Saturday, June 15, 2019

Niseko: A Snowboarding Foodie's Dream Come True

We say that we went to Hokkaido to snowboard on our Ikon Pass, but we really just needed an excuse to go to Japan to eat the amazing food there.  Hokkaido may be detached from the main island and over 500 miles away from Tokyo, but the high standards for food here are no different.  The pride that the chefs, bakers, and bartenders take in their work is reflected every step of the way, from conception to execution.  For five full days, we enjoyed so much good food in between rounds of shredding the tree-lined slopes of the Niseko United ski area.  

Niseko is a small resort town on the huge island of Hokkaido.  While the area is indeed relegated to a lot of international tourism because of its popular ski resort, we were able to pick out some great authentic spots to eat, drink, and be merry.  The food of Hokkaido is, like most Japanese food, impeccable and at the same time, very comforting and nutritious--exactly the kind of stuff you'd crave after a day on the slopes.  There's nothing like unclipping your snowboard and sitting down to a big bowl of ramen or chirashi.  Local markets a few shuttle stops away in nearby Kutchan offer delicacies that are Hokkaido-renowned: hairy crab, sashimi, artisan cheese, and even those mysterious white strawberries.  A famous milk farm not far away churns out fresh dairy products, including ice cream and drinking yogurt.  We followed in Anthony Bourdain's footsteps to eat handmade soba noodles at a Michelin-recognized restaurant.  We also found our way to working-class comforts, like chanko hotpot tenderly prepared by a retired Sumo wrestler and his wife, and steaming bowls of oden served late at night over a bar by a lone cook.  Even the little coffeeshop and the bar that we stepped into were both uniquely curated by passionate owners, and supported by a diverse local community.  We enjoyed every one of these eating and drinking experiences because they brought us closer to the people who live there.  Essentially, we went to Niseko for the snow, but we stayed for the culture.

From the minute we landed and set foot in the New Chitose Airport, we were overwhelmed by deliciousness.  We were fascinated even just by the sandwiches offered at Lawson's convenience store in the airport, but then we rounded the corner and there was a hall of seafood, dried seafood products, cookies, soups, baked goods, and all.  I've never seen an airport with seafood for sale, nor with this many samples!  This gave us an initial taste of what was to come in Hokkaido.  We had to stop ourselves and leave only because our shuttle was here.

It was a 2-hour shuttle ride to the ski resort town of Niseko from Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido. We rode with a bunch of other snow sports aficionados from other parts of Eastern hemisphere.  I'm quite sure that we were the only ones stuffing our faces with sandwiches during the ride, like improper Americans would.  This wouldn't be the first time we would be riding public transportation while eating food and behaving like a bunch of excited dorks.

After the shuttle brought us to Niseko, we were picked up to transfer to our lodging by an Australian guy, who was the first of many Australian interactions we had over the next week here.  Apparently, Aussies love Niseko and many end up living here long-term.  We were pretty surprised about that!  When we arrived at the place we were staying,  we were super impressed.  Compared to other parts of Japan, we got so much space for the money that we paid.  Wes found this on, it's called Niseko Flow, a small complex that blended right into the neighborhood bordering the resort.  It’s part of the Holiday Niseko property management group and they offer apartment-style living accommodations.  Our studio had everything we could ever want.

The little kitchen area with the mini fridge, the microwave oven that also functions as a toaster (like you can put a baking sheet into it), Tupperware and silverware, a bread knife, a sukiyaki pot, plenty of extra trash bags, the Japanese heated toilet seats with multiple functions (including a bidet), a heated towel drying rack, a heated wall rack which also doubles as a room heater, and oh my goodness, Shiseido shampoo and conditioner!  The sliding doors and window shades were also pretty revelational.

Downstairs was the heated gear room, because clearly everybody who stays here does snow sports, right?  There was also an efficient small laundry machine and dryer (free!) in the communal area just outside of it, which we totally took advantage of.  The overall simplistic, yet modern décor made us feel really comfortable and relaxed.  We loved home base at first sight.

