While traveling through European and Asian cities over the course of my life I noticed a common difference they embody in contrast to Minneapolis, Chicago and other American Cities: they don’t do the grid thing very well. Cities in Europe and Asia grew over centuries rather than decades; they had no over-arching design. This noticeable tendency did not hold true for Sapporo though (I went there two years ago): the city took planning to the next level!
I’ve been to most major Japanese cities and although navigating was never too difficult (just approach a police officer with a confused look on your face, works every time!) I still managed to mess up; in Sapporo though, I felt as if I were in some sort of overly simplistic hypothetical city. There was a grid, expanding out from the center (a very tall TV tower) in which everything (intersections and buildings) was addressed with a number, a cardinal direction (like north), another number and another (non-opposite) cardinal direction. It was consistent (I found a few exceptions, but hardly worth mentioning) and disturbingly efficient.
Sapporo’s similarities with familiar cities like Minneapolis and Chicago didn’t end with just the grid: the streets were wide (unlike most Old World cities), the oldest buildings were from the 19th century and the November weather felt like… November! Even the topography of the countryside around Sapporo, apart from the backdrop of mountains, looked like Minnesota.
As I toured Sapporo I started to understand the “why” behind its similarities to American cities. First and foremost, it was new; it only started developing as a city in the 1870s. Second, it was a colonial city; “Sapporo” (unlike other Japanese cities) doesn’t have a clear meaning in Japanese because the word comes from the Ainu who lived in the area before (Minnesotans are very familiar with that type of naming). Third, Americans had a large part in Sapporo’s design; the Japanese brought in help from the undisputed experts of colonizing unbroken, previously inhabited, lands.
One of the revered figures in Sapporo’s history is William S. Clark, who only spent a year there developing Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University). This Union hero of the American Civil War is famous for leaving his adoring Japanese students with the line “Boys Be Ambitious!” These parting words are preserved in a statue of him on a bluff overlooking the city.
Food and Drink of Sapporo
Beer wise, if you’ve heard of a Japanese beer it’s probably Sapporo. The old brewery (which is well within the city limits) has now been converted into a shopping mall of sorts, but the brick exterior is very reminiscent of something you might find in Milwaukee; it’s also a bit of a tourist trap. Though the beer itself is currently made in a newer facility I still managed to find the tasting room at the old brewery and enjoyed a healthy sampling (only their flagship lager makes it to America, many of their other varieties are quite hard to find even in Japan; light beer doesn’t count).
Most people in Japan will tout Hokkaido as being one of the best places for seafood. I wasn’t disappointed in the least in that regard; I enjoyed a ton of sushi during my stay.
However, the most memorable food experience was the “Genghis Khan” style restaurant (grill your own lamb in front of you) called the “Rest House” adjacent to the William Clark statue and surrounding sheep pasture. Simply put, they served the freshest and most deliciously savory cuts of meat I’ve ever eaten; this might be really tough to hear, but if lamb is your favorite meat (as it is mine) you may have to go to Sapporo to taste its ultimate form.
If you are new to traveling or think you may have trouble adjusting to a place as condensed and bustling as Tokyo, then Sapporo would be an ideal place to test the waters. Foreigners are not an uncommon sight there, the layout is extremely easy and the people are incredibly helpful. It’s not cheap (Japan in general isn’t), but you won’t break the bank like you would in Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka. It has a number of landmarks that are easy to get to, its airport has a good selection of flights to other destinations and the food is top notch; it’s definitely a place worth looking into.
Photos by: Erik Bergs