[blog]* Day 16 - Wakkanai, the northern-most town of Japan, and its various delights: seafood, the sea, fishermen and, uh, other sea-related stuff. Plus, a taste of isobe-yaki.
After another slight delay in Sapporo, today I finally headed up to the town of Wakkanai.
Wakkanai is the northern-most town of Japan, and seemed an appropriate-enough starting point for my journey back down south. With a population of just under 40,000 it's a quiet, rustic little place, with most of the population dependent on fishing or tourism in one form or another.
The Super Soya limited express train runs twice a day from Sapporo to Wakkanai, taking just under five hours and a cool ¥9,660 (£71.20 / $111.70) one way. Better have that JR pass at hand.
It was raining as we went up, and the fields we passed through had a distinctly gloomy air about them.
Pulling in at Wakkanai
The line ends quite abruptly, in the middle of the town - you could literally walk off the tracks onto one of the main roads of Wakkanai. It's quite bizarre.
There's a little plastic totem humbly indicating this as the northern-most train station of Japan, at 45°25'03"N.
The first thing you notice about Wakkanai is its emptiness. A mountain towers over one side of the town, and a little cluster of buildings stands shy and awkward in the centre. But for the most part, the roads just seem to stretch in every direction, with no apparent intention of actually getting anywhere.
But anyway, food!
The main tourist complex is visible even from the station, is painted bright orange, and has a giant rusty crab on its sign. You can't miss it.
The ground floor is a "market" for visitors, while the two floors above are taken by a food court / restaurant respectively. It's clearly designed to handle group tours though, at that time, I was the only one there.
Wakkanai is known primarily for crab, and its abundance of other fresh seafood throughout the year - the cold climate means it has access to stocks that would otherwise be out of season elsewhere.
I ordered their signature lunch option, the tri-colour donburi (rice bowl) - sea urchin, ikura (salmon roe) and raw scallops on top of a bed of sushi rice.
The miso soup has, quite characteristically, a crab claw thrown in for good measure.
Likewise - scallop, ikura and especially sea urchin are some of the most expensive sushi ingredients available; only in a place like Wakkanai would all three be served so casually - almost recklessly - together on a lunch rice bowl.
Sea urchin with rice... mm
And suddenly, travelling 400km to this town in the middle of nowhere suddenly makes sense. Seafood here is not like seafood anywhere else. The ikura and scallops, both, were crisp and fresh with the taste of the sea. And the sea urchin... oh boy, the sea urchin. It just melts in your mouth, complex and layered with incredible flavour, and bursts with the indescribable aftertaste of umami.
It's a saying I've heard applied to a couple of different places: but really, once you've had sushi here, it really is quite impossible to go back to cheap overseas sushi again.
I also sneaked a quick peek at the "market" downstairs. It's more tourist centre than conventional market, but the produce is still local and very, very fresh.
In the late 1990's Wakkanai was, in fact, a popular tourist spot, but in recent years it has ceded visitors to the zoo-bearing (and more central) Asahikawa, as well as the recently-appointed World Heritage site, Shiretoko. Nevertheless the tourist areas are still there, and I was off to see the first of them, the nearby Wakkanai Park.
For most people it's a short drive up a hill, but, since I had no car... up the mountain slope it was.
As much as I just loooove walking up steep mountain slopes (that's sarcasm, by the way, in case you need the hint) the view it offers of the town - and Sea of Okhotsk beyond - is stunning, and makes it totally worth it. Almost.
Towards the end of the path, I saw this incredibly picturesque stairway leading... somewhere. It wasn't as I'd planned, but of course I had to go up.
It turns out it led to the Wakkanai Cemetery.
The tower visible in the background is the Cemetery Memorial Tower, built in 1978 to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the cemetery. It has an observation tower from which the outlying islands of Rebun, Rishiri and the disputed Karafuto (Sakhalin) can be seen, and is one of the park's attractions.
