Winter wonderland

Winter wonderland

With six ski resorts within the city limits, you don’t need to leave Sapporo to hit the slopes and, as Rob Goss discovers, there is also plenty of other snow business to keep you occupied

For fans of Japan’s winter resorts, Hokkaido is most known for the powder snow of Niseko, a 90km drive southwest of Sapporo. But you don’t need to leave the city to hit quality slopes. There are six ski resorts within the city limits and both Sapporo Kokusai and Sapporo Teine have direct access from Sapporo Station.

Sapporo Kokusai is a relatively small ski resort, about 90 minutes by bus from central Sapporo, but it gets consistently large amounts of snow that keep its seven courses and off-piste sections in great condition throughout the early December to late March season. As a bonus, it’s close to the laidback hot spring town of Jozankei Onsen, so you could add a night there at a traditional inn and enjoy a post-skiing soak in a communal hot-spring bath.

Sapporo Teine is a different beast. Spread over the 1,000m Mt. Teine, it’s close enough to central Sapporo (40 mins by bus) that you actually get city views from slopes. Used for events at the 1972 Winter Olympics, it’s now split into two sections: the Highland Zone with medium to advanced runs, as well as off-piste sections and a terrain park with jumps and rails, and the more family-friendly Olympia Zone, which has gentle runs and an area with sledding and tubing. Being so easy to get to from the city centre, the location of both resorts means you can head back into the city to enjoy Sapporo’s restaurants and nightlife after a day on the slopes.

Sapporo’s winter activity isn’t limited to skiing and snowboarding. Away from the slopes, another outdoor option could be snowshoeing over the white expanse of arty Moerenuma Park or at Sappporo Art Park. Less strenuous, but just as fun, is ice fishing on the frozen Barato River on the city’s outskirts. Best done as a half-day tour from central Sapporo, from January to March you can set up in tents on the river and try to catch wakasagi smelts through the ice, before having your catch battered and fried on the spot as tempura.

Even less exerting would be to time your Sapporo trip for early February, when Odori Park and other parts of snow-covered central Sapporo are taken over by the annual Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival). Held since 1950, when it began as a minor local event, the Yuki Matsuri has established itself as arguably Japan’s most famous winter festival, now attracting international teams of snow and ice sculptors as well as some two million onlookers. The spectacular creations in previous years have ranged from 15m statues of Darth Vader and replicas of famous castles and world heritage sites to intricately carved dragons and popular Japanese anime characters. Almost anything goes.