We were around the corner from so many things - a bar, an onsen, 2 or 3 izakayas, and there was a shuttle stop to the slopes right outside, but we walked every day because it was only a 7-minute walk anyway.

On our first day, Wes had the great idea of going to the nearest full-fledged supermarket to scope out some sashimi and, primarily, hairy crab.  This proved to be so much more cost-effective than eating all of the things at a sit-down restaurant.  We went to Lucky Market in Kutchan after figuring out how to take the shuttle there.  Kutchan is the nearest city to Niseko and easy to get to with the resort's free shuttle system.

The market was SUPER fun! We had just gotten off the plane and all that, but the market gave us the jolt of energy and excitement to push through the jetlag. We found our lovely hairy crab (already cooked and sliced), 3 boxes of sashimi, a tray of rolls, a mixed platter of sides, a cabbage salad, an egg sandwich for breakfast, yogurt, coffee, and tea. We looked out for the yellow tags that said “From Hokkaido” Or “From Niseko.” This proved to be the best way to get to know what the region is known for, and it was a lot cheaper to try things from the market rather than at a restaurant or some specialty shop.

We bought so much that it had to all go inside of a cardboard box. The market provided tape and bags at a station after the cashier. Super convenient and efficient. Wes carried the box back to the bus stop and we rode the bus 20 minutes back to Niseko in anticipation.

As soon as we got back to our room, we unboxed the loot and sat on the ground eating everything at the coffee table- it was the best way to kick off our vacation!  We went a little crazy and some things ended up in our shopping cart that one of us hadn't realized were there until checkout... haha.

The hairy crab had such a unique appearance. It tasted sweet and delicate.

But the real piece de resistance was this gorgeous otoro - super fatty tuna!!

We also scored this egg salad sandwich - it was the last one at Lucky!  Behold, our first breakfast: a glorious $1.50 plastic-wrapped egg salad sandwich. You cannot go to Japan without eating an egg salad sandwich.  These simple sandwiches that can be found in any market or convenience store in Japan have developed somewhat of a cult following in Los Angeles, but like all things with a cult following in Los Angeles, they are insanely overpriced back home.  I wish that we could have had this egg salad sandwich for breakfast every morning, but unfortunately we never saw it at Lucky again!  Guess it's a hot commodity even in Japan.

We also had locally made drinking yogurt, which we discovered at the supermarket but would see frequently throughout Niseko.  Hokkaido is known for its top-notch dairy products, so we made sure that we indulged in lots of dairy while we were here.  This yogurt was tangy, sweet, and smooth.

So you know that the people here are crazy about their dairy when there actually is a shuttle stop dedicated specifically to Milk Kobo, which is the official storefront of the dairy farm of Niseko.  It is a prime visitor destination, with its plethora of sweet dairy products: soft cream, ice cream, cheese custard tarts, cheesecake, cream rolls, pudding, cream puffs, castella cake, drinking yogurt, cheese, and café drinks.

Like many food places in Japan, you order from a little machine and receive tickets.  Then you bring the tickets to the counter to claim your order!

This had to be the best softserve we’ve ever had.

And their homemade ice cream was great, too.  We had a scoop of the milk flavor and a scoop of the matcha flavor.

I had to get a vanilla cream roll because it's so nostalgic of the ones that my mom used to buy when I was growing up.  This time, I didn’t have to worry about saving the creamiest middle for my last bite for this one, though, as there was no shortage of delicious whipped cream all the way around the spiral!  Wes's guilty pleasure has always been cheesecake, and he really enjoyed the one from here.

You don't have to go all the way to the Milk Kobo shuttle stop to get some delicious Hokkaido milk desserts, though. There also is a Milk Kobo cheese custard tart stall in the Hirafu Village main ski area in Niseko, where you can get a hot cheese custard tart as soon as you're done skiing at the Grand Hirafu resort!

And there's even delicious, creamy softserve right on the slopes!

We had some Niseko Takahashi Dairy Farm cheese and butter from Lucky Market for our remaining two breakfasts, paired with some other good finds from Lucky Market, like locally made charcuterie and Hokkaido strawberries.

