[blog]* Day 18 - moyoro-nabe, zangi-don and my fateful introduction to yama-wasabi. Plus, a prison (of sorts) and an aquarium (of sorts) and sunset-watching from Mt. Tento.
In the morning, I left Asahikawa and took the train eastwards to Abashiri.
Abashiri is far away enough that most timetable guides would have you take the train down to Sapporo and fly from there to Abashiri. More practically, the Limited Express Okhotsk does run four times a day in both directions, between Asahikawa to Abashiri, but it takes a cool ¥7,950 (£59.10 / $92.10) and close to four hours to get there.
The reason I am taking pictures of lamp posts on arrival is because, well, there isn't much else in Abashiri. It reminded me most strongly of when I was house-hunting in the UK, and ended up visiting all these shady areas in London's Zone 5 and 6, where the biggest local attraction is a bloody Safestore warehouse.
In any case, having arrived late from Asahikawa (since the first train is at 9am, I got there only just before 1pm) I hurriedly tended to my first task of the day: lunch.
More Abashiri (looking exactly the same as before)
On the map it looks pretty manageable, a couple of blocks down the main road and two streets in. However, Abashiri is, in fact, incredibly spaced out, and each block stretches out to a distance that feels like it should defy the laws of physics but of course actually doesn't. Probably.
So - here's me, desperately running at full tilt to get to the restaurant in time for lunch hour, and here's Abashiri, with the nearest restaurant serving zangi-don (see below) at least one mile away. You get the picture.
I have never, nor will I ever again, run so fast in my entire life - but I did get there, in any case, in time, and promptly ordered zangi-don without even looking at the menu.
At the restaurant (finally)
Zangi refers to the Hokkaido variant of kara-age, the fried snack nuggets (often of chicken, but also with vegetables etc.) found elsewhere in Japan. There's actually a subtle difference between them in the coating, with the zangi batter being seasoned with shoyu (soy sauce) and garlic and also being thinner and harder, but generally Hokkaido people use the term interchangeably.
The -don suffix indicates that it's served on a bowl of sushi rice - like how unagi-don means unagi (eel) rice bowl, and katsu-don means pork cutlet rice bowl, etc. So, zangi-don would imply nuggets on a sushi rice bowl.
And so it was, to an extent. Zangi-don consists of rice, topped with a generous helping of zangi and garnishings: in this case raw onion, watercress, nori. To eat, however, it has to be first mixed with yama-wasabi - wasabi made with Western, rather than traditional Japanese, horseradish.
And that's where it all falls apart. As mentioned above, it's made with horseradish, and it's a Hokkaido (and Abashiri) speciality. It is also slimy like natto, and personally speaking quite possibly the second-most unpleasant thing I have had to endure in my entire life. (The first, if you really want to know, is this.)
Strangely enough, it's not like wasabi at all - none of that nose-burning feeling - but instead tastes a horrible sort of sweet, like caramel ice cream gone bad, with a sort of plasticky tinge. You're expected to mix this in with the rice and zangi to serve.
It turns out that zangi-don is in fact, a recent invention - put together by the city tourism association and several local restaurants with the intention of luring tourists to Abashiri. More so than in most other countries, in Japan appreciation for good food is almost a cultural norm, and domestic food tourism is a huge industry.
Several other cities have done it with better success, but in this case it is clearly a gallant but very misled attempt to combine all of the region's local produce into one dish, no matter how improbable or unpleasant it would otherwise be.
Much to my amusement, I later found out that the dish is actually strictly "codified" - the zangi nuggets "should, before frying, be cut to a cube of sides around 35mm in length". Also, another two I like: it "must be served with chopsticks made from local timber" and "served in white crockery".
It's not zangi-don either unless it is "served with miso soup, made with local shellfish".
And local pickles.
Made to specification
Somehow... it's interesting, I appreciate what they're trying to do, and really, a lot of the best moments of Japanese culinary history were reached by some nut off his rocker who went and did something apparently stupid - like make imagawayaki in a fish shape (taiyaki) or add curry powder to Chinese-style soup (soup curry).
Well... all I can say is that it left an impression, at least. It's unusual, and I'm sure there's die-hard fans out there, but personally I don't think I've been that traumatised by food since the time my friend put her pet spider in her mouth then accidentally chewed on it.
Close 1 time in the perk, yo.
Apologies for the little fast-forward, but there really is nothing to see in Abashiri proper, and so I end up jumping between attractions.
After walking back to the station, and a 10 minute bus ride, here's the first one - Abashiri Prison Museum.
(The Mirror Bridge, sitting over a little lake and supposedly so named for the prisoners' self-reflections as they passed over it to and from prison.)
The grand entrance
A little history lesson here: early in the Meiji period, having just undergone the Restoration and with the young government still struggling to maintain public order, demand for prison space in Japan spiked.
Sample jail cell
At the same time, the Meiji Government was also rapidly developing the newly-procured Hokkaido to secure it from a perceived Russian threat, and thus putting the prisons in Hokkaido rather neatly solved two problems at once - prisoners here could be used as a source of free labour, while conveniently also dying off in vast numbers in Hokkaido's harsh conditions, freeing up more prison space.
It's a rather uglier piece of Japan's internal history, and the museum here has accordingly been established - it's a reconstruction, using elements of the original - in memory of the "pioneers".
