Hokkaido University A journey in the footsteps of the pioneers



 One of the iconic sites in Sapporo City is Hokkaido University, also known as Hokudai. It is a green area of about 12,000 square meters (38 Tokyo Domes), popular not only as a university but also as a tourist attraction representing Hokkaido. The campus offers a peaceful atmosphere and abundant nature. Cherry blossoms in spring and fresh greenery in summer make the site a favorite spot for citizens to enjoy picnics and Genghis Khan-style barbecues. In autumn, the university attracts crowds of people who come to admire the beautiful fall colors, and in winter, it is not uncommon to see children playing in the snow and even sledding or skiing on the snow mounds. Hokudai is a great place to take the pulse of Sapporo, to learn about the history of the city, and to experience the local life of its citizens, who live in a city where nature is everywhere.

Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel has created a unique tour in collaboration with the students of the university. For three hours, a student will guide you and show you not only the popular places on campus but also open the doors to more private places. He or she will also share with you their daily life as a student at Hokudai. This tour is the perfect way to learn about the rich history of Sapporo and Hokkaido while interacting with a young Sapporo resident. I’m sure you’re curious to know more, so let’s dive into the theme of this new article: a journey in the footsteps of the pioneers who contributed to the development of Sapporo and Hokkaido!

For this article, we will add to the regular tour course and introduce you to some of the places related to Hokkaido University as we go around. Sapporo, like Hokkaido, has a relatively modern history. Prior to the Meiji period (1868-1912), the area was inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people, and it was only with the arrival of the first pioneers from the rest of Japan that the foundations of the city as we know it today were laid. Sapporo comes from the Ainu sat poro pet which means “great river flowing through the plain”. The city was designed around Odori Park in a grid pattern: the streets are straight and intersect at right angles, creating islands, so that it is very easy to find your way around. Sapporo is the fifth largest city in Japan and the largest in Hokkaido with 2 million inhabitants (for comparison, Tokyo is twice as big but with 13.96 million inhabitants!). Large streets, low buildings for the most part that allow you to admire the mountains that surround the city and many green spaces make Sapporo a great place to live!

Our tour begins at the Sapporo Clock Tower, a popular sightseeing spot

The historical museum of Sapporo Clock Tower is the best place to learn the history of early days in Sapporo and all explanations in Japanese are translated into English. The Clock Tower is an elegant monument, symbol of Sapporo, that was classified as a National Important Cultural Property in 1970. This wooden structure was inspired by the buildings in the Midwest and West America in the late 19th Century.

The clock bell rings every hour and can be heard for 25 km around

Our story of Sapporo begins in the Meiji era (1868-1912), when the government encouraged the agricultural and industrial development of Hokkaido by establishing the Hokkaido Development Commission (Kaikakushi) in 1869. At that time, Hokkaido was an uncultivated land called Ezo (the island took the name of Hokkaido after 1869) and inhabited by the Ainu, Indigenous people who were living in coexistence with nature, hunting and fishing. The director of the Hokkaidō Development Commission, who traveled in America in 1870, wanted to model the American way to colonize new lands. In the spirit to adopt new agricultural practices and crops that could adapt to the cold weather of Hokkaido, Sapporo Agricultural College was established in 1876.

The Meiji period marked the end of Japan’s voluntary isolation for over 200 years and the beginning of its modernisation policy. With the opening of the borders, the Hokkaido Developpement Commission employed Western instructors and engineers to apply Western experience and techniques to the development of Hokkaido. It also sent Japanese students abroad to Europe and the United States to acquire knowledge and techniques. This modernisation effort was also intended to enable Japan to deal on an equal footing with Western countries and avoid falling under their domination. Let us not forget that Japan was forced to open its borders. In 1853, Commodore Perry threatened to bombard the city with his ship’s cannons and Japan gave in to the United States but also to pressure from other foreign powers to open up because it was no match for Western military technology.

So, in 1876, Sapporo Agricultural College built on the model of Agricultural College Massachusetts College (MAC), of which William Smith Clark was president from 1867 to 1879, welcomed 24 students and William S. Clark was its first vice-president. Clark remained in Hokkaido for only eight and half months but he contributed greatly to the development of Sapporo through the advice he gave not only to the Sapporo Agricultural College but also to the government. He introduced the first American model farm and barn in Japan and the first college military unit in the country. He also introduced new crops and new techniques in agriculture, fishing, and animal husbandry. He not only had a significant impact on the scientific and economic colonial development of the island but also on his students who became leaders of Hokkaido or nationally in Japan and his name is still well-known in Hokkaido. Upon his departure, Clark looked back at his 24 students and shouted “Boys be ambitious !” {“Boys, be ambitious! Be ambitious not for money or for selfish aggrandizement, not for that evanescent thing which men call fame. Be ambitious for that attainment of all that a man ought to be.”} and it is now the motto of the University.

