Friday, February 28, 2014

Miyajima Oyster Festival

I am a horrible blogger. I am three weeks late on writing about a tasty festival we attended with friends. I know I know, I'm sorry. It's just been so (insert believable excuse here). But here we go. The Miyajima Oyster Festival.

Dustin and I have traveled to Miyajima many times. The island is great for hiking, visiting the famous "floating" (ahem) torii gate, walking through Itsukuhima Shrine, eating momiji manju, making rice scoops, or watching Seto Inland Sea-life at the aquarium. Whew, this island has a lot to do. It is also home of the annual Miyajima Oyster Festival, a two-day extravaganza on all things oyster. After reciting all the things you can do with oysters (a la Bubba-style from Forrest Gump) we decided to make the journey to this famous island and taste the named shellfish.

How nerds travel in Japan.

After a short train ride and a quick ferry ride we arrived on Miyajima. The island was packed! I've visited on busy days but this was crazy! The lines to try various foods were lengthy. Before getting in our first line we watched a koga dance performance.

Showing where the end of the line started...

But enough cool performances and people watching. I'm here to EAT. Although the lines were long, they moved quickly. First think we tried was an oyster soup. I was a little apprehensive about this type. The soup was a warm chicken broth with mushrooms, green onion, and big oysters. I'm glad they gave us little forks, because slurping down the big oysters would have been a bit difficult. We also received a substantial bag of oyster sauce that we did not use. I really liked the soup, and would have gone back for more if there were not other options to try.

Next up was my favorite style - a oyster and mushroom croquette. Absolutely delicious and made me not want to share any with Dustin. Imagine taking an oyster, covering in condensed cream of mushroom soup and then frying it in panko. Exactly. Omnomnom.

Along with oysters there were many other foods worth trying. We had some tako (octopus) balls will mayonnaise, ika (squid) on sticks wrapped in asparagus and bacon, and some spicy yakitori (chicken on a stick).

It's not a trip to Miyajima without momiji. So we sampled some cream, cheese, and chocolate treats while walking through the main shopping street. After all that tasty food we decided to walk around the island a bit. Some friends accompanying us had never been so we visited many of the popular sites and walked off some of the tasty oyster goodness.

Lastly, I can't visit Miyajima without posting about the wild deer. Deer, huge crowds, and a food festival? Sounds like an excellent combination to me!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Sapporo Miscellany

To close out our Sapporo adventure, some miscellaneous sights along the way.

Because pandas can ice skate.

Escalators do not just turn into stairs.

On the ninth floor of a shopping complex - indoor sandbox!

ew. And just weird.

Mt Moiwa

On our last day in Sapporo we bundled up and headed to hike and explore nearby mountain. The weather was very overcast with expected snow so we weren't sure how much we would be able to see and do. After a short streetcar ride, we arrived at the base of Mt. Moiwa. Most of the hiking trails are closed for the season so we took a rail car up to the summit.

Snow coming in...

There is a large observation deck at the summit. An area marked as "Lover's Sanctuary" had hundred of locks. (Interesting that some of the locks still had the keys attached. What symbolism were they expressing?).

Walk right over the guard rail....

Standing on ~ 12 feet of snow.

We walked around the summit for a bit but soon the clouds rolled in and we couldn't see more than a few feet in front of our feet. So we decided to visit the restaurant inside and try the last Hokkaido specialty on our list: curry soup. I love Japanese curry. It is phenomenal. So when I read that Sapporo makes a special spicy curry soup, I added it to the must-list for our short trip. It did not disappoint. The soup had that excellent curry flavor with a spicy punch. It was served with spicy Hokkaido rice.

With chicken

With prawn and shrimp

We spent a while enjoying the warmth and watching the storm take over more and more of our view. Finally, we made the return journey back to our hotel.

Definitely a chilly day, but being in the middle of a windy snowstorm was a new experience!

Ishiya Chocolate Factory

On our third day in Sapporo, we explored the northwest side of the city. Here we toured the Ishiya Chocolate Factory. Shiroi Koibito is their famous cookie which consists of a layer of white chocolate sandwiched between two thin butter cookies. The factory and surrounding buildings are available for tour.

Inside the first room is the Aurora Fountain, created in England in 1870. The entire fountain is made of hand-painted ceramic tiles. Additionally, the Chocolate Girl by Swiss artist Jean Etienne is displayed. This famous painting was later painted on porcelain, chocolate tins, and speciality chocolate drinking cups in the 18th century.

We walked through a Tudor-style house with displays of old chocolate packaging and advertisements. Then we entered the factory side of the building and learned about the local ingredients used in their cookie production. As part of the tour we were given a fresh cookie. I'm not generally a fan of white chocolate, but the combination of buttery sweet cookie and smooth chocolate was a winner.

