Ekiben from Otaru, Hokkaido

Ekiben

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.

Featured Ekiben

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.

Otaru Train

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.

Otaru Ekiben

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!

Uni Ikura Ekiben

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.

Uni Ekiben

I hesitantly said “Dear, do you want some?” hoping she’ll say no. I’m kidding (or am I? smirk). 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.

Oyster Ekiben

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!

Otaru Oysters

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.

Japan Ekiben

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.

Crab Feast in Hokkaido: Raw King Crab Donburi and a Trio of Crabs (Crab Steamed Bun, Crab Gratin, Crab Miso Soup) in Nijo Fish Market

Crab Donburi

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 Crab

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.

Torching Crab

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.

Hokkaido Crab Restaurant

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!

King Crab Donburi

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.

King Crab Sashimi

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.

Crab Three Ways

I present to you, the 1,200 yen trio of crab! This was taken in the cold outdoor seating before we came inside.

Crab Gratin

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.

Crab Steamed Bun

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.

Crab Miso Soup

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.

Nijo Fish Market Us

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!

Nanabe – Michelin ramen in Hokkaido

Nanabe Michelin

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.

Ramen Nanabe

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.

Nanabe Hokkaido

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).

Nanabe Ramen

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.

Nanabe Sapporo

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.

Nagoya Cochin Ramen

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.

Nanabe Us

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.

Chasiu

Nanabe was awarded a Bib Michelin for good reason – the food is spectacular and they’re rated as the #1 ramen in Hokkaido!

LeTAO (ルタオ) Double Fromage Cheesecake in Otaru, Hokkaido

LeTAO Cheesecake

LeTAO (ルタオ) is a famous bakery, café and sweet shop with branches all over Hokkaido. We saw one in New Chitose Airport when we landed in Sapporo and again when we went shopping in Daimaru but my better half wanted to eat at their head store in Otaru. Otaru is a quaint little town where they have a huge presence – it’s where their HQ is, as well as their chocolate shop (called LeTao le chocolat) and lab (LeTAO Cheese CakeLab).

LeTAO PATHOS

There are at least six (6) different LeTAO shops in Otaru, all selling something unique. We saw one in Otaru Station when we arrived which is called Ekimo LeTAO and they sell roll cakes in addition to their regular product lines. My dear wanted to check out their sit-down café though so we walked over 30 minutes in search for LeTAO PATHOS – their largest store and café in Hokkaido.

LeTAO Otaru

LeTAO actually pioneered the “Japanese Cotton Cheesecake” craze. This is a soufflé-like cheese cake with a distinctive look. However, LeTAO doesn’t call it that themselves (no one in Japan does). It’s called the Double Fromage by LeTAO and it’s one of their most famous products. LeTAO also has a presence in Thailand but if you want to eat the real thing made with Hokkaido dairy, you better get your ass down to Otaru…and that’s what we did.

LeTAO Menu

The café at LeTAO PATHOS is huge and you’ll be escorted to your seat by a nice Japanese girl who’ll take your order while kneeling down (!!!). This really surprised me and made me a little uncomfortable. However, it’s part of the renowned Japanese approach to service and they even make a point of stating that their tea is not ready made – it’s only brewed each time there’s an order so it’ll take a while for drinks to arrive.

Double Plate with a drink (1,404 JPY or RM 58)

LeTAO Cafe Double Plate

This is all of LeTAO’s favorites on a plate! It contains two of their most popular cheese cakes – Double Fromage and Chocolate Double together with a crème brulee tart called Venezia Rendezvous. I have no idea why this is called a “Double Plate” when it contains 3 items but I suspect the Japanese words mean something entirely different.

LeTAO Double Fromage

I really enjoyed LeTAO’s Double Fromage. It’s made with three (3) different cheeses – Italian mascarpone, Camembert and cream cheese. All the cheeses used here are produced in Hokkaido from a local dairy. The upper layer is a creamy and smooth no-bake cheesecake and the lower layer is rich and tasty baked cheesecake. Insanely good stuff…

LeTAO Venezia Rendezvous

The Venezia Rendezvous is a mascarpone crème brulee made using mascarpone from Lombardy, Italy. The cheese is added to LeTao’s original fresh cream in Hokkaido and flavored with natural vanilla beans from Madagascar. The light and crispy tart provides a nice texture to the 42% milk fat cream used in the filling and the natural sugar beets grown in Hokkaido. The dessert is not sweet at all, the only sugar used is from the locally grown sugar beets.

LeTAO Chocolate Double

The Chocolat Double is the chocolate version of their bestselling Double Fromage. They combined the cheese cake with a chocolate cake to produce a two-layered chocolate cheesecake. The cocoa is from Europe but all other items are local and the bitterness of the cocoa makes the cheesecake more suitable for adults. It cuts down the mildly sweet Double Fromage with some bitterness to produce a slightly bitter dessert.

Strawberry Mille-feuille with a drink (1,816 JPY or around RM 72)

Strawberry Mille-feuille

This beautiful dessert can only be ordered in LeTAO’s café. It’s made with LeTAO’s original custard and Hokkaido grown strawberries for a towering treat that looks almost too good to eat. My dear saw this highlighted in their menu and didn’t want to order it coz it was over RM 70 for a plate of pastry. We had just eaten sushi at the 1 Michelin Star Isezushi so this was primarily a dessert run but I insisted on ordering it coz I knew she wanted to try it.

LeTAO Strawberry Mille-feuille

The custard was very good – it was speckled with real vanilla beans from Madagascar and there are superbly tart red currants strewn throughout the plate. However, I thought the crispy sheets of pastry was slightly over-done and bitter. Granted, desserts in Japan are an order of magnitude less sweet than Western or local counterparts but we’ve had really good mille-feuille from 2 Michelin Star Le Relais LOUIS VIII in Paris, France so it can’t really measure up to that (especially when the mille-feuille was the star dessert that got them their two Michelin stars in the first place).

