[blog]* Days 12 to 15 - various adventures in the chilly northern capital of Sapporo, including ramen, very expensive sushi, a beer garden and (super, super delicious) "soup curry"
So, to recap: having finally messed around (gotten into trouble) enough in and around Tokyo, yesterday I finally take the overnight train up to Hokkaido.
Wikipedia has a surprisingly good entry on both the Hokutosei and its sister train Cassiopeia, so I'll leave the geeky details to them, but in short, both are overnight express trains which run from Ueno, Tokyo to Sapporo in Hokkaido. The Hokutosei is a standard sleeper train which departs daily, while Cassiopeia departure roughly three times a week, with more during peak holiday season.
Critically, the Cassiopeia is for couples, with double rooms only on the entire train so... Hokutosei it was. Sigh.
As a reminder...
The train itself feels just a little old, and the corridors are dimly lit. There a variety of rooms available, though the basic cabin consists of a couch with armrests that can be folded up to give sleeping space and... that's pretty much it.
An indent in the wall provides a little extra luggage space, and there's reading lights, a trash can and a tiny ledge under the window. A card key provides access into the room. No power sockets, though.
Sorry the pictures aren't any better - it was really hard to take them in the confined space without sticking my butt out the corridor. Believe me, I tried.
Incidentally, remember how I said I'd tried to book an earlier train up to Hokkaido but couldn't, because it was Silver Week and all the trains were full? That's not quite true. Actually, there had been one available the day before, but I opted for this one because it... had food.
I suppose I should explain - you're usually not provided with food on these trains, and most people just bring their own snacks. It isn't, in any case, a horrifically long journey - departing Ueno at 7pm and arriving at Sapporo at 11am - making an early dinner / late brunch combination really quite reasonable.
Which is what I thought... but then, having just bought the ticket for the day before, I decided that since this was likely the only time in my life I would be travelling on the Hokutosei, this would also be the only opportunity I would ever have to try its menu...
In the event, I went back and queued up for another half hour to change my ticket.
Dinner is served in the dining car, and is available as either a French or Japanese "course menu". Well, I obviously wasn't going to go for the French... tempted as I was.
The meal had been described as kaiseki-style so... I wasn't exactly sure what to expect, although I suppose I was just a little surprised to find myself with a bento again.
Kaiseki cuisine (there'll be more on this later) refers to a specific style of Japanese multi-course dinner especially prominent in Kyoto. Most notably, particular emphasis is placed upon factors such as visual presentation and seasonality, and courses follow set formats, such as typically having a rice, fish, soup and pickled course. In short, I suppose, it refers to traditional Japanese haute cuisine.
So I suppose this does count as kaiseki in that the elements of the style are present, although I'm still just a little annoyed that the French dinner-eating folk got proper plates while we didn't.
Plus some dessert:
And... I'm sorry. I tried for a very, very long time to write something about this meal but... just couldn't. It wasn't awful, it was just uninspiring, in that train-food way - the rice was dry and crumbly, the cooked dishes a little watery, the sashimi just not quite fresh.
I'll try again at some later point.
Other than that, actually a remarkably uneventful trip. I guess I was expecting an overnight train ride to be somehow, by definition, just a little more interesting... but the truth is that apart from eating, the only other thing to do is sleep.
On the other hand, the view changed every few minutes, as if it couldn't make up its mind - there were rice paddies, imposing mountains, the sea. It was wonderful.
We passed by many stations in the middle of nowhere, where you really wondered whether anyone had actually passed through in, say, the last ten years. Probably not.
I suppose, in a way, a lot of this can be attributed to the country's economic decline of the last decade, but I, for one, really loved how empty the landscape was.
And with that, we pulled into Sapporo.
Now, I wish I could tell you that, with that, I began four days of burrowing around Sapporo, unearthing all its beautiful hidden secrets, marking the start of my fabulous and wondrous quest around Japan. The rather more unfortunate reality is that I got there... and got sick again.
Believe me, it pains me more than you.
Sapporo is actually a fairly young city, having been established in 1868 to replace Hakodate as the administrative capital of the region, which the Meiji Government of the time had decided was too exposed and difficult to defend. Then US Secretary of Agriculture Horace Capron had been invited to advise on the development of the city, and the resulting Western influence - from the American-style street layout to the region's thriving dairy industry - can be seen even today.
All of which is irrelevant, of course, because I'm too ill to actually do anything. With the benefit of hindsight I am happy to be able to tell you that this doesn't happen again, and (various other issues aside) I manage to blitz through my remaining 65 days happy and bug-free.
