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Yakitori, Sushi, & Ramen Oh My!

I’m really good at maps. I like to think that it’s because I used to play a ton of video games with my sister that required searching for a treasure box or a sword (Link, you’re the man). Avery’s really good at figuring out the subway. I love this memory that he shares about his grandfather, “Papa”. When Avery was six, they would ride the subway together and Avery would have to tell him which station to disembark. If Avery didn’t say anything, then they don’t get off the train. Apparently, there were many times when they would pass Astor Place and end up deep downtown because Avery didn’t say anything. Papa just enjoyed the ride - letting Avery take the reigns. Papa loved the subway and I love this story - it was his way of teaching Avery how to be a man at an early age. And I am so thankful for those lessons. Because of that, Avery and I travel really well together. Thank you, Papa. 

In Taipei, I take the lead when it comes to the language, but I’ve been pretty impressed with Avery taking the lead in Japan. Now let’s be clear - it’s not like he’s talking about the weather and American politics with the locals, but he knows enough to get people to listen if he has a question. I have to admit, I find it all incredibly attractive and I’ve fallen in love with him all over again here. 

Our first night in Sapporo was pretty low key. We had spent most of the day traveling and we were exhausted by the end of the night. A local yakitori restaurant and a pint of Sapporo each was all we needed. We ended up sleeping 11 hours that night. I don’t think I’ve slept that long in months. 

When we woke up in the morning, we were still pretty groggy but I was super pumped to explore the city. Before heading to the subway, we stopped by Lawson’s for a small bite around brunch time. Lawson’s is pretty equivalent to a solid NYC bodega but much cleaner with actual decent food. Avery chose a number of tasty pastries (such an obvious choice, if you know him) and I picked some inari and yakitori, an odd mix of sweet and savory but hey, it’s brunch.

Our first stop on the itinerary was Hokkaido Shrine, located in Maruyama Park in Sapporo. October is the best time to come to Hokkaido because this is when the leaves start changing its colors. In the park, it was absolutely beautiful. With both the park and the shrine, I thought it would be a lovely, relaxing day to walk around. And it certainly was. It was just so peaceful - it was the perfect backdrop to any James Blake or Novo Amor song. I don’t know if it was the trees, the crispness in the air, or simply the lack of chatter, but it was truly blissful. Even certain parks in San Francisco are just not that quiet with the occasional dog barking and buses clamoring and electrical lines buzzing (pppshhhh “California to Drumm Street” pppshhhh vrooooooom). 

There was some type of ceremony involving adorable toddler girls dressed in traditional kimonos. It was probably the cutest thing I have seen in a long time. (Okay I lied: on our way to the JR station we stopped in a puppy store and saw a blonde, long-haired Daschund that stole my heart. I almost took home - I would’ve named her something classic and blonde, like Sienna). I think we were really lucky to see that and to be in that moment at that exact time. Everything is always meant to be the way it’s supposed to be. And you have to stop and be grateful for those small blessings. They really are gifts. 

 

It was quite chilly and I thought it was time for a warm beverage. I knew about a cafe close to the park and we made our way over for the short 8-minute walk. I turned the corner and thought I might’ve located the wrong place but I was actually right about the directions. I knew the cafe was cozy and cute but I didn’t think it would be THIS adorable. You walk in and it looked like one of those mini houses that you see on HGTV. We both ordered a cappuccino and Avery ordered some food, a mini burrito to be exact. I swear, I think “burrito” is his favorite word because he can’t help himself when he sees it on a menu. Granted, it wasn’t a true burrito (i mean, we’re in Japan), but it was a wrap that had hot food inside. He ate it all and that’s all that matters. 

We were finally warm and caffeinated enough to venture to our next stop: Sapporo Station. I know it seems odd that our next destination was a train station but i knew there would be a ton of food there and we needed to accomplish a few errands nearby (get a SIM card and buy some cold-weather items from Uniqlo for Avery). We were in the mood for some sushi so I looked up an affordable, but high quality conveyer belt sushi spot. If you don’t know what this is, sushi on different colored small plates gets placed on a conveyer belt that moves around the sushi bar for customers to grab. You simply pick whatever fancies you. It’s a classic in Japan and I absolutely love it. I can get food without having to talk to anyone? Like delivery but better (ugh, I’m such a New Yorker). The place was actually pretty incredible. We ate about 16 pieces of sushi, including uni, plus a roll and two cold noodle dishes for $20 bucks. I know. Ridiculous. Man, I’m good at picking restaurants. 

