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Monday, September 21, 2015

Otaru: Squid ink ice cream, eight layer soft serves and the Nikka Whisky distillery in Yoichi

Eight swirl soft serve in Otaru, Hokkaido

Giant eight-layer soft serve? That got your attention! But there's more to Otaru than crazy ice creams. This picturesque port city is a popular getaway for locals and tourists. It also makes for a handy base to explore Yoichi, the birthplace of Nikka Whisky Distillery. And then there's the ice cream. In addition to giant soft serves, it's also home to a shop with all kinds of wacky ice cream flavours. We're talking squid ink, sea urchin and beer. Seriously.

Travel map of the Grab Your Fork trip so far through Japan 2015
Map of our Japan travels that started in Tokyo

It's only a 40 minute train ride from Sapporo to Otaru. You'll notice the small town feel of the place as soon as you exit the train station. Its population in 2011 was a mere 130,000.

Tarche Sushi Corner
Sushi chef at Tarche Sushi Corner near Otaru JR station

One of our first meals in Otaru is at Tarche Sushi Corner, a tiny stand-up bar just ouside JR train station. We may have been two weeks into our Japan trip but I still wasn't sick of sushi. I have an insatiable appetite for it, constantly seeking out the holy grail of perfectly seasoned rice crowned with a layer of raw seafood as plump as the softest pillow.

Sashimi fillets and raw seafood at Tarche Sushi Corner near Otaru JR station
Prepped fish and seafood ready for sashimi

There are only eight places around the sushi counter. There are no seats. I'm taken by the quiet seriousness of the sushi chef and the formal way in which he seems to interact with each customer. It's only later that I discover that this sushi bar is linked with the nearby Isezushi, a one-star Michelin restaurant.

Sushi chef preparing nigiri sushi Tarche Sushi Corner near Otaru JR station
Our nigiri sushi being prepared

You can order your own sushi or you can leave it up to the chef, known as omakase. I order the eight piece omakase and watch the sushi show as his hands fly with ridiculous speed.

Brushing a soy glaze on our nigiri sushi at Tarche Sushi Corner near Otaru JR station
Brushing a soy glaze on our nigiri sushi

Each nigiri sushi is glazed lightly with soy sauce by the chef, meaning they're all ready to eat as they are, without having to perform the clumsy "dip in soy sauce dance".

Omakase sushi at Tarche Sushi Corner near Otaru JR station
Omakase sushi (8 pieces) 1600 yen / AU$17.60

The sushi tray is placed before you accompanied with a reverent bow. It's quality is immediately apparent, the seafood plump and glistening with freshness under the lights. Even small touches are noticed, like the pickled ginger slices gently shaped into a rose. The sushi wouldn't look out of place at a high end restaurant and yet there's a surreal juxtaposition with the scenes of everyday life unfurling around me - locals casually browsing in the adjoining food market and commuters rushing past in the corridor behind.

Botan ebi raw prawn nigiri sushi from Tarche Sushi Corner near Otaru JR station
The sweetest botan ebi raw prawn 

But everything blurs into the background once you start eating. It's just you and your tastebuds and the sushi with each mouthful. A quivering raw scallop, a deep red hunk of tuna, the slender delicacy of snow crab and the sticky sweetness of raw prawn make irresistible bedfellows with the mound of vinegared rice.

Photos don't do justice to the eye-popping display of speed and dexterity by the sushi chef at work. The ballet of finger movements is unlike anything I've ever seen. If you don't believe me, check out the video above.

Nikka Whisky Distillery, Yoichi
Nikka Whisky Distillery at Yoichi, Hokkaido

It's worth visiting the Nikka Whisky distillery from Otaru, an easy trip of about 25 minutes on a local train. From Sapporo, the journey takes about 80 minutes.

Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka Whisky Distillery
Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka Whisky

Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky, is also credited with being one of the founders of Japan's whisky industry. The third son in a long line of sake brewers in Hiroshima, Taketsuru was more interested in learning about whisky, and travelled to Scotland where he studied organic chemistry and worked at several Scottish distilleries.