It was the first public school to be established as an institution not only for agricultural education but also for higher education in Japan. The curriculum was modeled on that of the Massachusetts Agricultural College and included intellectual, moral and physical education. Instruction was in English to facilitate language immersion. One of the students at Sapporo Agricultural College, Nitobe Inazō, wrote Bushido: The Soul of Japan, a moral code about samurai behavior and lifestyle, but also about Japanese culture. Published in 1900, it was originally written in English for Western readers. Students received tuition and everything was free, but they had to work for the government after graduation. At that time, Sapporo had a population of about 3,000 and this school played an important role in the growth and development of modern Japanese culture.

William Smith Clark served in the Civil War and thought military training was important, so he included it in the students’ education. At his suggestion, the Clock Tower, then known as the Military Drill Hall, in reference to its primary function, was built in 1878 by a Japanese carpenter named Kikou Adachi, and was the tallest building in Sapporo. The governor of the Hokkaido Development Commission decided to install a modern clock in the bell tower, as clocks were considered a symbolic object of Western civilization for Japan, and a clock was ordered from Howard Clock & Co. in the United States. As the clock was too big, the bell tower had to be rebuilt and the clock rang for the first time in 1881. During the Meiji period, the government replaced the lunar calendar with the solar calendar system and to help its citizens get used to this new system, 72 western clock towers were built all over Japan. Only three of them, including the Sapporo Clock Tower, remain today. This 140 year old clock is the oldest machine in Japan. It weighs 150 kg and is operated by gravity, called a weighted crank clock. If you are interested in clocks, don’t miss the explanation given by the staff (almost, because the day I was there, it was not…) every day at 9:15 am!


*Even 128 years later, the original machinery continues to keep time, making it the oldest clock tower in Japan

Before starting our private tour of Hokudai, we had lunch at Gohan’s Café. Located in the same building as the Hokkaido Universal Original Shop and Information Point, where you will find many items featuring Dr. Clark, it is a small café with large windows, bright and open to nature. It is open from 7:45am to 10:30pm and serves affordable food that differs depending on the time of day. I salivated at the breakfast menu, with some very appetizing dishes, and I will definitely come back to try their eggs Benedict or, when I feel nostalgic for France, their croissant sandwich. For lunch, I ordered the black curry set but I hesitated for a long time about two other dishes on the menu that also looked very good: the vegetable soup with chicken from Hokkaido University and the special rice set with beef omelet. I really enjoyed the taste of the black curry, a taste that stands out from all the curries I’ve had in Sapporo so far, a taste unique to Hokudai.

And since we still had some time before meeting our guide, we went to Hokudai Marche Cafe & Labo to visit the shop and have a coffee. The shop, run by the Hokkaido Rural Research Institute Co. Ltd, offers many original products such as cheese, ice cream, pudding and milk cakes like Baumkuchen. All the milk used in their products is produced at the Hokkaido University Farm (which has been in existence since 1876), processed in the shop and supplied to customers with a story. Now this milk can only be enjoyed at the Hokkaido University Marche Café & Labo and Museum Cafe Polus.

The Model Dairy Farm of Sapporo Agricultural College is a valuable source of knowledge on dairy farm management of that time and has been designated as a cultural property of national significance. It is a place that created the ground for dairy farming in Hokkaido in only 100 years and laid the foundation for the development of Hokkaido. Located on the main campus, the experimental farm (about 50 ha) was founded in 1876 when the Sapporo Agricultural College was established and was inspired by the Massachusetts Agricultural College farm in the United States. At about the same time that the Sapporo Agricultural College was established, a large farm was opened under the direction of W. S. Clark, creating a center for the integration of large-scale modern agriculture, including animal husbandry, of which the people of Hokkaido had no experience. Clark’s programme was taken up by W. P. Brooks, one of his former students at Massachusetts Agricultural College. Brooks selected and imported crops and farming implements to be used in Hokkaido farming, providing advice on crops and operations, and in this way contributed greatly to the development of a method of farming in Hokkaido. The model barn was intended to promote dairy farming, in keeping with the climate of Hokkaido. In addition, the silo (built in 1912) is considered the oldest agricultural structure in Hokkaido. Together with the other farm buildings, it is an important source of information on dairy farming activities at that time.)