Funny story: so when we sat down, we saw your classic array of condiments and toppings, like soy sauce, chili pepper, ginger, and then, this green powder. We assumed it was a unique form of wasabi so we dabbed it into our soy sauce and continued to eat. We probably had 2 pieces of sushi each when an elderly lady sat next to Avery at the sushi bar. We saw her put the green powder into her tea cup and added hot water to it from the faucet nearby. Ohhhhh it’s green tea matcha powder. Idiots! Luckily, no one else saw our mistake (I hope). Later, we saw a photo describing each of these condiments on a separate menu that said “Not wasabi”. Oops. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones who made this mistake. I guess that makes me feel better, question mark?

Next, we needed our SIM cards. We were a bit concerned that no one would be able to help us since we didn’t understand Japanese. But the manager led us to a man who could speak English well enough to help us. And he was so kind. We’ve had such a wonderful experience so far with the Japanese in Sapporo. I was told that they will run away from you if you approach them speaking English. I’m sure this will happen when we travel outside this major city, but we haven’t had any issues here so far. At the phone store, they apply a $5 charge to assist you and he didn’t even charge us. So nice. (Insert pouty, grateful face here). 

Speaking of nice, I’m going to talk about our Airbnb for a minute. It’s pretty amazing and here’s why. Located literally 10 seconds from the subway, it is updated and incredibly cozy. And no, I do not feel like a sardine in a sardine box in here. I feel like my dorm rooms in NYU were smaller than this. Actually, they were. The studio apartment is modern and clean, plus the convenience of the location is absolutely magical. We are super close to fantastic restaurants and bars nearby (not that we’ve tried the bar scene, yet). If you need a place to stay in Sapporo, hit me up and I will let you know which apartment we stayed here via Airbnb. But keep it on the down-low. Apparently, Airbnb is frowned upon here.

We went back to the apartment to freshen up, and after a few hours, we were already thinking about dinner. We decided to grab a hot bowl of tasty ramen. YES, FINALLY - as you all know, noodle soup is my favorite. Of course in Japan, there are endless alleys and streets with numerous choices ranging from various soup bases and toppings. Since this was our first few days in Japan, I didn’t want to get too adventurous. Plus, I was hungry and I didn’t want to struggle with looking for the unmarked door down a dark alley with a japanese-only menu without photos. I had read about Ramen Kyowakoku, The Ramen Alley, in Sapporo. There are two major ones: one is much older and the other is more modern. Apparently, the Japanese are famous for copying each other and making improvements on the next version. I just picked this one because it was closer and I figured modern meant more English menus. We will actually pass through Sapporo again in a week as we make our way towards the southern tip of the island, so I intend on being way more adventurous with all the food next time. It’s not traveling unless you take some risks with ordering food. And I’m not worried - it’s all delicious!

Located on the 10th floor in one of the buildings in the Sapporo JR train station, the entire floor is dedicated to Ramen. Is there a one bedroom available for rent here? Off in the corner, here’s where you find the actual Ramen Alley. Semi-touristy but there were primarily Japanese customers present (which, as you know, is always a good sign). I attempted to find the best restaurant here via TripAdvisor but everyone spoke to the alley in general. I figured, “Well, I guess we can’t lose”. I do the next best thing: find the restaurant with the most people, specifically Japanese customers. As we made a full circle, I noticed one restaurant had almost every seat packed with Japanese customers, one Chinese family, and one white guy. (but with a Japanese girl). I thought, “I like the odds of this”. 

