Glimpses of Hokkaido

It’s been just about ten days since arrival on Hokkaido, and I’m sorry to say that tomorrow afternoon we return by ANA to Haneda.  Because it’s lovely here: Quiet and peaceful, copses of birch, crying birds, people who seem generous as a result of having space, and summer brings out the vitality bottled up by long, harsh winters.

Yesterday we walked to a “mirror pond” accompanied by a local forager who pointed out edible mountain vegetables, and collected thin bamboo shoots.  Later we walked to a lake at the foot of Mt. Yotei, which resembles Fuji-san, and passed by a group of energetic and elderly Japanese women hiking.

Lunch was a wonderful soba with grated, sticky yam.

Naps and onsen.

Dinner, unfortunately, was at a dreadful izakaya in town, but since it was dark and the drive to a fancy place an hour away, it was the best option.  Probably.

Today we meet friends in Sapporo for an evening of wine and yakitori.

Yoichi Matsuri, Hokkaido

On July 5th, we drove to the Yoichi festival, which is held on the considerable grounds of the near century old Nikka whisky distillery.  And, let me tell you: It was festive!

A bandstand in front of a lounging crowd was the stage for numerous brave karaoke singers, and while the audience ate and laughed and listened and talked, others strolled the grounds and toured the distillery’s beautiful, old buildings.

Small corridors had formed and these were lined by food stalls.  Check it out: Grilled scallops in their shells, big shrimp head-on in shells, a couple of varieties of fish, and for people who prefer food from the land: Hot dogs and first-rate kaarage. Draft beer, Kirin and Sapporo, for $2.50 a cup.

No cotton candy.  No fried dough.  No sausages the size of a Buick.

The Nikka shop was jammed with tourists, all Japanese, and the items on sale were pretty typical.  I had the idea of a single malt aged whisky, but there were only half bottles available–there is an international shortage–and these were going for $90 each.  I don’t think so.

Huge bonus: On the way back up the mountain, we drove past many cherry farms and stopped at one to buy a small, plastic basket of perfect cherries.  And I do mean perfect: Tight skin, luscious and sweet and slightly sour interior.

Zaborin, Kutchan-Cho, Hokkaido, Japan

Yes, that’s where you’ll find me for the next few days, in a newly built, modern ryokan, either in the rooms with walls of glass overlooking a stream and a copse of birch, or maybe in the town itself.

Zaborin opened about three weeks ago, and a friend who is a GM in Tokyo suggested I have a look.  I’ve never seen a place with more attention to elements of design, and the precision is evident no matter where I look.  The architecture, to be reductionist for the moment, reminds me of Peter Zumthor and Yoshio Taniguchi.

Which means that a lot is left to the imagination with vaulting, empty spaces, and long parallel lines.

After five restful days and nights in Noboribetsu, we drove the two hours here past farms and forests.  It looked like northern Michigan or parts of Vermont.  In town: Pizza!  Delicious pizza, which was a nice counterpoint to a week of soba, ramen, and kaiseki.  In the evening: Yakitori at a local joint.  Seated at the counter.


Noboribetsu: A Fond Farewell

After nearly a week in Noboribetsu, it’s time to get in the car and drive to Niseko, deep in the mountains, for a few days of long walks and contemplation.  Contemplation is a lot like thinking only it sounds fancy.

The week in Noboribetsu was wonderfully pleasant in all ways imaginable.  Good food, lots of naps, short walks, some reading, some writing, and five baths a day.

The outdoor bath at Takinoya is flat out wonderful: Milky blue, and after immersion, followed by another dip inside, the body feels renewed.  Nothing quite like it.

The village consists of a short street lined with tchotchkes shops selling demonic objects, honey, and printed t-shirts with Noboribetsu written on them.  But:  It also has a first-rate ramen shop run by Ishikawa-san; a first-rate sake shop selling great bottles of stuff that costs three times as much in the U.S.; and, Fukien, a lovely soba joint.

The dinners at Takinoya have been deeply enjoyable: Course after small course of raw fish, boiled fish, grilled fish, steamed fish, all accompanied by fresh or pickled or steamed vegetables, and here and there we find morsels of beef.  This ryokan is among the best I’ve ever visited.


Noboribetsu, Hokkaido: Day Five

An enormous, but unseen raven caws, and it’s just past six A.M. so who knows what else is going to happen today?  An auspicious beginning, a portent.

Yesterday the weather cleared and we walked through a forest of bamboo grass and deciduous trees to a natural hot spring where visitors can sit on a low embankment and put their feet into water.  Aluminum mats are provided so that, heaven forbid, one’s clothing doesn’t get dirty.

Prior to the walk, it was soba at Fukuan–the one soba joint in the village.  It’s delicious at this place, and the counter seats are good.  In fact, everything is good about Fukuan.  Well, almost everything.  Guys?  Turn off the T.V. at the end of the counter.

Late afternoon the rains began in earnest and luckily we were back at Takinoya, our ryokan home for the past five days.  Quiet, lovely, a good place to do nothing.  “A return to nothingness,” is the idea behind ryokans, and I reckon these places have a link to a monastic past only this time around we’re talking festival level food and no spoken prayers.  Unheard like the unseen raven.

So the result?  Soseki’s astonishing novel, “The Gate,” naps, more hot baths, and a kaiseki dinner of small plates.  I was given a generous gift of a wonderful local white wine by the establishment: Did we drink it all?  Down to the dregs.



Jammies & Ryokans

It’s day three @ Takinoya in Noboribetsu, and what with the sun out and after a long walk to a distant lake yesterday in the rain and cold, about eight and a half miles and four hours, we are staying in today mostly.  Hence, yakuta a.k.a. jammies.

Yesterday was lovely: Steam pouring from mountainous vents, the air redolent with sulphur, signs warning of kitsune, and Yoko telling me that bears are about.  Another lunch of spicy ramen at the one place in the village open after two P.M. (until dinner), naps, more baths, and shabu-shabu for dinner.

Five baths in natural hot springs.

Reading, “The Gate,” by Soseki while here adds to the passivity that coincides with the vigor.