Rita Cowan, wife of Masataka Taketsuru, rhe founder of Nikka Whisky Distillery
Rita Cowan, wife of Taketsuru

It was there that he met local lass, Rita Cowan. They married after a year of courting, in 1920, despite neither of their families approving of the union. She travelled back with him to Japan where Taketsuru eventually set up what was to become Nikka in Yoichi. Yoichi was chosen because it closely mirrored Scotland with its icy winters, rugged terrain and local peat bogs. Originally named Dai Nippon Kaju, the company was shortened to Nikka - the first syllable of the second and third words. Dai Nippon Kaju means "great Japanese juice company".

Free whisky samples at Nikka Whisky Distillery
Free Nikka whisky sampling

The guided tours only take place in Japanese but several information panels include English translations of the Nikka story. No translations are required for the free Nikka whisky sampling room though.

17 year old Tsuru Nikka Whisky
17 year old Tsuru whisky 

Access to the Nikka distillery is completely free so it's impressive that all visitors are allowed a sample of each whisky. We savour the 17 year old Tsuru whisky, a blend of malt whisky and grain whisky with an alcohol content of 43%.

10 year old single malt Yoichi Nikka Whisky
10 year old single malt Yoichi whisky

Also on offer is the 10 year old single malt Yoichi whisky. The flavours mellow out as a the ice slowly melts. Unlike many Scottish whisky distilleries that have abandoned the practice, Nikka still uses coal fires during distillation, adding a characteristic spiciness.

Whisky samples at Nikka Whisky Distillery, Yoichi
Whisky samples

And if whisky is not your thing, or you're the designated driver, you haven't been forgotten either. They provide apple juice and two types of cold tea to keep you refreshed while everyone else is getting ruddy cheeks!

Nanda Seafood
All-you-can-eat buffet at Nanda Seafood, Sapporo

After our day out in Yoichi, we thought we may as well get the train back to Sapporo for a monster buffet. Nanda is one of the biggest buffets on offer, promising unlimited king crab, hairy crab and sashimi.

Entrance to Nanda Seafood, Sapporo

The entrance is non-descript, only a small sign pointing toward the basement of a large multi-storey office building. Downstairs it occupies the full floor with seating for over 200 people. It's hugely popular with tour groups who pile in by the bus-load.

Raw meat station at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
All-you-can marinated and raw meat buffet

We arrive without a booking and have to wait for about 45 minutes for a table. When we finally get in, we join the teeming masses. This is not somewhere to slowly savour each mouthful with soft music and gentle conversation. It's a shameless free-for-all to get your money's worth. We've handed over 3,980 yen / AU$44 and have 90 minutes to eat as much as we can.

Lamb loin at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Lamb loin

The quality of food here is nevertheless impressive. There's attention to plating, to marinades and variety. We're also taken aback by how many dishes are on offer.

Pork belly skewers at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Pork belly skewers

Raw prawn nigiri sushi at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Raw prawn nigiri sushi

Tuna sashimi at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Tuna sashimi

Live scallops in the shell at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Live scallops in the shell

The seafood section is particularly abundant, with live scallops, crab and oysters.

Kegani horsehair crab at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Kegani horsehair crab

Tarabagani king crab at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Tarabagani king crab

Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Loading up at the buffet

Barbecue grills at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Barbecue grills inlaid into each table

Marbled beef slices at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Marbled beef slices 

A lot of our meals had been light on protein, but we definitely make up for it here, overloading on fatty beef slices and marinated pork until we can take no more.

Grilling marinated beef and pork at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Marinated beef and pork on the grill

Grilled mushrooms, live oysters, live scallops and king crab at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
Mushrooms, oysters, scallops and king crab on the barbecue grill

We also grill oysters, scallops, crab and mushrooms. Word of warning: exploding scallops on the grill are terrifying!

DIY soft serve machine at Nanda all-you-can-eat buffet in Sapporo
DIY soft serve machine

We also get to make our own soft serves, a process that is harder than it looks. This machine uses pre-frozen tubs of soft serve. It brings the kid out in everyone.

