The thing I like about Japan is that most of their shops, regardless of whether they sell ramen or omurice, have a running popularity board. This allows the shops to display which item is #1 selling on their menu and the customers to know what the place is known for. We saw this Ice Cream Factory in Sapporo after buying toys for the kids and since my better half loves the ice cream in Hokkaido, we got a couple of cones to eat.
Ice Cream Factory is one of those cold plate/stone places e.g. your ice cream and condiments is mixed in sub zero temperatures before being served to you, in this case -30 Celsius. My dear wanted to get a simple swirl ice cream and I did pause to wonder why she’s ordering something that’s not their specialty but I know she just wants to save money. I did order their #1 bestseller though. Haha. I thought it’ll be nice to order an ice cream that’s mixed on the cold slab instead of just served.
Come to think of it, the wait staff have to put up with a lot nowadays. There are a lot of people taking photos of them working, and expecting them to serve up a picture perfect dish to boot. I can’t imagine being a waiter nowadays, although fun fact, I was one for a few months when I first went to Melbourne for my college.
My order is their Sweet Berries which came with an assorted local cranberries, blackberries, strawberries, redcurrants and blueberries mixed together with strawberry and vanilla ice cream. I love the use of winter berries and the cold stone places do it well coz the ice cream doesn’t melt on the super chilled slab, but incorporate tighter instead. It’s as if a machine made it in factory with the berries intact.
Sweet Berries is 750 yen (about RM 30) which is what you’ll expect to pay locally for an ice cream of this size and magnitude too. I love the creamy ice cream and the best part is that it’s not very sweet. The berries contrast nicely by giving off an acidic burst too. The crunchy cone is also fresh and nice and there’s a spoon to eat everything with.
My dear got the more pedestrian Mix Ice Cream (chocolate and vanilla swirl) for 230 JPY (about RM 10) which came out of a machine instead of being mixed like mine. Good stuff! We also bought a lot of random stuff in addition to toys for the kids. I went to the gachapon machines a few times and devoured the Love Live merchandise they had at Japan Post and my dear got some Doreamon stuff too since the movie came out at the time we were in Hokkaido.
Oden at the airport? Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. We arrived at New Chitose Airport very early and was hoping to get something to eat before we boarded our flight. Unfortunately, all the shops are still closed. We’re too used to 24 hour service in our (relatively) large, bustling airports but a lot of the airports around the world aren’t open all the time. This one at Hokkaido only had a stall open but they serve oden, which I was keen to try.
Oden (おでん) is a winter food in Japan. It’s made with a whole bunch of stuff in a flavored clear dashi broth. The usual ingredients are daikon, boiled eggs, konjac, and processed fishcakes. I love the texture of the shirataki (白滝) which is a noodle made from konjac – the transparent bunch you see in the photo. There’s also a nice chunk of konjac and despite not containing regular sources of carbohydrates, the konjac elements tricks you into thinking you’re consuming starch.
I also got a Snow Miku 2016 (translated from Hatsune Miku) drink made in partnership with Pokka Sapporo. The oden was 600 JPY (about RM 25). My better half got herself a box of noodles with some karaage to go with it. The oden was surprisingly decent. I would have thought it’ll taste pretty bad since it’s airport food but it’s actually rather good. I’ve seen oden being sold in konbini like 7-Eleven but there are so many things to eat that I’ve put it quite low on the priority list.
Ekiben (駅弁) is a special type of bento which is only available at long-distance train stations like the famous Shinkansen (bullet train). It’s a bento that’s meant to be eaten on the train while traveling and it features local delicacies in the area you’re at. It’s not just a bento, but a really cool Japanese boxed lunch with different local specialties. I really wanted to eat one during our trip to Otaru so I told my better half to save some stomach space for it.
This is the selection we saw at JR Otaru station. You’ll usually find the ekiben at a specialty shop only selling ekiben or a konbini/department store closest to the train entrance. There will always be one “featured” ekiben – this is the bento that is most representative of the region you’re currently in. Otaru is well known for its fresh seafood (especially uni) and the flagship ekiben is a beautiful uni and ikura ekiben.