Even from here, though, the view is spectacular. Basked in warm sunlight with a gentle sea breeze, the area was calm and serene, almost happy. It was actually really, really nice.
Wakkanai Park itself has a bit of a colourful, if sad, history. Up until the year 2000 it was host to an amusement park and, until 2006, an aerial tramway and ski area. With the gradual decline in visitors the municipal government eventually decided to take down both, leaving behind only the park's imposing stone memorials and wind turbines - ironic reminders of a more glorious past.
It is, in a way, a rather sorry reflection of Japan's own decline over the past two decades.
Just one word of warning. Wakkanai Park is vast and wide, and clearly designed with cars in mind; those of you walking, like yours truly, might find yourself getting just a little bit more of a workout than you might have intended.
"Gate of Ice and Snow"
The Gate of Ice and Snow was built in 1963, in memory of the war dead in Karafuto (Sakhalin).
All in all - vast, beautiful and rather empty. I would have loved to see it in its heyday, though. It must have been magnificent.
Having made it back down the mountain, I now headed to one of the other main tourist spots in Wakkanai, Noshappu Point.
There's a bus which travels from the city centre to Noshappu, but it runs only infrequently and being young and reckless, I had decided to walk.
The road from the city centre to Noshappu Point is flanked one side by the sea, and by warehouses and docks stand on the other. Fishing boats and nets line the road, in some cases blocking the path entirely.
It was quite pretty. It was also incredibly stupid, because it was, in fact, an hour long walk.
Well, I got there in the end...
A dolphin clock and lighthouse mark Noshappu Point. There's also an onsen facility a little further down the road, and a small makeshift aquarium. It's clearly an area for couples, though the view really was quite pretty regardless.
More importantly, though... it was getting dark, and I had an hour's worth of walking back to do.
Processing dead fish
Yeah, just... don't do what I did.
North Breakwater Dome
It was pouring down by the time I was back in the city which, of course, meant it was time for my final (and favourite) task of the day: dinner.
After a little bit of flopping around in the rain I finally found my target: the restaurant / izakaya Amimoto.
The 70-year-old owner, Ogawa Kimiko, has been running Amimoto ever since it started up here in Wakkanai, 45 years ago. Glass balls in fishing nets - traditionally used as floats - hang from the ceiling, joining yellowing autographs, a chalkboard menu and bar stools carved from logs in Amimoto's endearingly haphazard décor style.
I ordered their signature dish, isobeyaki (¥1,050 / £7.60 / $12.20 - for more information, read our article on isobeyaki here). Twenty-four types of vegetables and seafood - all strictly local and seasonal - are cooked in a scallop shell with a blend of white miso, various spices and fish dashi.
And... wow. It's not so much the ingredients, which, well, end up as stew ingredients. Rather, it's the miso blend underneath which imparts the flavour, having drawn out the flavour of every ingredient put in, combining it all to give an intense, wonderfully warm broth, just brimming with umami taste.
How should I put it? Imagine the taste of all the seafood you've ever had in just one spoonful of this, and you just might almost come close to imagining the taste. I was this close to ordering a second one.
Worth the five hour trip up here? Hmm. Maybe.
And on that happy note, I ended my exploration of Wakkanai, northernmost city of Japan.
Results: Day 16
The List: #20 - tri-colour donburi / #21 - isobeyaki
I can't really make up my mind about Wakkanai. It's beautiful, but only in that common, quiet way that is a little hard to recommend to a visiting tourist. On the other hand... the seafood here really is sublime, and the isobeyaki - which remains a localised dish - quite possibly may have been my favourite of the trip. All in all... come here for the food if you're willing to travel a bit to try it, but know what you're getting into.
And if you're going to Noshappu Point, make sure you take the stupid bus.
Ever been to Wakkanai? Try some of its famous crab, or Amimoto's isobeyaki? What did you think, and would you recommend a visit, on the whole? Send in an e-mail or comment below! Send in an e-mail, comment below, or follow me on Twitter / twitter.com/foodjapan