A Taste of Hokkaido

Every small town, city, prefecture, and area in Japan has its own food specialties. Maybe it's a form of noodles, or sake, or type of produce or meat grown or raised in the area. If I tell my students I'm going somewhere, they almost always recommend a certain local delicacy that I have to try.

Hokkaido takes this to the extreme. It has the "best" of almost everything. Here's a rundown of many of the foods and drinks I tried while I was in town.
 Hokkaido is home to many breweries. I'll get to the most famous one in a minute, but the island is scattered with small "craft" breweries all over the place. I counted 15 different beers from probably 8 different breweries on sale in the Hokkaido goods shop in Sapporo Station. While I was in Abashiri I tried one of those, a blue-colored beer called Okhotsk Blue. At first taste it was fairly good, extremely light but with a nice flavor. However, it had a sort of syrupy aftertaste. Abashiri Brewery has other brews including a fairly normal-appearing blend but unfortunately money and time prohibited me from trying more.
 The number one gift to bring back from Sapporo are small wafer-like cookies with white chocolate sandwiched in between. Those cookies are pretty good though they are kind of mild, and they certainly don't remind me at all of Japan. But Ishiya, the manufacturer of the aforementioned cookies, also sells a chocolate drink in small coffee-like cans. It's a very thick, rich flavor - a perfect chocolate drink hot or cold. They don't come cheap, though, at about 200 yen for a small can. I had two cans on my trip, but I probably could have drank two cans every day and still craved more!
 Also seen around Hokkaido were these Bear sodas - there are Brown Bear and White Bear drinks. This is a guarana soda and was pretty good.
 Okay, what about food? Hokkaido ramen is miso-based with pork and a few other simple ingredients. I also asked for a hard-boiled egg. My coworker was mad that I didn't order it with "everything" although I ordered what she recommended - the traditional Hokkaido-style ramen. It was good, though my favorites still remain Kitakata and Kyushu style ramens. On a side note, I would really like to try the buttered corn ramen.
 Sapporo has an autumn festival with several food stands set up near Sapporo Station and in the park along Odori. The food is expensive but delicious (appearing) - I only tried two things. Above you see a food stand version of Genghis Khan, which is grilled meat. I'll have to try actual Genghis Khan somewhere else on a future trip.
 And yes, that is a beer behind the food. I found these two Fighters cans in the Hokkaido store at normal beer prices. They're both Sapporo brand beer; I believe one was Sapporo Classic and the other was Sapporo Black Label. After visiting the Sapporo Beer Museum, I've decided that Black Label is my favorite Japanese mainstream beer.
  These aren't just ordinary french fried potatoes. These are Hokkaido potatoes. Do they taste any different? Not really. They were good, though.
 I'm not sure if this is a Hokkaido exclusive or just a limited edition, but this was the first time I saw these "panda" Pocky sticks. I bought this box at Hokkaido Greenland and took the picture in a flower bed before giving them a shot. If you like Oreos then you'll like these!
 Again, this might not exactly be a "Hokkaido" thing but these are the Japanese equivalent of Cheetos. Yes, Cheetos already exist in Japan. These taste more authentically "cheesy" and don't stain your fingers like Cheetos.
 This is definitely from Hokkaido. Much of Japan's milk comes from Hokkaido and a handful of companies sell single-serve glass bottles in some stores. It might be the freshest, most delicious milk I've had... ever. And yes, I kept the bottle as a souvenir.
 I needed lunch at Sapporo Dome on Saturday, so I wandered around the stadium for a while before settling on something somewhat unique. I noticed they had a Subway franchise, typical sushi bento boxes, and usual ballpark food (burgers, dogs, chicken tenders, etc). But out in right field I came across a stand selling beer and somewhat different food items. This fried chicken (is it actually chicken?) was pretty good - it might have been skin only. Regardless, it was like the best of KFC.
And in the wrapper behind it was rice wrapped in what I think was bacon, coated in a soy based sauce. That, too, was very delicious and I'm glad I bought it.

I didn't get a picture of it, but Hokkaido is known for its corn. You can get it in your ramen, or find grilled corn on the cob at tourist destinations around the island. I got a very tasty ear in Toya that served as my lunch.

Hokkaido's other agricultural product that must be tried is the melon. They're very sweet and full of flavor, and are almost creamy. Usually you have to buy an entire melon (about 1200-1500 yen) but you might find a slice for about 300 yen.

