It’s been a fast-moving past 10 days in Hokkaido, Japan. I’ll do my best to hit the highlights of our most recent adventures (but we all know I’m quite loquacious in my writing). After shortening our 2-day stay in Asahikawa to 1 night (spent almost entirely in a splendid mall due to the awful freezing rain outside), we took a train to the far eastern coast city of Abashiri. Abashiri is known for a two things that I love - beer and beef. Our main use in hitting Abashiri for one night was simply using it as a transit point towards to the peninsula that juts out eastward called Shari-Shiretoko. It stands for the crown jewel at the very tip, the Shiretoko National Forest. But first, back to Abashiri for a quick sec. Our 4 hour train ride got us into the Japan Rail station around 8:30 at night, leaving us just enough time to find some dinner at a restaurant. Fortunately, our hotel, the “Dormy Inn”, was right down the main road, just a 10 minute walk from the station, and 200 feet away from a famed “Yakiniku” BBQ meat house and beer hall. We dropped off our bags, sliding past, of all things, a bee hanging in the lobby of the hotel (I am allergic to bees). Maybe the bees have a stronger constitution here or some special coats, because once it drops below 60 degrees in my hometown of Marin County, California the bees are gone until next year. It was a chilly 45 degrees and this one must’ve holed up inside the warm hotel.
Anyway, back to the topic at hand, we strode towards the Yakiniku BBQ spot expecting to grab a table easily enough. We went up to the hostess and politely asked for a table for two, I’m not sure where we started to misunderstand each other but the next 15 minutes devolved into a back and forth where she indicated they would close in 2 hours or we couldn’t eat for 2 hours, I’m still not sure. We pointed at an empty table and pantomimed eating, quickly if needed … this still wasn’t getting the message through as she firmly shook her head. We even tried to use Google Translate which had served us very well thus far to no avail. Finally she called someone on her microphone and then we were escorted the very same table Cathy pointed to previously. We’re still baffled about what happened there, clearly they don’t see many non-Japanese (or Chinese, because Cathy speaks Mandarin). The language barrier had not yet been an issue for us, but once we hit the far eastern coast it became apparent that pretty much only Japanese come to these parts, I can probably count on my hands how many people who look like me I saw over the following week … anyway, that’s part of what makes traveling an adventure, right? You’re never quite sure what you’re eating, what the correct directions are, or if you’ve just insulted someone by accident.
Regardless of the circumstances, we opened up our menus excitedly and saw that the house special Waygu beef was surprisingly affordable at around $12 a portion. I’ve only tried Japanese high end beef once before, and it was part of the most extravagant meal I’ve ever had back in NY (Brushstroke). We went for it, ordering the normal Wagyu, as well as the top of the line “Abashiri Cut”. My god, it was so delicious, we cooked each strip so carefully, trying one with sauce and one with salt, and it just melted in your mouth. Totally worth it, and I hope I get to try it again some day. Importantly, I tried some draft beers (2 to be exact) from the local brewery, starting with my favorite style white ale, and then trying the very special Blue Okhotsk Drift Ice Draft. Abashiri is on the Okhotsk sea, known for its chunks of drift ice, and this beer is made with the ice! It was a pretty insane (and non-artificial!) color and went so well with the meat. We continued to order, going through 4 or 5 plates, then tried Cathy’s favorite Beef Tongue and some Pork Cheek. Our bellies satisfied, we went back to the hotel and hit the Onsen (hot spring) up on the top floor, taking in the cool outside air a the same time. Just delightful.
The next morning, we got on the small local one-car train towards Shari-Shiretoko. A quick 50 minute ride and we were there, buying our bus tickets to Utoro Onsen, the entry point to the Shiretoko National Park. After a gorgeous hourlong ride along the coast, we arrived at our bus stop the elderly owner of the family run lodge (Hotel Club Kifuu) we reserved a tatami room at was there to pick us up, 15 minutes early! He didn’t speak much English, but as we got in the car (he insisted on carrying our heavy backpacks much to my dismay and reluctance), he kindly pointed at his watch and said in intelligible english “hungry? lunchtime…” Evidently, the restaurant we paid for our half board at within the hotel was only open for breakfast and dinner. Cathy and looked at each other and said “hai”, and the man (who we gave the moniker of “old man” for the next two days) gave us the option of either 7-Eleven or a new store we hadn’t yet tried, SeicoMart. For those of you who just read 7-Eleven and thought “what they hell can you buy for a real lunch there,” you need to understand that 7-Eleven in Asia is a whole different ballgame. There are tons of great fresh foods available at all hours, and it’s a great deal. We chose to take the road less travelled and went for the SeicoMart - a great decision! I picked a hot Katsu rice bowl with curry (that’s basically a fried cutlet) and discovered a new love as I unwrapped it at the lodge a few minutes later. It’s amazing how good food from what’s effectively a convenience store can be outside the US, we really need to step our game up at home.
