After two wintertime trips to Sapporo for the snow festival, we were ready for a change of scenery and temperature on our third adventure to Hokkaidō in 2017 July. While it would be much warmer weather compared with our previous visits, it would still be cooler than the Shanghai summer steam bath we would be escaping. As usual, my daughter Mei was my traveling companion. On this trip, my wife Min went with us for the first few days of our two weeks. This time I think we struck a good balance between various activities and destinations. We got way out of Sapporo, did both urban walking and mountain hiking, ate lots of tasty things (not just ramen—but still a lot of ramen), checked some touristy things off the list, and threw in a few light anime pilgrimages for good measure.
The domestic terminal at New Chitose Aiport, connected to the international terminal by a concourse, is one of those places I’ve seen in anime enough times that it’s strangely familiar, despite setting foot in it for the first time. We had taken a morning flight, arriving just in time for lunch here before heading into Sapporo.
We spend the afternoon running a few errands before looking for our first pick-me-up. Mei and I had kakigori (shaved ice) on the brain ever since the temperature started rising at the end of spring. Unfortunately, the shop on our walking route had closed earlier than its stated business hours. A little later, we arrive at the ramen shop I had planned for dinner only to find it too closed, though it wasn’t the shop’s fixed off day. We had arrived on Marine Day, which apparently meant larger businesses were open, but smaller operations were hit and miss. We head to a backup option in Tanuki-kōji, having scouted the shōtengai for restaurants on previous trips.
For our only full day in Sapporo, Mei and I have a list of places to explore while Min stays in the city center for shopping. Our first target is a miso ramen shop near Nakajima Park. We find a caffeine and sugar fix nearby and make a few loops around the park before lunch time arrives.
I laugh when we wander over to Ōkami Soup to find it too closed for a one-off break day. I begin to wonder if it would be better to just wing it for the rest of the trip! (I recently mentioned the visit to Brian MacDuckston, who said that arriving at Ōkami only to find it closed when you think it should be open is something of an initiation ritual.)
Fortunately, RamenDB comes to the rescue and we end up back in Susukino for the Keyaki head shop, which is neck-and-neck with Sumire as the highest rated miso ramen in Sapporo and takes no holidays. As with Sumire, the rich soup and heavy ginger notes make it an intense bowl that I can enjoy every so often, but would probably not become a routine slurp for me.
After we settle in with some milk and strawberry kakigori down the street at Kijiya, we begin to feel we’re finally getting into our groove.
We make a donation at Toyokawa Inari Betsuin across the street as thanks for our change of fortune.
A subway trip to the west edge of the city center brings us to Hokkaidō Jinja to hunt for a handful of scenes from an episode of WWW.Working!!
For our final stop we had planned to walk up the slope to Maruyama Zoo, but as we approach the gates I see one of the staff giving us the dreaded crossed arms and a mouthed dame (no good). It isn’t clear if the closure is tied to the previous day’s holiday or some other reason, but in any event another bust. Oh well.
At least we find good soba for dinner.
Thanks to recommendations I found on the web, we pass by the party scene at Otaru Dream Beach and continue a little further on the Hakodate Line to quiet Ranshima.
It’s hard to mess up a day of sand castles and konbini lunch.
After sushi dinner near our hotel, we wander over to Sapporo Station to try a dessert shop we had eyed up on previous transits.
I realize once we look at the menu that the White Cosy cafe is like a showroom for milk products maker Yotsuba. Fresh local milk is one of the little pleasures of traveling in Hokkaidō.
In the morning we take a Super Tokachi train east to Obihiro, the only city level municipality in Tokachi Subprefecture. The region is dominated by a large agricultural industry, so you can find many special things to eat.
Butadon (charcoal grilled glazed pork on rice) is synonymous with the city, and Panchō on the north side of the train station is the originator, hence the line down the street at lunch time. When a shop sticks around for three generations serving just one dish, chances are it’s probably pretty good.
We don’t have a visit to defunct Kōfuku Station planned, but there is a miniature version of it at the Obihiro Station tourism center.