And while milk might be the easiest dairy product to find and sample inexpensively around Hokkaido, cheese and butter are also very popular and tasty.

If and when I can return to Hokkaido, I hope to sample a bit more of the local flavor. First, I need to try more ramen. Plus, I have to have a go with Genghis Khan. A good deal that I found but wasn't able to take advantage of was Ginza Lion's all-you-can-eat offer in Susukino. If price is not as much of a concern, I would love to try the local hairy crab, which can be seen in tanks outside or just inside restaurants similar to lobster tanks in America.

My Final Day in Sapporo and Two Personal Landmarks

There's only so much a guy can do in a week.

Saturday was my last day in the North Island, and it was the only one I had relatively simple, easygoing plans. Actually, I started my trip with only one stop on my itinerary for Saturday, but the delays I had on Sunday added one more.

I started out fairly late, though I was downtown by about 10 AM. This was the only day on my trip that I slept in past 6AM, because I didn't need to catch an early train or bus out of town. I walked from my hotel in Susukino to Hokkaido University's botanical gardens, which I had been on the fence about visiting. Depending on the review, it was either a lackluster collection of plants or a great place to spend some time and walk around some fauna.
I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. There is a lot of greenery here, and as a collection and not an ornamental garden it wasn't designed to be extremely photogenic. But the paths are pleasant and even in the scientific arrangements and methodical rows I could find beauty.
The highlights, in my opinion, were the rose garden and the greenhouses, with the rocky gardens close behind. Many of the roses were in bloom and the sun woke up in time to light them well by the time I reached that part of the garden. I think I took about 100 pictures of roses hoping for a perfect composition.
The greenhouses were full of exotic plants; cacti and pitcher plants are always fun to look at. Somewhat disgustingly, the banana tree had one banana which had been broken into by roaches; they were going in through the end and eating the fruit inside, leaving a yellowing peel intact and highly visible among the remaning still-green bunch.

I ended up staying for a couple hours, longer than planned though that seems to happen to me often at places where the displays are just that photogenic.

If I didn't have one more must-go place on my list that day, I would have probably stayed longer, but baseball beckoned. With my bags stored safely away in one of Sapporo Station's lockers, I grabbed a subway train out to Sapporo Dome (which is a good 15 minute walk beyond). I was there in plenty of time to get a very nice seat somewhat behind first base with my general admission ticket, and I made my way around to right field before settling on lunch (you'll hear about food in my next post).
The Fighters (owned by Nippon Ham; they are not Japan's "Ham Fighters" though that name is pretty funny) were hosting the division-leading Eagles. The Eagles brought their ace, Masahiro Tanaka. If you haven't heard, he's 22-0 this season with an ERA of about 1.23. So while people are talking about the increase in home runs by NPB batters, Tanaka has given up only 6 all year. Tanaka has always been a pretty good pitcher but this year he's on fire. And yes, win 22 was the game I attended and I am very glad I inadvertently got to be there for that.

I have no real problems with the stadium based on my experience at the seat I was in. The playing area is pretty big, and the outfield wall is about 3 stories high, so home runs seem kind of rare here. And the field is obviously artificial. But the sound system was easily audible and not too loud or too quiet; beer and soda service was frequent but not irritating, and despite having a poor season after being league champions last year, the crowd was pretty into the game.

I left at just about the right time, right at the end of the 8th inning, as I had to get back to Sapporo Station, grab my bags, and catch my flight. Given the line at the airport to get through security (which moved pretty slowly), I might have been able to take the next train (15 minutes later) but I didn't have to wait long after arriving at the gate before boarding began. So I left Hokkaido happy and hoping to return sometime in the future.

What two personal landmarks did I reach on this trip? First, on Friday, I rode my 100th different Japanese roller coaster. I thought I was at 99 but it turns out I hit 100 at Hokkaido Greenland. And Saturday's trip to Sapporo Dome means I have seen baseball games at all 12 NPB home stadiums! There are still plenty of roller coasters to ride in Japan and the rest of Asia, and literally hundreds of larger stadiums to see games at. High school, college, independent league, minor league, and occasional NPB games are played all over the country in seemingly every single small town.

I plan to post more details about each of this trip's locations eventually, but I still have to finish Taiwan and post about Korea, Osaka and Kyoto, and all my other smaller trips this year! Where am I going next? There's a three-day weekend in November and I might go to Nagano; I'm also planning an inexpensive stay in Okayama and Shikoku over New Years.