Apparently, there is a particular farm in Hokkaido which specializes in growing pure white strawberries.  Unfortunately, one white strawberry can cost a lot of money, so when Wes found a pack of miniature assorted strawberries with a few white ones mixed in, we were happy enough.  We've heard much about the sweetness of these mysterious strawberries!  Though, I sort of wish that we could have tried a full-fledged white one, because these little ones didn't seem especially sweet.

Japanese cooks and artisans are known worldwide for their hellbent devotion to perfection.  From those convenience store egg sandwiches to upscale omakase, food in Japan must be excellently prepared and presented.  There are certain restaurants that give the diner that special opportunity of watching the painstaking process of preparation.  We were were treated to this kind of experience at a  small soba house called Raku-Ichi Sobakodoro, right in Niseko.

Near the base of the Annupuri Resort in Niseko is Raku-Ichi Sobakodoro.  It was made famous by Anthony Bourdain's show, but it was definitely not easy to find.  Thankfully, it wasn't snowing and we were able to figure out where it was using Google Maps!

The restaurant is nothing more than a wooden house, with a wooden footpath leading to its front door through a nondescript gateway.  No obvious signage.

This restaurant accepts dinner reservations, but lunch is walk-in only.  The soba master only makes 20 portions for lunch.  We really wanted to be one of the lucky 20, so we arrived at 10:45 for their 11:30 opening.  Luckily, we were the first ones in line!  While we waited, we chatted with a local who really seemed to take an interest in our American life.  We realized that people here don't actually meet a lot of Americans, but they do get a ton of Asians from Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, and other parts of Japan, and they also get a large number of Australians.

Midori, the chef, actually built this restaurant himself using pinewood – what an artist!  You can see the craftsmanship that went into every part: the bar counter, the hooks that you hang your slippers on, the shelves for his long rolling pins, the swiveling wooden latch for the bathroom lock.  The English-speaking hostess also told us that by next year, the restaurant would be renovated completely.  We were glad that we got to come while it was still a small wooden house with just a bar of ten seats and a tiny back kitchen.

Chef Midori never spoke or looked up while he calmly kneaded the dough and hand-cut the buckwheat noodles.  We were mesmerized by his skill and precision.  He deftly manipulated the dough and used a 5-foot long wooden rolling pin!  He also somehow hand-cut each noodle the same exact thickness.

We both ordered the cold soba with duck dipping soup and tempura from the very small menu.  When the food came, I had to remind myself that these noodles were just cut by hand and never dried or frozen!  They seriously looked perfect – maybe too perfect.

We had lunch the next day at Asahikawa Ramen Tozanken, which is known for having some of the best ramen in town.

We had heard that there usually is a long line at the end of the day, when people are done skiing.   Since it's within walking distance from the slopes, we decided to take a break in the middle of the day to try to get a seat while it was less busy.

Here is the Dosanko ramen, which is the epitome Hokkaido, consisting of corn, maitake mushrooms, seaweed, a pat of butter, a scallop with its side muscle still attached, bamboo, and strips of stewed pork.

And here is the miso ramen.  It comes with huge round slices of thick-sliced pork on top, and the miso, pork, and fish broth is very thick and rich.  I preferred the Dosanko ramen, which I believe had a clearer shoyu broth, enhanced by that butter that melts into the bowl.  Both flavors are very complex in their own ways.

We also ordered gyoza, which were juicy and plump, with a thin skin.  The person who took our order was very nice and spoke a bit of English, and we noticed how the people behind the bar in the kitchen seemed to work in a very organized and orderly way, with deferential treatment towards the ramen chef.

Imagine snowboarding with all of that ramen in your belly... only the cold weather could have kept us from falling into a food coma.

When we weren't scoping out noodle spots with long waits, we were eating at Bo-yoso, a little restaurant on the Grand Hirafu Ski Resort.

Bo-yoso is known not only for its donburi, but also for its elusiveness.  There are no signs pointing to it, and we basically had to refer to a trail map (which wasn’t at scale) and sort of look out for it while snowboarding down a very steep, ungroomed area.  Of course, we found out when we were at the bottom that we could have taken a much easier route or even walked up from the nearest lift, which the families in there seemed to have done.  Still, we were pretty damn proud of ourselves for finding this mysterious place!

