Thursday, October 8, 2009

My trip to Michigan Hokkaido

Traveling is always fun and traveling in Japan is no exception. This time I headed a bit more north than my summer travels and went up to Hokkaido.

Since you can't take the train to Hokkaido directly--you'll need to go to Aomori and then take the ferry--we decided to fly, which was cool because it was my first domestic flight here. For the most part domestic travel in Japan is the same as everywhere else I've been with a few minor differences. For starters, the captain of the plane won't usually talk on the intercom. He can, of course, but I guess they opt not to. Apparently they just don't. For two, this is JAPAN we're talking about! There are even TVs in the toilets at the airport!

Upon arrival I noticed something strange. Apparently the plane went through a space/time warp and landed us in Michigan! The weather was the same, the plants were the same, even the--oh wait, nope. The Japanese text everywhere was a dead giveaway. But it was surprisingly similar and I couldn't stop saying it, much to the chagrin of my companion, Sushi.

But never fear, Hokkaido is a bit more interesting than Michigan. Or at least I think it is. Anyway, after getting a rental car we headed to Sapporo, home of a happy place known as the Sapporo Brewery. You can buy Sapporo beer in the US but now it's bottled in Canada (check the "Today" part of the history here to find out, or here) so it doesn't really count. We went there for dinner the first night because the one thing I wanted to do in Hokkaido was go to the beer garden, er, Bier Garten. At the restaurant you can have famous Jingisu Kan, a type of Hokkaido-style Mongolian Barbecue named after the historic fearless leader (Jingisu Kan is the Japanese pronunciation of Chingis Khan. Chingis Khan and Genghis Khan are both acceptable names for him, but the dish is called Jingisu Kan). Hokkaido is so well-known for this dish that even the pans were shaped like Hokkaido.

We ended up having mutton and lamb and sausage, obviously washed down with beer. It was cool. For souvenirs there's a large gift shop where you can buy the official beer mugs in many varieties; I got the Classic one and a Sapporo Bier Garten edition. And of course a strap for my phone too. Being female I'm practically obligated to have more charms hanging from my phone than actual phone.

These keychains have a story. The Bier Garten one is because I of course I've loved Sapporo since before I came to Japan. The bunny is something my faithful readers will recognize. The green thing is Marimokkori. He's a personified version of a ball algae famously from Hokkaido (marimo), and yes he always has that bulge no matter what he's dressed as. Sushi and I were looking for this at every shop because I wanted to show it to him. Finally after looking at every shop we passed in Sapporo and Otaru we happened upon them at the airport just as we were leaving. We were both so happy we each bought one. I'm amused because Sushi's a [drunk] businessman and so is this Marimokkori.

Another thing Hokkaido is known for is soup curry. Soup curry is pretty much exactly what it sounds like--a soup that tastes like curry. It's really quite delicious and incidentally it's also a trendy food in Tokyo right now. If you tell people you had soup curry you automatically go up a notch on the Cool Scale. Off, right? Anyway, since Sushi went to school there he knew most of the restaurants and chose an old haunt. The place looked exactly like any college town restaurant should so it furthered my "I'm in Michigan!" feeling. The food was tasty and reasonable so I was happy. Here's a snip from the lunch menu...I had the first soup (ぐゎらチキ天).

While most of what I focus on is food, there's more than just that to Hokkaido. They also have their very own tower, much akin to Tokyo Tower, including the red and white paint job. This one's a bit smaller and had a clock on it though. And admittedly, the fountain programmed to frame it was cooler than Tokyo Tower. But since I have an oil painting of Tokyo Tower in my apartment I thought it a good idea to snap some photos.

Sapporo is also home to Hokkaido University, a strangely Western university started by a guy from Massachusetts for some obscure reason though he claimed it was for the advancement of Japan. Sushi and I compared notes about going to Agricultural universities while looking around. Walking around felt a lot like my time at MSU except there were notably fewer squirrels. And fewer students. It was nice too see and have a moment to reminisce a little. It even smelled like Michigan, which is a bit strange...

But you don't care about my silly-girl nostalgia, so let's get back to the hospitality! Two major natural-type things that Hokkaido boasts are great seafood and dairy. Both are shipped all over Japan, particularly dairy products. Before leaving we had milk floats, which were essentially unmixed milkshakes. If you don't like full-fat milk you'd have a hard time but they were amazing!

For the second day we went to Otaru, which isn't particularly special but has a canal that's kind of charming and several music box and glass companies. More interestingly, there are hot springs as well. We stayed at a ryokan (Japanese-style hotel) for our night there. And the grounds were beautiful--to see some more images click here, here and here. I have tattoos so I'm not allowed into public hot springs so we got a room with a private hot spring bath (click the first link "momiji" to see the room). It was way awesome! And our dinner was served in the room.

I can't begin to explain everything there but the sea urchin was fabulous! What isn't shown here is the corn ice cream for dessert and the extra sides that came a little after we started eating. Apparently if you want you can also catch sea urchin along the coasts and the quality definitely reflected that. I've never had seafood melt in my mouth before.

If you've never experienced a hot spring bath I'd highly recommend it. This was my first time and I intend to seize every opportunity I have to go to one from now on. Something I said after the bath was things like this are enough to keep me in Japan forever. And I guess it's true. Hot springs and unworldly food could keep me almost anywhere.

And let's face it, the silly Pokémon jets (my ride back to Tokyo) don't hurt either.