Fat sweet scallops. Giant king crabs. Buttery sea urchin. If these words commanded your attention, you need to make your way to Hokkaido as soon as you can. This island oasis of crisp clean air and spectacular scenery is what I like to call the Tasmania of Japan, a haven for lovers of nature and good food.
My first trip to Hokkaido was five years ago for the Sapporo Snow Festival, a frostbitten spectacular of larger-than-life scenes made from snow and crystal clear ice carvings. This time we wold arrive in early spring, although unseasonably warm weather across Japan had sparked an unprecedented early blooming of cherry blossoms. We'd hope we find the last of the blooms on Hokkaido, but even if we didn't, we had days of seafood gluttony ahead.
Our Japan travels that started in Tokyo
Hokkaido's distance from the major cities in Honshu mean that the majority of visitors make the journey to the main city of Sapporo by plane. Access will improve significantly once the Hokkaido Shinkansen railway line is complete, a project that commenced in 2005. Although there are normal trains that run between Honshu and Hokkaido, the shinkansen bullet train requires special tracks that need to be built. The first section between Shin-Aomoro and Shin-Hakodate is scheduled to open on 26 March 2016. The extension to Sapporo to scheduled to open in 2030.
Until then, planes are the fastest and most convenient way of getting to Hokkaido. This was why we mapped our itinerary to travel southward from Tokyo. We then caught a domestic flight from Fukuoka to Sapporo, a journey of 40 minutes.
Anago saltwater eel box sushi and maki sushi with salmon roe
Plane meals are super easy in Japan if you make a pit stop at a department store food hall beforehand. I was set with a two course feast of anago saltwater eel box sushi and a box of maki sushi rolled with omelette, cucumber and plump pearls of bright orange salmon roe.
Dark chocolate and vanilla swirl soft serve at Fukuoka Domestic Airport 308 yen / AU$3.40
And we checked in early enough to enjoy a dark chocolate and vanilla swirl soft serve before the flight. We were pleasantly surprised by the modest pricing at the airport - everything was about the same price. No exorbitant mark-ups in sight!
Sapporo Ramen Alley
Sapporo Ramen Kyowakoku or Sapporo Ramen Alley
Our first stop in Sapporo was Sapporo Ramen Kyowakoku or Sapporo Ramen Alley, a collection of eight ramen houses from across Hokkaido in one convenient location. Hardcore adventurers will dismiss this is as being too touristy but when you weigh up the hassles and drama of travel time, you can't beat this for convenience, especially given its proximity to JR Sapporo station.
Each ramen house has its own vending machine out the front. Select and pay for your dishes from the machine and then a friendly staff member will lead you to a table and pass your meal tickets to the kitchen.
Misono Ramen at Sapporo Ramen Kyowakoku
We start at Misono, lured by its promise of pork back rib meat char siu.
Pots of chilli garlic chives and pickled bamboo shoots kept us entertained while we wait for our ramen to arrive.
Miso ramen with pork rib char siu and grated ginger 900 yen / AU$10
It doesn't take long, however, for our orders to hit the table.
Pork rib char siu
The pork rib char siu is just what we're craving - a hefty slab of juicy pork ribboned with lush layers of fat.
Soil boiled egg
The soft boiled egg has the rich and sticky yolk we relish and we can't help noticing that this egg has an intriguing smokiness that lingers on the palate.
Thick and crinkly ramen noodles
Even locals aren't afraid to wear bibs
I love that even locals are happy to don bibs. Slurping ramen is always an activity fraught with danger for your best outfit.
Yoshiyama Shouten ramen stall
Our second stop is Yoshiyama Shouten, famous for its goma (sesame) miso ramen.
Baisen goma miso ramen 780 yen / AU$8.50
The miso ramen is noticeably darker in colour than our previous bowl, with a deluge of sesame seeds gently bobbing across its surface.
Slightly crinkly ramen noodles
The soup is significantly heavier in this one, taking on a tongue-coating nutty richness from the use of sesame seeds. We notice that the noodles aren't as crinkly in this version either.
The next day we check out a third stall, Ajisai, specialist in a salt-based ramen that is known for its extremely clear soup.
We notice the button for Hokkaido butter on the vending machine and select it immediately. We also appreciate it being served separately on a mini plate, saving the butter from melting into oblivion before you've even taken your photo (the outrage).
Aijsai shio ramen 780 yen / AU$8.50
with soft boiled egg 100 yen / AU$1.10
and Hokkaido butter 100 yen / AU$1.10
I love that the clear colour of the soup is enhanced by the choice of bowl, which is much more colourful compared to the prior stalls. The salt-based stock is noticeably lighter on the palate.
Straight ramen noodles
We notice that the ramen noodles are thinner and straighter, ideal for this gentle nuanced soup. There is no detail spared when it comes to ramen in Hokkaido.
Thankfully the pork is still beautifully fatty and our pats of butter dissolve into puddles of dairy goodness.
