“Kawaii” Cute Creatures of Sapporo



 Don’t you think that Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, is a very convenient city even though you can’t enjoy nature so much? Indeed, Sapporo is a large city with a population of two million and many facilities, sightseeing spots, and shopping centers, but that is not the only attraction of Sapporo. There are many large parks in the suburbs, which cover a large part of Sapporo, where you can casually enjoy nature. Sapporo was selected as one of the most attractive cities to live in Japan, and is blessed with abundant nature as well as urban functions.

 If you venture a little further into the suburbs, you can take a walk in the forest while listening to the chirping of birds and encounter small kawaii (cute, adorable, cuddly, lovable) animals such as squirrels. There are also mountains in the city that are over 1,000 meters high, making trekking an enjoyable experience. Why not deepen your enjoyment of Sapporo by not only visiting sightseeing spots but also taking a leisurely walk in nature?

Table of Contents

1. Outline of Sapporo: What is Sapporo like?

 Sapporo is a convenient city in terms of transportation and for shopping, but at the same time, it is a city full of nature. Sapporo is the prefectural capital of Hokkaido and its political, economic and cultural center. With a population of two million, it is the fifth largest city in Japan. The top four cities in terms of population are Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, and Nagoya. Sapporo is about the same size as Hong Kong. Despite this, there is plenty of nature within the city. It is so close to nature that brown bears sometimes appear in Sapporo, though it is very rare for bears to appear in residential areas. When you walk in the mountains, to avoid encountering bears, you need to hang a bell on your backpack to let bears know you are there. However, in everyday life downtown you don’t need to worry about bears.

 Odori Park is one of the green areas in the center of Sapporo. Pioneers developed Hokkaido under a Meiji government policy about 150 years ago, and the center of Sapporo is laid out like a grid. Odori Park is located in the center of Sapporo, government offices such as City Hall and Hokkaido Government Office are on the north side of the park, and commercial facilities such as department stores are on the south side. Sapporo used to have many fires, so this park was originally built as a firebreak to prevent the spread of fires. Many trees have been planted in this park and they provide comfortable shade. Birds gather and chirp in the park, making it a relaxing place for citizens. In spring, the Lilac Festival is held when the many lilacs planted in the park are in full bloom.

 There are also many nature-rich places nearby, such as Maruyama Park near Hokkaido Shrine, the Hokkaido University Botanical Garden, Nakajima Park, and so on. Sapporo has about 6 meters of cumulative snowfall each winter. Therefore, subways and underground shopping malls have been developed, allowing people to go to various places without being impacted by the snow. The transportation network, including the subway, is well developed, making it easy to visit large parks in the city. We recommend that you enjoy sightseeing and walking in Sapporo as a first step, and then extend your visit to other spots in Hokkaido.


2. Birds in Sapporo: Adorable birds in the sky

 Walking in parks and forests in the city, birdsong can be heard from somewhere nearby. Just listening to their calls makes us feel comfortable, and it is even more enjoyable if you know the birds’ species and names.

Hokkaido Long-tailed Tit, or Shima-enaga

 Shima-enaga are birds that are rapidly gaining popularity in Japan. They are small fluffy white birds about 14 cm long, including their long tail. They live in the forests, mountains, and parks. Their staple food is insects and tree sap. They are also called “snow fairies” because of their adorable appearance. In winter, to protect themselves from the cold, they inflate themselves by trapping air between their feathers, which makes them fluffier.

 Long-tailed tits or enaga found in Honshu, the Japanese mainland, have dark colored heads, unlike Hokkaido long-tailed tits.

 The Hokkaido long-tailed tit is a subspecies of the long-tailed tit found in mainland Japan and it can only be seen in Hokkaido. The “shima” in the Japanese name of shima-enaga means Hokkaido, and “enaga” means the long handle of a ladle. It is said to derive from its long tail, which looks like a long ladle handle compared with its small body. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, called them upas-cir, meaning “snowbirds.” This is probably because their small white figures look like snow.

 Recently, they are being increasingly featured on SNS and TV, and in books and other media, making them popular birds. However, not so many people have actually seen them in real life because they are small and wary, constantly moving from tree to tree and in flocks with other small birds. So it is difficult to find them even if they are flying nearby. However, there is a secret to finding them. It’s to remember their distinctive call, “jurr- jurr”. This makes it easy to find them once you get used to it. See this site:  https://ebird.org/species/lottit1/ .

 The popularity of Hokkaido long-tailed tits has inspired a lot of character goods, such as stuffed toys and stationery, which are sold in many souvenir shops. They are available in many sizes, from small to large, and can even be 1 meter long. If you love this bird, they ‘ll be good souvenirs.


 Tits are often seen along with long-tailed tits in the woods. There are various kinds of tits in Hokkaido. The most common one is the Japanese tit with a black tie-like pattern on its white chest. The coal tit, willow tit, and marsh tit have simple shades of white, gray, and black. The varied tit is colorful, with bright orange underparts, blue-gray wings, and a black and white head. It’s easy to find. They are all small birds, about 10 to 15 cm in length, and feed on insects and nuts. Their chirps are loud and lively, such as “tsupi-tsupi-tsupi” and “sizzle-sizzle.”