Rokkatei is a famous confectioner that ships products nationally. It also has retail branches and cafes it operates directly in Hokkaidō, and its head shop is right here in the center of Obihiro. Anyone with children knows that dessert before dinner is usually not how you do things, but we have a free afternoon and it’s too tempting to pass by.
We try out best to burn off the extra calories on a loop around Obihiro Central Park and back through the town center before ending up at Misuzu in a lonely looking shōtengai.
Yes, I know, more ramen. But look at that chashu. Just look at it!
Because chashumen is not enough, chashudon too.
Oh, and gyoza, because you can never have too much pig in Tokachi.
I first learned of Obihiro through anime series Silver Spoon (銀の匙), based on the manga by Arakawa Hiromu. She was born and raised on a dairy farm in Tokachi and included many elements of local history in her coming-of-age story about students at an agricultural high school. The fictional school in the series is modeled on Hokkaidō Obihiro Agircultural High School, where most of the events occur, but scenes of the city center also appear in the work.
Though the sun is already baking the ground by mid morning—the first truly hot day since we arrived in Japan—I drag everyone for a long walk out to the Tokachi River for some quick shots of the embankment that appears in the second season. From looking at maps, abstractly I understood Obihiro was a sprawling city, on the edge of being not really navigable without a car. The drudge out here makes the reality clear. It does look like a great place for outdoor activities in cooler weather.
We turn back into the city and find an air conditioned coffee shop for a rest from the heat before we move on to Obihiro Jinja.
The shrine also appears in the anime second season.
I don’t know how the ritual came into being, but anime pilgrims visiting Obihiro made a habit of winding their way over to Butahachi during their stay, so I was curious to see what it was like.
They came here for the mega butadon. For 5,000 yen you can get a massive bowl, two layers of grilled pork, recommended for six people to share. As good as it looks, I think the three of us would have failed spectacularly in an attempt to eat it.
The normal human sized portions are just as good. The owner is super friendly and keeps a fresh pot of coffee on the counter as a free service. You don’t even have to ask for it, just help yourself.
Min and Mei take a bus out to the Obihiro Zoo for the afternoon while I wash our laundry and do some work at the hotel. On the way out to dinner in the evening, we swing by Obihiro Station for the last couple of Silver Spoon scenes I want to take.
One thing great about Hokkaidō in the summer is that even on hot days, the temperature drops down to something really pleasant once the sun is low in the sky.
For our last meal in Obihiro and Min’s last night before returning to Shanghai, we splurge at Hageten—according to Tabelog the most popular restaurant in the city that isn’t exclusively a butadon shop.
The tenpura is good of course, but so are the Tokachi beef and local vegetables. Hageten also serves a butadon, but by this point I think we’re all butadoned-out.
Not too full for ice cream, though.
At the time I booked two nights in Kushiro, I hadn’t done any research about what was there and knew nothing about the city. I was just looking for places with Toyoko Inn branches so I could rack up more points on my card. I had thought we’d be able to find something interesting before we arrived. After a little research, I came to the conclusion that, though it would be too strong to say there is nothing to do, we would have to try hard to keep busy for the half day we would ultimately spend in town.
We arrive at Kushiro Station and make an early lunch out of some sandwiches we find in the building. I would have ventured outside a few blocks for food, but there are very few options around the station, even less after eliminating all of the places that allow smoking.
We’re in no particular rush, so continue on to dessert at another shop in the station, where we are the only customers.
With a couple of hours to kill before we can check in, we wander around the Kushiro Wasshō Ichiba, a seafood market in a modern building, before eventually camping out in a public park with decaying children’s play equipment and crows that keep trying to get close to our suitcase.
The Kushiro Children’s Museum is very nice.
We spend the afternoon at the museum, then wander around the middle of the city looking for signs of life. It’s eerie how few people are out walking.
From Tabelog listings it appeared as if there were literally no non-smoking restaurants in the city center. That was hard to believe, so we try investigating on foot. We play a game where we walk down a street and peer into restaurant windows to check for ashtrays on tables. The game becomes not funny once we realize we aren’t finding anything that would work for us. We eventually end up at Fishermen’s Wharf MOO, what is supposed to be a large retail and restaurant complex along the river. I’m struck by how much the building is underutilized, and how few of the shops and restaurants there are open. The handful of open restaurants we do see all have smokers, even though most of the building is an open floor plan. Kushiro, what’s your deal?
