Food is king in Japan. You’d be hard pressed to walk down a city street without seeing a restaurant, shop or vending machine offering all sorts of weird and wonderful food. It’s tasty, convenient and absolute paradise for food lovers.
Walking into a Japanese department store basement is like walking into a David Jones Foodhall on steroids. There are literally food stalls as far as the eye can see, selling cakes, fresh fruit and vegetables, ready-to-eat food, snack food on sticks, carefully packaged gift boxes of food – it seriously just goes on and on. The first time I saw one of these was in the tunnels of Sapporo station and I was gobsmacked by the amount of food on offer (which turned out to be nothing compared to the huge department stores of Tokyo!)
I was keen to see the super expensive fresh fruit that I’d heard about in Japan, and yes, you can definitely buy 15 strawberries for 6680 yen (about $63AUD, or $4 a strawberry!)
We also saw beautifully presented boxes of cherries at a cool 6480 yen per box (~$60AUD)… right next to the almost-tennis-ball-sized strawberries which were 1620 yen for two (~$15AUD).
Aside from the exquisitely packaged but expensive fruit, there was also other fresh food to be purchased. The meat section had prepackaged cuts of beef, pork and chicken, including the most incredibly marbled cuts of wagyu! The fish section offered lots of fresh fish and seafood to be taken home for cooking, including many types that I hadn’t seen before.
I was particularly surprised to see thinly sliced fugu sashimi available for purchase at department stores. Fugu isn’t something I would eat anywhere except for a specialised fugu restaurant where I knew the chef was qualified and had knowledge on how to prepare it properly without poisoning me! I wasn’t game enough to try it in a department store, but if you want to try fugu without going to a restaurant, just head to your local department store fish section.
There are a number of different ways to get around Japan, but we found that one of the most convenient ways to travel from city to city is using Japan Rail. Japan Rail (JR) passes are special passes that are only available for overseas tourists, allowing you to travel on any of the JR train and local bus lines within the region specified on your pass. The passes can be bought as 7, 14, or 21 day passes to be used consecutively from the date of exchange. We bought a 14-day Japan Rail Pass from JTB Travel (about 46,000 JPY or 485 AUD) which covered almost of our days in Japan.
The pass itself isn’t cheap, so we had to do some research and planning to ensure that it was the best option for us in terms of how much we were going to be travelling using the JR pass. To make the most of it, we took day trips out to different towns and cities from where we were staying using the JR pass. Our first day trip was to Otaru, a port city northwest of Sapporo that is affectionately known as “The Town of Hills”.
The train ride from Sapporo takes a little over 30 minutes on a semi-rapid train on the JR Hakodate line (~640 JPY one way). The train ride is quite pleasant, especially as we can reserve seats for free with our JR Pass. The view is quite scenic as the Hakodate line follows the Hokkaido shoreline, so you get beautiful views of Ishikari Bay as you approach Otaru Station.
Being a port town and in such close proximity to the sea, it’s no surprise that seafood is everywhere in Otaru. A hop, skip and a jump away from Otaru JR Station is the Sankaku Fish Markets (三角市場). It’s not nearly as big as Nijo Markets in Sapporo, but it still has several stores in the triangular-shaped building (sankaku means triangle) including ones where you can sit down and eat your freshly prepared seafood.
Our time in Hokkaido wasn’t all about seafood and dairy. When we visited Sapporo in April, the weather ranged from about 9ºC to a chilly -2ºC, with snow still lining the footpaths. Even though we rugged up with thermals, scarves and coats, the cold weather made us search for warming, comforting foods and luckily these are in abundance here in Sapporo!
Hot food (and sleep) were the first things on our mind after arriving in Sapporo after an overnight flight. After checking into our hotel, we went in search of lunch. At first, we found navigating Sapporo’s underground passageways to be rather confusing as the shopping centres seem to merge into one another so before you know it, you’re in a completely different mall! Once you familiarise yourself with the shops and the direction you’re travelling, it’s much easier to figure out where you are and where you need to go.
We meandered through the shops until we came across ESTA Sapporo which I recognised as being the home of Ramen Kyowakoku or Ramen Republic (札幌ら～めん共和国). Ramen Republic is a ramen theme park that brings together ramen shops from various regions around Hokkaido, including Sapporo, Asahikawa, Hakodate, and Kushiro. The 8 shops change every depending on popular vote, so it’s a good bet that the ramen there will be pretty good.
Language barriers are no problem here as there are plenty of picture menus outside each shop. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you know what’s in the ramen though, so I left it to Sir D to pick a random one for us to try.
We ended up at Ajisai, a ramen shop from Hakodate, which is known for its shio ramen. This a simple ramen dish with a salt-based broth of pork, chicken, konbu and vegetables and is clear and light. The ramen noodles are relatively straight, and come topped with slices of chashu, negi and menma (bamboo shoots).
It’s no secret that Hokkaido Prefecture, Japan, has some of the best seafood and dairy. The northern island of Japan is surrounded by cold ocean waters which makes it the perfect habitat for seafood, and the large countryside in Hokkaido also allows space for dairy farms to operate and produce some of the creamiest dairy products I’ve ever tasted. It might be no surprise then that as part of our two-week Japan trip, Sir D and I headed first to Hokkaido to… well pretty much all we did was eat. And walk to other places to eat some more.
We spent the majority of our time in Sapporo, the capital of the Hokkaido Prefecture which is about a 40-minute train ride from New Chitose Airport. We stayed at the Richmond Hotel Sapporo Ekimae, which was a comfortable hotel that came to about $65 per night for two people. The hotel was conveniently located right next to Exit 22 of Sapporo JR station, as well as being a few blocks away from Exit 3 of the Sapporo Ekimae, the underground walkway that connects Sapporo’s major public transport hubs (also great for escaping the cold!).
Being in Hokkaido, one of the things we made sure to do was eat lots of seafood. On the top of my list was to visit the Nijo Market (二条市場, Nijō Ichiba), which is a public market in central Sapporo that sells a wide variety of crab, scallops, fish and other seafood as well as fresh local produce. I was pretty excited to see shako (mantis shrimp) which is something I’ve only ever heard about in this comic!
We walked around the markets looking for some donburi (rice bowl) to have for breakfast. It was a little early so not all the stores were open yet, but we stumbled across one that had a few people dining in it already. Best of all, it had mini-don set where we could try a bit of everything.
Millions of peaches, peaches for me
Millions of peaches, peaches for free!
Ok, so they’re not exactly free but they were for me! I’ve been wanting to go fruit picking for a long time, so the summer break seemed to be the perfect time to do it since my favourite stonefruit, peaches, were in season. We looked up some fruit picking places on the interwebs and the ones in Bilpin seemed to be the closest to us, so Sir D and I road tripped it out one sunny weekend.
The drive took us about an hour and 15 minutes (via M2 and M7) and by the time we got there, we were feeling peckish. On the way to the orchards, we stopped by this Pie in the Sky roadhouse on Bells Line of Road. I’m not sure if it’s affiliated with Pie in the Sky in Cowan but it was a similar set up. You can park your car pretty much anywhere around the little shed that houses the pie shop and head in to select your pies and drinks from the counter.
There’s a selection of savoury pies that are mainly chicken- or beef-based, and they’re all made in-house. We chose a steak and mushroom pie from the warmer which had a delicious flaky, buttery puff pastry on top and a thick gravy with tender beef cubes inside.