The ekiben boxes are really nice lacquer boxes too. Some of them can even be reheated instantly using the same technology in military MREs (Meal, Ready-to-eat). There were a wide variety in a refrigerated corner of the shop and my dear wondered if anyone actually bought them. Well, her question was answered when we were about to go back to Sapporo – there were only a few ekiben left! I picked up the featured ekiben while she chose one that caught her eye to eat on the train.
This is my ekiben. It’s the signature ekiben of Otaru, grandly named 海 の 輝き or “Sparkle of the Sea“. This 1,580 JPY (about RM 65) bento totally deserved the hyperbolic designation though. It was the most delicious bento I’ve ever had in my life! I’m a little embarrassed to say that it was actually one of the best things I’ve eaten in Hokkaido. Haha!
It’s filled to the brim with uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe), Shiitake mushrooms, flying fish roe and Japanese rolled egg. I used chopsticks to grab a mouthful and was surprised to taste just how well the creamy uni goes with the popping, salty ikura. The savory umami mushroom slices and crunchy flying fish roe is offset by the sweet Japanese egg and blends the multitude textures and flavors together into one orgasmic experience.
I hesitantly said “Dear, do you want some?” hoping she’ll say no. I’m kidding (or am I? ). I’m always happy to share with my better half. I cleaned every single morsel from the wappameshi (わっぱ飯 – thin, bent wooden box) and regretted not getting two.
My dear went for the 1,080 JPY (around RM 45) Otaru oyster ekiben. I had just eaten Otaru oysters at the 1 Michelin Isezushi and I loved the freshness of their local oysters. This was a full complement of five (5) pieces of oysters on top of a bed of rice with some tsukemono (pickles) on the side. The juicy oysters were really flavorful – all the braising liquid seeped into the oysters so they pack a flavorful punch!
The best part about her ekiben is the rice. The rice has been cooked with Shiitake mushrooms, scallops and oysters and resulted in a beautiful golden brown that tasted wonderful! It’s really very good.
You won’t find ekiben at train stations with only regional commuter lines or subway lines. Ekiben are only sold at stations with long-distance trains going in and out. I really enjoy this cultural quirk of Japan and I hope to try more ekiben when we go back next year. There are so many special ones like Yamagata domannaka featuring local beef to Ibaraki raised Rose Pork ekibens. I’m really looking forward to eating one while traveling by Shinkansen in Japan again.
“Look dear!” my better half exclaimed while tugging at my arm. We were at Nijo Fish Market in Sapporo and there was a stall selling a trio of crab delicacies. We just ate at the Michelin rated Nanabe but I could tell she was intrigued by the crab bonanza so I ordered a set for us to try. You can get a Crab Steamed Bun + Crab Gratin + Crab Miso Soup for 1,200 JPY (about RM 50) or individually for 500 yen each.
Hokkaido is famous for their fresh and local crabs. Red King Crabs and Snow Crabs are the most well known ones but they have other delicious and more obscure species that only foodies would know, like the Horsehair Crab and Spiny King Crab which we ate the day before. Otaru also has a variety called the Sand Crab. They’re all really good and if you want to have a crab feast, you’ll do no wrong in coming to Sapporo.
The friendly owner did the Crab Gratin right it front of us. There is a makeshift bench and chairs in the open where 3-4 people can sit down while eating. The crab in the shell was brought out and torched on the table. It was quite cold in Hokkaido and he suggested moving inside (to opposite the road) where they had a restaurant to get out of the wind and snow and so we did.
It was about time for lunch and although I was still full from the Bib Gourmand ramen, I thought I should eat local Hokkaido crabs while I still can. The place specializes in donburi – a rice bowl with regular hot rice topped with fresh sashimi. I went for the Fresh King Crab Sashimi Donburi (2,700 JPY or RM 110) and it was glorious!
The donburi was topped with beautiful thick slices of raw Red King Crab. It was slightly more than a leg’s worth of crab meat. If you’ve never eaten King Crab before, the legs are super meaty. It’s not like mud crabs or flower crabs at all. The size of the meat from the King Crab leg is the same dimension as those highlighter pens you used in high school.
The raw crab was slippery, clean and sweet tasting. Wonderful stuff. There’s nothing quite like eating king crab with shiso (perilla) leaves and a dab of real, freshly grated wasabi. They serve a mean bowl of crab miso soup too. It’s complimentary with my order of donburi so naturally it wasn’t as good as my dear’s 500 yen bowl.
