Flying into Chitose Airport was like deja vu. We were just there 7 months ago for our Niseko ski trip. With a sense of familiarity, we made our way to the airport train station and caught the express train to JR Sapporo Station (Sapporo Eki). This express train departs every 15 mins, takes 37 mins to reach Sapporo Eki, and costs Y1,070.00 one way.
We had touched down at Chitose Airport at 1655 hrs, so by the time we arrived at Sapporo Eki to change trains to get to Susukino where our hotel was, we found ourselves in the thick of the rush hour madness in downtown Sapporo. Fortunately, we managed to squeeze ourselves and our luggage onto the train and survive those 2 stops to Susukino.
We had chosen to stay the night at Hotel Nets Sapporo because it was new, central and close to the car rental company we had to get to the next day. It didn't bother us that they were located in Susukino, the red light district of Sapporo. We had stayed in Shinjuku, Tokyo's red light district, previously and had found it safe, vibrant and intriguing. Bright neon lights all around, shops and eateries stayed open till late, and the pimps and touts steered clear of couples and families. It was the same in Susukino.
We paid S$186.08 for a non-smoking double room with breakfast at Hotel Nets Sapporo, and like the rest of Japan, the room was tiny. Never ever bring a large suitcase with you to Japan because the rooms are usually so compact that you'll have difficulty finding a place to open it up! The bathroom facilities were very functional. The water closet was separated from the shower and bathtub. They even provide lemon scented bath salts at reception.
After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we went looking for Ramen Shingen in the rain. I had read rave reviews of the ramen joint and really wanted to try it. It wasn't hard to spot Ramen Shingen from a distance. They had a bright yellow signboard, and a long line of people huddled under their umbrellas outside, waiting for their turn to enter. It was a 45-min wait for our noodles, but it didn't seem that long as it was enjoyable watching the chefs prepare the meals in the open-concept kitchen.
We ordered a bowl of their signature ramen, Shinshu (tasty miso flavour), a bowl of Echigo ramen (spicy miso flavour) and gyoza to share. A full bowl of ramen cost Y760, whilst a half bowl cost Y540. The ramen was served with chashu and half a hard-boiled egg. Yes you read it right, the egg was hard-boiled, not half-boiled. We had very high expectations after the long wait, but they came crashing down after a slurp of the broth. It was just very salty; not much else to remember it by.
Disappointed, we went in search of Ganso Sapporo Ramen Yokocho, the famed ramen alley in Susukino. Shockingly, there were hardly any customers there. We peered into each stall, took a look at their menus, then left. I can only surmise from the queue at Ramen Shingen that it is the preferred noodle shop of the locals.
There was one more thing we had to try before going to bed that night - grilled oysters at Gotsubo. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall oyster shack open from 1800 to 0200 hrs. They serve fresh, plump oysters raw or grilled at Y105 apiece. The lady behind the counter took our order with a cigarette hanging between her lips. When you order 4, she will generously throw in 2 for free. It was easy to understand why they were TripAdvisor's top pick for cheap eats in Sapporo!
Breakfast at the hotel the next morning was filling, with a good mix of Japanese and western favourites.
We left Sapporo to explore the rest of Hokkaido after our first night. When our road trip of Hokkaido drew to a close, we returned to Sapporo on the evening of 16 July and checked into Smile Hotel Premium Sapporo Susukino. This hotel was also new and it was cheaper than the first one. For S$122.48, we had a non-smoking double room with breakfast included. The hotel had its own car park with a mechanised parking system, which we used that night.
Another plus was Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade was a short walk from the hotel. A very busy shopping arcade which stretched across 7 streets, most of the 200+ shops stayed open till 2100 hrs. We spent most of our evening there buying our souvenirs.
Breakfast at Smile Hotel was also better than at the first hotel. They had very interesting plates at the buffet as well; designed to encourage guests to take tasting portions of each item. Probably helps to cut down on food wastage.
After dropping off our rental car at 0930 hrs on 17 July, we headed to pretty Odori Park on foot. Various breweries were setting up their marquees for the Sapporo Odori Beer Garden, a popular summer beer fest with seats for 13,000 participants.
From Odori Park, we rode the subway to Nijuyonken Station (costs Y250) and walked the rest of the way to Sapporo Jogai Ichiba (Sapporo Central Wholesale Market). Opened from 0600 to 1700 hrs, the seafood market sold every imaginable sea creature which you could safely put into your mouth. We wandered through the market, but were still too full from breakfast to eat anything.
We returned to Odori Station to start our exploration of the various malls in the city. Pole Town and Aurora Town were 2 underground malls which were connected to Odori Station. At Aurora Town, there was an area called the "Otori (small bird) Plaza" with colourful shell grass parakeets on display.
By lunch time, we were at Stellar Place, a humongous shopping complex. There was a queue outside an all-you-can-eat steak restaurant called Beef Rush and we blindly followed suit. The restaurant had a unique charging system whereby male customers had to pay more than female customers. During lunch hours, the price after tax was Y1,834.00 per male customer, Y1,618.00 per female customer, and Y322.00 per person for free flow drinks and desserts. There was a time limit of 90 mins for lunch, and 120 mins for dinner. Aside from beef steak, they served grilled pork chop and chicken chop as well.
We'd always enjoyed beef in Japan; that was until our experience at Beef Rush. At that price point, we were served the poorest cut of beef, and it was all so overdone that it was impossible to chew and swallow any part of it. So sore that our last meal at Sapporo was a let down.
We rounded up our tour of shopping malls at ESTA, then returned to the hotel to pick up our bags and take the train to Chitose Station. Our flight out from Chitose Airport to Tokyo was leaving at 0745 hrs the next morning. It was only sensible to move closer to the airport so we didn't have to worry about being late for our flight.
We stayed at Best Western Plus Hotel Fino Chitose on the last night of our trip. It cost S$119.56 for a non-smoking double room. No breakfast included. It was within walking distance from Chitose Station, and the AEON Chitose mall, where we spent the rest of the evening.
We had dinner at the mall's food court. The ramen and gyudon were good value, and we supplemented the meal with marked down sashimi from the supermarket. We basically stalked the supermarket staff till she planted the "Reduced to Clear" stickers on the packets of sashimi! An absolute bargain for sashimi which was still so fresh!