This week, the guest post series takes us all the way to Sapporo in Japan. Here, in the main city on the island of Hokkaido, expat Crystal Bock Thiessen of Thiessen Twosome Does Japan shares some of her outsider’s insights and favorite eats in Sapporo. Definitely worth a read, which is bound to make you hungry (for Japan).
AN OUTSIDER’S INSIDE ON SAPPORO
“I came to this part of Japan because it’s about as far away from Japan as you can get,” an expat at a bar in Sapporo’s drinking district of Susukino once uttered to me. “Hell, I guess I mean to say it’s as far away from it as you can be while still having access to amazing sushi, of course.” I had just arrived on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido about a month beforehand to have a stint at working abroad for a year or three. Having been plummeted into a host of vending machines, pachinko parlors, and karaoke boxes bizarrely mixed with dairy farms, sunflower fields, and buildings that looked like they came off of the prairie back in my home state of Kansas in the U.S.A., I have to admit, I kind of knew what he was talking about.
Most often referred to as Japan’s “last great wilderness” (not unlike Alaska to the United States), Hokkaido was the last of the four main islands to be developed, and was done so under American and European standards around the turn of the century. As a result it is quite a different kind of Japan, having its own (mainly farm) culture, landscape, and mannerisms. Nevertheless, for both Japanese and foreign tourists, Hokkaido is a traveler’s destination offering skiing, hiking, natural hot springs, camping, kayaking, and a break from those familiar crowded, bustling cities that pepper the other islands of the country. And the main city of Sapporo, famous for its namesake beer and yearly international snow festival, is considered the gateway to this land that, by all Japanese standards, is in a world all its own.
As a Caucasian American (also by all Japanese standards, a whole other world) making a life living and working here in Sapporo, I too have definitely come to realize that I don’t really live in Japan, but a very offbeat sub-culture of it. While those looking for the manicured gardens and pagoda-laced Japan of their dreams won’t exactly find it here, Sapporo does offer its version of what it is to be Japanese. Tourists no doubt follow the guidebook recommendations of visiting the Sapporo Beer Museum, eating miso ramen, and taking a quick snap of the Eiffel-esque T.V. Tower downtown before venturing off on their skiing and sightseeing adventures around Hokkaido. If you make it here, though, and have a little extra time, might I suggest doing as some of the locals (including us not-so-local locals) do, and getting more of a (literal) taste of what this city and island have to offer. A few of my favorites include:
Having a lunch of department store samples
With basement-level mazes of perfect cakes, snack crackers, and teas, as well as generous sample sizes, this is something that can be enjoyed at pretty much any large department store in all of Japan. However, the other islands fall short of offering the heavily dairy-infused products that Hokkaido parades with pride, such as a variety of Camembert cheesecakes, milk custard puddings, and potato chips dipped in rich chocolate from Sapporo’s own chocolate factory. In addition, loading up on tasty morsels of our own harry crab, Yubari melon cakes and breads, bits of roasted and locally grown sweet potatoes, and washing it all down with a small tipple of beer from the Otaru brewery just outside of town is pretty hard to beat for free. Mitsukoshi (札幌市中央区南1条西3丁目8) and Tokyu (札幌市中央区北4条西2丁目) department store basements are both pretty good options for your feast. Go on…indulge! If you come anytime between November and May, you’re going to need those extra few pounds for the long winters here anyway.
Seeking out the best soup curry in the city
Soup curry, a bowl of fresh vegetables and seasoned meats swimming in a spicy broth of liquid curry, is the instantly warming bloodline of the city. In fact, it’s a Sapporo (and Hokkaido) specialty, with over 200 soup curry shops in town alone. Each place offers their own soup bases, spice levels (1-100!) and mix of ingredients and toppings, from a bowl of ten different vegetables, roasted chicken, and lamb, to cheese fondue mochi, and fried bacon (yes…fried bacon). No shop is the same, and everyone has their favorite. I happen to have three: Voyage (北区北22条西5丁目), Small Curry Bar Cancun (中央区南2条西5丁目), and Lavi Maruyama (札幌市中央区南1条西21丁目2-7). Eating soup curry is an addictive experience, and one that can’t be enjoyed anywhere else in Japan.
Buying roasted sweet corn & watching the break-dancers in Odori Park
Whereas the rest of Japan suffers from a summertime rainy season with hot, sticky temperatures, Hokkaido’s warm, mild summers beckon people out to linger about and feast on local flavors of the season. As is evident from the colorful, fragrant carts that line up along the twelve block-long Odori Park, roasted Hokkaido sweet corn ranks up there with ice cream as summer’s top snack here. And, if you follow the sound of funky old-school beats down to 3丁目 (Block three of Odori Park), you can have a little poppin’ and lockin’ with your corn. This is where some of Sapporo’s hip-hop hipsters usually practice their best moves. They’re serious. And pretty darn good as well. If you’re lucky, they might even show you a thing or two to impress your friends back home…after you finish your corn, of course.
Okay, so all of my favorite things to do in Sapporo involve food, but let’s face it, rarely is what people eat separated from what defines their culture. Eating your way through this city is not only the best way to see it as those of us living here do, but also to fully experience a Japan that you’ve probably never known before.