Sapporo: before the snow disappears

Yui Adachi, knife maker and manager of the Barcom wine bar.

Shikotsu-Toya National Park, near Sapporo.

The Shinkansen at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station, the temporary end of the Tokyo-Sapporo line.

Blocks of snow ready for sculpting at the Sapporo Snow Festival.

An Ezabor knife, with a handle carved out of deer antler from Hokkaido.

Effigy of the monk Kobo-Taishi, in Maruyama Park.

Takeda farm, on the island of Hokkaido, the heart of milk production.

Snowbound and remote, Sapporo makes the most of its isolation. With its Snow Festival, conviviality and vibrant landscapes, it is a place of endless appeal.

There’s nothing like trying to outsmart your trip. That doesn’t mean slipping in through the back door, or going undercover. No, it’s about staying one step ahead of your trip. Letting it think you’re heading to Tokyo and then veering off suddenly like a sleuth hot on a trail, with a totally different destination in mind (Sapporo, but don’t breathe a word of it). Take the train. Thanks to this commendable initiative, you’ll have thrown everyone off the scent.

Why the train? Because it’s ideal for a slow, gentle approach. Watch as the landscape unfurls and covers up, sketch it in your mind and let it fire your imagination. The journey used to take 16 hours aboard the superb night train, the Cassiopeia, with its 1960s curves, teal blue interior, 97 cabins and seven panoramic suites. Alas, it was taken out of service last year and replaced with the flowing colored-crayon lines of the high-speed Shinkansen. Now it’s an eight-hour hop: just time for a snooze, waking up at each station, passing through the Seikan tunnel (53.8 km), until you finally emerge at the other end on the island of Hokkaido.

Last stop before the North

When you get off the train at JR Sapporo station, the sky bestows a superb gift on you. Something wonderful, straight out of a fairy tale is happening. It is snowing. The snow in Japan is said to be among the most beautiful in the world. It’s to do with the nearby ocean, the icy winds from China and Russia, the heavy snowfall and the intense cold, which together give it an amazing softness, leading to the development of some 605 ski resorts (a world record). Like a snow globe, it is joyful, abundant and enveloping, yet weightless. The Japanese worship their snow. They love to look at it (yukimi), just as they admire cherry blossoms in spring (hanami). There’s even a custom of drinking sake as you gaze at it (yukimi-zake). Snow is a symbol of purity; but besides the child like wonder it inspires, it offers a glimpse of a world beyond. Are we ready to take the plunge? In the reflection of a windowpane, we almost spot the snow women (yuki-onna), those secret, perfect wives who vanish if you tell their story. An allegory of sentiment that melts in the rays of love.

Captured impressions

So the snow is not something we should attempt to describe. For one thing, we don’t do it very well. The words should be brought to a halt, like the train behind us disappearing into its hangar. We should just stop still in this magical wedding-cake world topped with whipped cream and sprinkled with powdered sugar, where our steps crunch like pieces of meringue (saku-saku in Japanese). Standing there, like pensive candles.

The more you take liberties with this trip, the more this place is likely to take possession of you. It is infinitely indulgent. There’s no point rushing through it; you’re apt to take a spectacular spill and lose your dignity, which is definitely to be avoided. The snow has the soothing effect of wavelets on a shore, like a deep, calm, silent caress. The snow is gentle. It hardly ever falls (chira chirathe sound it makes), nurturing equally gentle sentiments. Tranquil words, comfort food, cozy rooms. Sapporo snow is like a language, mixing its metaphors: the dense disc of foam at the top of a beer, the heavy, health-giving milk, the silence like a blanket, the burrata at the organic Fattoria Bio Hokkaido, the women’s faces, said to be the most beautiful in Japan (three regionsAkita, Kyoto or Hakataclaim the same). White comes up again and again, as a reminder, an invocation, like the 250,000-yen “White” wedding package at the Royton hotel. Or the white of the rice that’s hand-molded into the best sushi in Japan. And why is that? Because Hokkaido is an island surrounded by three seas, whose cold waters yield oily fish, and a distinctive taste. At the Molière restaurant, inspired chef Hiroshi Nakamichi produces a miraculous dish: lily root with milk. It’s no coincidence that Haruki Murakami opens one of his most beautiful stories here in Sapporo, Dance Dance Dance (1988), at the fictitious Dolphin Hotel. Mystery loves distortion.

Time adrift

The days unfold as the hours go by. You can ski, of course, or hike, or just walk around. You can spend hours letting time drift by. Hole up at the modern art museum, where winter loses its grip and visitors are few and far between. Wait for evening; it starts early in the izakayas, small restaurants serving snacks, an excuse to order sake and beer (in moderation). The beer is sharp and fresh, with that slightly bitter tang that adds strength and body. The night itself is never-ending, making you want to linger. At Mingus Coffee, up on the seventh floor of a nondescript building, the Irish coffee is sublime, the perfect accompaniment for the jazzy vocals of Jaimee Paul. Outside, it’s snowing again. You let it fall on your tongue to taste. The night is softer, the city a tender landscape. You could murmur some words in its ear, three phrases and 17 syllables, a haiku.

