Are you headed to the world famous and much celebrated Sapporo Snow Festival this year? Every year this wonderful celebration of snow grows ever bigger and more spectacular, with millions of tourists, both local and international, flooding the wonderful Hokkaido city of Sapporo to see the unbelievable snow sculptures and eat the peerless Hokkaido seafood and bowls of steamy ramen. However, what comes to a shock to many visitors is what lies right beneath the feet of those wondering around the above-ground streets of Sapporo - a vast, sprawling network of fantastic underground Shopping Malls flows beneath the largest city on Japan’s north island.

Sapporo is found on the northernmost island on the Japanese archipelago, Hokkaido. Being so far north, it is covered with snow for much of the year. The island was settled significantly later than mainland Honshu, so Sapporo is a much newer city. This, combined with the fact that many foreigners helped with the design of Sapporo, gives it the feel of a European city, with a distinctive Roman-style grid system, wide streets and many green spaces. It has a feel unlike any of the rest of Japan and this makes it increasingly popular as a tourist destination. It has grown rapidly into the fourth largest city in Japan, without losing any of its cosy charm.

Every year, people flock to Odori Park to see the best and biggest snow sculptures in the world

You can get to the Malls directly from Odori train station

The entrance to Pole Town

In 1950, when Sapporo was still a relatively young city and was rebuilding after allied bombings in the mid-40s, a handful of High School students decided to build six humble snow statues in Odori Park - the main park which runs straight through the middle of Sapporo a la New York City’s Central Park. It became an annual thing and, five years later, the Japanese Defence Force stationed in Sapporo decided to join in, and the rest is history. Now, every year, artists and designers from across the globe come to Odori Park to build their own themed snow and ice sculptures. Every year the designs get crazier and the pieces get bigger - it is an incredible site, particularly mid-light show.

There is one slight issue, though - Sapporo in February is tremendously cold. So, on the days where locals don’t feel like losing all feeling in their extremities during the dark winter days (even though such days, with the soft and inviting light emanating from stores and streetlights, Sapporo looks absolutely stunning), or visitors need to warm up after checking out the sculptures, they head underground to one of the many Shopping Malls in the city. The biggest two are Pole Town and Aurora Town, collectively known as ‘Sapporo Chikagai’ (literally ‘underground street’), which flow out of the main Odori train station and go on for miles in seemingly every direction. It is truly a wonderful site to behold.

The Mall walkways seem endless

From JR Odori Station, Pole Town extends to the south and Aurora Town juts out eastwards. Now, it’s easy to think that these corridors lined with every store imaginable never end, but eventually, and depending which Mall you’re in, you will hit either the Aurora Plaza or the Pole Square - huge spaces filled with stores and entertainment, where young people especially love to gather and hang out. The two Shopping centres make a giant ‘L’ shape under Sapporo and each one has it’s own unique stores and restaurants. Aurora Town contains sixty stores, terminating at the fabulous TV Tower, and the larger Pole Town has eighty-one.

Stores vary from fashion (casual to kimono), accessories, 100 Yen stores, cosmetics, collectables, general goods, books, video games, flowers and restaurants full of every Japanese fast food you can imagine, including the Sapporo signature dish, rich miso ramen. Of course if you just want a good old Macdonald’s hamburger, that’s available too. You may recognise a small handful of international brands, such as Muji, Claire’s Accessories, Dr. Martens, Baskin Robbins and L’occitane, but the vast majority of stores you will have never seen before, making these Malls exotic and highly interesting as you figure out just what they sell and peruse all of their exotic fare. Or you can just chill in one of the spacious plaza’s or square’s and check out the local scene. When I’m in these cosy Centres, with no sign of the sun or outside world, I feel I could spend days here.

The entrance to Aurora Town, decked out for Christmas

Aurora Town, while smaller, is a more calm and stylish Centre than its sister Pole Town

The Malls were opened back in 1971 with the poetic tagline ‘Another town where neither rain nor snow falls’. It was an instant hit, helped by the direct link to a major train station, and today as many as 150,000 people continue to flow through this fantastic duo of Shopping Malls. The fact that beyond Sapporo lies not much apart from the breathtaking, vast and untamed wilderness of Hokkaido, means that many tourists like to check out Sapporo before heading out into the unknown; and where better to enjoy the last remnants of civilisation than inside a Shopping Mall?

Sapporo is an incredibly compact city, and as such most of the famous tourist spots are within walking distance from each other. Whether you want to check out the famous beer company, the clock, the distinctive TV tower or Odori Park, everything is easily accessible. Of course, one option is to stay above ground and enjoy the gorgeous Sapporo greenery. However, if you’re a Mallrat (or is that Mallmole in this case?) such as I, you’ll want to get from A to B via the underground Shopping Centres. This is the way many locals do it, especially during the winter time. In the summer, even I would be tempted by the beautiful Odori park to traverse the city on the surface.

A handful international brands can be found in Chikagai

Aurora Town leads directly to the instantly recognisable Sapporo Television Tower

Check out one of the many restaurants - Hokkaido has probably the best seafood in Japan

Just as you begin to wonder why the above-ground city hasn’t collapsed in on itself from such vast underground warrens, Aurora Town and Pole Town are by no means your only underground shopping choices - there is still the likes of the Daimaru and Esta department stores, as well as the Apia, Paseo (east and west), Parco Shopping Complex, Mitsukoshi and Stellar Place Centres for you to check out. Stellar Place in particular is one to seek out because it is the only underground Centre with a cinema. However, if you want to check out the big daddy of them all, definitely head to Sapporo Chikagai first and work your way from there. It all flows quite naturally so just enter from either Odori Station or Susukino Subway Station, let it all go and get lost under Sapporo - you’ll love it!

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