Well, that was the intention, at least. I was walking largely with a pair of tourists from Hong Kong and every so often we'd exchange a glance and have to stifle giggles whenever we saw another mannequin in a particularly incongruous position.
To be fair, the museum actually consists of twenty-odd buildings - all mannequin-ed up - spread over a sprawling garden, and it's rather hard to keep up the sombreness when the gardener has obviously spent so much time and effort trying to make it look as pretty and uplifting as possible.
They also had a section (complete with mannequin re-enactment) on the current Japanese legal system, which I thought was a nice touch.
Japanese law is descended from French and German law, although after World War II major revisions were made, adding (American) provisions for human rights, etc., making it a rather unique and unusual hybrid of the wo.
With food being scarce in Hokkaido, vast quantities of radishes were pickled at the prison each year, in preparation for winter. This was done in these wooden barrels, 1.6m both wide and deep, and supposedly they produced - if you'll believe what was said about them - the best pickles in the world.
There was also a display of some rather uncomfortable-looking prisoner restraints:
Ad infinitum. There was also a cafeteria where, for just ¥600 (£4.50 / $6.90) and up, you can indulge in your very own prison meal alongside appropriately-clad prisoner mannequins.
Now that's a first. No, I didn't try it, but you can see details here.
Tattooed mannequins, in "prison bathhouse"
Honestly, they may as well have called it the Prison Mannequin Collection. I did enjoy it in a way, though. Kind of like a grim version of Disneyland, without the rides.
Moving swiftly on, another short bus ride and I was deposited here:
Firmly, apparently, in the middle of absolutely nowhere.
Well, not quite nowhere. I had taken the bus to Mt. Tento - just a little mountain, comparatively, at 207m above sea level - but as it overlooks Lake Abashiri, Lake Notoro (Notori) and the Sea of Okhotsk, all at once, it has been designated as one of Japan's 359 meisho.
(Meisho translates, roughly, to "famous sight", and is a designation largely equivalent to the UK's Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, though applicable to both natural and man-made structures.)
One of the defining characteristics of the Sea of Okhotsk is, of course, its seasonal formation of giant drift ice, or ice floes, as freshwater flows into the sea from the Amur River and raises its freezing point. The floes dominate the seascape, and make navigation throughout the winter all but impossible.
It's not so much an aquarium (though the label is tempting) as a miniature collection of displays - all related to the Okhotsk area in some way, but with precious little actual relation to each other.
There's an ice room where you can experience sub-zero Arctic temperatures - a film room - a souvenir shop - a (very small) collection of marine life from the region. This last one was my favourite, especially their sea angels (above) which are a bit of a rarity to see.
(I wonder if you could fry and eat them.)
Of course, I was here too for the Observation Tower.
As mentioned above, Mt. Tento (and, by extension, the tower) overlooks the two local lakes and the Sea of Okhotsk, and indeed it was a pretty sight, though... mm, I don't know, I wasn't particularly impressed. Maybe I was expecting too much?
In any case, it was time to head back.
On the way to dinner I saw a most incredible full moon, hung low in the sky, across the still waters of Abashiri River. The river is rich with salmon, and I could hear the occasional plop of them momentarily breaking the surface.
But, more to the point - dinner.
I was here to try moyoro-nabe, an "impression" of the staple diet of the Moyoro people.
The people are a bit of a mystery, actually. Around a century ago archaeologists uncovered ruins incongruent with the heretofore known aboriginal culture of Hokkaido, that of the Ainu. These "Moyoro" people had lived on the coastline bordering the Sea of Okhotsk before, quite suddenly, disappearing without trace or apparent cause several thousand years ago.
That said, there isn't much else to say about moyoro-nabe. A number of restaurants serve it throughout Abashiri and it could be said to its speciality dish - though this, if I'm being honest, is because there's nothing else in the area that would fill that role. The origin of moyoro-nabe is unclear and seems most likely the result of one restaurant's "tourist trapping", which eventually took hold across the region.
Local vegetables, seafood (I had salmon, crab legs, and a variety of shellfish) and mushrooms are served in a clear salt broth, in a Moyoro-style clay pot heated by a candle underneath. In a way, it resembles - and does taste like - hot pot, and I think I'd enjoy it as normal comfort food, but if not for the experience of eating something (possibly) related to the Moyoro people there's nothing in particular that marks out this dish as good, or otherwise.
In my case, anyway, I suspect I still rather had the isobeyaki of two days past on my mind.
And so.... as there really isn't anything else to do in the city centre, with that, I was done for the day.
Results: Day 18
The List: #24 - Zangi-don / #25 - Moyoro-nabe
Abashiri is an interesting case - in most cities my main concern is that they're not doing enough to promote local tourism, but I really do wonder, in this situation, if they're actually doing too much. In a way, it's a little disconcerting to see the difference between the various tourist attractions, in comparison with the (quiet, drained, lifeless) city centre.
And perhaps I just don't feel quite comfortable yet with the idea of "inventing" food for tourists, after all? All in all, I can't say I'd recommend Abashiri - not when there's so many other places to be.
... have you been to Abashiri? What did you think, either of the various attractions, or the food: zangi-don, moyoro-nabe? Send in an e-mail, comment below, or follow me on Twitter / twitter.com/foodjapan