The Holstein breed, which accounts for about 99% of the cattle raised in Japan, first arrived in Japan at the Hokkaido University Farm in 1889. It can therefore be said that the Hokkaido University Farm is the origin of dairy farming in Japan. Since the Hokkaido University Farm is an educational and research institution, the main purpose of dairy farming is to conserve the research field rather than to produce. Dairy farming at Hokkaido University Farm is very sustainable and is part of a virtuous circle that respects the cycle of nature: the cows eat grass, the grassland is enriched with manure, and the cows eat the grass again. Dairy farming differs between summer grazing and winter barn farming. In winter, snow accumulates and the cattle cannot eat pasture. As a result, the taste, aroma and color of Hokkaido University milk ‘changes considerably depending on the season. Its taste is refreshing in summer because it is imbued with the properties of fresh green grass and rich in winter with a deeper and more pronounced taste. In addition, in summer, due to the “carotene” in the grass, the color of the creamy milk is more like yellow.

I tried their custard pudding and it was really delicious. Pudding is one of my favorite desserts and I am quite picky about it. I really enjoyed the delicate taste and melt-in-the-mouth texture. I will definitely come back to this shop to buy cheese and try their ice cream.

Finally, we met our guide for our three-hour private tour to discover all the secrets of the Hokkaido University Museum and the campus. Usually, this tour starts with the campus and ends with the Hokkaido University Museum. On this day, we did it the other way around. This museum, opened in 1999, also owes its existence to Dr. William S. Clark. Dr. Clark proclaimed that a natural history museum should be opened in Sapporo and in 1884, seven years after his stay in Hokkaido, a space for collecting and archiving scientific specimens as well as for studying them was established at Hokkaido University. Currently, more than 4 million scientific specimens and academic resources representing 130 years of research since the opening of the first Agricultural College in Sapporo are kept on the Hokkaido University campus. And of these specimens, about 13,000 are type specimens, used to classify and identify new species.

We started the tour in front of a model of the campus, which gave us an overview of the university. Hokudai is about 180 km long and the built environment covers only 12% of this vast campus, the rest being open spaces such as farms, green areas, forests, streams and paths. It is a green space in the heart of the city of Sapporo, a real green lung, much appreciated by the citizens who like to walk there.

Our young guide introduced us to the content of the visit and the places we were going to discover during this private tour. The Hokkaido University Museum is divided into different sections: History of Hokkaido University, Cutting-edge HU, Museum Laboratory and Storehouse Treasures.

As we discovered at the Sapporo Clock Tower, the history of Hokkaido University dates back to 1876, with the founding of Sapporo Agricultural College. In 1919, Sapporo Agricultural College became the Faculty of Agriculture, and in 1947, it was renamed Hokkaido University, with the nickname Hokudai. In the History of Hokkaido University section, the guide shared with us some anecdotes, including another famous motto of Hokkaido University, also by William S. Clark: “Be gentlemen”, referring to the daily life in the dormitory which could lead to some tensions and quarrels. The logo of the University of Hokkaido is a stylized drawing of a trillium (lily family), which grows on the campus. It is said that William S. Clark saw the potential of Hokkaido when he recognised that if this kind of flower grew on this once uncultivated land, anything would be possible!

A corner is dedicated to Akira Suzuki, a Japanese chemist who studied chemistry at Hokkaido University, and Nobel Prize winner (2010), who was the first to publish the Suzuki reaction. We then discovered the new exhibits presenting the 12 schools of Hokkaido University, which cover almost all disciplines, from social and natural sciences to humanities. This section was opened after the museum was renovated in 2016.

Hokkaido University is constantly taking on new challenges to meet the ever-changing demands of society. A good example is the university’s Arctic Research Center, which strives to ensure the sustainable use and preservation of the Arctic region.
*History of Hokkaido University section & Corner dedicated to Akira Suzuki, Nobel Prize-winning chemist.

As I mentioned earlier in this article, students used to stay in the dormitory of Sapporo Agricultural College and every year the boarders used to write a new song. Miyako zo Yayoi, written in 1912, is still deeply loved and remains one of the most popular songs in HU because its lyrics praise the natural beauty of Hokkaido.

The floor and walls of one of the corridors were decorated with the lyrics of this beautiful song, and in a few steps I felt like a Hokkaido University student going back in time.

Hito no yo no kiyoki kuni zo to akogarenu (人の世の清き国ぞと憧れぬ) : In an earthly life, a pure paradise we yearn for.”

Our guide opened secret doors and showed us storage rooms that are not open to the public. It was really a VIP tour.

*Photo on the left : Drawers, drawers and more drawers containing a collection of stones arranged by category. In this room you can only feel the past history of the University.
*Photo on the right : Plants preserved since the 1930s in old newspapers which are also on display.

We were able to visit the former office of Nakaya Ukichiro. Captivated by the enchanting beauty of snow, Dr. Nakaya began studying snow crystals in the early 1930s at Hokkaido University. He made the first artificial snow crystals in a cold room laboratory.