 The Japanese tit is distinguished by the tie-like pattern on its breast.

 Tits on a branch. They move in flocks, especially from autumn to winter.

 Varied tits are easy to distinguish from other tits due to their colorful feathers.

Eurasian Nuthatch

 The black lines between the gray wings and white underpart are stylish. They have a special ability to run upside down on tree trunks.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

 When you hear a drumming sound in the woods, you may find a woodpecker in a nearby tree. The most common woodpeckers in Japan are great spotted woodpeckers. About 24 centimeters in length, they inhabit almost all types of forests, woods and parks. Woodpeckers peck at trees not only to find insects to eat, but also to make nest holes. They dig new holes every year, so their old homes become valuable habitats for other animals, such as squirrels. Their Ainu name is e-sokisoki, which means “something that strikes on its head.”

Black Woodpecker

 This woodpecker has an impressive appearance: all black with a red crown and humorous small eyes. In Japan, it is a rare bird found only in Hokkaido and the northern region of mainland Japan, but it can also be observed in Sapporo. They are the biggest woodpecker at about 46 cm in length, and about the same size as a crow. Their staple food is insects found in tree tanks, especially ants. Ainu people called it cip-ta-cikap kamuy, which means “a deity of digging boats.” This is because the hole dug by this woodpecker is long and narrow, and it looks like a dugout canoe.

Ezo Ural Owl

 Ezo Ural owls nest in large tree cavities in forests or shrine groves, and usually live in pairs. Ezo is the old name for Hokkaido, and animals with Ezo in front of their name are often endemic species to Hokkaido. The Ezo Ural owl is a subspecies of the Ural owl. Its Ainu name is kunne-rek-kamuy, and means “a deity crying at night”. They are about 50 cm in length with a one-meter wingspan, and feed on mice and frogs.

 In Sapporo, these birds can be seen in Maruyama Park, Nakajima Park and Nopporo Forest Park and many other parks. Some birds can be found not only in the forests but also in residential areas. Keep your ears open to listen for bird tweets, and try to find them.

3. Small mammals on land

 We now move our gaze from the sky to the land, and look for small mammals that inhabit Sapporo.

The Blakiston Line

 Before talking about animals in Hokkaido, let me explain about the Blakiston Line, which will help you to understand the fauna of Hokkaido. It’s an invisible border lying in the Tsugaru Strait, between Hokkaido and Honshu, separating animal species. For example, brown bears, Ezo sika deer and Ezo squirrels inhabit Hokkaido, but not Honshu. Instead, Honshu has black bears, Japanese sika deer, Japanese macaque monkeys, and wild boars. This line was discovered by British zoologist and merchant Thomas Blakiston, who explored Hokkaido in the late 19th century, and the line was named after him.

 Now, let’s look at some animals unique to Hokkaido

Ezo Squirrels

 The Ezo squirrel is the most commonly seen small animal in Sapporo. They are about 22 to 27 centimeters in length, and they move quickly on tree trunks and the ground in daytime. Their staple food is nuts, plants and insects. They do not hibernate in winter. They dig holes in the ground and save nuts during the fall and dig out food that they have stored up to eat in winter. Sometimes they forget to dig out some of them, but this helps to spread seeds to other places.

 They are often found not only in forests but also in parks near urban areas. On the way to Hokkaido Shrine, the most famous shrine in Hokkaido, you might see friendly Ezo squirrels in Maruyama Park. The pioneers from Honshu about 150 years ago called these squirrels “tree rats”. The Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, are also familiar with this animal, and it is called tusuninke in the Ainu language. It means “something disappearing by witchcraft.” The way it rubs its paws together and quickly disappears may have made people think it was using magic.

Ezo Flying Squirrel

 The Ezo flying squirrel is a subspecies of Siberian flying squirrel, about 15 to 18 cm long, almost the size of a human fist, and weighs about 100g. It is a member of the squirrel family, with a fluffy body and large eyes. These flying squirrels are completely vegetarian, with their diet including leaves, buds and nuts. The Ainu people call them at-kamuy, meaning “guardian deity of children.”

 What makes them very different from other members of the squirrel family is that they can fly between trees by spreading their coats between their hands and feet. They live in the trees and rarely land on the ground. Since they are nocturnal, it is not easy to see them. If you visit a forest early in the morning, you might have a chance to see them. If you spot one on a tree or flying between trees, you will be enchanted by their cuteness.

Ezo Mountain Hare

 This hare also inhabits only Hokkaido. In summer, it is covered with brown fur, but in winter it turns white, the same color as snow, making it difficult to distinguish from its surroundings. Its total length is about 50 cm, and its ears are shorter than those of hares in Honshu. These hares are found in meadows, forests, and mountains, but are not so visible to the public. In the Ainu language, they are called isepo. It means “a small thing that cries ‘kii kii kii’.” The Ainu used to trap them for food and fur.