Ramen chefs in the kitchen
Hokkaido hairy crabs
A stop at Nijo Market in Sapporo is mandatory, giving you the chance to ogle at all kinds of incredible seafood. It's also the ideal spot to pick up edible souvenirs, especially dried Hokkaido scallops. I picked up a bag that was so incredibly fragrant, I had to double-bag to stop the smell permeating my clothes in my luggage!
Stallholders at Nijo Fish Market
The stall holders can get a little eager when they spot a tourist, but generally they lean more to being overly friendly than unpleasantly aggressive.
White, purple and green asparagus
The thick stalks of asparagus in Japan were such a wondrous thing of beauty.
Hokkaido hairy crabs and king crab
Our early morning visit meant we could feast on superb sashimi for a late breakfast. We stopped at the large seafood shop and sushi bar Kondounoboru.
Kaisendon mini sashimi rice bowl with half fatty tuna and half salmon 1300yen / AU$14.30
Kaisendon or rice bowls tend to offer the best value at seafood markets, a simple meal of sashimi rice topped with thick slices of sashimi. You can choose all kinds of sashimi combinations. One of our group exercised moderation with a mini rice bowl that came with ribbons of raw salmon and hunks of fatty tuna.
Sushi gozen rice bowl set 2500 yen / AU$27.50
with sea urchin, raw scallops, salmon roe, sushi (tuna, salmon and crab) and crab miso soup
I had no intentions of maintaining self-control and went all-out with one of the most expensive items on the menu, the sushi gozen rice bowl set.
Ikura salmon roe
The set includes all my favourite things, starting with a bowl of rice covered in a deep forest of ikura salmon roe, so fresh that you could feel the resistance as you popped each briny pearl between your teeth.
Uni sea urchin roe
Petals of uni sea urchin roe are so buttery soft, delicate and sweet.
And I'm mesmerised by the deep red hue of the sashimi tuna on my nigiri sushi.
Sushi gozen rice bowl set from above
I luxuriate in the quivering pillows of raw scallop and savour the crab leg in my miso soup. It's a whopping good breakfast that still comes in at less than AU$30.
Tanuki raccoon dog toothpick holder
Diners at the sushi counter
Hokkaido Yamakawa Farm jersey milk soft serve stall
Our wanderings through the market lead us to a jersey milk soft serve stall. Although the lights are all on, we can't find any staff and it takes about twenty minutes and lots of walking past before the women in the noodle restaurant across the corridor runs across and serves us, bowing constantly in apology for having us wait so long.
Jersey milk soft serve 350 yen / AU$3.90
We're glad she found us. This jersey milk soft serve is gloriously good. The milk comes from Yamakawa Farm and the intensity of butterfat is toe-curling.
Eager to indulge in a banquet of crab, we headed to Kani Honke, a successful restaurant chain that can be found across Japan.
Live snow crabs
On the ground floor of the Sapporo outlet we marvel at the giant rock pool holding a swarm of live snow crabs. Staff dressed in kimonos motion for to us to remove our shoes before taking us upstairs in a lift to the main dining area, a maze of rooms resplendent with dark cedar and cypress. She quietly slides open the bamboo door of our private dining room to reveal a sunken dining table in a timber-lined dug-out.
The start of our crab banquet
Dining at lunchtime is cheaper than dinner, with a range of banquets available during the day only. These start at 2600 yen / AU$29 for a seven-course kaiseki hamanaka set and top out at the 10-course kaiseku taisetsu set costing 5050 yen / $AU56.
Course 1: Appetisers of grilled fish, gingko nuts and fish cake
I'm happy to go straight to the most expensive offering. Staff happily accommodate our mixed order of banquets so we end up having three different sets that covers practically every dish on offer.
Course 2: King crab tofu
Each course arrives separately, our chatter ceasing every time the door quietly slides open. Each dish arrives on a different shaped bowl or platter, placed in a specific area of the table as our server kneels demurely.
Course 3: King crab dressed with sauce
We start with snacks of grilled fish and gingko nuts before sinking our spoons into soft mounds of silken tofu sweetened with crab. The third course of king crab celebrates its delicate flesh with a simple vinegar dressing and a tumble of seaweed.
Course 4: Crab sashimi on dry ice
Crab sashimi is our next treat, its crystal flesh shimmering tantalisingly. The raw crab allows you to taste all the nuances of the sea. We prise every last morsel from its shell.
Course 5: Fried king crab with shell
Golden panko crumbs provide a armour of protection over fried king crab served in its shell.
Course 6: Crab with salad
The fan shaped plate of various pickles and salad vegetables provides palate cleansing, although the cute crab-shaped saucer with morsels of picked crab is still the highlight.
Course 7: Kanisuki crab hotpot
Lighting the candle beneath our crab hot pot creates fragrant wafts of its clear soup.
Crab set to simmer in soup
The crab legs have all been cut open to allow us to claim the flesh easily, and the vegetable stock is light yet nourishing.
Course 8: Congee rice porridge with crab meat
Course 9: Tsukemono pickles (not pictured)
We finish with pickles and congee rice porridge, spoonfuls of comfort that we cannot resist even though we are so full already.
Course 10: Fruit yoghurt
The finale is fruit yoghurt, its tangy refreshment just what we need after such a decadent meal.
