Shooting down what we could only assume were roads we drove onto our next stop, Hakodate 函館, located at Hokkaido’s southern tip. The city is famed for its star-shaped, western style citadel, Fort Goryōkaku 五稜郭, best-viewed from the 107-metre observation tower. However, as we arrived the weather turned suddenly fool and bitter snow flurries made driving and sightseeing virtually impossible. We had intended to see Goryōkaku as soon as we arrived but having decided that we wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway, we settled into our hotel and tried to warm ourselves up. As it grew later and the weather had still not improved we went out in search of libations. The winds cut through us immediately as we stepped outside. Our insufficient winter gear did little to keep us from the harsh winds and the prospect of a warming bowl of ramen kept us motivated enough to crawl down the block. After what could generously be called a short walk, we made it, finally and dramatically to a ramen shop. We settled down in a tucked away ramen street stall shack and ordered two bowls of steaming hot ‘salt based’ ramen, a Hakodate specialty. In the chill, it was precisely what we needed. Nose streaming with the sudden heat, the feeling came back to my fingers and the snow covering my shoulders melted away. When it’s as cold as this you can really see why ramen is a Hokkaidō staple. We finished up and decided some light to heavy drinking was in order. My guidebook had highlighted a really nice café/bar in the area and I was excited to try it out – even in the heavy snowfall. However, after trekking around the area several times we discovered that the place was closed, and even abandoned looking buried under thick snow. Disheartened a little and pretty thoroughly soaked through by now we went to a bar nearby, one that turned out to have also been in my guidebook. Plastered with Cuban paraphernalia it appeared to be a rum bar with a side on cigars. We sat in the warmth and peeled off our multiple and virtually useless layers of clothing and fortified ourselves with the finest of alcoholic beverages while we planned out the following day.
The weather had settled by the morning and the sky was clear and blue. We hoped to pass by a small onsen town and stop briefly but finding ourselves 30 minutes from the main road and still nowhere near our onsen made us aware of the vastness of Hokkaidō. When we did arrive, the onsen was closed. After a quick rejuvenating snowball fight, in which my advantage of a pair of gloves was met with a gentle and game-changing push into a snowdrift, we traced our way back to the main road. We hadn’t planned to but after looking at the map I realised we passed Niseko. A small diversion would mean we could pass through Niseko and perhaps see something of the famous ski resort. As we briskly flitted down less brutal roads we came across the sleepy little town in the wake of the snow-covered Mt. Youtei. We stopped to get a better look at it, this grand mountain rising over such a small and rural town. We walked around a little before returning to our car. We were yet to complete that day’s journey and the time was running out on us. As the sky began to dim and the clear skies and the open roads of Niseko began to fade into one deep white we knew we were nearing Otaru 小樽. A port town in the northwest of Sapporo, Otaru is historically important for trade. The canals, built in 1923, are lined either side with Victorian-style lanterns and preserved buildings from the Meiji and Taisho eras. Notably, the city is famous for its glass and great warehouses of the past have been repurposed to house shops selling glass trinkets from little animals to lanterns. In one such warehouse is a café, Kitaichi 北一ホール. From the high vaulted ceiling hang oil lanterns that emit such a powerful aroma of kerosene that you feel transported to a time before the light bulb, if not for the twinkling world map and strings of ferry lights cresting the wall behind the bar.
We grabbed a coffee, conscious of the time, and sat in the dim yellow lantern light. The café is undeniably a tourist trap, the street itself with its glass trinket souvenir shops is a tourist trap too, but the warm and inviting light of the lanterns makes it comforting and nostalgic. Having arrived later than we’d wished we sauntered round the shops briefly, but with no determination to buy anything and walked back to the car. The Victorian lamps glittering and the winter festive illuminations glimmering in the cold Hokkaidan night made me warmly content and excited to head to a nearby café. The thick snows of Hokkaido made navigating the city difficult, a few slippy hills and tight corners later we found ourselves stuck, unable to drive up the hill and unable to turn as well. We manoeuvred awkwardly for a while in our deep icy grooves before finally being saved by a group of locals. Thanking them profusely we hurried on, embarrassed that we’d managed to wedged ourselves in so securely. We knew we wouldn’t find the café without risking a repeat performance so we decided to head on to Sapporo. It didn’t take me long to realise however, that I’d mislaid my phone. Sailing from one tragedy to the next, an hour later, having checked just about everywhere we’d been and in the snow in the parking lot we decided It must’ve fallen from the car or been placed down by me when I was pushing the car. I’d also, rather inconveniently lost my glasses too and we assumed that this must’ve been at the same time. A little perturbed and silently cursing my own stupidity we made our way to the final stop of the day, Sapporo, Hokkaidō’s major city and a major destination for me. We dropped off our bags as soon as we could and headed into town with nothing in our stomachs and food in mind. Myself, desperately hoping for a distraction from my own foolishness. We decided we’d try another local specialty, Jingisukan ジンギスカン “Genghis Khan”.
Jingisukhan is lamb and vegetables cooked on a helmet-shaped skillet and as rumour and speculation would have it came from Mongolian troops who would cook using this method while under the great and devastating Genghis Khan from which the name derives. The helmet shape brings all the juices of the cooked meat to reservoir at the rims where the vegetables simmer away. A great fan of yakiniku, this was soon a firm favourite and at a manageable budget of about ¥2,000 each I would say it was worth it. In the Susukino district of Sapporo there are many options for Jingisukhan but we settled eventually on Yukidaruma 雪だるま, “Snowman”. The place itself was bare bones but following the recommendation of my guidebook, and the photos that showed a good spread of food, we were keen to try it out. When we got there, there was a contingent of salary men, drinking riotously with their bosses and chain smoking as per the custom. We sat ourselves down at the bar and were graciously received. The place may have looked a little worn, characterful if a little bare but the cut of the lamb was fantastic and melted delicately in our mouths. The warmth from our hosts and the observance of Japanese drinking culture was also cheering and was just what we needed to start off another night of drinking. We met up with fellow teachers in the area and managed to find an affordable and satiating Nomihoudai (or All-you-can-drink) in a rather sleek looking jazz bar. It appeared to be a pretty confirmed gaijin establishment as the clientele soon became predominantly ALT. The rest of the night very quickly became a blur of faces and names. At one point in the evening, bolstered by gin tonics, I distinctly remember befriending a Japanese woman and encouraging her to dance. And then encouraging the room to dance. And then watching a room full of Japanese people dancing. Suffice to say, I don’t remember too much more after this.