Day 14 (Jan. 28/20) – Sapporo Brewery and Ghenghis Khan Part 2

One of the bad habits I’ve gotten into during my trip is having sweets for breakfast. It started with custard buns from the convenience store accompanied by a bottle of milk tea. It’s since progressed to more high-end treats. In a mall close to my hotel, there’s a kiosk that sells donuts and buns where you pick the filling and they inject it into the pastry on the spot. Oh what a world we live in!

Donut with Tiramisu filling.
Custard cream puff.

I got a bit of a late start to the day and walked over to the Sapporo Brewery to check out the tour. They have two options, a free tour where you’re let loose to wander the museum or a premium guided tour that starts with a brief movie. The premium tour is mostly in Japanese but the movie has english subtitles and there are english explanation cards throughout the museum. But, the main draw of the premium tour is the free sample of their original recipe beer, which isn’t available otherwise.

Couldn’t tell you which one is the original recipe and which is the modern black label one.

I was pretty hungry after the tour and, conveniently, they just so happen to have a couple of restaurants on-site. The Ghenghis Khan barbeque features prominently in them so I had to try it. There was an all-you-can-eat in 80 minutes option where you get a choice of three meats: beef rib, frozen lamb slices and fresh lamb. It also comes with my favourite vegetables, token ones, that you can order as much as you want too. For an extra 1000 yen, there’s also an all-you-can-drink option, but I don’t need to be a blubbering mess midway through the afternoon.

All-you-can-eat for 80 minutes? Challenge accepted!

After recovering from my food coma, I decided to check out the night view from the Mt. Moiwa Observatory. I thought I was done with these, but Mt. Moiwa is touted to have one of the best night views in Japan. The reviews for it were also strong so I made my way out to there. The ascent is in two stages. Part one is on a big gondola while part two is in two smaller cablecars. The view was spectacular, better than the JR Tower. Again, it’s really not possible to capture it all on a photo but they do have a couple of cute mascots.

Mascots at Mt. Moiwa. They look surprised or worried, what do they know that I don’t?

Day 13 (Jan. 27/20) – Sapporo Part 2

Not a whole lot of excitement today – just checking out Sapporo, the shopping district (Tanukikoji) and entertainment area (Susukino). Tanukikoji is a covered shopping avenue very popular with visitors. Lined with restaurants and shops of all sorts. Even a few hotels have direct entrances from here.

This was a little before noon. By the afternoon, this place was packed.

Susukino is Sapporo’s entertainment district. During the day it’s mostly shopping but at night, it’s all neon, nightclubs and restaurants. Reminded me a bit of Times Square. They also have some interesting buildings in the area that I found just wandering.

The King Xmhu nightclub. Love the Aztec theme. There were also a couple 24-hour Brazilian bars in the area.
Random Americana. I have no explanation. Didn’t even notice Marilyn there until after I took the photo.

Sapporo has a big snow and ice festival coming up. Unfortunately, it starts after I leave but the preparations are in full swing. Odori park is a big walkway in the middle of downtown running about a kilometre and a half. I thought the entire park was under construction until I saw what they were working on.

Snow sculpture in progress. They have them along the entire length of the park. The scaffold and the workers give you an idea of how big this thing is.

The last thing I wanted to try tonight was to take in the view from the JR Tower Observatory. For some reason, every major city has an observatory (or several). I had a couple of options but didn’t want to make the trek out to Mt. Moiwa for the view there so I stayed downtown and paid a few bucks to get to the JR Tower Observatory. I tried taking some photos but it’s tough to capture how majestic the view is. Especially since it every photo is basically a bunch of lights without context. So instead, I took a photo of the view from the mens washroom.

Open concept with a nice view over Sapporo looking northeast.

On my way to find a sushi restaurant, I came across an all-you-can-eat steak place. To translate the kanji at the bottom left, it says women – 1999 yen and men – 2199 yen (figure about $20 USD and $22 USD respectively). That is a crazy amount of food!

Who does this? Little did I know, I’d be diving headfirst down that rabbit hole tomorrow (ooh, foreshadowing….)

Day 12 (Jan. 26/20) – Highway to Hell

Noboribetsu is a pretty popular hot spring resort town. The big red dude’s name is Yukijin, In some form or other, he’s the mascot for the town. The big draw, aside from the onsens, is Jigokudani, or Hell Valley.

They picked a demon for a mascot because Hell is hot, get it? But don’t worry, he’s a nice demon and takes away bad luck.

The main part of the town is practically two streets: one full of shops and restaurants and one with access to hotels and resorts. At the end of the shopping street, you arrive at Jigokudani. Like Onuma Park, there are trails that take you into Hell Valley.

That’s steam rising from the geothermal spots where the water bubbles up.

The landscape is pretty dramatic with some neat colouration that I assume is from the various minerals in the ground. But, sensitive visitors be warned – there is a unique odour from the hot springs that permeates the town. I’m guessing it’s the sulphur.