LeTAO Hokkaido

LeTAO is a great place to visit if you want to have a luxurious and warm sit-down dessert in Otaru. The café in LeTAO PATHOS also serves savory food like pasta – it’s the only one that does that so it’s something to think about if you’re heading here instead of the main store. It’s also larger than the head store or LeTAO Plus. The bill came up to 3,220 JPY (about RM 130) for the two of us, including drinks and the service was excellent. I would highly recommend eating at LeTAO if you’re ever in Otaru – after all, this was where LeTAO was born.

Hokkaido Milk Ice Cream

Hokkaido Ice Cream

Hokkaido milk is loaded with one of the highest butterfat content numbers I’ve ever seen. The 4.8% milk fat from local cows is higher than any “whole milk” product in the US and Australia. It tastes more like half and half or cream. I was truly impressed by the extraordinarily creamy milk they have. Thus, when we passed by this little mom-and-pop ice cream parlor in Otaru, we immediately went in and got one…even though it’s the middle of winter.

Ice Cream Sign

They even have a little sign out front which tells you to be careful with your cone should you take photos of it, lest it tip over. I found that hilarious, the lengths to which the Japanese go to be considerate is quite amazing. Of course, I’ve had Hokkaido milk before, but it’s the inferior 3.8% stuff they sell in Bangkok, Thailand. I’ve also had mind-blowingly delicious Channel Island milk while I was backpacking in the United Kingdom.

Hokkaido Milk Ice Cream

However, the ice cream made from Hokkaido milk in Sapporo is peerless. The best specimen we had was near Chitose when we just arrived, and the 8-flavor ice cream cone is pretty decent too. This one was slightly disappointing compared to those but at 300 JPY (about RM 12) you can’t really complain. It was still better than any ice cream I’ve had in Malaysia. The high milk fat in Hokkaido milk makes the ice cream taste so creamy and rich we had to eat it, despite the cold weather. :)

Huge 8-flavor ice cream from Otaru, Hokkaido

Otaru Ice Cream

This is the biggest ice cream cone I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating! Hokkaido is the dairy capital of Japan and they produce extraordinarily creamy milk. There are many ice cream parlors in Otaru and this is our second or third one of the day. My better half told me about this ridiculously luxurious creation and we went searching for it.

Otaru Ice Cream Parlor

It’s located at a really obscure heated inner pathway so it took us a while to find it. I had to ask a couple of restaurants before I saw the signs.

Japan Ice Cream

The 8-flavor ice cream is their best-seller and costs 580 JPY (about RM 23).

How To Hold

They even have instructions on how to hold it. smirk This is probably so little children (and the young-at-heart) won’t attempt to hold the bottom of a cone (like how you’ll hold a regular ice cream) coz the top is way too heavy. You have to wrap your fingers around the base of the cone so it won’t topple over from sheer inertia.

8 Flavor Ice Cream

The 8 flavors are (from bottom) matcha green tea, Yubari King melon, lavender, strawberry, milk, chocolate, grape, and Ramune. Ramune is a popular drink in Japan. I like the refreshing Yubari melon and grape too, they work very well with the sweeter chocolate and milk (one of the best flavors). The cone itself is quite salty, something unique that we noticed in Japan. All the ice cream cones in Hokkaido are slightly salty, which balances the mildly sweet ice cream well.

Ice Cream

The best part is that Japanese soft serve ice cream isn’t shockingly sweet, it’s just mildly appealing. It was winter when we were in Otaru and the snow covered paths didn’t make it conducive towards eating ice cream. However, despite the fact that we were actually quite cold and the weather was around -11 Celsius, the 8-flavor ice cream was really good! :)

Eating Yubari King in Hokkaido, Japan (The World’s Most Expensive Fruit)

Yubari King

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. smirk

Yubari King Melon

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!

Eating Yubari King

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 Melon

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.

Yubari King Melon Japan

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.

Sapporo Central Wholesale Market and Curb Market: Seafood Donburi, Horsehair Crab, Fresh Sea Urchin, Grilled Hokke Fish

Hokkaido Central Wholesale Market

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!

Sapporo Curb Market Donburi

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.

Sapporo Donburi

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).

Horsehair Crab Miso Soup

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.

Seafood Donburi

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!

Hokkaido Horsehair Crab

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.

Uni Sashimi Donburi

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 Fish

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.

Grilled Hokke

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.

Sapporo Donburi Restaurant

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! :)

Japanese breakfast at ryokan

Ryokan Japanese Breakfast

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!

Japanese Breakfast

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.

Salmon

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!

Japanese Salad

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.

Tofu

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.

Ume

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! smirk

Onsen Egg

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.

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!

Fish

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.

Personal Grill

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.

Grilling Salmon

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.

Rolled Egg

You can heat up the rolled egg too, it’s slightly sweet and very fluffy.

Breakfast Sashimi

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!

Japanese Breakfast Sides

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.

Miso

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.

Japanese Fruits

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.

Ryokan Breakfast

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! :)

Full course kaiseki-ryoki dinner at Japanese ryokan

Kaiseki

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.

Botan Ebi

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.

Kaiseki-Ryori

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).

Anglerfish Liver

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.

Pickled Sea Cucumber

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.

Kaiseki Course

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?

Sekihan

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.

Sashimi Course

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.

Kaiseki Fried Course

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.

Rolled Shrimp Pear

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.

Japanese Beef

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.

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.

Ohitsu

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.

Japanese Amberjack

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.

Kaiseki 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.

Japanese Mikan

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.

Daifuku Ice Cream

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.

Shabu-shabu

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!

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