Bo-yoso has the atmosphere of a traditional Japanese restaurant, rather than the other cafeterias on the hill.  It had a great menu with many different types of rice bowls and noodle bowls – sort of standard Japanese fare, but done well.  The old man who took our orders was so cute!  The place itself was bustling with a diversity of people from all over the world.

Is this really ski lunch food?? We ordered two salmon roe and boiled crab meat rice bowls (which came with miso soup and two pieces of pickled ginger) on our first time there.

We came back the next day and I got oyakodon and Wes got katsudon.  Both really hit the spot.

They also have two other kinds of pickled ginger that you can serve yourself.

Wes also was dying to try the Jyaga Cheese potatoes. It's pretty much like potato wedges with mayonnaise and a Japanese version of Cheez Wiz drizzled over it.  Sounds sort of gross, but they were quite good, if I do say so myself.  We loved the snappy, yet rich texture of these potatoes- they were advertised as homegrown, so I guess that explains it!

We ate our first dinner at a Bang Bang, a yakitori restaurant in the Grand Hirafu Village main resort area, but it didn't feel very intimate or authentic because the dining area would be crowded and loud, and the food was expensive with portions being small.  Plus, all of the waitstaff spoke English and there were tons of families and large groups.  It wasn't bad food, but we quickly decided that we'd branch out and find places to eat outside of the Village.

On our second night out, we took the shuttle to Kutchan, the next city, and ate at a place called Ryougoku for dinner.  The restaurant is named after the Sumo wrestling center of Tokyo (Ryōgoku), and it is actually owned by an ex-Sumo wrestler and his wife.  They specialize in chanko hotpot, which is what Sumo wrestlers eat for energy.  We probably didn’t eat Sumo wrestler portions, but the mountain of meat, seafood, noodles, and veggies that his wife brought to our table definitely seemed daunting.

When we entered, my glasses and the camera lens fogged up immediately - it was warm and loud in there compared to the quiet cold of the outside.  There was a group of about thirteen Japanese men who were here on a business trip, drinking and laughing boisterously over their chanko hotpots.  They engaged us in conversation, and this was when I wished that I had studied more Japanese!  Everybody, including the restaurant owners, were surprised that we came from the United States and wanted to know more about us.

There was even tegata hanging on the wall.  Tegata is an autographed handprint, a rare and prized piece of Sumo wrestling culture.  We aren't sure if those were his handprints or someone else's, but we think that it was his.  Only higher-ranked wrestlers can make legitimate tegata.

The chef’s calm and serene composure (and average-sized build) made it hard to envision him as a previous Sumo wrestler, though I think that all Sumo wrestlers are gentle giants when they are outside of the ring.  His wife was a kindly woman, who never stopped attending to the guests in the dining room.  She patiently showed us how to best enjoy the food, using mostly body language, hand gestures, and a few English words.  We nodded our heads, smiled, and did not interrupt.  They also didn’t mind that we took photos.

First, we were given a small tray of three bite-sized appetizers consisting of Japanese pickles and egg.

Then, she brought the big clay pot of broth and sets it over the burner with the lid on.  She showed us the steps: first, you grind the sesame seeds in the little bowls with the wooden pestle, and then you scoop in a little bit of the broth, so that the first few sips of soup are strongly flavored with freshly ground sesame.  It was such a delicate and umami flavor!  Then, she gently peeled away at the mountain of meat and vegetables with her chopsticks and lowered piece after piece of food into the pot.  I felt like we were children being helped by a loving auntie.

There was pork, fish tofu, shrimp, snow crab, shiitake mushrooms, enoki mushrooms, leeks, cabbage, chrysanthemum greens, scallops (with side muscle attached), flounder, homemade fish paste, and two kinds of noodles.  She scooped up dollops of the paste out of an empty clamshell and dropped them into the pot.  We low-key were fighting over those little white nuggets as we mined for treasures in the pot!

