convenience stores and practically any restaurant menu in town, you will undoubtedly be offered the option of having a beer.

Being a beer lover’s city, there are several bars worth knowing that are specialists in purveying the good stuff. I’m talking about proper brown and red ales, pitch-black stouts and porters, and hop heavy IPAs strong enough to have you buzzing by the bottom of your pint. Looking at a map you can find they make an easy to follow inverted isosceles triangle, what I like to call Sapporo’s Beermuda Triangle.

First and foremost is North Island Beer, a local craft beer restaurant a few minutes walk east of the Odori TV Tower. Brewed in the nearby city of Ebetsu, a selection of 5-7 freshly made beers is available on tap, with a guest brew often featured as well. The menu is simple but well-executed pub fare. Swing by for a pint and a bite and talk to the guys who actually make the beer. Tis the time for seasonal beers and here’s hoping their absolutely delicious cinnamon ale is available this year, too.

Head southwest on foot from here and within 10 minutes you’ll spot Higurashi, the second point of the craft/ foreign beer polygon. Upstairs you’ll find a cozy, wooden-floored bar to imbibe a variety of domestic and import brews. Depending on where you are in your evening, it’s easy enough to have one and go, or kick back and become a fixture for the night. The staff are friendly and happy to talk beer, or whatever discourse that flows from your now lubricated mind.

Assuming you’re game for another, it’s time to find Tanuki Koji (狸小路) and continue west to block seven where you’ll find Kalahana, the third point of the Beermuda Triangle. Cram inside and try to find a seat, or stand around the bar and choose from their extensive tap and bottle selection. The atmosphere is perpetually jolly here, and you’ll find it very easy to stay until closing. Outdoor seating is available when the temps permit, but it’s more fun to be chummy inside.

Craft beer is an ever-growing phenomenon in Japan. Unfortunately, for younger enthusiasts the prices tend to be prohibitive as many feel 1,000 yen is better spent on a cheap nomihoudai than a single bottle of import beer. Still, there comes a time when yellow beer won’t cut it. In such a case, head to any one of these fine establishments and find what you need. Just don’t become a casualty! Disorientation, bewilderment and bankruptcy aren’t unheard of in the triangle.

Establishments mentioned in this article:

North Island Beer
Motomachi 11-5, Ebetsu-shi, Hokkaido (Google map)

Shako Kaikan 3F, Minami 5 Jō, Nishi 2 Chome, Chūō-ku, Sapporo-shi (Google map)

Minami 2 Jo, Nishi 7 Chome, Chūō-ku, Sapporo-shi (Google map)

Tomamu Ski Resort

Tomamu ski resort (ski hill)

If you find yourself in Hokkaido because of work, holiday or just the beaming smile of lady luck, chances are at some point you will want to take part in a winter sport or two. This is fortunate, as even though things like efficient bureaucracy, a regular rural rail service and decent cheese are nigh on impossible to find, ski resorts are to be found in a similar abundance to wasps in summertime.

Generally people gravitate towards Niseko owing to the fact that it has an unbelievable quality and quantity of snow which falls reliably every year. After this people find themselves in Furano promising to return next summer to smell the lavender.

The main problem with these two resorts is that despite their general excellence they are just too busy in peak season. So whilst it is not exactly off the beaten track, nor particularly cheap I would like to suggest a less famous, less busy, not quite as good alternative, Tomamu.

The main reasons for choosing Tomamu over say Rusutsu or Kiroro are geography and variety. If you live, or are in south east Hokkaido those premium resorts can be a long way away. It is still a relatively untapped resort. I use the term relatively very liberally, so don’t expect Sherpas and St Bernards but it’s nowhere near the saturation of Niseko. Tomamu is easily accessible as there is a direct highway link to Obihiro and Sapporo from the resort’s door. If you think it might be a bit tricky to find, don’t panic as you can use the two huge, ugly towers which dominate the vista as landmarks. If upon first sight these towers upset you, as well they should, try to think of them as prominent examples of what happens when you give a bad architect too much money.

Tomamu ski resort (towers)

If you are coming from Asahikawa you will need to take route 38 when you get into Furano and follow the signs which are relatively clear by Japanese standards of road sign subterfuge.

In terms of cost it is around the same as most other resorts in Hokkaido with the notable exception of Kamui Links which is an absolute bargain. Prices are set at around the ¥5,000 mark for a one day pass. However if you live in Hokkaido you can sign up on the Tomamu website as a friend of the resort and as long as you have your Gaijin card and your mobile with you when you arrive, you will be able to get in for half price. In addition to this you will receive a coupon for ¥1,000 worth of lunch and a free ticket to the Onsen. If you don’t live in Hokkaido you will get none of those things and have to pay full price, but you can gloat about how much more money you earn on a daily basis thereby negating the problem and putting the world back in balance again.

