One of the first things you should do in Sapporo is walk around. Starting from Sapporo Station (which contains a chic shopping and restaurant complex) take the road leading directly south called Eki-mae Dori (which is also West 4th). This is one of Sapporo's main thoroughfares, taking you south through the heart of the city.
Your First Stop -- Four blocks south of the station, turn left on N1; after a block, you'll find Sapporo's most famous landmark, the Clock Tower (Tokeidai), N1 W2, Chuo-ku (tel. 011/231-0838). This Western-style wooden building was built in 1878 as a drill hall for the Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University). The large clock at the top was made in Boston and was installed in 1881. In summer, it attracts tourists even at night; they hang around the outside gates just to listen to the clock strike the hour. Inside the tower is a local-history museum, not worth the price of admission. By the way, across the street is Sapporo International Communications Plaza, where you can obtain information on Sapporo.
On to Odori Park -- If you continue walking 1 block south of the Clock Tower, you'll reach Odori Koen Promenade, a 103m-wide (344-ft.) boulevard stretching almost 1.6km (1 mile) from east to west. In the middle of the boulevard is a wide median strip that has been turned into a park with trees, flower beds, and fountains. This is where much of the Sapporo Snow Festival is held in early February, when ice and packed snow are carved to form statues, palaces, and fantasies. Begun in 1950 to add a bit of spice and life to the cold winter days, the Snow Festival now features some 240 snow and ice sculptures and draws about 2.1 million visitors a year. One snow structure may require as much as 300 6-ton truckloads of snow, brought in from the surrounding mountains. The snow and ice carvings are done with so much attention to detail that it seems a crime they're doomed to melt.
Odori Park is also the scene of the Sapporo Summer Festival, celebrated with beer gardens set up the length of the park from late July to mid-August and open every day from noon. Various Japanese beer companies set up their own booths and tables under the trees, while vendors put up stalls selling fried noodles, corn on the cob, and other goodies. Live bands serenade the beer drinkers under the stars. It all resembles the cheerful confusion of a German beer garden, which isn't surprising considering Munich is one of Sapporo's sister cities (Portland, Oregon, is another one). Some of the other festivals held in Odori Park are the Lilac Festival in late May heralding the arrival of summer, and Bon-Odori in mid-August with traditional dances to appease the souls of the dead.
The Underground Shopping Arcades -- From Odori Park, you can continue your walk either above or below ground. Appreciated especially during inclement weather and during Hokkaido's long, cold winters are two underground shopping arcades, known collectively as Sapporo Chikagai, with about 140 shops open daily 10am to 8pm. Underneath Odori Park, from the Odori Station all the way to the TV tower in the east, is Aurora Town, with boutiques and restaurants. Even longer is the 390m (1,300-ft.) Pole Town, which extends from the Odori Station south all the way to Susukino, Sapporo's nightlife amusement center, where you'll find many restaurants and pubs. Before reaching Susukino, however, you may want to emerge at Sanchome (you'll see escalators going up), where you'll find more shopping at the 1km-long (1/2-mile) Tanuki-koji covered shopping arcade's 200 boutiques, traditional specialty shops, and restaurants.
The Botanic Garden -- Backtracking now toward the station, you should stop at the 13-hectare (32-acre) Shokubutsu-en; its entrance is at N3 W8 (tel. 011/221-0066). It contains some virgin forest and more than 4,000 varieties of plants gathered from all over Hokkaido, arranged in marshland, herb, alpine, and other gardens. Of greater interest, perhaps, is the section devoted to plants used by the Ainu, whose extensive knowledge of plants covered not only edible ones but also those with medicinal use and other properties, including organic poison used for arrows to kill bears and other game. Unfortunately, there's no English-language explanation of plant usage. Still, with lots of trees and grassy lawns, it's a good place for a summer picnic.
Worth visiting on garden grounds is Japan's oldest natural science museum, founded in 1882 to document the wildlife of Hokkaido and housed in a turn-of-the-20th-century, Western-style building. Be sure, too, to visit the small, one-room Ainu Museum, which displays some fine examples of Ainu artifacts, including traditional clothing, jewelry, farming tools, hunting traps, harpoons, a canoe, and bamboo mouth harps (played by women and children). A 13-minute video, filmed in 1935, shows the ritualistic killing of a brown bear, a ceremony to give thanks and send the bear's soul to the afterlife, and the skinning. In any case, you'll probably want to spend an hour touring the garden and its museums.
The Botanic Garden and its museums are open April 29 to September 30, Tuesday through Sunday 9am to 4pm (Oct-Nov 3, 9am-3:30pm). Admission, including museums, is ¥400, ¥280 for children. From November 4 to April 28, only the garden and greenhouse are open (Mon-Fri 10am-3pm; Sat 10am-noon); admission then is ¥110 for everyone.