We also ordered a deep-fried version of their homemade fish paste, which was essentially the same paste mixed with peas and other veggies and deep-fried as a larger patty, served with grated radish and soy sauce. It’s called satsuma age and the menu says that it’s a house specialty.

At the end, you add the noodles and drink the rest of the soup!  The flavors were heartwarming and light, yet very satisfying and filling.  Sumo wrestlers eat really healthy!  How do they get to be so huge??

We finished every last bite, and every last drop of soup.  When food is that good, how can you stop?

We were the last ones remaining in the restaurant at the end, but the couple never hurried us out.  As we left, they bowed us out and we continuously thanked them for feeding our hearts and bellies with such great home cooking.   To us, this was such a special experience and we felt truly blessed.

For the rest of our dinners, we went to izakaya restaurants.  Dining with a handful of others at a bar where one or two chefs make everything to order was another unique experience that really could only be found in Japan.

On our third night, we walked past a dimly lit window with a tile-mosaic sign with Japanese characters on it in Kutchan.  I recognized the storefront from a photograph that I saw in one of the magazines, but I remembered that I couldn’t write down what the place was called because it was only in Japanese and there was no address or other information about it.  It’s called Yawarami, which translates to “tender cafeteria.”

We thought twice about walking in, because we peeked in the window and saw only one customer sitting at a bar, and no sign of any food.  So, I thought that I had mistakened it for something else, and that this was just a little bar.  But then, we decided to go in and ask, because I was pretty certain that this was the place that I had seen in the magazine.  If this was the little izakaya that I had in mind, then we definitely should try to eat here!

We were warmly greeted by a young lady.  She was the only one running the izakaya, so she does all the drinks and cooks all of the food, too.  She motioned for us to sit down at the bar, and turned over the little menus to reveal English!  We were laughing because she knew.  We put in our order just before two men came in.  She made each dish one by one, with care and precision.  Everything that we ate was so delicious, and the place was just so cozy.

We were later joined by more people, who came in pairs, and the 8-seat bar became full.  The guy who sat next to Wes ended up being a Korean who is a blogger and ski instructor, who has been coming to Niseko to teach (and blog) for the past few seasons.  He spoke English and it was really fun to chat with him about his experiences.  We were having so much fun that we missed our first shuttle, so we had to stay a whole extra hour, but nobody was in a rush to leave and so we ordered another couple of dishes and shared them.  That hour flashed by, and we had to leave before the chef had the chance to make the second thing that we asked for, since another party of people had come in and taken the last spots in the little place.

There was actually an English menu, much to our surprise and relief.  At first I don't think she knew that we didn't speak Japanese, but right when it became obvious (instantaneously), she flipped over the menus to reveal English!  As you can also see, the prices were very, very reasonable.

Japanese pickles (gobo, nagaimo)

Tofu cabbage salad - so good

Aka mebaru - red Japanese sea perch / rockfish

(We were trying to ask her what kind of fish it was, and she wrote this down, and we later Googled it!)

It was super moist and flakey!!  The amazing thing was that the little room never smelled fishy, even though she was grilling it right behind the bar.

Ochazuke with salted cod roe - simple and delicious

Agedashi tofu (best we've ever had! the batter was soo light and the sauce was perfectly flavored!)

Chicken karaage (I'm normally not a big fan of this dish, but I loved hers.  The pieces were huge and juicy!)

Potatoes with "squid guts" - good stuff.

We saw her washing and cutting the potatoes right before making it and we were so taken by how cute they were that we took pictures of them.  She must have thought that we were so stupid!

We could have stayed even longer, but the shuttle came only once every hour after 8 PM, so we sadly had to go!  But we truly enjoyed everything.

On our fourth and final night in Niseko, we ended up at Ebisutei, an izakaya just two blocks away from our accommodation right in Niseko after a nice, relaxing soak in the onsen that was just one block away.

Just a reminder that being ratchet is not acceptable here.