We got the last table in the joint. Since I’m the Ramen Queen, I wanted to provide some guidance for my main squeeze. He’s obviously had ramen before but I didn’t know if he had a preference: miso or shoyu, extra chasu or corn, extra noodles, or how about side dishes? He ended up picking what I wanted: miso ramen topped with two pieces of chasu, soybean sprouts, bamboo, scallions, and boiled egg (a must). This is my classic order and I’d say it’s pretty classic in general. I could’ve probably added more noodles but I didn’t want to seem overeager. Also, as per my doctor’s orders, I need to eat as close to a Type 2 Diabetes diet as much as possible, so overdoing it on the noodles was going to be awesome now but not later. Screw the diet today, this was going to be worth it! (I also ordered a Sapporo draft beer, ruh roh). 

It was absolutely the best ramen I’ve ever had. Okay okay, Ippudo is pretty good, duh. And I’m sure there are probably better in Tokyo or some hole in the wall in Osaka. But I ain’t there right now. And to be honest, this was probably the best bowl of ramen I could order in English in Sapporo. What makes an excellent bowl of ramen, you say? Firstly, it’s the noodles. It’s almost like in a sandwich, the bread is the most important. That’s how I feel with ramen. The key is the texture and chewiness level of the noodles. Do they get soft as time goes on? Are they slightly opaque? What color are they? If they are that pastel yellow color, then no. If they are flimsy like instant noodles, then no. There needs to be some give in the noodles and these had the right amount of give. 

Then it’s the soup. Sometimes, the soup can be SUPER salty which just ruins the whole thing in my opinion. Sometimes, it’s very oily and then you might have a stomach ache after, which also kind of ruins the whole experience. It needs to be so evenly balanced that if the soup sits for minute, it doesn’t change color or depth or all the fat floats to the top. This soup also had a kick in it which I obviously adore. One of the condiment options was mashed garlic - YUM! Damn, what a topping. It really rounds out all the flavors, like it’s grabbing all the ingredients from the hands and running through a carnival on the perfect summer’s eve.

Next, the toppings are critical. In my opinion, it needs to have all the toppings I mentioned earlier. Corn is a nice add-on. Additional chasu pieces are also never a disappointment. Honestly, the egg is my favorite part. The egg SHOULD NEVER be fully hard-boiled. It must be semi soft and the yolk needs to be orange, NOT yellow. In my bowl, I use my chopsticks to cut the egg in half so I can swish around the semi-soft yolk in the soup base. It creates a buttery smoothness to the dish. And of course, when you get small little sprinkles of egg yolk in your spoon, it’s just the best, like getting the wishbone at a seder, except this can happen everyday if you want. 

I was pretty much silent during the meal. To me, that’s what every chef wants to hear: silence and slurping (and the occasional, “Mmmm”). I think I said nothing except, “So good” about 5 times. I was finished in about 12 minutes and I was doing my best to milk the process so I didn’t inhale it in 5. Do you guys do that sometimes? Try to eat slowly so the joy is not over so soon? (Have you ever made a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich at home? I don’t do it anymore because it takes me 20 minutes to make it and about 90 seconds to finish it. Look, I don’t mind slaving over a kitchen for 8 hours but at least dinner’s about 2 hours. 1200 seconds for 90 seconds of bliss just doesn’t seemed balanced. If anyone has any tips on how to make the perfect egg and cheese with bacon in half the time, let me know).

As I’m writing this, Avery and I are lying in our tiny futon in Sapporo, and we are so cozy in here, both wearing our new Uniqlo sweatpants. Today, we somehow managed to dress exactly alike. And right now, our loungewear is also exactly the same (navy sweatpants and heather grey sweatshirts). To be honest, this isn’t the first. I guess couples really do start to look alike after awhile. Apparently, it’s called convergence of appearance. One of its theories mentions that the happier you are, the more you start to look and dress alike, known as unconscious mimicry. People actually say that people are also attracted to someone who like each other. I find that to be VERY bizarre and luckily, in this case, Avery and I don’t look anything alike. We might dress alike, but I genuinely think we’re attracted to each other because we don’t look alike. For him, his friends might be surprised to find him with a girl like me but for my friends, he looks exactly like my dream man. I’m all about surprises in life but I am not trading him in for anything, except maybe Sienna, the most beautiful princess blonde Dachshund in the world. Sigh!

Catherine JoeiComment