4. Salmon, a famed Hokkaido fish

 Salmon are very familiar to Hokkaido people. In Hokkaido, we can see salmon swimming upstream in many rivers in the autumn. Although Sapporo city does not face the sea, there are several rivers that run through the town, and many salmon can be seen heading upstream, and even spawning in places very close to downtown.

 The life of a salmon is actually full of adventure. After growing to a certain size in the rivers of Hokkaido, salmon migrate downstream to the ocean, growing up in the Sea of Okhotsk, the North Pacific Ocean, the Bering Sea, or the Gulf of Alaska. Three or four years later, in the fall, they return to their birth rivers in Hokkaido to spawn and complete their lives.

 During this short life, salmon accomplish amazing things. Fish born in freshwater usually spend their lives in freshwater. It is actually an amazing thing for fish born in a river to grow up in the salty ocean and then return to a freshwater river.

 After three to four years, they return to the river where they were born to spawn. How do they know where they were born? Actually, the details are still unknown. Some say it is by the smell of their birthplace, others say it is by a magnetic force inside their bodies. In any case, the fact that they can return from thousands of kilometers away is an amazing ability.

 Once the salmon have swum up the river and reached a suitable spawning ground, salmon couples start to mate. The female salmon uses her tail fin to make a spawning bed on the river bottom two to three times her body length. Just after the female lays her eggs, the male releases sperm onto the roe and fertilizes them. Both the male and female salmon die shortly after spawning. Their bodies become valuable food for bears and other animals before hibernation. In this way, the lives of the salmon are passed down to the next generation.

 The Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido, call salmon kamuy-cep, the deity of fish, and treat them with respect. For the Ainu people, the shoals of salmon that always came before the long, cold winter were a precious food. They use salmon from head to tail, and say salmon have nothing that needs to be thrown away. They even processed the salmon skin into shoes. The scales on salmon skin shoes prevented them from slipping on the snow, but there was one inconvenient thing for them. Their dogs, called Ainu-ken, sometimes ate the shoes when they were hungry.

 In autumn, the Ainu people hold a ceremony called Asir-cep-nomi to welcome the salmon back to the river. Although it was suspended after the Ainu people were assimilated into the Japanese about 150 years ago, it was revived for the first time in 100 years in 1982 at Toyohira River. It is still held every September on the banks of the river. The traditional Ainu dance is performed at the ceremony. Anyone can observe the event, so if you are interested, why not visit?

 Talking about the Toyohira River, which runs through the center of Sapporo and is home to many salmon, in the late 20th century no salmon returned to this river due to pollution. Sapporo citizens, lamenting this situation, started the Come Back Salmon Campaign in 1978 to clean up the river and released young salmon into the river. A few years later, they saw salmon go upstream in the Toyohira River. They were so excited. Their efforts to restore the environment bore fruit and became a hot topic at that time. Since then, the release of salmon fry has continued, and today approximately 2,000 salmon return to the Toyohira River. You can see these activities at Sapporo Salmon Museum in Makomanai, in the southern part of Sapporo, near the Toyohira River.

5. Local salmon cuisine in Sapporo

 As we have seen, salmon is an essential fish in Sapporo, and there are many local dishes made from salmon. The Ainu people often make a salmon soup called ohau with vegetables seasoned with salt. They dried and smoked salmon to preserve it for the winter. There is also a dish of frozen salmon called rui-be, meaning “melting food.” Freezing kills parasites and makes the salmon safe to eat raw. Preserving salmon is part of the traditional wisdom of the Ainu people. Rui-be is also served at izakayas, Japanese-style pubs in Hokkaido.

 Ishikari nabe, a hot pot dish with salmon that was made by pioneers who immigrated from Honshu in the late 19th century, is a typical local dish of Hokkaido. Ishikari is the name of a big river in Hokkaido. This dish is a salmon and vegetable soup seasoned with miso, an important Japanese seasoning made from fermented soybean paste.

 There are so many dishes using salmon, such as grilled salmon, fried salmon, and chan-chan-yaki, simmered salmon and vegetables with a sweet miso taste. There is also a snack called toba, dried salmon sticks seasoned with seawater and dried in the sea breeze. It is said that the word toba comes from the Ainu word tupa, which means “sliced and dried salmon meat”. Toba is a bit hard to bite off, but the more you chew it, the more flavorful it tastes. It goes very well with sake.

 Salmon roe, or ikura, is a special delicacy from the past. The word ikura comes from the Russian word for fish roe, and we can feel the connection with Russia through Sakhalin. There is an Ainu dish cup-or-usi-imo which is a mixture of salmon roe and mashed potatoes. Nowadays, salmon roe topped on hot white rice is one of the best feasts in Hokkaido. Most tourists in Hokkaido are eager to have this salmon roe rice bowl. If you have a chance, please try it.