The courses themselves vary from the ridiculously mundane to the pretty good fun. There’re plenty of slopes for learners and a wide range of lessons available catering for all abilities. The steeper slopes make up a good percentage of the runs but there aren’t any courses that a half decent skier or snowboarder will look at and think of broken bones.
As you look out on the mountain from the gondola station, the right hand side is generally occupied by the guests at the Hoshi resort. This means that you’ll find a lot of ski schools and learners pottering around especially by the lift nearest the hotel. Having said that, on a powder day there is a lot of fun to be had especially if you turn right at the top of the second lift and then drop down off the trail.

If you decide to take the Gondola up there are two options. To the right is a long country lane of a course which if you follow it all the way down is a bit of a Sunday drive, mainly reserved for practicing ground tricks and swerving to avoid injured kids. Don’t let this put you off as if you follow it down a while you can take any number of right turns onto some of the steeper sections. The snow park, which has pretty decent kickers, a good half pipe and some boxes and rails for those with vertigo is on this side as is a large portion of the off piste tracks. If you turn left at the top it starts off, especially for snowboarders, as practice for your skateboarding impressions. Once into the gradient however, it brightens up considerably, as the main run is fairly decent no matter which route you take and there are lots of entry points into somewhat sparser yet still enjoyable off piste runs.

With regards to Tomamu’s approach to off piste riding it is fairly relaxed and has none of the Furano: enter and die! approach. Ostensibly you are required to sign up, for free, on a little register stating that yes indeed you are willing to risk life and limb to weave through the trees and if it doesn’t go according to plan then you are solely to blame. As reward for this they will give you a little bib so you can pretend you are on Ski Sunday and then the world, or in this case two hills, is your oyster. In practice though it’s pretty much anything goes. This is with the pre-requisite that you don’t do anything daft and need to be found and dragged out. If that happens, I imagine it will be a stern telling off, a very hefty medical bill and a metaphoric slap on the wrists.

The highest off piste section is accessed by a lift which is one run over from the gondola, to the right as you ascend. From there you can choose as you wish but remember at about 150 metres down you will cross section the flat tracks so keep an eye out for a collapsed high school couple when you do so.

As stated it’s fairly quiet for a big place. The queue for the gondola never gets to much more than 5-10 minutes and if you keep an odd schedule and take a very early or very late lunch you will find that for a good hour and a half it is pretty much your own private resort, so feel free to indulge yourself in some Russian billionaire fantasy as you curse those who dared track out your tree run. One word of note, the final stretch is planar in the extreme. If coming in from the far right (no UKip jokes) keep your speed up or you’ll be walking to the gondola.

So, there you have it. It’s a relaxed, quiet, fun resort nowhere near perfect but definitely worth the trek and definitely worth at least two days of your ski holiday.

Getting there:
Tomamu is a 1.5 to 2 hour drive from Sapporo and has several daily buses running from Sapporo, Obihiro, Furano and New Chitose Airport. Detailed info can be seen here.

Naka-Tomamu, Shimukappu, Yufutsu, Hokkaido (open Google map)

The German Christmas Markets and White Illumination in Sapporo

Sapporo white illumination

If it is your first time in Japan for the Christmas season, and you are unaware of the newer Japanese customs, you may be amused when you find out that Christmas in Japan is more likened to that of a western Valentine’s Day, or even New Year. Because of this, it can be a little difficult to spend the Christmas season in the way that you are perhaps used to back home.

Sapporo, on the other hand, is a good place to start for a “truer” Christmas. With snow falling by the beginning of December, your dreams of a white Christmas come true, and many areas of the city are lit up with fairy lights and decorations, setting the festive mood.

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Sapporo’s main display of Christmas lights are called “White Illumination”, which can be viewed every year in Odori park, located in the heart of the city. Apparently, Sapporo was the city that began the tradition of Christmas lights in 1981, which has now inspired towns all over Hokkaido and Japan. Celebrating its 34th anniversary this year, it has gotten bigger and better each year, and is participating in “Eco Action” by using biofuel to power the lights, which is kinder the environment.
Being one of the main tourist attractions this time of year, it can get a little busy during weekends. There can be queues for special “photo spots” which are recommended places where you should get your picture taken, and a raised platform you can climb up to view the “Crystal River”, so weekday early evenings would be best if these are attractions that interest you.