For now, however, I developed a very curious routine - I would stay in feeling like death until the evening, when (usually precariously close to closing time) I would talk myself into crawling out and eating at least something for the day. Rinse and repeat.
Well, I don't really want to write about it. It wasn't pleasant. But here, at least, is the food (I'll do separate posts later)
Day 12: Soup Curry
Well, this was a pleasant surprise. An up-and-coming "new tradition" popular in Sapporo, soup curry is, in short... curry-flavoured soup.At least five types of mushroom present, with heritage pork as well as broccoli and peppers, all oven-roasted to perfection before being used in the soup curry. Imagine the richest, most luxuriant vegetable broth you've ever tasted, then add some curry powder to spice it up for the winter. That's all it is, and it's good.
Verdict: dare I say, of all the "new discoveries" I made in Japan this is probably the one I'm most proud of. It's that good.
Day 13: Miso Ramen
Sapporo is famous for miso ramen, which was invented here in the 1960's. Hokkaido is also known for its corn, seafood and dairy production, and accordingly it is likewise famous in-country for "butter corn ramen" and "scallops ramen".
Both seem to be the product of ramen shops merely making the most of local ingredients, but it has nevertheless gained widespread popularity and all these variants will be found regularly in ramen shops across Japan.
I had trouble taking pictures here because some idiot businessman spent the entire hour trying to invite me back to his hotel.
The ramen I have here is "black miso" - essentially with a stronger, more intense miso base than the normal "red" miso ramen found elsewhere. Also available is "white miso" - a lighter version.
Gyoza was popularised with ramen back in the post-war period, and today you can't see one without the other.
Verdict: the ramen and gyoza were plain, but the miso base was gorgeously indulgent, rich and intense and adding a whole new dimension of flavour to the ramen. Melt-in-your-mouth butter corn and fresh, delicious scallops made this humble dish a meal to remember.
Day 14: Genghis Khan
So named, because Mongolian soldiers were believed to have preferred lamb as their meat of choice, and because the dome shaped skillet used was thought to resemble that of a Mongolian soldier's hat. In actual fact has no relation whatsoever to Mongolia, but the name persists...
Lamb meat and vegetables are put on top of a heated, dome-shaped skillet to cook, with the meat placed in the centre and the vegetables near the outer rim. The fat from the lamb drips down to the vegetables as it cooks, allowing it to char nicely and to soak up the taste. Although thought to have originated in Tokyo, Genghis Khan has proven exceptionally popular in Hokkaido - likely in part due to the colder weather which makes this dish especially appropriate.
Genghis Khan can be had at speciality stores across Sapporo, but - for a bit of fun, and because it does good GK - I visited the Sapporo Beer Garden for this. The all-you-can-drink Sapporo beer helps, of course, but it's the atmosphere I loved - casual and friendly in a huge beer hall dating from 1890.
Verdict: surprisingly good, though the lamb is pre-frozen and the vegetables aren't exceptional in themselves. But the idea is genius and having to "cook" yourself, of course, is always fun. And yes, the beer helps. I probably enjoyed this way more than I should have...
Day 15: Omakase sushi
Because Hokkaido is famous for seafood, and because one of the most highly-rated sushi restaurants on tabelog (the Japanese version of Yelp) just happens to be in Sapporo - I went for sushi on the last day.
I ordered "omakase" which means, to take it literally, "leave it to you" - in short, chef's special, or something of the sort. I mention it because, amongst locals, it's an exceptionally popular option for ordering sushi in 'proper' (not revolving) sushi restaurants.
Generally speaking it's a good idea - it allows the chef to showcase the fish he has fresh, and means you get to branch out a little and try more, too.
Verdict: mm. I thought it was great - I really appreciated what the chef did with some of the fish, and having a sushi chef cater to you one-on-one is a unique experience not to be missed.
That said, I don't think it quite matches up to fish-market freshness, and at ~¥5,000 (£36.50 / $56.90) that's a lot of sushi you could be having down at Tsukiji. But I think that's irrelevant. You're here at a sushi shop for the experience - to see what the chef can do, what unusual fish he can source, and the way he pairs them. It's like apples and oranges - it's not fair to compare them, not really.
I am deeply ashamed to admit, though, that I was still hungry enough to stop by Mister Donut on the way back:
And that is what I did in Sapporo.
Results: Days 12 to 15
Photos: 177 (average)
Well, I'm not too happy with how Sapporo turned out either, but what happened happened! It gets better from here, so it's OK... I guess?
Ever been to Sapporo? Where would you recommend we go? Any favourite restaurants, or famous dishes we missed? Send in an e-mail or comment below! Send in an e-mail, comment below, or follow me on Twitter / twitter.com/foodjapan