Sapporo is a city defined by its green spaces and close proximity to natural beauty. Rob Goss takes a closer look
You don’t have to look hard to find natural peace and quiet in Sapporo. Often, you’ll simply stumble upon it. That’s certainly true of Odori Park, the 12-block stretch of park just south of Sapporo Station that almost every visitor will pass through there at some point during their stay. The park has plenty of benches under the shade of the area’s many trees, perfect for taking a moment out of your busy day to relax your body and mind.
Fewer travellers, however, make it to Nakajima Park a couple of subway stops further south. With Mount Moiwa looming in the distance, this sprawling park is home to Japanese red spruce, ginkgo, Ezo mountain cherry and numerous other types of tree are at their finest when they take on fiery tones in autumn. It is situated in the centre of some of Sapporo’s major cultural and historical buildings, including the Hoheikan (a historic guest house) and Hasso-an (an ancient tea house), and the Kitara concert hall, which has seen performances by some of the most notable artists in the world. With a boating pond, sporting centre, children’s centre and a river suitable for paddling, Nakajima makes for a good family afternoon out, too.
Just a couple of miles northeast from Sapporo Station, there’s also Maruyama Park, which offers a glimpse at the kind of natural environment that defines much of Hokkaido. Within the park’s 70 hectares is the tutelary Hokkaido Shrine, which is one of Hokkaido’s finest cherry blossom spots when its 1,100 sakura trees bloom in May. Its traditional structures look pretty good covered in snow in winter, too. Rising from the shrine, you then find the primeval forest-covered Mount Maruyama, only about 225m in height, but nevertheless a fun hike that delivers grand views back over Sapporo. En route, you might spot squirrels, numerous species of birds, Great Purple Emperor butterflies and flower varieties such as Japanese fairy bells.
Made up of fountains, playgrounds, seasonally arranged gardens and more than 4,700 trees from 92 species, Sapporo’s Odori Park remains one of the city’s most iconic features. Dating back to 1871 when it was originally constructed as a large-scale Kabo-sen, essentially a firebreak between the north and south of the city, it has developed over time and is today as beloved by visitors as it is by local families and office workers on lunch. It is home to many of Sapporo’s most famous events: the Sapporo Snow Festival in winter; the Sapporo Odori Beer Garden in summer, when the park turns into a giant beer garden as part of the Sapporo Summer Festival; and the Lilac Festival in May, when about 400 lilac trees bloom. The annual Hokkaido Marathon begins and ends in the park in late August, while Autumn Fest takes place during September and is made up of food stalls from Sapporo and the wider region. At the eastern end of the park is the Sapporo TV Tower, built in 1957 and reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower (it’s similarly illuminated by night), which offers views of the park and the surrounding city from its observation deck.
As Rob Goss discovers, the outdoor art scene in Sapporo is another example of how nature is woven into the fabric of the city
As well as being home to the triennial Sapporo International Art Festival and numerous city centre galleries, Sapporo also boasts a collection of superb outdoor art venues. The art scene is another example of how nature is woven into the fabric of modern-day life in the city.
Look to northeastern Sapporo and you’ll find Moerenuma Park, an expansive art park designed by sculptor and landscape architect Isamu Noguchi. Repurposing an old waste treatment site, Noguchi approached the design of the park with the concept that all 160 hectares should function as one single giant sculpture. With a Louvre-esque glass pyramid as its most notable structure, the rest of Noguchi’s vision employs hills, fountains, and steel and concrete installations to form a wonderful flowing landscape that – like Sapporo itself – feels like a meeting of urbanity and nature. The park is brilliant in all seasons, with cherry blossom in spring, paddling pools in summer, red and yellow foliage in autumn and activities such as snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and sledding in winter.
While Moerenuma is hard to beat, another outdoor spot well worth a look is Sapporo Art Park, an art complex located in a 40-hectare forest where visitors can try craft workshops, stroll through a rambling sculpture garden, or stop by an art museum where the emphasis (though not sole focus) is on artists with a connection to Hokkaido.
Then there’s the Hill of the Buddha, which could lay claim to being the single most photogenic piece of open-air art in Japan. The work of acclaimed Japanese architect Tadao Ando, the Hill features a 13.5m Buddha statue placed in an underground shrine, which from the outside appears as a giant mound with just the upper third of the Buddha’s head poking above ground. What makes a mostly buried buddha so striking? Scale and surroundings. The mound is covered with snow in winter and purple lavender in summer, which, added to the mix of stark concrete interiors and outdoor water features, help create numerous Instagrammable views of the Buddha from inside and out.