Unfortunately, only two trails into Hell Valley were open with the rest being closed for the winter. So, having finished the trails and not wanting to do any more walking for a bit, I visited the onsen in the Grand Hotel. They boast a number of different baths depending on the hot spring source: salt, iron and sulphur were the ones I spotted, aside from just a regular hot water bath. Very relaxing but the highlight is the outdoor section where the sulphur bath is. Unbelievable the scenery you can get in an area that’s part of a hotel.

This is the outdoor onsen area. To the left, you might see a section that’s iced over. That is actually a small waterfall from the hot springs.

Feeling rested and refreshed from the onsen, I strolled the town going through the various souvenir stores. On a side note, I’ve been looking for Advil to help with my knee and I notice that none of the stores carry it. Luckily, there are other brands of analgesics I can try.

Oh Yukijin, you mischievous scamp!

One thing I’ve learned about the smaller towns is that the restaurants close right after the main lunch rush. And, of course, I mis-timed things here in Noboribetsu so I had to settle for some snacks before I could get real food somewhere else – namely Sapporo.

Luckily, the wonder that is the Japanese convenience store comes through again. There are whole webpages devoted to those products so I won’t go into it much here. Suffice to say the Japanese are far ahead in terms of their convenience store game – you can eat very well just at the convenience store. And not just cold food but hot food too. I recall walking into a convenience store one morning and the staff were preparing some of the hot food, packing rice into plastic bowls and laying out the toppings by hand.

Mmm, zaru-soba from 7-11.

Day 11 (Jan. 25/20) – Onuma National Park

For whatever reason, most of the sources I’ve read have Onuma listed as a Quasi-National Park. Not sure why that is and I don’t care enough to look it up. When it’s not winter, the Park is a bunch of islands connected by bridges, but in winter, the lake freezes over.

There were a bunch of monuments scattered throughout the park.  I found a few and none of them had any explanation in English.  Even the one that’s explicitly listed on the map doesn’t have an explanation behind why it’s there, just a name.  The others I found were a stone pagoda (without any kind of marker or sign) and a stone column that had kanji I couldn’t read.

That map says this is the “Thousand Winds Monument”.  No other explanation was offered.

There were a number of trails available through the park and I tried all but one.  Unfortunately, being a beautiful sunny day, the snow was melting and refreezing on the trails making them very icy.  In a couple spots, it was safer to walk off-trail on the snow or even on the frozen lake rather than taking the trail or crossing by the bridge.  And of course, what’s better after a day of hiking?  Craft beer.

From L to R:  Kolsh, Alt (whatever that is), IPA and Stout

Seems like every small town in Japan has a craft brewery, but all the beers were good.  I also ordered their Wagyu beef curry for lunch.

The one piece of beef in there was very tasty.

Hokkaido is known for its milk products, especially soft-serve ice cream.  So, to be a complete tourist, I had to try it.  Delicious and not at all inky tasting.

The colour’s off but this is the squid ink ice cream.

Instead of heading straight back to the hotel, I decided to scout out tomorrow’s stop – the onsen town of Noboribetsu. I was surprised getting off the train that there was really nothing going on. I expected to see some hot spring resorts along with the standard tourist shops and restaurants. The town looked surprisingly dead. I walked down the street from the station for a bit, turning around when I saw the sign saying that the hot spring hotels were 7 km away. I had no intention of walking that far so I popped into a local yakitori restaurant for dinner.

This guy greeted me at the Noboribetsu train station. He’s basically the town mascot. More on him tomorrow.
Continuing the trend of food on a stick. No idea what was on the plate – I ordered a combo platter, but it was all good.

Back at the hotel, I gave the public bath a try. Sort of a trial run before I hit the hot springs tomorrow. Very relaxing, although I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of showering while sitting down.


Day 10 (Jan. 24/20) – On the Road Again

One last small-town stay as I leave Otaru heading for Highashi-Muroran. I picked this place because it is reasonably close to the hot spring town of Noboribetsu and it had more affordable hotels. But, because of the distance, today is going to be taken up mostly by the train ride.

For some reason, I thought the train looked vaguely menacing. A little like a Cylon for you Battlestar Galactica nerds.

There is very little to say about this town – it’s small and it’s close to where I want to be. Even Google had very information about it. I did find a blog post from 2010 that was long, rambling and depressing but captured the sense of the place pretty well.

A view of the town from the train station. I think those are steel mills in the distance.
My first hotel room with a view.

I said it once and I’ll say it again – how do Japanese people stay so slim with all the food options they have, especially the deep fried ones? I found a place that serves kushiage, basically food on a stick that’s deep fried. Delicious but oh, so unhealthy.

From L to R: a specialty skewer (couldn’t tell what it was), chicken thigh, asparagus and pork.
From L to R: weiner (that’s what it said on the menu), quail eggs, shishito peppers, onion and bacon.

Day 9 (Jan. 23/20) – Whisky and then Sapporo, Briefly

Back at it today with trips to a whisky distillery in Yoichi and a quick jaunt over to Sapporo, both shortish trips from Otaru.

The founder of Nikka Whisky travelled to Scotland in 1918 to learn how to make whisky and started up Nikka Whisky in 1934. I can’t say I have much of a palette for whisky, but the stuff is pretty good.