We walked in at around 9:30, and they happened to have two seats available at the bar.  The restaurant was full, but people seemed to be finishing up.  We were famished and ordered seven things, thinking that they'd be tapas-sized.  They turned out to be very generous portions, but every single thing that was handed to us over the counter was glorious and delicious, so we did actually eat all of it, much to people's awe.  We also had the honor of chatting with the chef, who was actually sitting at one of the tables entertaining a group of friends.  He stepped into the kitchen to make our crab fried rice, but his trusted staff made everything else.

Seafood salad - it was so much bigger than expected, but it was so good that we had no problem with finishing it!

Fried gobo root

Assorted oden

Grilled fish (I think we got mackerel)

Salmon "berries" (it's salmon bellies, haha)

Tempura smelt

Crab fried rice

The chef was entertaining his own friends in the back, but he took the time to come and chat with us exotic Americans, especially when he saw us whip out our Go Pro to take pictures of his crab fried rice.  He said that he came from Tokyo to open this restaurant and to pursue his passion for snowboarding.  He showed us some Go Pro footage of himself snowboarding on a powder day, and that looked great!  He was jovial and welcoming, the opposite of the chef at Raku-ichi, but no less humble.  He told us that the yakitori restaurant that we ate at in the main Village on our first night was rated as the number one izakaya in Niseko, but we immediately responded in disbelief that Ebisutei should have gotten that title.  It’s true, though, we weren’t even trying to be polite.  I don’t know how that other restaurant got that ranking!

We weren't planning on it, but we did wind up at a bar one night.  Bar Gyu was one of the recommended bars in Niseko, and we hadn't realized that it was literally steps from where we were staying until we heard good music streaming from its windows while we were walking home from a trip to the market one night.  We decided to put our groceries down in our fridge and head out again right away to check it out.

It is locally known as the “fridge-door bar” because its entrance is literally a red refrigerator door covered in stickers.  It's hard to tell in the photo, but the door is only about four feet high and we have to crouch down to enter.

There was a special guest bartender there that night and a guest DJ in the upstairs area.  It was packed, but not uncomfortable.  It seemed like half the people there were locals and half were travellers - there were many Westerners.  We really enjoyed the mixed vibe, and the music and cocktails seemed to reflect that same cultural intersection, too.

I got the "sauna" and Wes got the "H&N."

The last call for drinks was at around 10:30, which may sound early, but for this sleepy village, it isn’t.  We were out of there by 11:00 and back in our studio, getting ready for bed.  It was really great that we lived so close!

On our way out of Niseko, we went to Sprout, a most wonderful coffeeshop in Kutchan.  It is very close to the train station, so very hard to miss, but it is a humble store in an overall quiet town.  The owners are a Japanese husband and wife who proudly roast their own beans from all over the world and are actually world travelers who love the outdoors, like us!  They love to climb, trail run, and backpack.

Only the wife was working when we went, but she spoke some English and we exchanged some stories of our adventures.  She showed us an article about her husband in an outdoors publication - he was trail running in Yosemite!

They curate the coolest little gifts and gadgets in their store that reflect their love for cafe culture and the outdoors.  We may have bought too many souvenirs from here!  But we were so happy to support them.

One of the souvenirs that we got was coffee.  Two bags of freshly roasted whole beans - their signature blends.  Since I'm writing this blog post so late, I can say that we finished them off and loved every sip.

Oh, and I got some locally made chocolate (Nicao). It was delicious, too!

And duh, who goes to Hokkaido and does not get a latte?  Deeelicious espresso and milk.

On our way out, we grabbed cream pastries from a bakery by the Kutchan train station and indulged in all the flakey, creamy goodness on our train out of Niseko.  We were probably the most obnoxious Americans, but we couldn't wait to dig in!!

This one was a cream puff with a flakey pastry... (favorite!)

This one was a cream puff with a harder pastry shell...

And this one was a sweet potato pastry.

One last thing.  I have to share the weirdest thing that we ate.

Hokkaido corn ice cream bar from the supermarket.  Wuuut?! Yeah, we know, so weird.  It was like a corn-flavored shell with a vanilla ice cream filling.  We forgot to mention that Hokkaido is also known for its corn.  I guess this is the equivalent to a Drumstick in America.

We got so much out of this trip, and we would come back again if we could!

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