Two Days, Two Amusement Parks in Hokkaido

Yesterday and today were two of the most important days for this trip, because I was visiting the two biggest amusement parks in Hokkaido. 

Thursday started relatively early again, because I had to catch an 8AM bus to Rusutsu Amusement Park, a journey which took about 2 hours. Rusutsu is Hokkaido's biggest park both in terms of land and ride selection - they have eight coasters and a decent selection of flat rides. Plus my day pass ("free pass") included a round trip ticket on the cable car to the observation area at the top of the mountain. 

I'll simply say that I had a good time there, although it would have probably been 100 times better if the only two rides they had closed all day were the number one and three rides I was looking forward to riding. Regardless, I managed to entertain myself most of the day although I had about an hour at the end of the day where I had decided I was ready to leave but needed to wait on the bus. Had those two rides been open I'm sure I would have been busy all day. 

Today's park was Hokkaido Greenland, a  smaller park with four coasters and a large selection of smaller flat rides. There was an issue early in the morning so I spent a couple hours exploring Hokkaido University. It had a beautiful campus and some nice buildings. 

Again it took about 90 minutes via two buses to get to the park from Sapporo Station. Buses to the park (from Iwamizawa Station) run about once every couple hours or so, which means it's important to plan your schedule. Taking the bus to Iwamizawa Station might take a little longer than the train but a free pass plus round trip transportation is cheaper than the train. 

The park was absolutely dead. At the most (in the afternoon, when I left) there were 12 cars in the parking lot. I saw other people occasionally but never had to wait for them. (If you're wondering, there was a decent number of guests at Rusutsu but I never had to wait except for the prior riders to get off.) I came across a blog where someone else mentioned (about 5 years ago) how empty it was and I too am a surprised this park is still open. One of the coasters and the best ride in the park (the Rotoshake) were both closed today. Rotoshake has been closed for a long time and I expected that. I was a little disappointed that GO-ON was closed too.

The main problem with Greenland is a lack of reride ability. There just isn't anything in the park that I'd like to ride twice. In fact one of the coasters (the only other big one) gave me a massive headache. That said, I had a good time for a while there and there are several haunted house/mirror house attractions which I am starting to enjoy more and more. I guess the park caters more to families with elementary aged children. There are probably bigger crowds when school is out, and it seems like they have several shows on Sundays. 

I left the park after trying pretty much everything (including both putt putt courses - I had two honest holes in one - and all three go-kart tracks). That was about three hours at a slow pace. After
returning to Sapporo, I did some souvenir shopping this evening and took it easy (I'm still sore from yesterday's rides and that one coaster today.)

I go home tomorrow (Saturday) after seeing most of a Fighters game, so I will probably write my food article tomorrow at some point!

Beauty in Destruction: Toyako's Volcanos

Wednesday's big adventure was to The small resort town of Toyako Onsen. Located at the foot of an active volcano it is a great spot to go to a natural hot spring spa, and the surrounding view is gorgeous. But I'm not here to relax. I want to explore. 
I timed things right to get to Showa Shinzan, and take the cable car up to the top. From there I could see the entire surrounding area as I walked along the crater's rim. 
The main crater is impressive to look at and since it is still active you can see some steam escaping in a few places. The dark spot on the left side of the picture below the small mountain is a series of small sub-craters. 
Mudslides still happen from time to time. About three hundred steps lead you down into the crater before returning to continue halfway around the rim. Of course for every step down I had to go back up and my legs are still sore. 

From there I returned back to town and started my second hike of the day. This one took me past ruins from a mudslide as a result of the 2000 eruption, over the mountain and to the other side. 
While this part of my trip was the best, I didn't take any pictures with my cell phone of the ruins. But near the top is a famous crater with a beautiful blue pond seen above. 

I had some real good food Wednesday but you'll have to wait for that until I post all my food experiences together. 

An Empty Day in Hokkaido

Yesterday was basically a bust. I got up early and got to the station in plenty of time to catch a train that wasn't coming - it was canceled due to the typhoon. 

So I caught a bus out toward Shiretoko. I could still make my sightseeing cruise that way. 

Well by the time I got to the bus transfer point I found out my cruise was cancelled due to rough waters, again thanks to the hurricane. So I caught the return bus back to Abashiri. 