I present to you, the 1,200 yen trio of crab! This was taken in the cold outdoor seating before we came inside.
The thing that actually caught her eye was the Crab Gratin. The kind proprietor actually helped us to take the dishes into his other shop across the street. There is a generous amount of King Crab meat in addition to the melted cheese, breadcrumbs, and butter. Good heartwarming stuff.
The Crab Steamed Bun was decent too. I knew my dear liked it so I didn’t eat too much (and besides, I had my own donburi) but the tiny bite I had tasted delicious. There are only two items inside – vegetables and crab. They really stuff a lot of real Red King Crab meat inside.
Check out my better half’s 500 JPY bowl of Crab Miso Soup from the “Crab 3 Ways” set. It’s truly a luxurious bowl of soup. They use Horsehair Crab, Red King Crab, and Spiny King Crab inside – all three are wonderful in soup, especially miso soup.
The stall at Nijo Fish Market actually sells all varieties of local Hokkaido crabs so the dishes are made from fresh crab meat. There is a lot of said crab meat too, I guess what they don’t sell in time gets turned into food. The Japanese are really serious about freshness – even a day is considered “old” so you’ll be pleasantly surprised when you eat crab in Sapporo. There are also many “crab buffets” in town but I would personally avoid them. The locals don’t go anywhere near crab buffets coz the quality is nowhere near as good as the stuff you pay for in the markets. I don’t mind paying extra for awesome quality crab and this was the best!
I read about a ramen shop called Nanabe (菜々兵衛) which was awarded with the Bib Gourmand in the Hokkaido Michelin Guide during our trip to Sapporo. I really wanted to go there so we poured over the transportation maps before trekking out to this secluded neighborhood in Shiroishi-ku. This ramen restaurant is located in a residential area quite far from the usual places tourists go so it was challenging to find.
We trudged through the crunching snow and slippery ice for about 30 minutes after a 1 1/2 hour train ride involving 3 different lines to Heiwa. No one here spoke English and they only have a Japanese menu so ordering involved deciphering the menu with Google Translate app and a lot of gesturing. The crowd consisted almost entirely of salarymen and OL (office ladies) from small businesses nearby and there is usually a bit of a queue to get in.
You need to take off your shoes at the door. I have seen this arrangement in the ryokan we stayed in but it was really unusual to have to do this in the city. However, this isn’t the city center of Sapporo per se, it’s more like a friendly rural neighborhood joint. I took off my soaking wet shoes and lined them up with the row of other customer’s shoes beside the entrance. The tables are shared tables and we were seated beside two friendly lady office workers (who took a photo of us).
I ordered the flagship Salt Ramen with White Chicken Broth (鶏白湯 塩) for 750 yen (about RM 30). The broth is rich and almost creamy. I practically inhaled the ramen and slurped down the soup with satisfaction. The chashu was perfectly done – a beautiful pinkish brown slice of pork perfection. The generous scattering of menma and spring onions added a lot of flavor to the broth. It’s strange that I find tofu offensive but I’m happy to scarf down menma. The homemade ramen noodles are springy and texturally pleasing. This is ramen done right.
The signature ramen served here is not the usual miso soup base which Hokkaido is famous for but a white chicken based broth. They also have a “Nagoya Cochin” style. The noodles they use are not Sapporo egg noodles too, which my better half dislikes, but a more neutral and less rich wheat variant. They also give you a lot of menma (fermented bamboo shoots). Nanabe uses hosaki menma, which is thinner than regular bamboo shoots and more absorbent. There are even menu options for extra menma which my dear looked upon with horror. Haha.
She went for the Nagoya Cochin Shoyu Ramen (名古屋コーチン 醤油) for 750 yen (around RM 30) and it tasted completely different from mine. It has a lot of chopped leeks. I ended up eating all her menma. I enjoyed the shoyu broth her ramen was made of, both the original tori sayu shio (my order) and Nagoya Cochin shoyu are good options since they taste equally good but Nanabe is famous for the white chicken stock. You can also add condiments (red pepper flakes, sesame seeds, etc) to your broth to change its character – it’s provided free of charge, together with complimentary ice water.
