Modern, openhearted Sapporo is a good planning base for any trip to Hokkaido's wilder regions, with plenty of English-language information and transport connections. Hokkaido's capital is also worth a few days' stay for its major snow (February), dance (June), and beer (July and August) festivals.

With 1.9 million inhabitants, it's four times larger than Asahikawa, the prefecture's next-largest city, but the downtown area can be crossed on foot in 25 minutes. Centered on the 11-block-long Odori Koen (park), an ideal people-watching place, it has wide streets and sidewalks and bustling shopping complexes. There is limited sightseeing, but there's enough to fill a day or two at a holiday's start or finish. Products from all over Hokkaido can be found, and the dining-out standards are high and relatively cheap.

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