Hokkaido is one of Japan's four main islands. It is the most northerly of the four, and the second largest. Development there began around the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, with an emphasis on agriculture, forestry and fishing. The capital of Hokkaido, and the island's main city, is Sapporo.
Sapporo began as a hamlet on a large plain. When development began, its growth was planned on a large scale, and today, 135 years later, Sapporo is the largest city in northern Japan, with a population of around 1.85 million. It is now the political, commercial and cultural center of Hokkaido.
In the city center, the streets are neatly laid out, somewhat like a checkerboard. When you walk there and admire the old Western-style buildings, you will feel the mood of the early days of development. Three of the best-known buildings are the former Hokkaido Government Building, constructed to administer the island; the former martial arts hall of Sapporo Agricultural College (now part of Hokkaido University), with its large clock tower constructed on top at a later date; and Hohei-kan, which used to be a hotel. Each has attached a red, five-pointed star, symbolizing the North Star and the island's early days of development.
Sapporo kept growing, and gained an opportunity to develop even further by hosting the 11th Olympic Winter Games in 1972. Preparations for the Games included the opening of a subway system with the first trains in Japan to run on rubber tires. The subway lines and the city extended outward, and the population expanded rapidly. About three decades later, in 2003 this year, the JR Tower opened. It adjoins JR Sapporo Station, and is already a busy place, with a hotel, cinemas, offices and fashionable clothing stores. The tower is becoming a new center in a city that continues to develop.
The people of Sapporo are obviously keen to adopt new ideas and things. When they are asked what best describes their city, typical responses are likely to be "close to nature, with lots of greenery," and "a nice, convenient place to live."
Odori Park stretches 1.4 km east-west through central Sapporo. It was originally planned as a green belt to prevent fires from spreading. On a warm, bright day, the park's gentle breezes add to the good life of residents relaxing there.
The Sapporo Snow Festival is held in and around the park each year in February. It draws huge crowds, not only from the city but from all over Japan, and other countries as well. Every year, there are more than 300 snow sculptures. One is a tall castle more than 20 meters tall, weighing 2,000 tons. Snow covers the city during the winter, and the people take advantage of this by organizing a festival everyone can enjoy. Their resourcefulness is perhaps inspired by the spirit of the early developers of the island.
Their innovative spirit has also inspired some new culinary traditions. The Japanese have long been fond of Chinese noodles, and it was a Chinese restaurant in Sapporo that first called the dish ramen. In the 1950s, a new variation appeared in the city twisty noodles in a broth flavored with miso soybean paste. This dish, called miso ramen, is now served all over Japan, and you will be sure to find it in any ramen shop.
The most popular place for ramen in Sapporo is Ramen Yokocho Lane, in the Susukino commercial district. Tucked in among other buildings are 16 outlets lined up side by side, all specializing in the dish. One shop, called Karyu, has been serving ramen for more than 40 years. The owner, Yoshikawa Toshikazu, says proudly, "It's cold here in the winter, so people really go for our hot ramen. We're open-minded in Hokkaido, always ready to try something new."
After the long, cold winter, the fragrance of lilacs spreads through the city. Hokkaido University, known for its leafy campus, opened in 1876 as the Sapporo Agricultural College and became the first institute in Japan to teach the scientific principles of agriculture. Dr. William Smith Clark was invited to Japan from the United States to serve as the college vice-president, and his advice, "Boys, be ambitious!" became a phrase known by almost everyone in Hokkaido, indeed, in Japan. His statue stands on the campus. Another has been erected at Hitsujigaoka Observatory Hill in the southern part of the city, and his outstretched right arm frames pastures in the background, reminding us of the ambitions of the people in those early days of development.
The beautiful city of Sapporo developed in a rich natural environment. It continues to demonstrate the pioneer spirit brought by the early settlers, and builds on their history.