Location: Odori Park, Sapporo Ekimae Dori (the big street in front of Sapporo Station), Minami 1-jyo Dori (South 1-jyo Street)
Opening Dates: November 21st – December 25th
Light-up times: 4:30pm – 10pm
Official website in English:

Also along Odoroi Park, which is lit up with Christmas lights, the German Christmas Markets can be found.

‘Munich’ in Germany is one of Sapporo’s sister cities, and when the two cities celebrated their 30th anniversary in 2002, the Christmas markets in Odori began.

xmasmarkets1 xmasmarkets5

Even if you are not from Europe or are unaware of German Christmas Markets, if you are used to a Christian or Western Christmas you are bound to feel reminiscent or at home when you visit.
The name explains itself – it is a market of Christmas goods and foods. Here, you can buy decorations, trinkets, presents for friends and eat hot food outside, along with hot drinks such as mulled wine and hot chocolate.
Although focusing on German cuisine such as “bratwurst” sausages, many local Sapporo/Hokkaido restaurants and stores have stalls as well; such as ‘Otaru Beer’ and even a Spanish restaurant! It is also a good place where you can find more traditional foods (e.g., iced Christmas cookies and biscuits) and gifts for Christmas, as there is a stall dedicated to Christmas cards; the giving and receiving of cards still not well known in Japan.
There are also some events held during market opening, as there is a mini stage for choirs, performances and workshops to make crafts in some of the stalls.
It can be incredibly busy during weekends, meaning that if you are not one for crowds it is best to avoid them and choose to go on weekdays.

Location: Odori Park 2-chome
Opening Dates: November 28th – December 24th
Light-up times: 11:00am – 9pm
Official website in English:

An important note to remember for visiting either these events in Odori – wrap up warm! It can get very chilly in the evenings. Have a Merry Christmas in the winter wonderland of Sapporo!

The Many Tables of Woodpiece

Meer Lounge in Sapporo

Spend any significant amount of time in Sapporo and it is probable that you will come upon, or more likely be taken to, a Woodpiece restaurant. What does this mean? Well, in this writer’s experience, it means you’re in for a good time. Woodpiece is the culinary brand of North Graphic, a Sapporo-based production company also invested in web design, auto-sales, and clothing. All North Graphic products have a signature hipness to them, which is most readily apparent in their restaurants.

For nearly a decade “Meer Lounge” has been a cozy, intimate space for innumerable dates, parties and late night revelry. As with all Woodpiece stores, the dishes are tasty and reasonably priced, with Lowenbrau on tap and available in a dangerously cheap all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai/ 飲み放題) course.

Following the victory with Meer Lounge, Woodpiece created “World Japanese Foodin EN” and “VALS” next, each distinct yet clearly products of the same recipe. The former features world foods with a Japanese interpretation, while the latter delivers western favorites like pasta and fish and chips with customary attention to detail. Both are lively spaces, chock full of modish guys and girls pretty much any night of the week.

With the confirmation that it was on to something, Woodpiece shifted into overdrive, delivering three more shops in rapid succession. “Peace” occupies prime Susukino real state right on the main east-west strip of Route 36. Small and rustic, its décor and menu of smoked dishes are evocative of the Wild West. “Lu Ran” brings us back east with a range of contemporary Chinese dishes. Reserve the 3rd floor VIP room for parties and enjoy having a private bar and bathroom at your disposal. “Barenwald” is Woodpiece’s German beer hall and they do a fine job of creating an authentic ambiance with heavy wooden furniture, long bars and impressive selection of taps. Beer is the focus here, with over thirty labels available between tap and bottle. Smoky and loud, it’s the closest you’ll get to Munich without having to board a jet.

Newest to the Woodpiece family is “FAM”, a yakiniku (grilled meat) joint guaranteed to be a hit. With three restaurants under that name up and running, it’s not a stretch to say it already is. Not just for carnivores, FAM’s menu caters to veggie and fish lovers without compromising flavor for variety.

Woodpiece’s consecutive triumphs can be attributed to a simple company ethos: make a cool place for cool people to eat cool (scrumptious) food. Boom! You’ve got yourself a success story. All of the restaurants named are in walking distance of one another, within the glowing downtown jewel that is Susukino. Swing into any one of them for a meal and leave satisfied, with plenty of money left over for your next destination.

Restaurants mentioned in this article:

Meer Lounge
Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 2, Sato Building B1 (Google map)

World Japanese Foodin EN
Chuo Ward, Minami 2, Nishi 6, Toi Building 1F (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 4, Tsubokawa Building 2F (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 4, Nishi 1-4-2 (Google map)

Lu Ran
Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 6 (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 1, Nishi 9, Hokkai Building 1F (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 2 (Google map)

Photo Source:

Sapporo “Ice Cream Bars”

Milk Mura (Sapporo Ice Cream Bar)

“Ice Cream Bars” – a slightly different approach to enjoying the nightlife of Sapporo.
Japan is home to many coffee shops or cafes that open till late hours of the night, however bars that offer ice cream and dessert along with alcoholic beverages may be something new to those not from Japan, or even Sapporo.