The Hotel Club Kifu is a family run lodge (two generations) sitting right on the water of the Okhotsk Sea, constructed within the last couple years. We were shown right to our room after being offered a cup of Japanese tea by the Old Man and were blown away by the size and view. Our room directly overlooked the sea, was on the 2nd floor, and had just the most beautiful combination of tatami mats with a set of western chairs and table right by the window. After taking a brief walk outside, narrowly escaping the looming rain, Cathy and I headed to the hot springs. Brand new, we soaked in the large tubs with views right over the water, getting out just ahead of the sunset which is known all over Japan as a particularly epic one.
Then it was time for our first meal there, a Kaiseiki style affair, which we prepared for by putting on our traditional Yukata robes (I looked up the proper method, left goes over right and the sash is tied on the right hip for men, above the waist for women). This meal was bound to be one of our best, when we were told we were going to cook our own tempura! The younger generation owners (husband and wife) deal with the cooking and instructed us on how to start the process, as they continued to continually bring out more food. We started with the 8 types of tempura each ranging from the classic vegetables to newer ones such as scallops (big ones!), then proceeded to the sashimi portion of our meal. I love salmon, it’s basic fish, but the melt-in-your-mouth salmon sashimi just gets me. This was the freshest salmon I’ve ever tasted, in fact I’m sure it was just pulled out of the ocean less than 24 hours prior. Of course there was sweet shrimp, more scallops, tuna, and I forget the rest. We continued on with our meal, going for the 8 types of vegetables and other small fare each arranged in its own bento box portion, then had some more salmon in another cooked style. Oh I almost forgot, we had two types of crab, some miso soup with crab, and then there was dessert. Stuffed to the gills with seafood (haha), we retreated to our room for a quick rest ahead of our scheduled private outdoor hot spring time in the chilly 40 degree weather. Onsens are all over Japan, but typically they are separated by gender, this was a special opportunity for us to share one together, and we couldn’t have picked a better place. Of course, we took another tub the next day.
OK, so we came to Shiretoko to go the main attraction, the national park, which is primarily known for two things - the 5 Lakes hike, and the large population of native large brown bears. Coming from Northern California, bears are not anything to be particularly scared of, they don’t want to find us, we don’t want to find them, it’s generally a peaceful coexistence. However, we kept seeing warnings about bears and prevention tactics. After taking a brief cruise down the peninsula on a large boat (the smaller longer cruise was cancelled due to rough seas), hopped on the Utoro bus and headed out further on the peninsula to the 5 lakes hike start. There we took the opportunity to go off the beaten path (there’s actually a wooden walkway that is built for the average bussed in Japanese tourist), and bought our Park Permit in order to go on the hike. After a quick safety video and lecture taking all of 10 minutes, most of which was in Japanese and more amusing than relevant to us, we got on the trail. We were informed by a park ranger that there were several bear sightings in the past weeks, as well as some signs like pawprints and bear scat, but that didn’t faze us and we assured her we’d keep a loud conversation going and be aware of our surroundings. A couple behind us was carrying a so-called “Bear bell”, which rings incessantly as you walk, but we quickly got far ahead of them. Luckily for us, no bears were sighted, and we just got to enjoy taking in the lush plant life and earth-shattering views. I cannot more highly recommend this hike, it was truly my favorite experience of the trip. Seeing snow-capped old volcanos towering over shimmering still lakes with a blue sky backdrop, and taking it all in without another soul anywhere near us was just an unbelievable highlight of our trip. This is really what we were going for when we decided last minute to head to Hokkaido for 2 weeks. Afterward, it was back to the lodge for another fantastic meal, this one concentrated on the special “long hairy crab” and some shabu shabu. Of course, it was delicious, and after clocking close to 7 miles on the iPhone tracker, we collapsed in bed.