The ramen here is really delicious! It was very rewarding to enter a warm, bustling neighborhood restaurant after walking in the snow to eat a piping hot bowl of ramen. The service here is friendly and personal despite the language barrier – it reflects the country vibe of the place. The bill came up to just 1,500 yen (RM 60), which was a lot cheaper than the Hokkaido style ramen we had earlier. I would highly recommend this place if you’re willing to hunt for your food.
Nanabe was awarded a Bib Michelin for good reason – the food is spectacular and they’re rated as the #1 ramen in Hokkaido!
Yubari King melons are dubbed the most expensive fruit in the world. One of them sold for 2,000,000 yen (which is about RM 80,000)! They come from a town called Yubari (thus the name) in Hokkaido, Japan. The melons are grown in greenhouses and given “hats” to prevent sunburn.
We’ve heard so much about these fruits that when we saw them in Sapporo, we immediately jumped on the chance to check them out. You can get them by the slice for 300 JPY (about RM 13) or 800 JPY (around RM 35) for a few chunks. This is a very small and thin slice but it was one of the sweetest fruits that has ever passed my lips!
The juicy orange colored Yubari King melon is so sweet that it surprised me! It was the sweetest fruit I’ve ever tasted, no exaggeration. It’s hard to describe just how sweet it actually is, but it’s not the sugary kind of sweet that puts you off, but a mild, yet intense fruity sweetness that’s very satisfying.
Yubari (the town that grows Yubari King Melons) is located close to Sapporo so you can’t actually get such good quality for such low prices elsewhere. There are several grades of melons too – these eating ones are relatively reasonable priced from 4,000 JPY to 10,000 JPY (or about RM 300 average) per melon.
However, the ones for gifts are priced from 22,000 JPY (about RM 900) onwards since the highest grades are completely free from blemishes. It’s customary to give 2 of them at once too! I’m glad we got a chance to try out these melons, I would highly recommend eating a Yubari King melon if you’re in Hokkaido.
We decided to have lunch at the famous Sapporo Central Wholesale Market in Hokkaido. The market is known for fresh and local seafood and there are a lot of stalls which serve the crabs, seafood and fish they sell on top of rice (called kaisendon). It’s less commercialized than the Nijo Market and the Curb Market beside the wholesale market is open to the public. It’s the best place in Sapporo to eat sashimi on rice!
There are several huge restaurants at the Sapporo Curb Market and I was intrigued by the beautiful bowls of fresh seafood there. You can have a luxurious bowl of rice topped with fresh raw uni (sea urchin) for JPY 4,500 (about RM 180) or a bowl of rice with a bit of everything for JPY 2,980. The prices might sound a little steep but these are super fresh premium local seafood.
However, my better half wanted to go to a locally owned restaurant instead and thus we popped into a hole-in-the-wall where the locals went to. The stuff they all serve are pretty much the same – it’s basically variants of different types of seafood on rice, since this is a restaurant attached to a fish market. You can also upgrade your miso soup to crab miso soup for JPY 500 (about RM 20).
I did that for mine and this is what it looks like. The restaurant put both snow crab and horsehair crab (also known as Hokkaido Hairy Crab) into the soup for a 500 yen supplement, which is a good price. It has one leg from a snow crab and one body from a horsehair crab.
I ordered the seafood donburi. You can choose as many types of seafood as you want and it’s calculated accordingly. I went with 5 toppings + sea urchin for JPY 2,800 (about RM 110). I chose horsehair crab (ケガニ/kegani), humpback shrimp (peony ebi), surf clam (hokkigai), squid (ika), scallop (hotate), and sea urchin (uni) in the middle. OMG! This is without a doubt the best donburi I ever had!
The horsehair crab (far right) is a local species and the only cooked item in this bowl. The humpback shrimp is raw and extremely sweet! It’s called peony ebi in Japanese and it’s the largest shrimp in Hokkaido. I loved the crunchy surf clam and the soft scallop too. The squid was the most interesting thing – I was puzzled at first coz it didn’t look like any squid I’ve ever seen.