There are several late night opening cafes or bars in central Sapporo that offer ice cream parfaits or sundaes, and here are three favorites.

1. ‘Milk Mura’ (Milk Village)

Perhaps the most well known of the three, which is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, even out of the country.
There are only 3 options to their menu, but it is enough to keep the customers coming, therefore it is recommended to book a table beforehand on Friday evenings and weekends.

With a European and almost fairytale-like mix of cluttered objects, it is preciously unique.

'Milk Mura' Entrance ‘Milk Mura’ (Milk Village) inside ‘Milk Mura’ (Milk Village) Liquors

Their main dish is only soft serve milk vanilla ice cream, which gives this cafe/bar its singularity. The bar has over a hundred varieties of alcohol and spirits that you can choose from; the number you choose depending on the menu option you go for. You delicately pour your chosen liquors over a spoonful of ice cream, like with ice cream sauce. The fun thing being that, it is not only the sweet or fruity spirits that go well with the ice cream, as they also have expensive and well-known whiskies, rum and even tequila. You can even have free seconds of the ice cream.
If it is your first time and you are overwhelmed by the choices of liquors, not to worry. The bar waiters will be happy to recommend you a few, and will ask if it is your first time so that they can explain their special way of how to eat the ice cream with the “alcoholic sauces”.
The ice cream itself is delicious, which you can also buy as a take out in a cone.
The three options on the menu, A, B, and C, differ in that you can either have ice cream with 2 liquor choices but with crepe, sprinkles and other ice cream toppings, only 3 liquor choices, or half a cup of ice cream and a bag of freshly-baked-at-the-shop cookies to take home. All options (though unsure about option C) come with a small cup of hot coffee and a freshly baked little animal biscuit.

Option A with the ice cream toppings is my personal recommendation, and I also recommend going with a number of friends so that you can choose more liquors to share between you.
All options are priced at 1,390 yen (aside from the take out ice cream).

Although this bar is open till late it opens at lunchtime, meaning that it may be a good choice for families with children (who can have option C with no alcohol and cookies) as well.

Location: Sapporo-shi, Chūō-ku, Minami 4 Jōnishi, 3 Chome−8−1 New Hokusei Building, 6th Floor
Opening Times: 13:00 ~ 24:00, Wednesday 17:00 ~ 24:00 (Last orders at 23:00)
Closed: Mondays

2. ‘Café Heart Drops’

Although it includes a bar counter, this place has much more of a café, homely feel compared to the other two. Perhaps slightly shabby compared to the others, but still cute with a warm, friendly atmosphere. You can literally kick your shoes off and relax, as you have to take them off before entering.
The menu is much more diverse, as it serves food such as pasta and rice dishes, and a variety of teas and coffees, but also cocktails and beer. The café itself advertises its ice cream parfaits as its most popular, where you can choose from 3 types, or you can customize your own. For a custom ice cream parfait, you can choose from around 5 different gelato ice creams, and 3 different toppings from a handful of choices. Priced at 850 yen each, they also offer a drink set where you can pick from some teas or coffees for 1,200 yen. The parfait is also beautifully presented. I would recommend going with a friend for a quiet, long chat, as in the early evenings it doesn’t seem to be that busy, or even with family and children.

Location: Sapporo-shi, Chūō-ku, Minami 4 Jōnishi, 5 Chome−10−1 Tsumugi Building, 6th Floor

Opening Times: 17:00 ~ 25:00, Saturday lunch hours 11:30 ~ 15:00, Sunday 17:00 ~ 24:00 (Last orders at 23:00)
Closed: Thursdays, weekday public holidays (closes at 24:00 on weekend public holidays)

3. ‘Sweets Bar Melty’

My personal favourite of the three, which I would refer to as a bar, rather than a café. With an underlying theme of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, this bar represents a fantasy world but with a slightly mature taste due to the bar layout and dark base colours. It is also said to have more male customers.

As a bar, it has a large list of alcoholic beverages to choose from, as well as soft drinks and different hot teas and coffees. Their main dish being an ice cream sundae, they also offer freshly baked doughnuts with ice cream as well. The best part about this bar’s parfait and doughnut dish system is that it is completely customizable. You basically choose what you would like in each layer of your parfait, or what toppings you would like for your doughnuts, from a list which includes jelly, cream, fruits, sprinkles and your preferred ice cream gelato flavour. Once you fill out your order and pass it onto the barmaid or workers, they work their magic hands for a few minutes and present to you an absolutely adorable work of dessert art.

