Deciding where to go for my summer vacation, I pulled up Google Maps and looked for interesting places anywhere north of Korea that weren't North Korea. Anywhere south of Seoul within Asia is notoriously hot and humid in the summer and have a tendency to make umbrellas useless with the amount of rain they get. Sapporo in northern Japan and Vladisvostok, Russia were the first places that caught me. After reading a few off-handed comments online that Vladsivostok is a bit boring, my decision basically went straight to Sapporo.
Really, the only reason wanted to go to Sapporo in the first place was because of ramen, specifically miso ramen, Sapporo's local specialty. There was a ramen shop not far from where I lived in Fuji City that featured ramen from around Japan, including this northern variety and once I tasted it, I never ordered anything else. It helped that Sapporo's summer weather is utterly fantastic. Pleasantly warm in the the sunny afternoons and perfectly "wear whatever you want" cool in the evenings. Best of all, Hokkaido lacks a rainy season.
Allow me Wikipedia Sapporo for you. Located on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan's main islands and about the size of main and almost 20% larger than Ireland. Sapporo is famous outside of Japan almost solely for its beer, many may even only know the beer with no knowledge that its an actual place. While Sapporo Brewery, one of the three major brewers in Japan alongside Kirin and Asahi, moved their HQ down to Tokyo almost 130 years ago and is now owned by a Canadian company, it still has a huge presence in the Sapporo the city and Hokkaido at large. Sapporo has minor international acclaim for its snow festival, one of Japan's most popular festivals, where fantastic snow sculptures take over Odori Park. It also serves as the jumping off point to Hokkaido's fantastic ski resorts that receive the best powder in Japan and are especially popular with Australians.
Hokkaido is seen in a different light from other places in Japan to its citizens. It's far enough from most of the country that it's not conveniently accessible by train, no bullet train line connects to it. The region was settled relatively recently compared to the rest of the country. Sapporo being established in 1868, compared to many other cities in Japan whose histories stretch back thousands of years.
Sapporo sits on a huge, wide open plain with its back to the mountains. Riding on a train from the airport into any other city in Japan is a ride alongside a tapestry of concrete, steel, wire and neon. In Sapporo you can see off into horizon towards the farms that give the region its reputation of rich dairy production and the gentle mountains that served the 1972 Winter Olympics.
Sapporo is a small city turned big. It has a subway, millions of people and its own unique urban culture, but it's more laid back and doesn't quite feel congested. In other Japanese metropolises, the buildings are the landscape, with the only thing stopping them being the ocean. Sapporo's sprawl is contained, rural land sits on the same train line as downtown. Judging by the number of large, well-used SUVs on the roads, that's the way the locals want it.
Sapporo is the only officially designated city in Hokkaido. It is the rural capital and this shows in its people. They are a little more rough around the edges, especially when compared to the straight laced people of Tokyo. Sidewalk traffic isn't a strict keep to your side affair, people walk where they please, pedestrians frequently disobey crosswalk signals while back on the mainland dozens of people will wait for the green man even on a single-lane alley with no cars in sight. They're a little more rude, or maybe just less polite. Not as likely to strike up a conversation, but ultimately quite warm and welcoming. They are lively and take full advantage of their amazing summer weather, converting the city's flagship park, Odori, into one huge beer garden, with tents from all of Japan's major beer manufacturers. And during the first weekend of August the streets of Susukino, Sapporo's entertainment district are shut off to car traffic and the bars spill out onto the streets, with the staff setting up tables and chairs, serving up draft beer and grilled food. The city is alive with laughter, kimonos and beer. Shopping arcades and parks turn into hangout spots after dark, with live music and friends sitting on the ground, chatting.
It bears repeating that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world. The image above is representative of that. When all of the beer gardens in Odori Park close for the night, rather than load the thousands of chairs, tables and tents into vans and haul them away, only to have to unload it the following day, they are all simply left there and not a single chair or table is locked up. They are just folded neatly to be set up for the next day. Petty theft is virtually non-existent in Japan. I would be surprised if a single chair was stolen or even moved. As I walked through the mile-long park at 1:00 AM on a Saturday, passing some college kids, skateboarding, practicing music and whatever, I saw a single senior-aged security guard watching over the beer garden assets with his flashlight. He had a car, which he left on the other side of the park, just past his view, with the keys inside, engine running, and the headlights on. Never having to worry about your personal safety at any hour is an amazing aspect of life in Japan.