Some say that a city hasn’t matured until it builds an underground train. Sapporo seemed to prove that when it emerged on the world’s radar screen in 1972. That year Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics, and just in time a state-of-the-art subway system was opened to shuttle visitors between events.
Sapporo Municipal Subway’s original 12-km (9-mile) line was first built to show off Japan’s technological prowess. Acclaimed for using rubber tires (for a smoother, quieter ride), it was also famous for being world’s most expensive subway – not only to build, but also to ride. A minimum fare between two stations still costs 200 yen. Fortunately, it becomes cost-effective when you take it across town (maximum price: 360 yen) or get a one-day pass (830 yen).
Since its vaunted beginnings, Sapporo’s subway system now covers 48 kms (30 miles) with three lines: The Namboku (green) Line running north-south, the Tozai (orange) Line running approximately east-west, and the Toho (blue) Line servicing suburbs in between. The hub for the system is at Odori Station, located below the downtown center and Odori Park (the site of the Sapporo Snow Festival every February). All lines pass through here.
Sapporo revolves around Odori. On the Namboku Line, two important stations are but one stop away: JR Sapporo train station (where you first arrived from New Chitose Airport) to the north, and Susukino, Sapporo’s party district, to the south. All three stations are also connected by a underground network of shops running in parallel above the line, so that people can avoid going outside and braving Hokkaido’s overwhelmingly snowy winters.
Although most of the suburban subway stations offer little for tourists in terms of sights, we can still recommend two places of interest:
One station is Maruyama Koen (T06 on the orange Tozai Line), only fifteen minutes from Odori. Nearby Maruyama Park itself is a delightful place any time of the year to stroll around. Moreover, within it is the fantastic Hokkaido Shrine (Hokkaidō Jingū – the headquarters for Shintoism in Hokkaido), and the (aging) Sapporo Maruyama Zoo (Maruyama Dōbutsu’en) for the kids.
The other station is Makomanai (N16 on the green Namboku Line), less than a half hour away from Odori. Ride it south for a surprise after Hiragishi Station: the subway suddenly emerges from the ground to become a “superway” – coasting inside a silver tube three stories above the surface, with windows giving you a gorgeous view of Mount Moiwa to the west.
If you feel like getting off for a look (if not, just take a subway back – you won’t be charged for a round trip if you don’t exit the station), wait until Makomanai. The Line’s southern terminus is the site of the 1972 Olympic Village. Slightly-kitschy stadiums built for skiing, skating, and figure skating events are still being used today. As are row upon row of high-rise apartment complexes constructed as temporary athlete dormitories.
In fact, of all the cities hosting the Olympics, Sapporo has perhaps made the best use of its leftover infrastructure. It got the lovely leafy suburb of Makomanai (with streets cleared of above-ground electrical and telephone wires – very unusual in Japan), more than 40 years of residential and sports structures (including a world-class ski-jump hill in Maruyama that keeps Japan’s athletes competitive), and, yes, an excuse to build (and expand) the Sapporo Municipal Subway.
It’s worth a ride. Get the most out of it by purchasing a One-Day Ticket.
Cost: 200-360 yen (One-Day Ticket 830 yen)
What to See: Sapporo Station, Odori Station, Susukino Station, Maruyama Koen Station, Makomanai Station
Article by Dr. Debito Arudou. All rights reserved.