A sea of snow

A journey often has momentum, its own pace, which keeps it moving all the time. You have to fine-tune it, probe its depths, test the power of its treble and bass, explore its side streets and alleyways. Just hop on a train or bus to get to the coast and the hypnotic sea near Otaru. The road and railway run along the shoreline of the Sea of Japan, whose intense blues conjure up its age-old struggles, its give and take, between the watery depths and its generous gifts (the baths, the fish), its washings away and endless confrontations. You can almost picture Hokusai’s wave (1831), even though it rose up off the coast of Kanagawa. The spectacular lines and white shore laced with foam and snow will linger for a long time in your mind. It’s like a world’s end. Gaze at it and you see the land surrendering to the soliloquies of the sea. And therein lies the key to this incredibly generous journey. There’s not a soul this morning on the Shakotan seafront. The post office is engulfed in steam from a boiling kettle. It’s icy cold. The pores of your skin tighten, your heart beats drum-like. The bus will be here in seven minutes. For a few seconds, you nearly set down your bags and decide to stay. Life’s path seems crystal clear; your journey, elemental, has injected its vital minerals, and for once you’re an essential part of it. Remember, you wanted to lose yourself, and here you are found, right at the heart of the matter. In the early hours, sitting in the hot-spring bath overlooking the forest at the Kuramure ryokan, you see that it’s snowing again.

Cross Hotel

Built in 2007, this well-situated hotel in the heart of the city has nearly 200 rooms with, depending on the floor and mood of the guests, three types of ambience. You can opt for a functional stay with the Urban Style category, which offers efficiency, simplicity and stylish minimalism, or for the surprising and refreshing Hip rooms, designed for celebrations and marriages. We prefer the so-called Natural rooms with their wood, soft materials and cozy atmosphere. It all contributes to the hotel’s many charms, not least the large pool on the 18th floor with a magnificent view of the city and the surrounding mountains. In addition, it has artistic ambitions, welcoming jazz musicians and filmmakers. A restaurant and bar round things off. Friendly and professional service.

Cross Hotel

23 Kita 2-jo Nishi 2, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 272 0010.

Royton Sapporo

This huge five-star hotel (292 rooms and suites) with its inexhaustible amenities (banquets, marriages, two restaurants, two bars, shops, baths, pool, beauty salon) is in the center of Sapporo and overlooks the mountains and the city. The elevator ride is particularly impressive.

Royton Sapporo

11-1 Kita 1-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 271 2711.

Alcohol abuse is harmful to your health. Drink in moderation


Celebrating in style

Carnet d’adresses

Cross Hotel

23 Kita 2-jo Nishi 2, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 272 0010.

Royton Sapporo

11-1 Kita 1-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 271 2711.



You need to be patient and determined to eat at this izakaya specializing in fish, tucked away upstairs in a nondescript building. Once there, just go with the flow. Nothing pretentious, just contented customers. Affordable.
2 Kita 3-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 281 1250.


This restaurant in the nightlife neighborhood of Susukino, located four floors up, has nine seats all facing the chef, who concocts a colorful, flavorsome dinner, alternating minced crab and wasabi leaves, truffle miso, vegetable broth and Agu pork. Refined and successful.
3 Minami 5-jo Nishi 3, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 532 2828.

Sai Mokkiriya

Tiny Tavern for artists and students, who are drawn by the time-worn look, the numerous objects and food at miniature prices. No reservations.

5-30-1 Minami 2-jo Nishi, Chuo-Ku. Tél +81 (0)11 219 0515.

Cafés & bar

Café Ranban

This coffee specialist beavers away in a relaxed setting to the strains of Mozart piano sonatas.
5-20 Minami 3-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 221 5028.

Café Mingus

This vintage bar seven stories up is passionate about coffee and jazz, which plays from a sumptuous retro hi-fi with JBL speakers. Osawa Bldg.
Osawa Bldg. 7F, 1 Minami 1-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 271 0500.

Moon and Sun Craft Beer Brewery and Bar

This brewpub with a youthful vibe makes craft beer to go with satisfying food, served in a rustic pale-wood decor Alpha Soseigawa Koen Bldg. 1F, 1-3 Minami 3-jo Higashi, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 218 5311.


Daimaru Fujii Central

A wonderful cornucopia of papers, pens, personalized pencils, inks (in particular Iro Shizuku) across seven floors. You’ll find everything here. On the fourth level, you can sample miso ramen, a dish invented right here.
3 Minami 1-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 231 1131.

Barcom Yui

As well as helping to run this wine bar centered on local organic wines, Yui Adachi makes Ezabor knives with handles made of wood or deer antlers from Hokkaido. 2-15 Kita 2-jo Nishi, Chuo-ku. Tél. +81 (0)11 211 1954.

Fattoria Bio Hokkaido

This authentic cheese maker uses Hokkaido milk to produce mozzarella, burrata and ricotta. On-site shop.
North 5-20, Heiwa-Dori 12-Chome, Shiroishi area. Tél. +81 (0)11 376 5260.
Address Book


Going There

Flight Frequency

Air France has 17 weekly flights from Paris-CDG to Sapporo via Tokyo.

KLM has 1 daily flight to Tokyo from Amsterdam.

Arrival airports

Aéroport de Tokyo-Narita.
À 66 km de Tokyo.
Tél. +81 (0)476 34 8000.

Aéroport de Tokyo-Haneda.
À 30 km de Tokyo.
Tél. +81 (0)3 5757 8111.

Aéroport de Tokyo-Chitose.
À 5 km de Sapporo.
Tél. +81 (0)123 23 0111.


À l’aéroport.


— Depuis la France : Tél. 3654.
— Depuis l’étranger :
Tél. +33 (0)892 70 26 54.

Car Rental

Hertz, aux aéroports de :
Tokyo-Narita. Tél. +81 (0)476 32 1088.
Tokyo-Haneda. Tél. +81 (0)33 744 0100.
Shin-Chitose. Tél. +81 (0)123 23 0100.

Japan National Tourism Organization

4, rue de Ventadour, Paris. Tél. +33 (0)1 42 96 20 29.

Further reading

Gallimard, coll. Bibliothèque du voyageur

Lonely Planet

Le goût du Japon
Mercure de France, coll. Le petit mercure.

© Parko Polo / Central Illustration Agency. Map for illustration purposes only