Hokkaidō part 2: Hakodate (函館), Otaru (小樽), Sapporo (札幌)

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Niseko (ニセコ) in the shadow of Mt. Yūtai

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.

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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.

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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 specialtyJingisukan ジンギスカン “Genghis Khan”.

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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.

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café Cat & Fish 福岡

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Fast becoming my favourite area in all Fukuoka; Daimyo has an extensive selection of cafes, bars, and fashionable shops that somehow manage to stay open. From the main drag, turn right before you hit Loft, and right again so that you are behind Tenjin station and you are right in the middle of a trendsetter’s habitat. People are cooler, style is tighter and café/bars are set in a mix of vintage fashion and high retail.

IMG_8383Drawn like a moth to a flame by the word ‘tacos’ at the very modest price of ¥580, a recent favourite of mine is the cat & fish bar and café, and since going twice I have been unable to stray far from the three tacos on offer; jerk chicken taco, a pulled pork taco, and a spicy tuna taco. All effortlessly satisfying for an expat who desires an inexpensive western meal. Other staple favourites include a daily pasta dish and specialty baked curry: ¥680 on their own or as part of a coffee and salad set for ¥1080. Café Cat and Fish also has a wide selection of cocktails for the partying kind, making this a wonderful venue to begin a night. I had a very well balanced and crisp gin and tonic. But if you’re not that way inclined, the juices are equally thirst quenching and the coffee is rich.

This is a rather small café and both times I’ve been we sat at the counter to feel slightly less in the way, but our presence was no cause for concern for the friendly staff, who were gracious and attentive throughout.IMG_8386The café has the atmosphere of a relaxed cabana but the bustle that comes with popularity. You can be sure the place will be fairly packed with just enough space to accommodate you. There are many cafes in the same area, and all of them probably deserve a visit (I know I’ll be going to all of them) but this one is a great one to start with and with a name like, ‘cafe Cat & Fish’. Why not?

福岡市中央区大名1−1−24
11:00 – 23:00 (LO)

lunch until 18:00

closed Mondays, Tuesdays if holiday.

shabby cafe Hana*Bi 糸島


11086994_10202738817191547_547216387_nHalf an hour outside of Karatsu, a long winding road mounts the narrow edge of the coast and allows a long unbroken view of the ocean. Near the city of Itoshima, midway along the main road, a small unimposing shop, shabby cafe Hana*Bi overlooks the sea. Stepping out of the car, the smell of the waves hit you immediately, but they’re mixed with the faint smell of lavender and rosemary from the bushes that line the property.

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On a small wooden swing out in front, a bunny family of three keeps watch over the tides. Inside, the shop is decorated with vintage items, all purchasable and yet each time I’ve been the cafe’s decor has remained very much intact, aside from the vintage pins that appear to be regularly pillaged. You wonder just how many customers there must be as the shop manages to maintain a level of cool undisturbed tranquility. The friendly shop owner runs the place on his own and for this reason perhaps, there is a choice of only two courses on the menu. 961707_10202738814471479_2127836778_nThere is a thai Curry course or a sweets course (usually cheesecake) If you’re me and you love thai curry, this needn’t bother you. A curry and a drink will set you back Y1000, if the sweet course is more your speed, a drink and a slice of cheesecake is Y750. My experiences at this café have always been particularly sweet, taking the time to drive up on a sunny day, the café is always bathed in a serene warm sunlight and it glitters through the glass items that litters the window sils. The view of the sea, as you sip ginger (hot or cold) is especially relaxing and I usually spend a considerable amount of time looking out and watching the waves. When it is time to go, the bill is paid, and I take one last glance at an item I can’t quite justify spending my paycheck on, it’s back on the road

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糸島市千早新田208-3
tel 092-335-3408
open 11:00 until sunset

Caffé Luna 唐津

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Local to the Karatsu area, Caffé Luna, not 5 minutes walk from Karatsu station is a popular cafe/bar that I can’t seem to stay away from. Sometimes the place is bustling, others it is fairly quiet. Last time I went the lights were low and it was just myself and a friend.

There isn’t much seating, soparties are limited to no more than four (though there is an upstairs for bigger events) seating at the counter makes for some easy chat with the bar staff but equally one can keep to oneself.

The thing I like most about this cafe other than the food (which is always on point) is the textures. The Karatsu area is known for it’s pottery and all the cups and plates are locally made. The cups in particular, are a favourite of mine. Made by local artist 吉氷サダム (Sadamu Yoshihi), the sleek lines and hues of his pottery are both modern and satisfyingly earthy. On numerous occasions I have been found caressing the cups mid conversation. 唐津焼 (Karatsu-yaki) is known for it’s simplicity and ‘sturdiness’. The fired clays are rich in iron and produce a earthy and textured style of pottery that is considered one of the top styles for Japanese tea ceremonies. This makes for the perfect gift and anyone local to the area can find his pieces, moderately inexpensively, at the Ichiban Gallery in the Karatsu shopping arcade around the corner from Luna. A huge hit with the parents.