This brown/orange stuff at 7 pm is actually part of the squid’s head! It’s superbly creamy (like foie gras from the sea) and has a wonderful mouth feel. Very sweet too. It’s hard to find squid like this unless you order ikizukuri (live sashimi) coz the squid head (brains?) is one of the most sought after items. I loved it! The uni was also perfect, freshest I’ve ever had. You have to eat the uni in Hokkaido, it’s a completely different species called ezo bafun uni (short-spined sea urchin).
Hokke (ほっけ) is what the Japanese call Okhotsk atka mackerel – it’s caught off the waters of Hokkaido so it’s super fresh and local. My dear wanted something hot so she had this for JPY 850 (about RM 40). It’s grilled and served whole with rice. The hokke fish is charred on the skin since it’s cooked yakitori style – they call it yaki hokke (焼きホッケ) in Sapporo. You’re supposed to pick at the meat and the awesome thing is that there are no pinbones inside.
You can also eat the skin but it’s slightly chewy and crispy. The caramelized flesh is really delicious though – the semi burnt smoky taste permeates the whole fish and it’s quite substantial in size. This is served with miso soup and a bowl of rice and there’s nothing quite like eating such a locally caught fish inside a warm family owned restaurant attached to a fish market in the cold, snowy winter.
The seafood bowls here are the best in Sapporo. The price is also relatively cheap – the grade of uni we get locally will never be served here, it’s not even fit for their dumpster (to be perfectly blunt). The sea urchin they sell get slashed to half price at 12 pm! That’s how much they put a premium on quality and freshness. You can’t get it any fresher than from the fish wholesale market so if you’re in Hokkaido, pay a visit to Sapporo Central Wholesale Market and Curb Market and enjoy the delicious raw seafood donburi! :)
Ryokan stays are fully catered affairs. All your meals are taken care of (except lunch, since you arrive at around 3-4 pm) and everything is included in the price. We woke up bright and early during a winter morning’s day in Hokkaido and went for their elaborate and filling Japanese breakfast. It was truly a feast of epic proportions!
The personalized menu was printed on a sheet of slick paper and the tables were all set and ready for us when the kimono clad girl led us to our seats. This is a very nice touch, they had asked yesterday during check-in what we wanted for our drinks (choice of various local fruit juices) so it was freshly squeezed and waiting when we walked in at the stipulated time.
This is a Japanese style breakfast, which is centered around rice, grilled fish, pickles (tsukemono), tofu, eggs, salad, vegetables, natto and miso soup. It had all the components of a traditional breakfast and more!
The salad has become a fixture in breakfast tables around Japan and they’ve adopted it as their own now. This is the seasonal salad (旬のさらだ) which has daikon as its base, supplemented by vegetables tossed in a very Japanese style ginger and sesame dressing. I like it, it’s a nice and refreshing way to start off this heavy meal.
Next up is the homemade tofu (自家製豆腐) which comes in a beautifully creamy white custard. It was nestled in a lidded container and the staff told us to eat it with a special mirin based sauce they had provided in a tiny miniature jar. I’m not a huge fan of tofu but I understand it’s an important protein source in Japan.
The pickled ume (梅干し) is another traditional Japanese side. I love eating plum with rice! It’s so tangy and the sour plum goes very well with the sticky Hokkaido rice they provided. There are bento boxes called Hinomaru bento (日の丸弁当) which is just rice with one (1) Japanese salt plum in the middle, made to look like the Japanese flag. I can’t imagine eating rice with just ume before I came to Japan but I know it’s delicious now. My better half doesn’t like it though. No worries, more plum for me!
There is a special hot spring egg (温泉卵) that’s still in its shell, which is very apt, considering we were staying at Jozankei Onsen. The onsen egg has been softly boiled so just the whites are semi-solid. The yolk is still perfectly liquid and this makes it an ideal partner for your rice. You can crack the egg on top of your rice and mix it up like tamago kake gohan.
Japanese eggs are so good, you can even get a raw one from 7-Eleven and crack it onto hot rice. It’s lovely stuff. This egg has a soy based sauce to go with it too. Yum!
The grilled fish (焼き魚) and rolled egg (玉子焼き) are the main components of breakfast. We had Japanese salmon and there is a personal mini hot plate on top of your table where you can grill the fish to reheat it.
It’s ingenious! The surface has been oiled so you just need to put your fish on top for a few seconds before it warms up.