Our next stop was Kushiro, another waypoint to the next target attraction of Lake Akan. In Kushiro we focused on food, as there isn’t much else to do in a tier 2 city in a sparsely populated part of Japan. As we arrived at the JR station, we popped our backpacks in one of the numerous day lockers that dot all stations in Japan we walked 5 minutes to the Washo Fish Market. When people typically visit Japan, they always go to the Tsujikki market in Tokyo. I’ve been there, at 5 am, and although it is sadly getting automated and moving to another building in the next year, it’s pretty cool. However, the Washo market was another story, and famous for one particular offering - you buy a bowl of rice and go to different vendors selecting the exact slices of sashimi you want, all kinds, however much you want, at the best price imaginable. This was a locals market, we saw many people picking up to take home, but we were going to enjoy it right then and there. After a quick scout around the perimeter, during which we saw everything from live hairy crabs (ranging from $20-$75) to giant octopus tentacles, we selected the size of our rice bowls and excitedly headed for the sashimi. We started off with pieces of the fattiest tuna I’ve ever seen, the highest grade O-Toro, as well as several types of salmon, some crab, uni, as well as a taste of whale. (yes, I know eating whale sounds terrible but I figured if I’m ever going to try it, this was the place. It was not very good though). The tuna was not to be believed, and we scarfed down our bowls, getting up to check out another vendor. After another 10 slices of tuna (around $2 avg a slice, when in the US it is around $15 for O-toro), and some other mixed pieces, we called it quits, feeling like we had really gotten our money’s worth. Overall we spent around $70 bucks for the two of us, when considering the caliber we consumed, it would definitely top $300 in any NY establishment of worse quality.
We headed to our hotel and watched the sunset and and enjoyed the wifi in our room, before thinking to ourselves, “Hey, what are we doing for dinner?” Sometimes it’s all about food! I did a little research online and learned that apart from the Fish Market, Kushiro is known for its special take on fried chicken, “Zangi”, and I found just the right place. A tiny 8-seater establishment, in existence for over 30 years, we planned on being unable to sit down and needing to do take-away. To our surprise, after cautiously walking through through the shoji-esque sliding door we were welcomed in by the portly owner and sat down at the standard Japanese bar style table on tiny stools. This was a locals spot, with the local Hokkaido Ham Fighters baseball game on the TV, and around 6 other people enjoying their meals of fried chicken. The menu was very basic, and only in Japanese, so I whipped out my google translate app and was able to discern that there were 4 options: chicken with bones, without bones, stew, or fried chicken thigh. Oh, and beer. We went for 1 with bones, one without, and 2 beers. The owner spoke a couple words of English, but kept asking Cathy things in Japanese. We later figured out that he was completely sure Cathy was Japanese … in fact this wasn’t the only time she’s been mistaken for a native. Cathy is of Taiwanese heritage, but Koreans think she’s Korean and I guess the Japanese are a little confused also. The chicken was just delicious, and we ordered a third round just in time as the Ham Fighters hit a grand slam to move forward in the playoffs. Stuffed yet again, we hauled our full bellies back to the hotel for much needed sleep ahead of our next day’s bus ride to Lake Akan.
Our trip to Lake Akan began with a 2 hour bus ride through the ultimate Fall Foliage territory, eventually leading us to Akanko Onsen, another hot spring town. Arriving at 2pm, quickly dropped off our bags and hopped on a hourlong cruise around the lake, checking out the famous Marimo seaweed balls. Then we checked into our room, quickly changed, and charged towards the famous baths, numbering roughly 12 per gender. My favorite was but outside right on the lake, where you could see the stars starting to come out for the night. My experience was quite peaceful and refreshing, but Cathy’s was not … apparently all the women take the baths as an opportunity to gab loudly with their gal-pals … not the most relaxing experience. The next day we got on a lengthy 6-hour bus ride back to Sapporo, preparing to check into an AirBnB for two nights to regroup ahead of the remaining nights in Japan. Sapporo didn’t disappoint, as we tried the famous Genghis Khan style of lamb BBQ in an unbelievably smokey restaurant, and then topped it off with some Japanese whiskey in a high-rise cocktail bar called the Electric Sheep. Of course no visit to Sapporo would be complete without checking out the Sapporo Beer Factory, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
Wow, the above took a lot more words than expected, oh well :) The next 2 days in South-West Hokkaido were nothing special to write home about. Nothing bad, nothing amazing.
We are on our flight back to Taipei as I write this, preparing for a week of fun with Cathy’s mom and other local family. Taipei kind of seems like home now, given that this is my 3rd visit in less than 5 weeks. Pretty cool to feel that way about a foreign land. At the top of the coming week, I am getting my second haircut in Asia (I got one in Japan when I was 11 and had bleached hair), and we are going to do an engagement photo shoot, Taiwan style! This is a big thing here, and we decided that instead of the stereotypical engagement photos everyone does in the US, we would take to the next level and embrace the heritage. I don’t know much about what I’m getting myself into, but I’m pretty sure it’ll involve being instructed sternly in Mandarin and putting on a Tuxedo as well as some traditional Chinese garb. Cathy gets to put on something like 5 different dresses, but fortunately her mother will be there to assist (what’s a mom for, right?). Needless to say, I’m pretty psyched about the whole experience, and of course no visit to Taipei would be complete without some more xiao long baos.
Until next time …