Traffic and buildings in Otaru, Hokkaido
Traffic and buildings in Otaru

In comparison to Sapporo, Otaru is quieter and slower in pace.

Otaru Canal, Hokkaido
Otaru Canal

Otaru Canal, no longer used for shipping, is one of the more scenic parts of town. We're lucky to still catch some of the cherry blossoms in bloom.

Cherry blossoms alongside Otaru Canal, Hokkaido
Cherry blossoms

Disused Temiya railway track in Otaru, Hokkaido
The old Temiya Railway track that was abandoned after the Hakodate Railway line was completed in 1985

We happily succumb to the slower pace of life here. It almost feels like we're on a holiday from our holiday.

Creepers and moss on buildings in Otaru, Hokkaido
Creepers and moss on buildings

Blossoms and street lamps in Otaru, Hokkaido
Blossoms and street lamps

Cherry blossoms in Otaru, Hokkaido
Cherry blossoms

Rickshaw in Otaru, Hokkaido
Bicycle-powered rickshaw

Fresh soba noodles in Otaru, Hokkaido

One of our favourite meals turns out to be a lunch of soba noodles in a tiny eatery near the bus station.

In the kitchen in the soba house at Otaru, Hokkaido
Behind-the-scenes in the kitchen

We sneak glances into the kitchen as we wait and then realise they're actually making soba from scratch back there, using a special machine that cuts the dough into uniform noodle strands.

Dough being fed through the soba maker in Otaru, Hokkaido
Dough being fed through the soba maker 

The owner laughs at our frenzied interest, but it's such a surprise find we can't get over our excitement.

Perfect strands of fresh soba in Otaru, Hokkaido
Perfect strands of fresh soba

Shaking off the excess flour from fresh soba in Otaru, Hokkaido
Shaking off the excess flour

Wooden crate filled with fresh soba in Otaru, Hokkaido
Folding them gently into a wooden crate

Here's a brief video clip of the soba machine in action.

Boiling the fresh soba in a bamboo basket in Otaru, Hokkaido
Boiling the soba noodles using a bamboo basket

We watch transfixed as the freshly made noodles are then cooked in a little bamboo basket, plunged into a simmering vat of boiling water.

Steaming soup poured over soba noodles in Otaru, Hokkaido
Steaming soup

Some of us have ordered soba noodles in soup with chicken. We hold back our drool as the steaming soup is poured over the noodles.

Soba noodles with with chicken and vegetables in Otaru, Hokkaido
Soba noodles with chicken and vegetables

The chicken is soft and juicy, huddled with chewy soba noodles and shallots.

Adding vegetables to the zaru soba noodles with tempura prawn in Otaru, Hokkaido
Adding vegetables to the tempura prawn zaru soba

I order the zaru soba, a cold noodle dish topped with tempura prawn, boiled egg, fish cake and vegetables.

Cold soba noodles with prawn tempura in Otaru, Hokkaido
Cold soba noodles with tempura prawn 

Adding zaru soba dressing to the cold soba noodles in Otaru, Hokkaido
Adding zaru soba dressing

Pour over the dressing made from dashi, soy and mirin for a hint of sweetness. It's one of my favourite dishes in summer that leaves you feeling cool and refreshed. And yes those soba noodles were some of the best we had - beautifully firm and chewy.

Soba noodle and curry house in Otaru, Hokkaido

LeTAO cheesecake in Otaru, Hokkaido
LeTAO cheesecake

Hokkaido is famed for its high quality creamy milk and I love that this has led to an abundance of dairy-based desserts in the area. What better way to celebrate a region's bounty than with sweets?

The LeTAO cheesecake is one of the must-have treats from the area.

LeTAO double layer cheesecake in Otaru, Hokkaido
LeTAO double layer cheesecake with baked cream cheese and unbaked mascarpone

The Fromage Double is a pretty spectacular cheesecake masterpiece. On the bottom is a baked cream cheese cake. Layered across the top is an unbaked mascarpone cheesecake. Both are ridiculously light and fluffy, your fork sinking through both with only the faintest whisper. It's so cloud-like in texture and yet there's a tanginess that comes through with each mouthful.