They even provide a short length of spring onion so you can put it at the bottom to impart a bit of flavor to the salmon. It was lovely and I enjoyed eating every bit of fish.
You can heat up the rolled egg too, it’s slightly sweet and very fluffy.
There is also a dish in a box (箱物) which has several sides and appetizers to go with your breakfast. The sashimi platter (お造り) is filled with fish and squid. The squid was slightly tough to eat raw but had tons of flavor. There are also containers filled with boiled spinach (法蓮草のおひたし), kelp (昆布), nine grains and beans (九穀豆) and salted cod roe (たらこ) as sides for your rice. The tarako (salted egg roe) was particularly delicious – the umami goodness can’t be beat!
The Hokkaido style natto (なっとう) is one of the highlights – you’re supposed to mix it with rice. I ate it on its own though and it was delicious! I like the sticky gooey texture of fermented soybeans. I don’t see what the fuss is all about.
There are also two sheets of nori still in their paper packaging for you to use as you see fit (it’s good in rice or miso soup). The miso soup was really good as well, as to be expected in Japan.
Desserts consisted of seasonal fruits (季節のふるーつ). There is a local grapefruit which was surprisingly sweet (always thought grapefruit was more sour than this) and a piece of pineapple. Yup, I didn’t know Japan grew pineapples but they do! It’s not as good as back home though (obviously) but that’s the only thing that missed the mark.
The Japanese style breakfast was very filling and the ryokan really subscribes to the “Eat breakfast like a king” mantra. It’s way too much food for two people and I must have missed quite a few items that they thoughtfully provided as sides or appetizers. The service was excellent too and this delicious local breakfast was the perfect way to send us off. Our ryokan experience with onsen and kaiseki dinner was truly amazing and we loved every moment of it! :)
The kaiseki-ryori (懐石料理) dinner is a very important part of a ryokan (Japanese inn) stay. It’s included in the price and the dishes are chance to showcase a wide range of cooking techniques meant to highlight the seasonal and regional aspect of each ingredient. Kaiseki is the name for a traditional multi-course formal Japanese dinner.
Our ryokan is in Chitose, Sapporo so all the dishes would be local to Hokkaido and seasonal as well. It’s winter right now so we wondered if we should wear the yukata that was provided in the room to dinner. I asked the owner and she smiled and said it was up to us. We saw some people wearing it and some people in regular wear during dinner.
This is the first course that came out. The kaiseki dinner was presented on a high quality piece of paper and we were seated in a room with the dishes brought in and explained one by one to us. You’re supposed to drink the plum liquor (梅酒) first together with the topmost dish which is kinda like an amuse-bouche. The bottom dishes are (from left) yam with pickled sea cucumber (山芋海鼠), two-taste tofu (二味豆腐), grilled Shiretoko chicken with leaf bud of bamboo shoot (知床鶏と筍の木の芽焼き), golden herring roe (黄金数の子), nanohana with sea bream and flower kelp (鯛菜の花昆布〆).
The 先附 (appetizer) is tossed anglerfish white flesh and liver (鮟鱇共和え). It’s delicious! I particularly liked the anglerfish liver. I’ve come to love raw liver since my visit to Japan. It’s meant to be savored with the alcohol. My better half didn’t like the ume liquor though so I drank her portion as well.
The bottom dish is the proper first course. I really enjoyed the yam with sea cucumber. The sea cucumber is raw, so it’s very hard and chewy. It’s perfect in the pickling juice and I had a good time chewing and munching on the sea cucumber. It’s so different from a cooked version, it’s almost impossible to swallow without a lot of mastication. It ended up being my favorite appetizer. The two-taste tofu with a goji berry on top was decent too.
Shiretoko is a town at the northernmost tip of Hokkaido and the chicken there is apparently quite good. It’s grilled simply and speared with a very thin slice of bamboo shoot. The golden herring roe was very nice, they thoughtfully served it on a bit of decorative plastic. The last item is nanohana (rapeseed – closely related to brocollini) wrapped with raw sea bream and topped with a piece of kelp.
Interesting fact: Did you know that brocollini was invented in Japan?
The chef gave us another dish while we were eating. It’s the famous sekihan! Sekihan with egg sauce (赤飯卵餡掛け) is a warm dish that is a mixture of sticky rice steamed with adzuki beans. This is eaten during celebrations in Japan and tastes totally unlike regular rice. This is a very interesting dish, even the egg sauce is sticky and starchy so it gives off a different texture to anything before and after.
