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.
I’ve passed by Li’l Darlin several times in Darlinghurst, and have always meant to drop by for a cheeky cocktail or two. But it’s hard when Gelato Messina is only a few doors down, and somehow gelato always became a priority when walking down Victoria Street and the idea was quickly forgotten. Gelato can do that to you sometimes.
Luckily Li’l Darlin also has two other locations in Surry Hills and Randwick (which aren’t in very close proximity to a gelateria) so there was nothing to stop me from dropping by Li’l Darlin in Surry Hills to try some food and cocktails.
We begin with a few starters, including salt and pepper calamari with a choice of two sauces, nahm jim sauce or chipotle aioli. The calamari is perfectly tender and the chipotle aioli delivers a slightly spicy kick but I find the batter a little oily for my liking.
The arancini balls are crispy round nuggets of risotto stuffed with feta, fontina, tomato and herbs. It’s also served with the same chipotle aioli but I find that they’re perfectly tasty on their own.
A terracotta pot arrives on the table accompanied by some bread and we realise that lurking within the tomato-based sauce are some delectable grilled prawns. They’re great smothered in the tomato and chilli sauce and I keep going back for more of these.
It’s taken me a while to get to the Grounds of Alexandria. I’d heard about the animals and the pretty surroundings as well as the food, but I’d also heard about hour-long queues for a weekend lunch which kind of put me off. We decided to wait until the hype died down to pay them a visit.
Well, it turns out that the hype never really did die down, and on the Friday lunch we visited it was as busy as ever. There was still a waiting list for a table, but luckily there are plenty of things around the Grounds to keep us occupied while we wait.
We visit Kevin Bacon the pig and Bradley the sheep in their pen at the back, which they share with some chickens. It’s a hot day when we visit so Kevin Bacon cools down by chilling out in the water bowl.
There’s also plenty of outdoor food carts with breads, sweet and savoury pastries, juices and coffee for those who want to grab a bite on the go. On a separate visit we even saw a cart selling jam or nutella filled doughnuts which were freshly fried and tasted amazing!
It’s been a while since my last visit to Ippudo. While the queues are still there and the place is as busy as ever, the menu has expanded from comprising of mainly ramen with a small selection of sides and desserts, to a full blown a la carte menu to cater for everyone’s tastes.
Having such a large menu means that there were more decisions to be made. There was an overwhelming choice of different ramen soup bases, ramen toppings, entrees, salads, more substantial-sized dishes and rice dishes, so it took us a while to decide on what we wanted to eat.
The Ippudo pork buns are pretty much a must-order for me. The juicy grilled pork belly, crispy lettuce and pillowy-soft bun hit all the right notes. There was a nice balance of flavours though I could always do with some extra pork belly!
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).