Yamanaka Dairy Farm

Making soft serves at Yamanaka Dairy Farm in Otaru, Hokkaido

And of course there were soft serves to be eaten too.

Chocolate and vanilla soft serves at Yamanaka Dairy Farm in Otaru, Hokkaido
Chocolate and vanilla soft serves by Yamanaka Dairy Farm

We stumbled upon the Yamanaka Dairy Farm shop and promptly ordered both the chocolate and vanilla soft serves. Soft serves made with Hokkaido milk are indescribably good - the taste of milk fat intensified without feeling overly rich.

The chocolate one is tasty but you can't go past classic vanilla in my books.

Yamanaka Dairy Farm in Otaru, Hokkaido
Yamanaka Dairy Farm

Milk by Yamanaka Dairy Farm in Otaru, Hokkaido
Yamanaka Dairy Farm milk

We find Yamanaka Dairy Farm milk in the supermarket aisle too. Have I told you how rarely I drink milk? I even drink my tea black and without sugar. But everyday in Hokkaido I happily would have had a glass of milk every night if I could. Maybe two.

Kita No Ice Cream Ya San

Scooping squid ice cream at Kita No Ice Cream Ya San in Otaru, Hokkaido
Scooping squid ink ice cream

If you do find yourself in Otaru, you will have to seek out Kita No Ice Cream Ya San.

Kita No Ice Cream Ya San in Otaru, Hokkaido
The arrow to crazy town

This tiny ice cream shop is hidden down an alleyway off the main street alongside Otaru Canal, but it's legendary status to producing kooky flavours means you can usually follow a trail of ice cream hunting customers any time of the day.

Sea urchin, squid, beer and purple sweet potato ice cream at Kita No Ice Cream Ya San in Otaru, Hokkaido
Ice cream flavours include sea urchin, squid, beer and purple sweet potato

Forget about the soft serves and go straight toward the chiller cabinet. Skip past the usual green tea flavours and go straight for the crazy. Hello squid ink, sea urchin, beer and purple sweet potato! Other strangely beautiful flavours include natto fermented soy bean, Japanese pumpkin and potato with butter.

Sea urchin, squid and purple sweet potato ice cream at Kita No Ice Cream Ya San in Otaru, Hokkaido
Squid ink and sea urchin ice cream
with purple sweet potato ice cream

How could we order anything but the squid ink and the sea urchin? The squid ink looks ominously with its glossy black appearance but the flavour is surprisingly mild. There's a faint hint of the sea but the most striking effect you'll get is a black tongue.

The sea urchin, on the other hand, is terrific. Sure it sounds weird but just imagine a sea urchin sauce, buttery and rich, that's been mixed with cream. It tastes just like a frozen version of that, and we're super excited to find minute flecks of sea urchin within the ice cream.

The purple sweet potato ice cream tastes just like the real thing, and we also dig the sherbetty fizz of the ramune blue lemonade one too.

Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace 

Eight layer soft serve at Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace in Otaru, Hokkaido
Follow that monster soft serve

And then there was the monster soft serve, a tip-off we followed up with incredulity. We started to hunt down this five layer soft serve and then discovered this shop had upped the ante and increased the number of layers to eight. Challenge accepted.

Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace isn't easy to find at first, but when we spy the giant poster ad, we know we're on the right track.

Making our soft serve at Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace in Otaru, Hokkaido
Green tea and blue lemonade soft serve swirls

The ice cream parlour is at the back of a glassware shop. The shop assistant doesn't bat an eyelid when we order the eight layer soft serve.

Eight swirl soft serve at Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace in Otaru, Hokkaido
Eight swirls later

Watching each layer being added is mesmerising. It's like watching a pastel skyscraper being built on a cone.

Giant eight layer soft serve at Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace in Otaru, Hokkaido
Eight layer soft serve 580 yen / AU$6.40

And then it is ours! We're reduced to shrieks of laughter when we come face to face with its size, and then realise its inordinate heaviness. The cone barely feels strong enough to support the weight of the soft serve.