I ended up spending about half the day putzing around in Abashiri, but while I was there I tried a blue beer. 
Like most Japanese beers it was very light, though this had a strange aftertaste. For that reason I didn't really care for it. I was hoping it would have a unique flavor like the blueberry beer I tried a few years ago. If I have the chance I'll try some of the other Hokkaido brands. 

I took the afternoon train back and wandered around Sapporo a little bit. I had already done my sightseeing in the area but I found myself passing the clock tower at night. 
And even late at night people were waiting to pose in front of it. 

And of course, near the clock tower is the TV tower. 
I think it looks much better at night. 

I had KFC for dinner (spicy chicken which was pretty good and really juicy) and enjoyed the spa at my hotel. I'm staying in a capsule hotel though this one is nicer than the one I went to before. 

Today's adventure is already over but I'll have to bring you that later. This post is getting too long!

Hokkaido Trip: Days One and Two

I left for the airport late Saturday night even though my flight left Sunday morning. You see, I booked a 7am flight and that meant I had to be there about 6. It's impossible to get there from my house that early in the morning so I spent Saturday night in a karaoke box. I actually had a real good time by myself just picking song after song. Yes, karaoke is fun with friends but going solo is okay too. 

I caught the first train to the airport and made my flight okay, but I arrived in Hokkaido to find the trains were all delayed about two hours! I didn't get to Sapporo until lunchtime. I think I slept for most of the flight and a large part of the time sitting on the train at the airport. I managed to stay awake long enough on the train to adjust my day's sightseeing plans. 

I turned my walking tour of Sapporo around and eliminated two stops (Hokkaido University and Hokkaido Shokobutsuen). My first stop was the Sapporo Beer Museum. It was nice with some materials and equipment on display, as well as old packaging and advertising. At the end of the museum, you are dumped into the gift shop and tasting room, where you can try small glasses of beer for ¥200 yen each, or get a three-beer sampler for ¥500. I went with the sampler, which came with cheese or crackers (I went with crackers though I want to try some Hokkaido cheese soon). The beer was good - the Sapporo Black Label beer was the best and maybe my favorite in Japan. 

From there I took the 30 minute walk to the TV tower, a replica of the Eiffel Tower and copycat of the Tokyo and Osaka towers. I saved my money and didn't go inside, and walked over to the famous clock tower. It's not that big but it's old for the area and perhaps second to beer as the town's icon. Again I saved my money and time by just taking pictures outside; from there I walked back to the train station to get a bus. 

There are a couple ways to get to Okurayama from Sapporo station, including two different tourist bus lines. I took the city tourist bus and within 45 minutes or so I finally saw my first ski jump in person. It's amazing to see how steep they are and how steep the landing zone was too. It's September, so there is no snow, but it was impressive regardless. I explored the museum and the interactive games, and I enjoyed it enough. 

Finally I caught the other (JR) tourist bus back to the station, grabbed curry for dinner (I was planning on going to a certain ramen shop recommended by my coworker but couldn't find it), and crashed at a capsule hotel in Susikino. 

The next morning meant another early start. Today's train left at 7:21 and I was there in plenty of time. About five and a half hours later I finally reached Abashiri station. Like yesterday, today brought a steady downpour. I saw a lot of very full rivers on the ride over and the umbrella I bought the day before proved useful again. 

From Abashiri it's only a seven minute bus ride to Abashiri Prison. I was quite impressed with the scope and quality of the exhibits - I probably could have breezed through in an hour and a half but I took my time reading the English displays and exploring the cells. I ended up staying about four hours (including a bit of time in the gift shop and waiting for the return bus). Since I didn't have any other plans today I wasn't worried; I finish my journey to Shiretoko tomorrow morning for a chance to see bears in nature!

Another Trip!

In a couple days I'm heading to Hokkaido. I'll be doing sightseeing in Sapporo and Toya, heading north to Abashiri and Shiretoko Peninsula, and visiting Hokkaido's two major amusement parks. I also expect to see a Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball game in Sapporo, the only NPB home stadium I have not yet visited.
I won't be gone for long. I just don't have enough time to prepare posts in advance, so unless I have a chance to post while I'm on my trip (I hate the Blogger iPhone app) I'll see you when I get back and finish up my posts about Taiwan.