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Caffe Luna has an extensive menu, catering easily for those looking for a fulfilling meal and those looking for something light. I especially enjoy the Luna Baked Curry. A warming dish that is sure to satisfy any appetite. Baked inside the curry is a runny egg that mixes once broken in the generous portion size for a truly comforting meal. The cafe has a number of coffees, alcoholic drinks and raw juice smoothies to accompany as well. Prices are moderate, the curry will set you back ¥800 in the evening and ¥750 at lunch. Coffees are around ¥500 although lunch time deals make for a cheaper alternative. If you fancy something a little sweeter, the Crepes, at ¥550 to ¥850 are a fantastic price and sumptuously decadent. My personal favourite is the Butter Sugar Mille Feuille; crispy crepes layered with caramelised butter and sugar, but i have been reliably told that the Cinnamon Maple is especially good too. 

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If you ever find yourself in the seaside town of Karatsu, in Saga prefecture. I strongly advice a short break at Caffe Luna. Your weary feet will thank you.
佐賀県唐津市京町1768−4
open from 11:30 – 24:00, OS 23:30
closed Wednesdays and early closing Sundays (15:00)

L’Occitane, “Terasu do Purobyansu” 渋谷

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View from 2F L’Occitane Cafe over Shibuya crossing

 

Visible from one of the busiest intersections in the world, L’Occitane’s Cafe “Terrace of Provenance” is a terrace sanctuary overlooking the crowds in the heart of Tokyo. Opened in 2008, across the road from Hachiko, the cafe is the embodiment of the L’Occitane brand; fresh and luxurious.

The first floor is laid out just like the over 2,000 L’Occitane stores worldwide selling fragrances more suited to the South of France than a busy intersection in Tokyo’s Shibuya district; But round to the back and up the stairs, opens up an entirely different atmosphere. The place is bright and airy with floor to ceiling windows; the bright yellow colours instantly brighten the mood without being garish; and as we get to our seats we notice that the place is busy, but not overcrowded. Often with places near huge tourist draws, the temptation is to prize quick turnover over quality but L’Occitane Cafe felt neither too crowded nor pressured. As we made our selections from the menu; a salad, a dessert and a pot of tea, we took photos, we chatted and we rested. At no point were we hastened for a decision. Our salad arrived first, gorgeously fragrant with balsamic dressing.

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The salad was well-balanced and generous for the price. The bread was crisp and paired with a delicately fragrant olive oil. We ate every last bit and wished we’d had more. Next came the tea. A loose leaf Jasmine tea with selection of honeys to sweeten. I noticed on the way out that the teas can be bought for home too, in rather sweet packaging too. The Jasmine tea was a good blend; refreshing and relaxing. Next came the Creme Brûlée. It cracked wonderfully with a tap of a spoon and the creme was sweet with vanilla but unfortunately the centre had been slightly overdone; the sugar caramelised to a burn and the taste conclusively bitter. The outsides however were perfect and naturally it didn’t stop me eating the whole thing anyway.

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L’Occitane has two other such stores in Tokyo, a branch store in Ikebukuro and Shinjuku but the scramble crossing view has to make this one a must-see. Over the road in Starbucks your stay at the cafe is on a clock and there’s a staff member on hold to prevent any overstaying which makes the whole affair a little restless. Having lived in Tokyo for a while I have often seen the L’Occitane cafe on the corner but had always been hesitant to enter should my purse shrivel and die. These fears are largely unfounded as the L’Occitane cafe is not at all prohibitively expensive. A pot of tea and a dessert is just over ¥1500 and there are a fantastic range of wonderfully decadent drinks for under ¥1000.

〒150-0043
東京都渋谷区道玄坂2-3-1 渋谷駅前ビル2-3階
5(井の頭口)出口すぐ

Hokkaidō Part 1: Lake Touya (洞爺湖)、Oonuma Park (大沼公園)、Country Kitchen WALD (カントリーキッチンWALD)

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Lake Touya, Hokkaidō 洞爺湖、北海道

Heart, body and soul finally returned from my trip it’s time to delve into my photos and recall the homely and comforting tastes of the North of Japan. My recent trip took me to Hokkaido for the yearly snow festival (雪まつり) and a spate of skiing. I had a couple of foods on my checklist to try and I certainly feel I managed just about all of them.

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Oonuma Quasi-National Park, Hokkaidō 大沼公園、北海道

From Fukuoka we’d stopped briefly in Tokyo before heading North. We flew into Shin-Chitose Airport  新千歳空港 on the 8th February and rented a car. Easing our way onto Hokkaido’s treacherous roads we drove immediately to Lake Touya, passing Lake Shikotsu somewhere in the dark, cold night. The lakes of Hokkaido are vast and visibly chilling but we weren’t to see until the morning from the warmth of our hotel room. We’d arrived particularly late at our hotel and had been informed that we had missed the dinner service. However, not shortly after we had settled down to watch the fireworks did someone come in with heavily laden trays and start distributing two absolutely decadent place settings. After dinner we went to our onsen before settling in for the night.