The eight layers, from the bottom, are: green tea, lemon pop, lavender, melon, milk, chocolate, lavender vanilla swirl and chocolate vanilla swirl. Did I mention this was our third ice cream in two hours?

There was no other logical decision than to share this between us. Armed with spoons, we attack with gusto. Even then we're still defeated, but our memories of that glorious moment, when we met the mother of all soft serves - will stay with us forever.

Giant soft serve at Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace in Otaru, Hokkaido

<< Read the first Japan 2015 post: Toyama black ramen and firefly squid

Japan 2015: Toyama > Kanazawa > Nagano > Kyoto > Nara > Osaka > Kobe > Kagoshima > Hakata > Hiroshima and Miyajima Island > Sapporo > Otaru > Hakodate Tokyo

Kita no Ice Cream Ya San
1-2-18 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan
Tel: +81 (013) 423 8983
Open daily 10am - 7pm

Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace
7-26 Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan 047-0027
(head to the ice cream shop on the street at the very back of the building)
Open daily 11am-5pm

Nanda Seafood
Minami 5, Jonishi 2 (South 5, West 2), Cyber City building
Basement 2, Susukino, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Tel: +81 (011) 532 7887
Open daily 4.30pm-10.30pm

Nikka Whisky Distillery
7 Chome-6 Kurokawachi, Yoichi-chi, Yoichi-gun, Hokkaido, Japan 046-0003
Free guided Japanese tours 9am-5pm. No English tours are available

Tarche Sushi Corner タルシェ 寿司コーナー
2-22-15 Inaho, JR Otaru Station, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan 047-0032
Tel: +81 (013) 431 1111
Open daily 11am-3pm and 4.30pm-7.30pm

Yamanaka Dairy Farm
1-6-18 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan
Tel: +81 (013) 427 5123
Open daily 11am - 6pm
11 comments - Add some comment love

posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 9/21/2015 01:22:00 am


  • At 9/21/2015 6:51 am, Anonymous John - heneedsfood said…

    Wow, I'd love to try that squid ink and urchin ice cream. And let's not forget about the great value Nanda buffet. I'd be going mad there!

  • At 9/21/2015 9:11 am, Anonymous chocolatesuze said…

    Yessss I've been looking forward to this post! Whisky! Ice cream!! I totally would've ordered the potato with butter flavour though

  • At 9/21/2015 11:52 am, Anonymous Maureen | Orgasmic Chef said…

    I read the whole post and the entire time I kept saying in my head, "Squid Ink Ice Cream???" You made my day.

  • At 9/21/2015 1:14 pm, Anonymous Joseph -UpForAFeed said…

    Those whisky "samples" look very generous!! Only in Japan would you see such a thing..

  • At 9/21/2015 4:26 pm, Anonymous Gourmet Getaways said…

    Oh you chose the most delicious looking dishes!

    Thanks for sharing


    Gourmet Getaways

  • At 9/21/2015 4:46 pm, Anonymous Isaac (iFat23) said…

    Oooh boy, I can't wait to recreate your culinary adventures in Japan. That soft serve looks so good.

  • At 9/22/2015 3:16 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    That ice cream is ridic!

  • At 9/22/2015 8:51 pm, Anonymous Racy_staci said…

    I think I am totally soft served out......maybe

  • At 9/23/2015 11:01 am, Anonymous Brian Tam Food said…

    We skipped Otaru so thanks for helping me live vicariously - the Nikka distillery was definitely on my list! (we were there in April so must have been not long before you?). We did go to Nanda in Sapporo though, which I was definitely happy about :) Craving some hairy crab now...

  • At 9/23/2015 4:42 pm, Anonymous Hotly Spiced said…

    I like how this is a town in Japan that moves at a less harried pace. The cherry blossoms are gorgeous. I do love those restaurants where you choose your food then cook it in the centre of the table. The soft serves all look good but I would go for the pastel tones rather than the jet black! xx

  • At 10/01/2015 9:37 pm, Anonymous Sara | Belly Rumbles said…

    So much goodness, just so much drooling goodness. I am planning a longer trip to Japan next year and going beyond my normal work area. Your posts are becoming a little bit of a guide :p


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