The next course is mukozuke (向付/sliced seasonal sashimi). Our sashimi plate (お造り) is a showcase of Hokkaido catch, there is everything from scallops to shrimp. This is the same jumbo Japanese Botan shrimp we’ve eaten at the 1 Michelin Star Isezushi in Otaru. I liked the sashimi selections – it’s served with a side of real wasabi (not the fake horseradish substitute you get back home) and shiso.
The next course was for fried items and the presentation was beautiful. There is a whole jumbo Japanese Botan shrimp with salt and old sake (酒塩牡丹海老) in a cute basket together with half a wedge of lemon. Deep fried tofu (とろ湯葉揚げ) coated with tempura batter, crispy green pepper (青唐) and half a sweet potato rounded up the dish. I love how everything was put on top of absorbent paper to soak up excess oil.
The chef slid another different dish as the su-zakana (酢肴) or palate cleanser after the intensity of the fried items. This is rolled shrimp with grated pear in vinegar (おぼろ海老絹田巻 梨酢掛け). I love the bright acidic flavors of the vinegar base and the fresh pear did the perfect job of neutralizing all the flavors in my mouth before the next course (which was quite delicate). There are two pieces filled with raw shrimp and a cherry tomato to go with it.
Shabu-shabu (しゃぶしゃぶ) was next. The hot pot had already been sitting on our table since the beginning and we were wondering what it was for. A plate of beautifully marbled sliced Japanese wagyu beef (びえい和牛) on top of several different types of vegetables and enokitake (enoki mushrooms) came and the chef lit up the heat source at the bottom of the personal hot pot.
You’re supposed to put the vegetables in first to make the broth (the water is just that, there’s no salt even) and then swish the thin slices of beef in the boiling hot water before dumping it into the sauce. There’s actually a good amount of beef here and since my dear isn’t big on beef, I ended up eating most of hers. This is a delightfully bland dish meant to ready your palate for the next course in the kaiseki dinner.
Hokkaido grown rice came in a ohitsu (traditional wooden container for storing cooked rice) along with several side dishes as the previous course was cleared away.
The main dish is deep fried winter Japanese amberjack (寒鰤揚げ出し 霙餡) and it goes really well with the fluffy local rice.
It’s flanked to the right by sweet boiled kelp with sesame (胡麻昆布佃煮) and to the left by three pickles (三種盛り). The ko no mono (香の物) or seasonal pickled vegetables is actually a course by itself and it’s something of an acquired taste. I don’t know how many tsukemono (pickled stuff) I’ve eaten in Japan, they’re really big on them in winter. There’s a bowl of miso soup to go with the rice course. BTW, this picture is upside down coz it’s taken from my dear’s perspective so left is right and vice versa.
The last course is the mizumono (水物) – a seasonal dessert (季節の果実). It’s a wedge of chilled Japanese mikan that’s cut into easy to manage bite-sized pieces. This is brilliant! They have four (4) deep cuts and one (1) long one beneath, so the orange segment can be speared out with a fork in three (3) pieces. How thoughtful. I liked the sprig of microgreen mint that came with it too but the delicious ice cream was the highlight.
It’s salty daifuku ice cream (塩大福アイス)! My better half has written about the daifuku we ate at the aptly named Daifukudo – it’s a Japanese sweet made with mochi and a filling. The ice cream we had was a little salty (!!!) which as a pleasant contrast to the sweet adzuki beans inside. It’s only mildly sweet from the red beans so that was a very interesting experience. The Japanese don’t usually eat excessively sugary stuff.
The kaiseki-ryori dinner was one of the highlights of our ryokan stay at Jozankei Onsen. It’s nice to eat seasonal produce which has been prepared in many different ways (raw, fried, pickled etc) to highlight the freshness and locality of the ingredients. The light and delicate seasoning is a testament to Japanese cuisine and the kaiseki full course meal is something you can’t miss when you’re in Japan. We loved it!