We consider liberating these poor crabs and throwing them in the river in protest, but by this point we’ve wandered around so long that we just want to grab something from a konbini and go hide in our hotel.
What I began to understand as I searched for suggestions of what to do and see, was that few tourists travel to Kushiro for its moribund downtown, but to use it as a jumping off point to see natural attractions and other points of interest outside the city.
We rise on the early side of our second day to ride the Senmo Line and a shuttle bus up to Lake Mashū in Teshikaga. Mashūko is known for its clear water and mirror-like surface that reflects an image of the mountains and sky on sunny days. On some days, particularly in summer, it’s covered with an ethereal fog, which greets us on our arrival. We’re surprised by the speed of the fog rolling down into the caldera lake, like someone was standing at the edge tipping it out of a large bucket.
The shuttle bus schedule is setup to allow people to come for a 30-45 minute stop, enough to get a brief look at the lake before returning, which is what most visitors do. We want to make a day out of it, so we wander over to the hiking trail head and enter our information in the mountain climbing register. Just in case we’re spirited away by the fog on the way to Mashūdake, people will know where to start looking for us.
Before long, we are indeed swallowed up by the fog and clouds. There are few sounds, other than the occasional rustle of animals in the vegetation. It’s a fun moment for us, feeling like we’re the only two people in the world.
Suspended water droplets in the air condense into beads on our hair and eyelashes.
There’s a solid wall of fog between us and the lake—
–so we pay attention to the interesting things at our feet instead.
We get to within about 200 meters of the summit, just beyond this point, but reach an impasse as the path quickly turns steep and rocky. We’re a bit disappointed, as we had been setting our sights on the top, but know that we aren’t equipped or experienced enough for this kind of climb.
We take a photo at the previous marker on the way back to commemorate almost conquering Mashūdake, then power back to the trail head to catch the last shuttle bus back to the train station with ten minutes to spare.
Next to Mashū Station is a little restaurant called Poppo-tei. Businesses along tourism routes are hit-and-miss, but since we don’t really have alternatives back in Kushiro we figure it’s worth a try. We can have a leisurely dinner and take a later train back.
We’re genuinely impressed. The miso ramen is nearly indistinguishable from that at a dedicated ramen shop. I actually prefer its mellower flavor to the sharp edge of Junren/Sumire style.
The chicken set is full of great flavors and fresh ingredients.
It’s not just good, it’s tip the bowl back and clear the plate good. We’d come again.
Next to Poppo-tei is Poppo-yu, Mashū Station’s free hot spring foot bath.
We feel totally spoiled.
The sun sets as we board the Senmo Line and we watch the sky turn from blue to dark as the local train rumbles back to Kushiro. The temperature is just right to crack the window and let the night air in, along with the sounds of the train echoing back off the trees and occasional overgrown branches scraping the side of the carriage.
Before venturing outside of Sapporo, I didn’t have a good sense of just how large Hokkaidō is. Not only are the distances between cities farther than other parts of Japan, there are no shinkansen (not counting the partially complete Hokkaidō Shinkansen ending at Hakodate), and in some cases there aren’t even direct train routes between locations due to terrain and line closures. To get from Kushiro to Asahikawa means riding the Super Ōzora all the way back to Sapporo, then changing to the Kamui and heading northeast to Asahikawa.
After spending half the day on trains, we stretch our legs on a walk up the Asahikawa-shi Shōtengai, a wide pedestrian shopping street running north through the city center from Asahikawa Station.
I have a rule about not eating at chain ramen shops in Japan, especially ones that have overseas operations. That means no Ippudo, Ichiran or (here) Santōka. Unless its the original shop, then you have to go.
Back when we lived in the United States, the Santōka in the food court at the Edgewater, New Jersey branch of Mitsuwa was the closest thing we had to a real ramen shop without heading into New York City. Our stops at Santōka during grocery runs to Mitsuwa were the first ramen dates Mei and I went on.
The staff at the head shop are accustomed to tourists and begin explaining the menu to us in English. We stop them, smile, and tell them we know exactly what we want.
