The line between Kushiro and Sapporo follows the sea coast, then cuts inland through the central mountains. It makes for some good scenery along the way. Here's the north pacific on the southern coast of Hokkaido.
Sapporo station is big and busy. You have plenty of souvenir shops with stuff from all over Hokkaido, and on the top floor food court of the adjoining mall there's a ramen area with several popular Hokkaido ramen chains. Plan for plenty of waiting time; it's been crowded every time I've gone there.
We stayed two nights in Sapporo, and spent the better part of one day in nearby Otaru on the coast north of Sapporo itself. Sapporo is a fairly large city - fifth largest in Japan I believe - and it feels like it. The streets are bustling (no mean feat when they're covered in ice and snow) and the city feels as alive in dead of winter as it did on my business trip last summer.
Despite the cold and the snow - or because of it - the city is very pleasant to walk around, even at night. All the streets are well-lit and plowed and the sidewalks are generally snow-free. The white snow lits up the ground and makes the city feel warmer and brighter than places like Osaka further south.
Sapporo is the hometown of Sapporo Beer, and the old brewery is converted to a "Djingis Khan" restaurant - Japanese lamb barbecue, with no connection to Mongolia other than the catchy name; café, party space and souvenir shop. Yes, it's touristy. Yes, it's frequented by package-tour groups coming in by the bus load. And yes, I'm sure there's better Djingis Khan places to be had elsewhere in the city. But it is fun, and it is good, and it is inexpensive. And let's face it, things become popular and touristy precisely because they offer something that many people appreciate.
You can get an all-you-can-eat barbecue course, but I would recommend ordering stuff off the menu instead. Unless you're a Sumo wrestler it won't be any more expensive, and you can get a wider variety of stuff to grill, such as wonderful meaty sausages, or these juicy lamb chops and delicious scallops.
If you like beer, I do recommend the all-you-can drink option however. They have four or five beers on offer, including Yebisu Black, my favourite Japanese dark beer, and it'll be cheaper if you drink three beers or more. Which you can easily do, as it seems the beer is a bit lower in alcohol than the store-bought stuff.
When I asked if it was, the waitress said that "it comes straight from the restaurant brewery next door". Which isn't really a "no", of course. They may well brew it somewhat weaker for the restaurant; if they do, then good. Light beers especially tend to taste better with a little less alcohol, and you can enjoy more beer without getting drunk.
Susukino is an entertainment district toward the south. We ate in a bustling izakaya there before returning to our hotel the last night. The place was packed full, so we got counter seats right in front of the fish cooks; way more fun than sitting at a table.
As we returned from Susukino the temperature rose to just around freezing point and there was snow in the air. The result is a diffuse mist that bathes the world in a faint silvery shimmering light.
Otaru is a smaller town on the coast north of Sapporo. It's the closest port to Sapporo, so it long served as a gateway to the island. Large trading houses and banks used to have offices here, often in imposing stone buildings. The companies and banks have mostly disappeared, but fortunately - and rarely, for Japan - the city has preserved the old buildings, and the town has become a popular sightseeing destination.
Otaru is a quick train ride from Sapporo so it's easy to go there just over the afternoon. The station is still a charming old-style wooden construction, decorated with glass lanterns from Otaru Glass.
The day was grey and overcast, with occasional flurries of snow. This canal-side painter persevered in the cold, even when an unwanted critic flew in for a closer look.
This harbour-side canal is perhaps the most famous of the city views. The old warehouses are all converted to restaurants and shops. One of them houses Otaru Beer brewery, with a beer hall and tours of the brewery itself. Their "Dunkel" dark beer is so-so but the Pilsner is really good and the Weissbier is among the best I have tried. If you don't want to carry bottles around the beer is available - though more expensive - at the airport as well.
Otaru Glass is a large glass maker in the city, and another popular destination. Their signature product seems to be oil lanterns in glass, and they have a café lit entirely by oil lamps and nothing else. The place is very warm from all the oil lamps and the atmosphere is still, almost church-like, even when full of guests. It's a great place to thaw out in winter, with a mug of tea or hot cocoa and perhaps a cake or two.
Before leaving Sapporo and Hokkaido we stopped by Satosuisan, a well-known fishmonger. They have a large selection of fish and seafood, both fresh and cooked. If there's any reason to be envious of people living here, this is it. We got smoked and fresh salmon, pate, vinegared squid and other things too. All fresh, high quality and much cheaper than in Osaka.
There's more pictures in the Sapporo set and the Otaru set on Flickr.
Last meal before leaving Hokkaido. "Taj Mahal" Indian restaurant in Sapporo, a couple of blocks south of the station, has a cheesy interior but the food is good and the atmosphere is warm and friendly. It's the kind of place I'd be happy to go whenever I'm in the neighbourhood.