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Country Kitchen WALD, カントリーキッチンWALD

In the morning we set off for Hakodate, a drive that took several hours in low visibility and icy conditions. We spent most of the journey trying to keep a view of the car in front using them as our guide through billowing snows. We stopped at the Onuma Quasi-National Park 20 km north of our destination, Hakodate. Seemingly a favourite among ducks and swans the collection of lakes is famous for its picturesque scenery but any venturing outside was checked by bitter winds. We drove around lakes for some time, negotiating the roads as best we could. We were gratified to find a delightful little hut restaurant Country Kitchen WALD with warm company and a warm wood-burning stove. (A stove the owner was delighted in telling us came from Ireland, my companion’s home country).

As the owners quietly delegated who would serve the foreigners and how much English they’d be able to use we brushed off the snow and began to warm ourselves. I ordered the lamb meal which had just about everything on it. Japan is not known for being lamb eaters, 70% of Japan’s lamb production comes from Hokkaido. For this reason I was quite eager to try just about any lamb I could get my hands on. The lamb itself was local to the area as was the bacon that topped my companion’s pizza. The bread, home made, was crisp and freshly baked. The lamb was succulent, cooked rare and buttery. The baked cheese fondue was also a delightful accompaniment and pick me up. Noses cold and red from the snow we ate greedily and felt real warmth once again

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The smell of the logs burning in the stove and the heat emanating through the glass brought a warm glow to my cheeks and a sleepiness to my eyes but we were not yet at Hakodate, and the road continued on.

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青山 Aoyama Flower Market TEA HOUSE, 東京

Aoyama flower market is a well-established chain of flower shops across Japan but predominantly based in Tokyo. They thrive on the concept of 「Living With Flowers Everyday」and have thus developed a chain of greenhouse style ‘Tea Houses’ within the Tokyo area. There are currently three opened at the moment; the Kichijoji branch, the Akasaka branch and the main branch in Aoyama. On my recent travels and jaunt to Tokyo I went to the Aoyama branch. Tucked away at the back of the shop itself, amidst the verdancy and redolence opens up a welcoming and enchanting greenhouse space. Behind the brushed black steel framed greenhouse lies a cafe in the potting shed. The flowers in their abundance bring a tangible warmth under the delicate hand blown glass pendant lights. The place shimmers. I’m thoroughly impressed with the place and I haven’t even been seated yet.

Directed to our table, it turns out that the weekly flower is Ranunculus and each table has a bouquet of them. The menu, a mixture of french and almost english, is placed delicately on the table and we set about making our choices. Partial to the more floral flavours I opt for a rose tea while my companion orders a coffee enthused tea.  As for food, for the most part we have already enviably selected what we want from what we’ve seen on others tables but in the end I am swayed from the delicious sweets that I see and decide on an opulent and textured winter salad. My companion chooses the Flower French Toast, topped with a gorgeous cream and ice cream, strewn with beautiful edible flowers and dripping in rum.
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The Winter Salad was ¥1,080 and the Flower French Toast was ¥918. The teas, of which you get a good three cups, were around ¥700 each. 
The tea comes first and we are warned of the slightly precarious nature of the tea pots. It’s a stunning design but less functional as the top is prone to falling off when pouring the tea. Nevertheless I find them charming. We are given a sand timer and are told to wait three minutes for the tea to steep. This gives my companion and I the chance to chart our next stops while in Tokyo before we succumb to food and comfort. My rose tea is fragrant and subtle. Really all that a rose tea should be, not overpowering or overly tart. The coffee enthused tea is slightly stranger in my opinion but works surprisingly well. Not long after, perhaps a cup in, our meals arrive. The assumption is, naturally, that we plan to share the salad, and then share the dessert and so in Japanese fashion both come at separate times. We do in fact share, in the end as we are both eager to taste each others’ dishes. The bread rolls that come with my salad are warm and taste wonderful. The bacon liberally sprinkled in the salad is luxuriant and satisfying, mentioned here if only because bacon itself is extraordinarily hit and miss in Japan. When my companions meal arrives it is stunning to look at. The edible flowers have very little taste to them but work well with the french toast and creams. Supplying an island of savoury in a tremendously sweet dish. Fortified we were again ready to face the streets of Otomesando. The meal was a decadent and relaxing affair. The cafe itself was breathing gently and  the air was sharper, clearer and more flavourful for it. Priding itself on the concept of living with flowers, Aoyama Flower Market’s TEA HOUSEs delivers spectacularly. If you’re ever in Tokyo and need an escape from the bustle I would highly recommend a visit.