We walk off dinner under crazy clouds and a killer Asahikawa sunset.
Santōka with its tonkotsu soup is an outlier in this city. Asahikawa style ramen features soups based partially or wholly on seafood stock and flavored with shoyu tare. Unlike tonkotsu from Fukuoka or miso from Sapporo, this regional style hasn’t expanded beyond its home base. If you want Asahikawa ramen, generally you have to come here to get it.
Aoba is the oldest and considered one of the best shops in the city. The soup body is lighter than most of the other shops, but has a satisfying savory flavor.
I dig shops that offer a kid size bowl. We don’t like to waste food. This makes it a lot easier.
Staff are happy to point out the kansha (感謝)—thanks—waiting for you if you leave an empty bowl.
Aoba even has a guest book. It feels like our anime pilgrimages!
Since we had come on the early side, before the lunch crowd, we have the chance to chat with the two generations running the shop. Everyone is super friendly. I ask about some nerdy ramen making matters, name-drop Brian (sorry Brian), and suddenly we’re all best friends. We tell them about our plan to slurp our way across the city over the next few days.
Full of noodles, we take a bus out to the Asahiyama Zoo, famous for its installations that put you right up close to polar habitat animals. Mei is here for the animals. I’m here to start my Asahikawa anime pilgrimage.
The zoo appears briefly in Beautiful Bones: Sakurako’s Investigation (櫻子さんの足下には死体が埋まっている).
In the summer of 2017, almost a year after its theatrical release, the influence of Kimi no Na wa. is still felt far and wide.
Back in town, we move to the evening’s slurp, Hachiya.
We’re in a pork mood. The staff tells us they have just sold out of the butameshi, so we get two orders of gyoza instead of one.
Then this magnificent bowl comes. Where Aoba is light and clean except for a bit of oil, Hachiya is a combination of tonkotsu and fish stocks with shoyu, and has a strong smoky, almost burnt flavor. The grated ginger garnish is the only thing light about this bowl. No small sizes, so we share this one.
Don’t hog the soup, Dad.
The previous day we had an orange and yellow sunset. This evening it’s pink and purple. I like diversity in my ramen and my sunsets.
Objectively, a one day run out from Asahikawa to Wakkanai and back doesn’t make much sense. There are only a handful of express trains each day, the trip is four to five hours in each direction, and other than the bus ride out for a look at Cape Sōya, the northernmost point in Japan, there isn’t much to do there. But when an itch has been around for a long time, sometimes you just have to do whatever it takes to scratch it.
Years ago I watched the anime series Honey and Clover (ハチミツとクローバー), based on the manga by Umino Chica. It was significant for me in that it was the first time I was consciously aware of the detailed depiction of real locations that has become common in anime, which years later I would begin to study. It was also one of my earliest memories of a series that seriously examined the search for identity and purpose, exploring the growth and maturation of college students and early career professionals. I was at the same stage in my life, so it resonated deeply.
In the middle of the series, protagonist Takemoto Yūta becomes frustrated with his inability to feel confident in his path, fleeing from his Tokyo area art school on bicycle for a cross country journey of self-discovery. The people he befriends and works with on his trek help him gain insight into what he wants to do, and he ultimately makes his way to Cape Sōya before deciding he’s ready to return and continue his formal studies. When he reaches the cape, he remarks that, while all he had to do was keep moving his legs and he could eventually reach such a faraway place, he wasn’t able to understand that until he actually got there.
Obligatory pose next to the marker that says northernmost train station in Japan
The 50 minute bus ride along the coast isn’t as dramatic as the conclusion of a long distance bicycle trek, but like Takemoto, I’m glad we were able to see this.
Technically, Bentenjima a kilometer northwest is the true northernmost point, but I doubt many people fancy swimming out to an uninhabited rock.
Beyond Honey and Clover, other manga and anime series have used Cape Sōya as a setting. Silver Spoon is a recent example:
The ruins of a naval watchtower and other monuments dot the hill overlooking the cape. This is the last place Takemoto sees at the end of his journey.
A fox whispers that it’s time for us to scurry back to catch the last bus that will get us to Wakkanai terminal in time for an early dinner and our long train ride home.