Our table spread of different banquet sets
Because the food arrived in waves, we were never able to capture the sheer magnitude of dishes served in one single photo.
King crab gratin from the kaiseki hidaka set 40,000 yen or AU$44 for 9 courses
We share a couple of dishes around the table. One of the favourites from one of the other sets is the king crab gratin that is wondrously creamy.
Definitely worth the visit although do make sure you allocate a couple of hours to get through all the food.
Sapporo train carriage
We caught the local train a couple of times to explore Sapporo.
Musk melon at Daimaru, Sapporo 10,800 yen / AU$120 each
Most of the time we hovered in the department store food halls, lusting after the beautifully packaged musk melons or staring at the endless displays of mouthwatering food.
Perfect sponge rolls with fruit and cream
All smiles at the croquette stall
Mont Blanc chestnut cakes from LeTAO
Of course we found room for another contender in our search for Japan's Next Top Mont Blanc. This one from LeTAO was a classic version, generously piped with chestnut squiggles and topped with a whole candied chestnut.
Kouign Amann pastry from Paul Bocuse Bakery at Daimaru Sapporo
And I savoured every last crumb of this kouign amann pastry from Paul Bocuse Bakery at Daimaru. It was more like a caramelised palmier but those toffeed shards of buttery pastry were still ridiculously good.
Taste-testing different brands of Hokkaido milk
We began our usual obsession with Hokkaido milk too. I don't normally drink a lot of milk at home but Hokkaido jersey milk is so creamy it tastes completely different. The carton on the left was 213 yen / AU$2.35 and left a distinctly sweet aftertaste. The premium bottle of Machimura Farm milk on the right was 486 yen / $5.35 which I thought tastes richer with cream. I preferred the one on the right, and yes, we took the milk bottle home to Australia as a souvenir!
Bocca white pudding 883 yen / AU$9.70 for four
I also couldn't resist buying these Bocca white puddings to try, made from fresh Hokkaido milk.
Bocca white pudding balloon packaging
Kinotoya Bake at JR Sapporo station
And you can't leave Sapporo without trying one of Kinotoya Bake's famous baked cheese tarts. There are a couple of outlets in Sapporo (including one at Sapporo's Chitose airport) but we found the most convenient one was at JR Sapporo station.
Kinotoya Bake's famous baked cheese tarts
The queue here in constant, and it's no wonder. The smell of butter, eggs and sugar from the non-stop baking schedule is irresistible to even the most hardened health nut.
Clever segregated packaging for six cheese tarts 1,080 yen / AU$12
You can get these as a single tart but almost everyone orders at least half a dozen, packed in ingenious packaging that means they don't rattle around or get squashed.
Traditional bows and humility by Japanese service staff
And like all of the patisseries we visited across Japan, the staff are always so neatly attired, polite and gentle in manner.
Inside the Kinotoya Bake cheese tart
And the tart? Whoah. The pastry base is sweet and buttery, its crunchy shell providing a contrast to the cloud-like baked cheese filling in the middle. They're not too sweet or too heavy which means that stopping yourself at just one is a herculean feat. We revisited this shop several times during our stay, stealing away into the night with yet another carry bag of treats.
School kids skipping at Odori Park
Sapporo is a busy city but there's still a great sense of space, especially with the sprawling green space of Odori Park through the middle. On a Sunday afternoon drenched with sunshine we were entranced by a gaggle of school kids skipping with two ropes to a ghetto blaster of music.
Big kids skipping at Odori Park
The kids were mentored by a group of young men who weren't afraid to show off their own range of tricks.
We stopped and watched them for about fifteen minutes, admiring their skill as well as their congenial nature. Sometimes people would get tangled in ropes, but they would laugh, shrug it off and just keep on going. Their wordless communication was impressive too. Check the instavid below for a glimpse of their awesomeness.
>> Read the next Japan 2015 post: Otaru squid ink ice cream + the Nikka Whisky distillery
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Japan 2015: Toyama > Kanazawa > Nagano > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Kobe > Kagoshima > Hakata > Hiroshima and Miyajima Island > Sapporo > Otaru > Hakodate > Tokyo
1-18 2-chome Kitasanjyo-Nishi Chuouku Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan 060-0003
Tel: +61 (11) 222 0018
Open 7 days 11.30am-10pm
JR Sapporo Station, ground floor
Sapporo, Kita Ward, Kita 6 Jonishi, 3 Chome, Hokkaido, Japan
Tel: +61 (11) 804 7770
Open daily 9am-10pm
2 Chome Minami 3 Johigashi, Chuo Ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan 060-0053
Tel: +81 (11) 241 3377
Open daily 8am-4.30pm
1 Chome Minami 3 Johigashi, Chuo Ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan 060-0053
Open daily 7am-6pm (individual stalls may vary)
Sapporo Ramen Kyowakoku
JR Tower ESTA, Level 10
2 Chome-1 Kita 5 Jonishi, Chuo Ward, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan 060-0005
Open 7 days 11am-10pm
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8/30/2015 05:51:00 pm