We wanted to experience a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn) complete with onsen hot springs and a full kaiseki ryori dinner and Shikotsuko Daiichi Hotel Suizantei (支笏湖第一寶亭留 翠山亭) fit the bill perfectly. My better half had researched the 3 ryokans in this area and I booked it several months before we flew over to Hokkaido. This was the one we went for since it had all the features we wanted (and more).
It was snowing very heavily when we got to Sapporo, which added to the charm. The ryokan will send a shuttle to pick you up from JR Chitose station. The driver didn’t speak a word of English but that didn’t matter, he was very polite and managed to identify us without much problems.
The drive to Shikotsuko Daiichi Ryokan took about an hour. It went through perilous mountain roads where road crews were constantly shoveling away snow and we saw an accident on the way up. A car managed to plow off the icy roads and into the snow bank, but I don’t think anyone was seriously hurt.
The ryokan itself is beautiful! The staff all lined up and bowed to us as the shuttle pulled up.
We were seated by the warm lounge as soon as we arrived and the owner served us traditional Japanese sweets with steaming hot tea. The check-in service was very personalized and very relaxed, everything was brought to us and we were made to feel very welcome with the hot towel and the staff ushering us to our rooms.
I wanted to have a private onsen session, which costs JPY 3,480 (about RM 150) for 40 minutes. There are public onsen hot springs but (I read) that people with tattoos are generally discouraged from visiting. It’s some yakuza thing, even if you’re not one, apparently your ink makes people uncomfortable.
I didn’t test it out though, coz the public onsens are separated by sex e.g. guys are at one area and females at another different one.
We wanted to soak in the onsen together so the only way to do that was to book a private onsen session. We made ours at 3 pm and after changing, we put on our yukatas and slipped on the hotel slippers before making our way to the private hot spring.
There is a wooden block you’re supposed to hang at the door to signal “Occupied” but since we had booked the entire place, no one would come in anyway. There’s a shower area with a small stool where you’re supposed to clean yourself before going in.
We took turns showering and washing our hair before slipping into the hot onsen. It was an amazing experience!
I must say, visiting Hokkaido in winter was the best decision ever! The snow was falling very heavily at the time so it was very cold. I think the temperature was -11 Celsius for the day. However, the onsen hot spring is SUPER HOT so it’s quite hard to soak in (at first).
I had to slowly lower my body and my legs (and balls) were screaming NOOOOOO. Haha. It takes a while for your skin to get used to the scalding temperature in the onsen but we both did it.
I have to say, the cold really does a number on some of your appendages.
I enjoyed periodically jumping out of the onsen and lazing at the chair naked while the snow fell on my head and my superheated body slowly radiated out heat until I felt cold again. The process actually takes about 3 minutes, that’s how hot the water was! It felt good to cool off before climbing into the hot onsen again, not just for the extreme temperature difference but also coz I wouldn’t be able to sit in the hot water so long otherwise.
We both enjoyed the onsen experience. I still have a lot of fond memories of soaking in the water with my dear while it snowed heavily beside us. This ryokan is part of Jozankei Onsen and uses the area’s natural, mineral-rich hot springs. The view was mesmerizing!
The ryokan also provided all meals. Dinner was scheduled at 7:30 pm. You can choose the time and we opted for this slot. This is a traditional Japanese full course dinner known as kaiseki ryori. The chef will come up with lots of different plates of food – from raw, to steamed, to fried etc and there are multiple courses. I’ll write a full post about the kaiseki soon!
We also walked out to see Mount Eniwa and Lake Shikotsu the next morning after our (huge) Japanese breakfast. It was a trek through (knee deep) snow but we managed to take an awesome winter photo together.
Shikotsuko Daiichi Hotel Suizantei is actually one of three ryokans (Shikotsuko Daiichi Hotel Suizantei and Jyozankei Daiichi Hotel Suizantei are owned by the same company with similar rates) in the area so it was just a matter of finding the one that suited us the most. This is the most “Japanese” one so I wanted my better half to experience this. We had an awesome time here. It was truly memorable, especially the onsen and the kaiseki dinner.
A visit to Japan without staying at a ryokan would be truly a waste for this is one of the classic Japanese hospitality experiences which you should not miss. It’s quite expensive (around RM 2,000 for a night) but well worth the price.
The entire ryokan experience was truly unforgettable. I highly recommend you stay at one for at least a night if you’re ever in Japan.