[blog]* Day 17 - hail, volcano vents and hypothermia on Mt. Asahidake, ramen, and from a sushi chef: learning the secret to happiness
Having stayed overnight in Wakkanai, in the morning I took the first train back down south, to Asahikawa.
Actually, my original plan had been to travel eastwards along the coast, via Monbetsu, to the port city of Abashiri, on the mouth of the Abashiri River where it opens to the Sea of Okhotsk. But no trains run in that direction - the train lines all fan out from Asahikawa in the centre, like stems on a leaf. By car it's a nine hour journey.
So, back to Asahikawa it was.
Do those snowflakes stay on through the year?
The town centres around a small grid of main streets which criss-cross in front of the station. How should I describe it? It feels small, homely... you know, that kind of part-town, part-city hybrid, where almost everyone almost knows everyone else.
I had the strangest feeling that I really could've grown up here... having left at the age of 18 hating the quiet, remote, far-off place to the core. Hmm.
Cat: "Oh no, children..."
The cat kept trying to pose for me but I just couldn't get a clean shot. It was pretty funny.
Being a Sunday, they were holding some sort of local produce / food fair down one of the main streets, and I stopped by for a look.
A lot of the smaller cities often have something like this going on at the weekend, as a way of attracting local tourists, and this wouldn't be the last I heard of something like this. But for now, it wasn't too relevant - they were selling sausages and flower pots, nothing too Japanese - so onwards it was, to lunch.
My destination was, somewhat curiously, in the basement of a multi-storey building, next to a convenience store. Huh.
A local had recommended this store - though later I found that there was an unusual bit of disagreement here on where best to eat ramen, and which place had the most history, etc. At any rate, though, this was where I ended up.
A small, cozy place, with a TV in the corner, and room for about 20 or so across tables and at the counter. As is traditional I was greeted with a coordinated, ear-splitting bellow of "Irasshai~" from the staff... hmm, a good sign.
All three main varieties of ramen (shoyu, miso, salt base) are on offer here, though the famous Asahikawa-style ramen I was here to try is actually the shoyu based one - so that was what I ordered.
There's a post on Asahikawa ramen here, but in summary, there's a number of features in particular which distinguish Asahikawa ramen. Firstly, the dashi used to put together the ramen soup base is unusually complex, made from pork bone, chicken and seafood.
Apparently this was originally because, as a centre of pig-farming, local chefs took to using spare pork bone in their ramen - although they then had to add other ingredients to cover up the distinctive pork smell. On an aside this is, of course, in contrast with the development of Hakata ramen in the south, where chefs instead chose to draw out and emphasise the pork taste.
Asahikawa ramen typically also has a layer of oil at the surface - to keep the ramen from cooling too quickly in its -30°C winters, or so it is said.
The noodles are also said to be thinner and wavier, with a lower water content that allows it to soak up more soup.
This, in fact, has a pretty interesting history - apparently two restaurants that pioneered the development of Asahikawa ramen (Hachiya and Aoba - though as mentioned above, this is subject to debate) both drew from the same ramen supplier; their ramen just happened to have these distinctive attributes, and these in time came to characterise "Asahikawa-style ramen" itself.
As much as I want to tell you all about how beautifully delicious and life-changing this was... I really can't. It was good, and I thought the soup was a little different, more subtle and nuanced compared to normal shoyu ramen... and maybe the noodles had a little extra bounce.
But I can't in fairness say that I was massively inspired. Hmm. Sorry, Asahikawa.
Back on the surface
If there's one thing to be said about Asahikawa, it's that it's strangely pale, and dull. Even in the northern Akita Prefecture (northernmost part of the main island of Japan; just south of Hokkaido) there's sort of a warm glow about everything, even at night - but Asahikawa, and all the other Hokkaido cities, seem curiously... limp.
I wonder if it's due to the weather.
Like a rabbit warren...
To its credit, Asahikawa - like a few other cities - has made the effort to perk up its cityscape with a few artistic additions. Thankfully these are all (I thought) pretty cute and, well, appropriate... unlike a certain other city to come later on which decided instead to fill its streets with statues of naked little boys and girls.
Maybe not all child-friendly...
Well, that's not what I was here for, in any case.
There are actually two things (apart from food) that Asahikawa is famous for - or perhaps it might be more accurate to say that these are the two things they advertise to tourists, fame or otherwise aside. The first, the more recent entry, is Asahikawa Zoo, marketed as the "northernmost zoo in Japan" and known, fittingly enough, for their collection of Arctic and Antarctic animals.
I didn't have time to drop by so I settled for a quick trip to their souvenir shop...
Ooh, I was tempted. But there was something else I wanted to see...
The other thing Asahikawa is (sort of) famous for, of course, is the highest point in Hokkaido, the volcano Mt. Asahidake.