On the other side of the production line, we walked through a gramophone gallery and old children's toy boxes. Unfortunately, the lighting was poor so we weren't able to capture any pictures. There was also a large exhibit of children's toys ranging from late 18th century to current. It was exciting to see how toys have gradually changed over time. We viewed unopened Star Wars toys with Tamagotchi in a display next to signed Beetles memorabilia. Definitely a varied, yet interesting exhibit.

Sapporo TV Tower

After touring the Sapporo Beer Factory we took a taxi to Odori Park, one of the main sites for the Sapporo Snow Festival. It seems every major city in Japan has a high observation tower. Sapporo is no different so we climbed to the observation deck to view Odori park and the surrounding city at night.

From the bottom

After our sightseeing, we walked through Odori Park and watched the finishing touches get put on larger than life snow and ice sculptures.

I started getting pretty cold. I was well-layered but with the wind between the buildings is pretty fierce. So we called it a night and came back out the following morning to catch some sculpting in action. The city closes the middle lanes of the road and ice is brought it in on huge trucks. Then the carving begins...

And lastly, a horse eating ramen. Yep.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Ramen Alley

Along with beer, Sapporo is known for interesting ramen and curry soup. Both were on our to-eat list. While walking through the streets of Sapporo looking at ice sculptures we came across Ramen Alley.

First, a little history of Sapporo's unique ramen. Traditionally, noodles are served in a soy sauce-flavored soup, which was cooked with soy sauce in soup stock of pig bones. The pork/soy sauce flavor is very popular and is what we traditionally eat at our favorite ramen restaurant. In Sapporo, residents began using miso (soybean) soup as the base for noodles. Additionally they started adding stir-fried vegetables to it. Miso ramen has a distinctly different flavor - and it is spectacular!

Some Japanese men came out of a shop while we were walking down the alley. They were boisterous and shouted, "This one is good!" as they walked by. Sounds like enough of a recommendation to me. Inside we went. To the smallest ramen restaurant I've been in. Six stools and a small square for the chef.

Big pot is miso and vegetables. Front area cooked two pieces of pork.

Seaweed, egg, bamboo, onions, cabbage, mushrooms - yum!

Hokkaido gyoza - no pork, filled with fresh green onions

Pick your bowl and pay the machine. Safer for the chef.

All the ingredients are local to Hokkaido. The green onion gyoza was a little different. Their green onions are sweet and very mellow. We gobbled up our warm miso ramen. It was perfect and helped warm us up for the rest of our exploring in the freezing cold.

Sapporo Brewery

The oldest Japanese beer, from a German-trained brewer, is from Sapporo. Before we moved here it was the only Japanese beer I knew and was generally hard to find outside the chain hibachi restaurant. When I mentioned we were going to Sapporo to Japanese coworkers the first comment was, "Have some fresh beer!". Why yes, I think we will.

Gorgeous building with (gasp!) a FREE tour
I get excited about free. Japan is expensive so free really rocks my socks. The museum has many displays of the history behind beer making and consumption in Japan. All the panels are in Japanese; however, we were given a pamphlet with almost all the plaques translated.

After learning about the history, mergers, and quality ingredients used in Sapporo's brewing process we came across an adorable display.

Everyone is happy with Sapporo Beer!

There were many displays of bottles, signs, taps, and machinery for brewing used prior to World War II.

The marketing has changed dramatically over the years. In the late 19th century marketing always had a beautiful geisha. The concept of logo recognition hadn't taken over and the scripts and fonts varied depending on the artist, but there was always a woman in kimono. There were no marketing displays during World War II. Beginning in the fifties, brand recognition began to take hold and the red Sapporo star is visible in all advertisements. Additionally, the posters began to have a more Western-feel and included men, sports stars, and other celebrities.

At the end of the museum, we were given the option to try three types of Sapporo beer. Dustin is under military restrictions so I got to enjoy three different brews: the Classic, Black Label, and Kitakushu, a brew that only last up to a week because it has no preserving yeast. Maybe it's a European thing, but adding foam to the top of beer is the way it is served. We've noticed this in multiple places that serve beer. There are two taps - one that dispenses your beer and one that adds foam to the top.

After our tour we walked to the other side of the main building to eat yakiniku at the Sapporo Beer Garden. We got a small set of lamb and mixed vegetables. It was the first time I've ever eaten lamb. It was tasty - although my guilt outweighs my desire to have it again.

The food and beer was delicious. Definitely a must-visit if you are ever in Sapporo.