Sapporo, Japan: Joyful Cool Summer

When winter comes, Sapporo becomes very cold. In spring and autumn, it still can get chilly. Come summertime, however, the rest of Japan wants to escape to this Northern city’s cool summer.

I didn’t write the paragraph above to discredit Hokkaido’s capital city and Japan’s fifth largest city in other seasons. Sapporo hosts one of the world’s most famous snow festivals every February that will make braving the constant sub-zero temperature and thick snow worth it. The city has some spring and fall colors to offer too. But with summer in other regions being notoriously hot (temperature usually almost reaches 35 °C or even goes over 35 °C for consecutive days) and very humid (the reason why even a Thai person like me finds Japanese summer uncomfortable), it is very tempting to visit Sapporo and other cities in Hokkaido where temperature is usually in the 25-30 °C range or slightly higher sometimes. Apart from being the gateway to Hokkaido with many domestic and international flights and the northernmost region’s hub with all the main train lines to other Hokkaido cities and well-developed facilities, Sapporo itself is brimming with interesting attractions and fresh and delicious food. I both traveled in Sapporo and used it as a base for day trips to nearby cities, thus having chances to try a lot of great food for dinner. I recommend you do this too.

I went to Sapporo for the first time in August 2019 and for the second time in August 2021. The places I visited on my first trip are conveniently in the city center and I will share easy trip ideas from that visit in this post. Despite all these destinations being in the center of Hokkaido’s most populous city and my visit being in the peak tourism month of August, I really like that Sapporo felt generally uncrowded, with comfortable summer weather, reliable transportation, and chill yet joyful vibe on both trips.

Maybe that is why the city inspired by Sapporo in the video games Pokemon Diamond/Pearl/Platinum is called Jubilife City, with “City of joy” as its slogan. Without further ado, I will now recommend things to see in Sapporo for first-timers, locations featured in Pokemon and the K-pop group NCT 127’s itinerary during their Sapporo concert that even non-fans might find interesting, and of course, tasty local food.

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Otaru, Japan: Crafty Canal City

The world is nothing short of small cities with big amount of charms. I haven’t been everywhere, but few probably have all the charming details packed into its quite limited space like Otaru.

Once one of the most prosperous port cities on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, Otaru is long past its heyday for fishermen and merchants, but traces of its glory days remain almost everywhere and in so many aspects that travelers should dedicate a day to explore this small city. Otaru is lined with century-old warehouses and other European-influenced buildings that have been refurbished into craft shops, seafood restaurants, and cafes that look as if they belonged in picture books.

What’s more, imagine these time-honored places reflected upon the water of Otaru’s historical canal flanked by cobblestoned paths and classic gas lamps. Romantic.

For nature lovers, Otaru offers not only calming sea views as expected of a harbor city, but also a mountain that bursts into green in summer and turns into a tranquil silver world in winter.

With its east-meets-west air along the atmospheric canal, myriad of handicrafts, fresh sushi and gourmet sweets, and mountain and sea package, it is no wonder Otaru has been featured in J-pop MVs, manga, films, travel documentaries, and others. In this post, I will show Otaru through my perspective as not only a tourist and an admirer of the little details but also a fan of the Pokemon video games and the K-pop group NCT 127.

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Niigata, Japan: Of Traveler’s Tough Luck and Fangirl’s Fortune

Located less than two hours away by Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo, Niigata City is the capital of Niigata Prefecture and the second largest city in Chubu region after Nagoya.

Although famous for its abundance in fresh seafood from the Sea of Japan, one of Japan’s most delicious rice called Koshihikari, and various kinds of top-quality traditional Japanese rice wine (sake), Niigata Prefecture has yet to make it onto international travelers’ map and remains an idyllic hideaway. I probably would have known much less about it if I wasn’t sent to a city in Niigata Prefecture called Nagaoka when I had the opportunity to participate in the two-week AFS JENESYS cultural exchange back in December 2008. That was actually my first time going abroad too, so Niigata Prefecture holds a special place in my heart.

If you have been reading this blog from mid-2017, you probably know that I am an NCTzen aka fan of the K-pop group NCT 127. When I learned that Niigata was one of their stops for their first Japan arena tour “NCT 127 Arena Tour NEO CITY : JAPAN – The Origin”, I decided to apply for the ticket lottery for their Niigata concert. TMI: You can’t just straight up buy a concert ticket in Japan. Everyone has to rely on their luck through the ticket lottery system and only when you win the lotto can you pay for the ticket. In the end, I was lucky to get my Niigata concert ticket and I found it a meaningful experience to be able to return to Niigata Prefecture for the first time in years to see my most favorite band’s live performance and explore Niigata City for the first time.

I visited Niigata City with a friend in January 2020. As Niigata winter is very cold, most of the highlights on the rugged and historic Sado Island and the quirky Echigo-Tsumari Art Field were closed. We didn’t have enough time to learn to ski at one of the ski resorts in Echigo-Yuzawa area either. To be completely honest, apart from those destinations, Niigata Prefecture doesn’t have that many tourist attractions that will instantly take your breath away. However, my friend and I discovered some peaceful places and a lot of delish food during our 2D1N stay in Niigata City.

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Seoul, South Korea: The Trendy Gritty City of Seongsu

Timeworn and gritty, Seongsu-dong or Seongsu District feels like a city of its own within South Korea’s modern and polished capital. Or maybe it was just me growing so used to the youthful and trendy image of Seoul that Seongsu felt like an irregularity in Seoul.

But that doesn’t mean Seongsu is outdated and unattractive. Once a go-to district for handmade shoes in the late 20th century until the mass-produced imports came along in the 2000s, Seongsu’s grit and grime remains in the facades of these old factories while the interior has been renovated into restaurants and cafes diverse in characters. Artists have also painted parts of the neighborhood anew, so street art enthusiasts will definitely have fun there. Thanks to the recent development, Seongsu-dong has now been dubbed the Brooklyn of Seoul and become one of the hottest spots among Koreans. However, it is still considered a hidden gem among international travelers. Without NCT’s many photoshoots and videos there, I wouldn’t have discovered Seongsu-dong.

I visited two cafes and one restaurant in Seongsu-dong, all of which visited by NCT members but not featured in that many Seongsu-related guides yet. (I traveled there alone, so my stomach could only take that much. If you are with family or friends, there are dozens of cafes and restaurants for you to choose from.) The rest of my time there was spent on wandering around and street art viewing.

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Goyang, South Korea: Autumn’s Poetic Beauty at Ilsan Lake Park

I have always preferred cool colors, especially green, but there is something about autumn leaves that I can’t take my eyes off. And since I had never experienced autumn before this South Korea trip (just last year), I couldn’t help putting many spots for autumn colors on my itinerary.

Accessible via the Seoul Subway, Ilsan Lake Park in Goyang, Gyeonggi-do is a nice spot for autumn colors and that isn’t only reason I went there. Besides Asia’s largest artificial lake and over 200,000 trees, the park is home to Cactus Greenhouse. Also, just opposite the park is MBC Dream Center, the venue for the music TV program Show Champion that NCT Doyoung and Jaehyun were MCs for in 2015 when they were SMROOKIES. Lovely autumn leaves, quirky cacti, and NCT pilgrimage, that is how I found happiness in one fell swoop.

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