At the end of the museum tour, we received a ticket for a free drink at Museum Cafe Polus and before exploring the highlights of the campus, we enjoyed a short 10 minute break. I had an Ainu herbal tea and couldn’t resist trying their famous 100% milk ice cream from the Hokkaido University farm. The café also serves meals made from local Hokkaido ingredients and naturally grown vegetables, following the “body friendly” concept. They do everything by hand and it is a place where you can enjoy a very affordable, healthy and tasty lunch. This has become my motto: “I’ll be back!”

In addition to the joys of Hokkaido University’s abundant nature, the campus has many buildings designated as important cultural properties and registered tangible cultural properties. Walking among the retro buildings makes you feel the length of Hokkaido’s history.

A visit to Sapporo is highly recommended if you plan to stay in Sapporo during your trip. You may visit on your own, however, we recommend you to take a tour with our tour guide who will provide you with detailed information.

To conclude this article, we interviewed a student who is currently enrolled at Hokkaido University.

A: Why do you think Hokkaido University is a wonderful and world famous university?

S: Hokudai has been ranked very high in the university ranking in Japan and the education and research opportunities are very good. What matters to me personally, is that it’s one of the only universities in the world where I can study my major, which is the Ainu language. Hokudai is also very famous for its wide and beautiful campus with a lot of greenery everywhere. It’s like a green oasis in the middle of the city. It’s very pleasant to have a stroll on the campus on a hot day because there are trees everywhere and they give you a nice shade. On the other hand, it’s nice to walk the campus in the winter, too, because the roads are usually well-plowed off the snow.


A: What is your favorite place on campus? Is there a place where you feel at home?

S: One of my favorite places is Ono pond in the middle of the campus. It is a nice quiet place to take a rest on the busy campus. There are benches around the pond, so you can sit down and enjoy a cup of your choice of beverage while resting there. I also like to watch how the seasons change and Ono pond is also a good place for that. You can see all kinds of flowers and plants there: in April, Asian skunk cabbages and a bit later cherry blossoms, then when entering the summer, the pink and white water lilies emerge from the pond and in the fall the autumn leaves around the pond are very beautiful.

A: Which part of the campus makes you feel its historical past most strongly?

S: Probably the main building of the faculty of agriculture was built in 1935. I used to go there a lot when I was an undergraduate student. During that time, I was a member of a farming circle and we had our weekly meetings in that building. For some reason, the building makes me think of Hogwarts from Harry Potter.

Another place on the campus that reminds me of the history, and not in the positive sense, is the repository house of Ainu ancestral remains that have been excavated without Ainu consent by professors of Hokkaido University in the 1930s. The repository house is a small humble house at the corner of a parking lot of the Hokkaido University hospital. The house is not marked on the maps, because—as the official explanation goes—the arrangement of keeping the remains in the repository is temporary, so there is no need to mark it on the map. The “temporary” building has been standing there since 1984, so actually, the house has been more long-lived than most of the other buildings in Sapporo! Using such an excuse to not even mark the repository house on the map feels to me more like trying to wipe Ainu out from the university’s history. The university has not been able to handle its controversial past with the Ainu in general. If you look at the university’s Historic Heritage Visitor Guide and Map https://www.global.hokudai.ac.jp/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Historic-Heritage-Visitor-Guide-and-Map-2019-new.pdf , there is not a single word about Ainu in there. The map introduces Jomon culture and Satsumon culture but not Ainu culture that chronologically followed Jomon and Satsumon. Of course, it is not the case that when Satsumon culture developed into Ainu culture, the people moved out. Ainu have been living in the current Hokudai campus area for hundreds of years until the very recent past: An Ainu village named Sa kus kotoni was forcibly moved to another location when the building of the university started. The only thing that reminds people of Ainu history on the campus is the name of the river that flows through it: the Sakuskotoni river (The Japanese name of the river is Sakushukotoni but it’s mistakenly transcribed from the Ainu name). I wish that Hokkaido University would face the uncomfortable truth, acknowledge its past wrong-doing to Ainu and make the Ainu history more visible around the campus.

A: What is your favorite season to enjoy campus life? I saw that you posted a lot of pictures of flowers on your Instagram, I didn’t get the impression that the campus was home to as many flowers when I visited. It seemed to me that the landscape was more like a forest. Can you share with us the charms of this huge green space in the heart of the city and how students enjoy it?

S: Summer, absolutely. In the summer, the campus is all green and it’s just lovely to walk or bike through the campus on a nice summer day. You know, they say that people need to see green plants to control their stress levels. So, I like to think that going here and there on the campus is a kind of stress check. The forest-like parts are in the northern half of the campus while the parks and most of the buildings are in the southern half close to the Sapporo station.

I love to watch how nature changes from early spring to late fall at the campus and finding out what kind of flowers are blooming in which season is really fun. I live at the northern end of the campus and my faculty is at the southern end and I need to go through the campus a lot anyway. So, I think why not make the commuting more interesting then.