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You can choose an alcoholic, or non-alcoholic liquor to pour over the parfait as well. Ice cream parfaits are at 1,080 yen plus 500 yen seat charge which includes otoshi little snacks (a common system with bars in Japan), making a total of 1,580 yen. As with the other cafes, it offers a set of a drink of your choice with the ice cream sundae at 1,500 yen, plus 500 yen seat charge making a total of 2,000 yen.
Recommended to go with one or a few friends, as seating spaces in the bar itself is limited, and it can get rather busy between 9 and 12 pm on the weekends. Although the food and bar is very cute, as it is a bar with later opening hours it is probably best for adults only, also as smoking is allowed.

Location: Sapporo-shi, Chūō-ku, Minami 4 Jōnishi, 5 Chome−8 F-45 Building, 9th floor

Opening Times: Monday to Thursday 6:00pm ~ 2:00am (Last order at 1:30am), Friday to Saturday and public holidays 7:00pm ~ 3:00am (Last order at 2:30am), Sunday 6:00pm ~ 12:00pm (Last order at 11:30pm)
Closed: Open all year round

Live music in Sapporo

Live rock music in Sapporo

For those who love live music, Sapporo may initially come off as in need of some serious venues. Sure, places like Sapporo Dome and Zepp Sapporo accommodate the bigger acts motivated enough to jump up to the northern island. But more often than not, the big names stay south and we denizens of the northern capital are left in want of pro-level performances.

This is especially true for fans of rock music, particularly those connoisseurs of the heavier genres. Southern festivals like Summer Sonic and Loudpark attract the gods of thrash, punk and speed metal every year. But going to see Metallica or Lamb of God in concert is particularly expensive for those of us that have to arrange a plane ticket down to Tokyo or Osaka. Typically, the thrifty majority of north island headbangers are left to mine the small clubs of the city for a satisfying mosh.

Fortunately for us, a thriving underground scene exists if you push your ear hard enough to the street. Klub Kounter Action (Tanuki Koji Block 1/ 狸小路1丁目) is the premier venue on the northern punk circuit. Local bands like Chaotix and Antagonista Punk Orchestra are regular acts on the monthly roster, while a steady stream of shredders from Tokyo, Osaka and other southern scenes bring new noise to the stage. When not touring nationally or abroad. Japanese hardcore kings SLANG also make the occasional appearance, much to the delight of resident fans.

Old-school establishments such as Bessie Hall host a variety of different artists, from IDM DJs to reggae rockers, but the last time I was there my eardrums were blown by 5 distinctively talented metal bands. The ringing in my head lasted well into the next day, an auditory omiyage for me to remember the show.

The point being is this: for those interested in distorted music delivered at 180bpm or higher, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to get your dose of drop D adrenaline. Just ask the kids in black leather and blue hair where some good live music is and they should have any number of recommendations. Other good rock venues include, but are not limited to: Sound Crue, Mole, Spiritual Lounge, Vinnie’s Bar, Susukino 810, and, on occasion, the second floor of TK6.

There’s no refuting that Rising Sun is the biggest rock festival in Hokkaido. People wait all year for it and make it a weekend to remember, which is a good and a fine thing. I, however, like the convenience of tailoring show going around my schedule, not the other way around. As such, I keep it local and gritty, where people know the bands and the bands know the people. This is what constitutes a good music scene and Sapporo’s is second to none, if you know where to go.

Venues mentioned in this article:

Sapporo Dome
Toyohira Ward, Hitsujigaoka 1 (Google map)

Zepp Sapporo
Chuo Ward, Minami 9, Nishi 4-4 (Google map)

Klub Counter Action
Chuo Ward, Minami 2, Nishi 1, Kowa Building 2F (Google map)

Bessie Hall
Chuo Ward, Minami 4, Nishi 6, Hare Bare Building B1F (Google map)

Sound Crue
Chuo Ward, Odori, Higasi 2, 15-1-2 (Google map)

Sound Lab Mole
Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 2, Niko Building B1 (Google map)

Spiritual Lounge
Chuo Ward, Minami 2, Nishi 4-10, Large Country Building B1F (Google map)

Vinnie’s Bar
Chuo Ward, Kita 1, Higashi 12, Olimpia Bowl B1F (Google map)

Susukino 810
Chuo Ward, Minami 8, Nishi 4,-422-51, 8.4 Sound Building B1F (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 2, Nishi 6-5-3 (Google map)