It takes a bit of a bus ride to get there... apparently almost two hours, according to maps, although I don't remember the journey being that long. I guess I fell asleep? Hmm.
As we gradually left Asahikawa the roads and traffic both got thinner, until it was just the occasional passing car on the narrow two-way lane.
In the summer Hokkaido is apparently covered in beautiful flowers, and in the winter with snow. I'd hit it at sort of the perfect in-between period, but it was still incredibly pretty in its own, quiet way.
Before long, we were at the cable car station.
Now... I sound like I came well-informed and prepared, right? (I should have been, right?) Well... the thing is, Asahikawa was a rather last-minute addition to the itinerary... and indeed I had basically just asked locally for advice, been told of the options (zoo, or Asahidake) and decided to go for the latter.
I thought Asahidake was a bloody lake, not a 2,291m high volcano.
You see my problem now? I was about to go up a snow-capped mountain. IN A T-SHIRT.
Well, what was I to do? I was here already, anyway.
See also those dark, gloomy clouds creeping in? They're called you-must-be-pretty-dumb-to-be-climbing-a-mountain-right-now clouds.I did a fair amount of stupid things in my time in Japan so it's hard to compare them, but this must surely make the top three.
Cable car station
There's toilets and a tiny shop at the cable car station, and a little stack of maps you can help yourself to. But after that, you're pretty much on your own.
Well, technically you're not climbing the mountain - there's a rough path which winds around the major sightseeing spots, and it's pretty well signposted for most of it. It's still 1,600m above sea level, though.
Anyway, I was off.
Really, though, Mt. Asahidake is quite a majestic sight.
The vents are one of the main sightseeing points, of course, and that was where I was headed. But before that...
Yes - a lake. (So, I wasn't completely wrong when I assumed Asahidake was a lake.) The high-elevation lakes here form the other main attraction of the area, the main one being the Sugatami Lake that lies about 1km away from the cable car station, near the vents, and to which I was also headed.
This one forms one of the pair of "Husband & Wife" lakes - though whether it's the husband or the wife I can't remember at all. Sorry.
Sigh. Confession: I got pretty snap-happy on the mountain (maybe from the sheer effort required to make it there?) and took something like 400+ pictures on it.
Confession #2: well... now I actually look, they all look pretty much the same. I'm sure I had a reason for taking that many at the time. I think.
In the summer, apart from wild-flowers you can apparently also see birds and squirrels around in the area. Not much chance of that in this season, though.
It was like this (cold and miserable) when I was in the Lake District, too, once upon a time. I think it's just my bad luck or something.
Finally, the vents.
It was quite a sight, although at this point I was more concerned about the gloom which had sneaked up all around the mountain.
It was also getting really, really cold...
See that tiny little speck? That's the cable car station I needed to get back to, preferably before I turned into human slushie.
Well, long story short, it started hailing down and I very nearly did turn into human slushie, although eventually I made it back and bounded onto the cable car like there was no tomorrow.
Yes, definitely not doing that again.
Anyway - skip forward, to my safe and glorious return back to civilisation.
Random pictures in celebration of my return
So... it was cold, and raining, and I really didn't want to do this, but I did it anyway, and went out for dinner. You guys should be grateful.
My rather unassuming destination
One of the other things Asahikawa is famous for is seafood. Although not bordering on the sea itself, it has been since ages past a central trading hub for seafood coming down from the northern fishing towns, and the ports (Hakodate, Sapporo) to the south. Apparently it has more sushi restaurants per capita than any other major city in Hokkaido.
Well, I went pretty close to closing time, so I was the only one.
And here, an interesting experience I want to tell you about. I got talking with the sushi chef, and we were discussing where I came from and what I was doing in Japan. Then we got talking about careers, and I started complaining (just a little) about having to sell my soul out to the corporate world, etc., etc. The usual graduate talk.
The chef went very quiet for a long, long time, then he said, "The secret to happiness is not the perfect job, but in finding joy in whatever you do."
Hmm. Maybe it's the way he said it, but it's something I ended up thinking about for a long, long time.
As for the food... well, it was OK. I ordered chirashizushi, which (in the standard style) is sushi rice with a chef's pick of fresh seafood on top.
Well, it was decent. I think I might have appreciated it more, though, had I not just come from Wakkanai - you know, with its gorgeously fresh, locally caught, melt-in-your-mouth sea urchin and all. It's hardly a fair competition.
Anyway, that was it for the day, from me.
Results: Day 17
Areas: Asahikawa (and Mt. Asahidake)
Well, I made it alive off a snowy mountain. In a T-shirt. All in all, I'm actually pretty pleased...
Been to Asahikawa? How was the zoo? (What did I miss?!) Ever hiked up Mt. Asahidake? In the winter, in a T-shirt? Hah, thought not... send in an e-mail, comment below, or follow me on Twitter / twitter.com/foodjapan