Doing it old school. Apparently, very few distilleries anywhere in the world use direct coal-fire anymore.

The tour is mainly in Japanese with a few spots of English here and there. The highlights are the whisky museum and, of course, the tasting. The entrance to the museum is through a set of sliding doors from the outside and it makes a hell of an impression when those doors open into a darkened room with a giant pot still in the middle. This area is almost entirely in Japanese but you can buy tasting samples at the bar in the back.

They also have some cool bottles from through the years.

And after a couple of paid samples (I can highly recommend the Woody and Vanillic 12-year single malt), they had free samples at their tasting room.

With a nice buzz on, I hopped the train to Sapporo. I have to admit, I needed a taste of big city after my days in Otaru. On top of that, I need to get the most out of my rail pass. I only stayed for a few hours but I’ll be back soon enough, after one more small town.

Picked up some souvenirs for the kids.

I had dinner in Sapporo and discovered this place called Ramen Republic. It takes up half of the tenth floor in the Esta shopping tower and consists of eight ramen restaurants. I circled the area for 20 minutes just trying to decide where to eat. In the end I settled on a restaurant that served spicy miso ramen. It is, so far, the best ramen I have ever had.

Enter here to unleash deliciousness. Welcome to Ramen Republic.
Best ramen ever!

Day 8 (Jan. 22/20) – Otaru at night, mostly

My sleep schedule is still pretty messed up and having access to Netflix isn’t helping. I’m hooked on American Horror Story, which I don’t get on Canadian Netflix, and I can’t seem to get out of the hotel before 11 am.

I pretty much gave up on today and figured I’d get a ton of sleep after lunch, then head out in the evening to see what the town’s like at night.

Ramen for lunch.

Otaru also isn’t very old compared to other Japanese towns. So those little alleys feel more contrived here. Like they tried to recreate the charm but couldn’t quite do it. Overall, a nice side trip from the big city but four days was a bit much.

Quaint but not quite the same.

The canal area is pretty at night but walking through the same tourist districts I had yesterday, both were essentially closed for the night. There was one stretch where I didn’t see another person for half an hour. Guess they roll up the sidewalks around 8 or 9 pm.

I passed on two restaurants that looked like they were full of tourists which is how I ended up at a German beer hall.  The local craft beer was the draw, that and the fact that they were open.  The beer was good, the grilled cheese and bacon potatoes, not as good as it sounds.

At least there’s beer

Day 7 (Jan. 21/20) – Otaru and Jingisukan

Otaru is a small town, just outside of Sapporo and popular with tourists because of the canal and its history. I think there are even more Chinese tourists here than in Asahikawa. They’re everywhere and it seems like they’re always arguing or yelling about something, especially the Cantonese ones.

Tourists everywhere!

I figured Otaru would be a nice place to slow down. With all the walking, my right knee has started to hurt and stairs have been a challenge. Luckily, I did find some stuff at the drug store that has helped.

The highlight of the first day was lunch. I was looking for a place that wasn’t too touristy and ended up at a barbecue restaurant where I was the only patron. Maybe that should have been a warning, but I was hungry from missing dinner the night before.

What little research I did on Hokkaido did mention a dish that’s sort of specific to the area. Jingisukan is basically lamb barbecue. If you put on a heavy, racist Asian accent, you can translate Jingisukan as Ghenghis Khan.

This is lunch for one.

There are essentially two main tourist areas in Otaru, the canal and a street that runs parallel to the canal a few blocks up. I walked both areas today, dodging tourists the entire time. That’s pretty much all there is to see in the city.

Not much going on today, so here’s a snowman.


A Brief Interlude

Some odds and ends from the trip so far that didn’t fit into the other posts. I am so easily amused..

Seems like a bad idea to me
Is this a warning or a threat?
For the record, there were no snakes overhead
The ever-helplful Japanese
In case you didn’t know
I can’t even say the word titmouse without laughing like a little schoolgirl
Pretty aggressive name for a clothing store

Day 6 (Jan. 20/20) – March of the Penguins

After the debacle at the Ice Pavilion, I hoped that Asahiyama Zoo had more to offer. It’s billed as the northernmost zoo in Japan and they do a pretty good job with animals from colder climates. In fact, the only complaint I had about the zoo was the tourists, mostly Chinese, who acted like they’d never seen snow before.

Pretty cool seal exhibit. Those things are bigger than you think.

I was surprised how close you could get to some of the animals. They sure do put a lot of trust in the animals and the visitors.

There’s a red panda on that walkway. Guess it isn’t in their nature to drop down from heights.

The highlight of the zoo is the Penguin Walk. Again, they seem to put a lot of trust in the visitors to stay away from the little guys.

This was taken moments before the great penguin frenzy of 2020. There were no survivors.

And from one sleepy little town to another. I left the zoo to gather my luggage and hop the train for Otaru. This was the first day it had really snowed during my whole trip. While it probably didn’t compare to the storm back home, it was still a solid blast of winter.

The view from the train station in Otaru.