Taichung: That city between Taipei and Tainan

 Most tourists to Taiwan stay in Taipei. It's the international city, and home to the "important" museums and cultural sites. Beyond that, the country has beautiful mountains and oceans, and a lot of history if you head south to Tainan. But I made a stop about halfway down, at the city of Taichung.
 I didn't spend long here - two nights, perhaps - but it proved to be a great base for exploring the central part of the island. From the classic-looking train station (seen in the first picture) you can take a ton of buses around town. I also found the taxis convenient and inexpensive (compared to US and Japan, especially). Apparently an MRT line is being built which will open sometime next year that can make access to some locations more convenient.
 As you can see from the pictures, I spent an evening at a night market. Taichung has a few good ones and lots of great places to eat at the markets, so like everyone else I highly recommend you spend some time here.
 As always there are a lot of clothes, and I found a bunch of character goods, shirts and other clothing/accessories especially. I don't know how much of it is actually licensed but it's fun to look at anyway.
Since Taiwan's night markets are known for the food, be sure to stop and try some of the mystery meats, delicious fresh fruits, or awesome drinks. Taichung also has a couple great museums - an art museum and a science museum.

While Taichung itself is worth about a day, it's perfect for a home base for hiking or sightseeing in the surrounding areas, and has buses to the mountains. For more information on specific locations in town, check out the Wikitravel article.

Baseball in Taiwan: A CPBL Game in Tainan

 Taiwan was a high priority for me as far as Asian travel goes. There were two reasons for that: amusement parks and baseball. The country may not have many theme parks, but they have some great coasters and I was hoping to get on a couple specific rides (that never happened). And as far as Asian baseball goes, Taiwan is one of the big three (along with Japan and Korea).
 I was hoping to see several games on the trip, and if I had really tried hard I could have probably seen more. But I did manage to make it to two games. What you see here is Tainan's main stadium.
 Crowds were light, but some folks chose to sit in the outfield anyway. I don't think you could travel between the outfield and infield seats.
 As you can see, the outfield is actually two levels. Those sitting below had shelter from the sun or rain, those on top possibly having a better view.
 There's a press box behind the plate but most people sat behind the dugout of their favorite team.
 I had an assigned seat here, but I could move around and basically sit wherever I want. Tickets were sold by individual teams at the games I attended, so you chose your favorite team and they gave you a ticket in their section.
 I walked from foul pole to foul pole to take pictures. You can see here that there is a bit of shade cover in the upper seats.
 The scoreboard was fairly standard. Have you tried The Beer?
 The best seats in the house (and inaccessible to actual patrons) were beneath the stands at field level.
 Taiwan has foreigners (up to two per team I think), though there didn't seem to be any big names like in Japan.
 Japan uses Roman characters on the backs of uniforms for player names, but the CPBL uses Chinese characters
 There are only four teams in the CPBL now, despite baseball being very big in Taiwan. Scandals (especially bribery and gambling) fill the history of the league. Fans still come to see the teams play and like Japan, they cheer and wave flags while wearing their team's colors.
 The level of play is on par with AA ball in America, and so is the field lighting.
 So, the cheering "squad" includes a couple drummers who can be heard all over the park. There might be musical instruments involved too.
 "Cheerleader" girls lead the fans in how to bang their noise sticks to cheer for the team.
 And it's all controlled by an "MC" of sorts, who has a microphone to speak the cheers. The job seems to be quite important and honorable, yet the MCs don't draw attention to themselves and seem to try to hide at times.
 The Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions call Tainan their home, although they don't play too many games here. Actually, all teams rotate throughout the country in a sort of constant barnstorming tour. More games are played in Taipei than any other city, though most major cities see several games each season. Each team has a "home" city but that doesn't have much meaning.
 When I showed up at the Lions' fan booth outside the stadium to buy my ticket, the people were very happy to see me - I guess they don't get many foreigners. In addition to the ticket, they gave me a delicious boxed dinner (a giant steak with rice and some vegetables under the steak). And a beer:
Plus, I also got a trucker-style hat. It was pretty cool! (Maybe the ticket I bought included it. Who knows?) Regardless, I enjoyed the food and beer and had a pretty good time at the game. If Japan played its minor league games in larger stadiums I think it would feel something like this. And those who know me well know I enjoy minor league games as much as, if not more than major league games.

As for purchased souvenirs, the selection was pretty slim. I bought a couple team logo items (a ball and a large luggage tag type of thing) and a Taiwan Series commemorative ball. Those were relatively average-priced. I wish I had shelled out the extra cash for the official game ball, pricey but rare. I didn't see one here, but there was one at the other game I went to. Maybe next time I go to Taiwan, right?