Sapporo is Japan’s snowiest city. Its location on the island of Hokkaido (North of Honshu, Japan’s most populous island) means that it is geographically removed from what most people think of as Japan: the urban settings of Osaka and Tokyo and the history of Kyoto.

Sapporo has spent the past 100 years in the midst of a growth spurt. It has more than 2 million inhabitants. It is known for its snowfall (more than 16 feet annually) and beer (Sapporo Beer is one of Japan’s most famous non-electronic, non-auto exports). The city is one of the most natural in East Asia. It features tree-lined boulevards, city parks and an easygoing vibe (at least when compared to frenetic Tokyo). Nature, in the form of trees, flowers and animals, can be found both within the city limits and in the surrounding area. Mountain trails, hot springs, forests and ski slopes are not more than an hour from the front door of any Sapporo hotel.

Sapporo is arguably one of Japan’s greenest cities. This seems true at first glance (the tree-lined streets) and also when one looks a little deeper. There is even a public smoking ban in the city’s downtown area (a major statement in nicotine-loving Japan).

Go green

Like Japan’s other cities, railways are important for getting into and around Sapporo. It is possible to fly into Sapporo, but it is also possible to travel by train from the main island of Honshu, thanks to the Seikan Tunnel. The tunnel stretches for over 30 miles under the Tsugaru Strait. Trains from Tokyo take between 16 and 22 hours, by no means a quick trip, but a decidedly green way to travel.

Sapporo’s three-line subway system is the city’s most useful means of transit. Sapporo is not the largest city, and its grid-like layout make it easy to get to most places on the subway without too much above-ground walking. Day passes are currently about $10 (800 yen).

During the summer, tourist buses make loops through the city, passing all the popular attractions. A one-day pass is currently about $9 (750 yen). Streetcars and buses also cover many of the parts of the city that are away from the subway line. 

Sleep green

There are plenty of respectably green sleeping options in Sapporo. The Sapporo Sheraton is near the top of the list. It offers eco-friendly basics: energy efficient fixtures, occupancy sensors, recycling and the elimination of Styrofoam containers. The Sheraton takes it a step further by offering eco-friendly transit options such as shuttle service and also awarding preferred parking spaces to drivers with low-emission vehicles. The hotel also has a carbon offset program.

The Sapporo Prince Hotel actually pays guests to go green, in a sense. The hotel offers a 1,000 yen (about $12) per night credit for guests who forego the standard daily maid and laundry service.

There are small ryokan throughout the city. These Japanese-style inns offer small-scale sleeping experiences. Some are quite traditional in their service and furnishings while others are quite modern, resembling bed-and-breakfast establishments.

Eat green

The Central Wholesale Market is the main source of goods for Sapporo’s restaurants and grocers. Whatever you may think of the nation’s fishing practices, it is obvious that much of what is sold at these markets is locally grown or caught. The venue takes it a step further with a series of eco-friendly practices. Much of its machinery, especially forklifts, is operated by clean burning natural gas. A cooling system on the loading docks can be hooked up to refrigerated trucks so that they do not have to remain idling while unloading.

The only overtly organic eatery worth mentioning in Sapporo is Shojin Restaurant Yo. It specializes in macrobiotic cooking, with most dishes coming with brown rice and vegetarian specialties. Local food is easy to come by, with fruits such as melons and berries, vegetables and seafood not traveling far from farm or sea to plate.

See green

For eco-minded travelers, Sapporo is attractive because it offers easy access to nature. There are city parks and plenty of opportunities to visit the mountain and forest landscapes surrounding the city. Even when the weather gets cold, the city’s residents still find ways to celebrate their geography and climate. The Sapporo Snow Festival, known for its extravagant snow and ice sculptures, brings people outdoors in early February, one of the coldest times of year. During this time the city's population doubles, because of the festival's popularity with tourists.

Sapporo’s long, thin Odari Park is an unmistakable part of the urban scenery. In the warmer three seasons, it is filled with flowers and trees. But Odari is only a small part of the city’s green scheme. Over 50 percent of the land within city limits is considered forest land. Moerenuma Park was built on land that was reclaimed from a waste treatment plant. The centerpiece is an impressive glass pyramid that is cooled in the summer by a unique system that stores snow from the winter months.

Skiing is a favorite wintertime activity in Sapporo, with both domestic and international skiers hitting the slopes at resorts within a hour or two of the city. Mount Teine, site of the skiing competition during the 1972 Winter Olympics, is a short drive from the city.

Hot springs, like the Jozankei Hot Springs (about an hour from Sapporo), are a huge draw for tourists and locals alike. These geothermally heated bathing spots are thought to have medicinal properties and are some of Hokkaido’s most popular attractions. The collection of springs in Jozankei alone bring in more than 2 million visitors each year.

Sapporo has an impressive list of green attractions. It proves that Japan’s cities are not all as utterly urban as Tokyo and Osaka. This city wears its nature proudly and its location makes it an ideal green base for exploring the surrounding countryside.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

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