Hokkaido: An Unforgettable Summer (1st of 3 Parts)

In this series:
Part 1.
Part 2.
Part 3.

Note: This is the latest installment in my travels to my favorite country in the world, Japan. See all my Japan posts here.

They say that you can almost see Russia from Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and second largest island. I don’t know about that, but Hokkaido does feel different, decidedly less hectic than Tokyo, Osaka, and even Kobe. Nature’s beauty is on full display here in Hokkaido, and we’ve got a front seat.

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Here’s Showa Shinzan, one of Japan’s youngest volcanos. In 1943, an earthquake formed what used to be a wheat field into a towering 290-meter land mass. Don’t be deceived by its rather placid exterior, this volcano’s still highly active.

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At the foot of Showa Shinzan lies Kazan-Mura (volcano village), an enchanting little town of shops and restaurants. The products sold by this friendly stall-keeper represent some of Hokkaido’s famed produce and products: milk, potatoes, and corn.

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The corn is delicious grilled of course, but it finds new meaning when added to ramen as it often is in Hokkaido. Sapporo is famed for its miso ramen, truly exquisite and clean, the corn adding sweetness, the slap of butter, lushness.

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Not too far away is the Showa-shinzan Bear Ranch where you can feed the bears and stare agog at their heft and height. Here, a bear standing up for treats.

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Lake Toya is a breathtaking landscape, lake views that shift from morning to evening. This lake is a prime example of a crater-lake caldera resulting from the collapse of a volcano when it erupted 110,000+ years ago.

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The four islands near the lake’s center were formerly lava domes that rose and cooled. Together, these islands are called Nakajima, and they can be seen up-close on a cruise of the lake.

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Gazing at Hokkaido’s countryside from the seat of our tour bus presents idyllic scenes, such as this one, “straight out of Smallville,” observes my brother in law. That red arrow you see above the road is a marker that keeps motorists in line during heavy snowfall.

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Sightseeing takes up our days but Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, is our home base in the evenings. This is Sapporo Station, the city’s main railway station interconnected to multiple (and massive!) shopping centers.

Though I didn’t get to go on this trip, I recommend visiting the T38 Observation Deck at the top of the JR Tower building nearby. Jaw-dropping views can be had on the 38th floor, 160 meters above ground. This is even taller than the observation deck of the TV Tower in nearby Odori Park, something I’ll tell you more about later on in this series.

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Connected to the Sapporo Station is the Esta shopping center. On the 10th floor is the Sapporo Ramen Republic, a fantastic offering of eight restaurants representing some of Hokkaido’s regional ramen varieties, like the Sapporo miso ramen above with additions of butter and corn. Sure, you can get ramen everywhere in Japan but it truly is one of the distinctive dishes of Hokkaido cuisine.

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Seafood is a star in Hokkaido and here, you must have kaisen-don (seafood bowl). Ikura-don is a scintillating specimen, rice with raw salmon roe, or as I like to call it, red caviar. In its simplicity lies its mesmerizing appeal – the cool whiteness of the rice contrasting with the ravishing redness of the roe. Soft and salty, the roe pops and makes my cheeks pucker, the rice races in to soothe, revving me up for another spoonful. On the side, a shy serving of uni, the freshest I’ve ever tasted. Creamy-moist, its texture makes me blush.

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Chirashi-sushi or kaisen-don, have it your way: spectacular offerings from the sea.

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The Yubari melon’s reputation precedes it – it’s said to be the most expensive fruit in the world.

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Extraordinary is its webbed exterior, dizzying is its aroma, and it possesses an ethereal orange glow. It’s also so, so sweet but pleasantly so.

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Certainly, it’s more affordable to eat this king of melons here in Hokkaido than elsewhere, and it can even be bought by the slice.

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In Hokkaido’s center are Furano and Biei, little towns well known for their rural landscapes, unbroken horizons, and panoramas straight out of postcards.

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July is most ideal when the fields are flush with flowers. Nowhere is this truer than at Farm Tomita where blooms blossom beautifully. Breathtaking, it really is.

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Everyone comes here for the lavender fields, their floral, calming fragrance fills the air.

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Furano’s fields of lavender find their way into potpourri and soaps and on Farm Tomita, in lavender “soft cream” and lavender juice. What do they taste like? If you’re familiar with lavender, it almost tastes the way it smells: flowery with the slightest tang at the end. What an experience!

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And because this is Hokkaido after all, I yield to my yearning for Yubari melons – the fruit and in ice cream.

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Not too far away in the town of Biei, we discover that the Blue Pond (Aoiike) really is blue. It’s such a bewitching blue in fact, that the longer I gaze at it, the more mesmerized I become. Around me, there’s a reverential hush in the crowd” we are basking in the privilege to behold such beauty.

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It’s unknown why the water is this hue of blue. Some attribute it to naturally occurring minerals in the water that reflect blue light similar to that in the sky. Indeed, the water transforms into shimmering gradients of green and aquamarine depending on where I stand.

It’s fascinating to be told that the Blue Pond is a man-made formation, an artificial pond created to protect the area from lava flows due to its proximity to the Mt. Tokachi volcano, which erupted in 1988.

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Contributing to the Blue Pond’s haunting, almost otherworldly presence are the barren tree stumps protruding from the water’s surface.

At dinner that night…

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Crab is the undisputed king of Hokkaido’s outstanding seafood and one of the best restaurants to experience its finest interpretations is at Sapporo Kani Honke.

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We begin with crab sashimi

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 and cracked crab claws, briny meat cool to tongue. We thrill to the taste and anticipation of what’s to come.

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Snow crab shell, its scariness belies its succulence.

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Tonight we are having crab shabu-shabu, snow crab simmered in a ponzu broth. It is a plate of plenty, and on the side, a curious grey sludge that we’re told is crab miso.

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Instructed to stir it into the broth, hesitant sips turn into frenzied slurps. The crab miso is actually roe, its richness deepening the broth’s complexity.

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Satisfied silence is punctuated by chewing and the occasional moan of delight. Then the crab meat au gratin arrives, sweet meat taking refuge under a cover of crumbs.

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Oh, what’s this? Midway through the gratin, I chance upon a single gingko nut, an edible treasure playing hide and seek.

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Crab Marimo or the best rice ball I’ve had in my life. Fried sticky rice concealing a cache of King Crab meat mixed with miso. It floats in a knee-weakeningly delicious dashi broth before melting in the mouth.

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“You can’t forget porridge!” Our server reminds us. Though we are full, the sight of extra broth being poured into rice and leftover crab seems to perk up our appetites. Eggs are cracked in, the yolks imbuing the mixture golden.

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Creamy-soft and hot, the porridge is beyond restorative, an elemental comfort sating body and mind.
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