Sunday, April 29, 2012

Don't get crabby

A trip to Sapporo

I recommend a trip to Hokkaido at any time, but especially during the Sapporo Snow Festival. While Sapporo is a fairly big city, it feels far more laid-back than Tokyo, the streets are wide, and the subway isn’t crowded. Even during the snow festival, it was easy to get around, and the restaurants weren’t full. Hokkaido is famous for skiing in winter and in summer it’s a welcome escape from the humidity of mainland Japan. But most of all, it’s famous for food! Sapporo is omiyage heaven!

Sapporo Tokeidai, a clock tower built in the 1870s

Down in Susukino, frozen fish display

A sushi cake! Chirashi sushi full of Hokkaido specialties

So what are the meibutsu? Seafood, of course, especially salmon, sea urchin and crab. All over Susukino – the downtown part of Sapporo – you’ll find restaurants dedicated to crab, with giant crab sculptures to advertise their wares. The “tegani” (a hairy crab) signs are especially creepy. 

Curry is popular all over Japan and in Hokkaido, the specialty is "soup curry", a great way to keep warm. Rice is served separately, so you take a spoonful of rice and dip it into the curry ‘soup’. It’s not unlike Mulligatawny. Lamb is also popular in Hokkaido, but it has a bad image in Japan – perhaps people expect a strong, “mutton” flavour, so it tends to be disguised with lots of garlic, served Mongolian style as “Genghis Khan”.

Great packaging for Rakkyo Soup Curry

A famous supplier of crab and other seafood

Creepily realistic

I found this delicious salmon, wrapped in wakame seaweed and steamed, layered to look like sushi, from Rebun Island, one of the northern-most parts of Japan. It looks like a beautiful place, and I’d love to visit in summer. In winter, I imagine it’s bitterly cold. You can learn more about the place and their delicious seafood here:

Rebun Island salmon

Corn, potatoes, asparagus, melons, and butter, cream and chocolate are also famous products of Hokkaido, often combined! So you have miso flavour ramen with corn and butter, butter-flavour caramels, chocolate potato chips, chocolate-dipped corn crisps and chocolate beer (of course, Sapporo Beer is one of THE famous products!)

Milk caramel and butter caramel

One famous sweets companies is Royce, home of the most decadent hot chocolate, perfect for warming up on a cold day. But it's most famous product is chocolate potato chips. The combination of slightly crisp and salty with rich chocolate actually works.

Chocolate and potato chips - perfect

As I mentioned before, Marusei Butter Sand by Rokkatei is also a very popular take-home gift: rich rum and raisin butter cream, sandwiched between buttery cookies. 

The logo, incorporating the Marusei kanji and butter in katakana, is beautiful.

A trip to Otaru, about 30 mins by train, is really worth it. In winter, the view as the train speeds along the coast through the snow, is gorgeous. Make sure you stick around after sunset, when the canals and streets are lit with icy lanterns and candles. The town has an unusual, European feel, with historic buildings and warehouses. In Marchen Square you’ll find a big Rokkatei store (home of those delicious Butter Sand cookies and a whole lot of other sweets including freeze-dried strawberries coated in chocolate), also Kitakaro for cakes and LeTao for cheese cake (anyone who watches Saturday morning TV in Tokyo will know those commercials, “LeTao, tabetai!”). LeTao has a nice cafĂ© upstairs – a good place to kill time and keep warm waiting for the sun to set.

Otaru Canal at night

The sign, slightly melted, outside LeTao

Finally, you can’t visit Sapporo without a trip to the Ishiya factory, home of Shiroi Koibito, made since 1976. “Shiroi Koibito Park” is set in a kitschy faux Tudor mansion, with an English garden, various eccentric collections of toys and paraphernalia, and of course, the factory, which smells amazing. You can watch those perfectly crisp sable biscuits meet white chocolate, though some crucial processes are hidden. Shiroi Koibito means “white lover”, a reference, I guess to the perfect ‘marriage’ of white chocolate and biscuit. Ishiya wasn’t happy when comedy company Yoshimoto Kogyo released Omoshiroi Koibito – “funny lover” – cookies in 2010. While it’s a funny idea, I can see why Ishiya complained – the packaging is remarkably similar.

Inside the factory

Shiroi Koibito - you can buy them at Narita Airport, too.

Left: original Shiroi Koibito. Right: "Omoshiroi Koibito"


  1. very natsukashii :) went to Hokkaido- Sapporo, Otaru and Hakodate on our honeymoon eight years ago.

  2. It's beautiful in winter and somehow doesn't seem as cold as Tokyo! I'd like to see it in summer, though.