We try a sushi shop in the little town center next to Wakkanai Station. We’re the only customers, on account of it being 4:00pm at the edge of Japan, but the master is warm and the food is wonderful.
Before I understood the distances and times involved in getting up to Wakkanai and back, I’d mistakenly thought we could see Cape Sōya and visit Rishiri Island, where the best konbu in Japan is produced, on the same trip. Maybe some other time.
Our Asahikawa ramen adventure continues at the Baikōken head shop. Baikōken has grown into a chainlet of shops in Japan, East Asia and even one in Hawaii. The soup isn’t as intense or distinctive as some of the other shops, but good on them for their efforts to share Asahikawa style with the world.
Portions are generous. The regular is almost more than I really want.
I appreciate the small size option, though it’s almost as large as a normal bowl at other shops!
Today we cover the city center locations for Beautiful Bones: Sakurako’s Investigation, starting at Asahikawa Station and working our way north.
Traffic roundabouts are relatively rare in Japan. The one we had come across in Kushiro and this one in Asahikawa are notable landmarks.
The riverbed is accessible, so we wander into the weeds and rocks, then stare up at the bridge girders after we finish with Sakurako-san. We don’t find any human bones, though.
Unfortunately closed as of the time of writing, Matsuda was another top rated Asahikawa shop, know for its decadent servings of tender pork.
Let’s order one of everything.
Gyoza is pan-fried with some sort of roux for extra crispy skin.
The chashudon comes with both the regular hunks of chashu and tontoro, the fattiest, most tender cut of pork.
The tontoro chashumen is a masterpiece. We’re sad to hear of its retirement.
We start the morning taking the Furano Line down to Biei to look for scenes from Mahōtsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto: Natsu no Sora (魔法遣いに大切なこと 〜夏のソラ〜), released in English as Someday’s Dreamers: Summer Skies. Like traveling up to Cape Sōya, coming to Biei was a loose end I had long wanted to tie up. Anime series beginning in the 1990s increasingly incorporate real location settings. After I had returned from my extended stay as a graduate student on exchange in Tokyo in 2008, the first thing I did was search for series set in my favorite neighborhood, Shimokitazawa. Though most of Mahōtsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto takes place in Shimokita, the protagonist of Natsu no Sora, the third manga title and second anime adaptation, comes from Biei. The town features extensively in the first episode. Due to the distances involved, many locations are accessible only by car, but there are quite a few right in the center of town.
Biei Station, the rotary and the buildings around it appear unchanged nine years after the series broadcast, which is pretty unusual.
The fumikiri signal north of the station has been replaced with a newer model.
The bridge over the Biei River at the south end of the downtown only takes a few minutes to walk to.
Not pictured, we are totally covered with bugs after trudging through the overgrowth. The unaired bonus episode, Natsu no Mushi.
A short bus ride toward the east edge of Biei brings us to Blue Pond, otherwise known as that unreal looking wallpaper from OS X Mountain Lion. The wallpaper image is a photo taken by photographer and Biei resident Kent Shiraishi.
The artificial pond was built to stop volcanic mudflows emitted by Tokachidake from damaging Biei, but the accidental presence of colloidal aluminium hydroxide created the conditions for the blue and green hues that shift under different types of light.
The cone of Tokachidake is just visible through the trees.
Because it’s only a half hour away we head to Furano to check out lavender fields. Some of the farms are visible from the train as we ride into town. From Naka-Furano Station we walk up to Farm Tomita, which also grows wildflowers and melons. A light rain is falling, and we know we’re heading straight into a tourist trap, but we’re lured by the promise of lavender and melon ice cream.
We have one final mission in Asahikawa before we pack our suitcase and head to the airport the next morning. Keizo Shimamoto had been following our ramen updates each night and asked if a shop called Tenkin was still around. Maybe he was worried we might leave without hitting up one of his favorites. It’s definitely still here. We saved the best for last.
I can see why so many people like Tenkin. It’s as rich as Hachiya, with which it is often compared, but without the in-your-face edge.
Perfect execution of a chibi-sized portion with a second bowl for cooling noodles included by default.
We’ve taken our first steps out of the Sapporo bubble and gotten a few glimpses of the vastness of Hokkaidō. Though we’ve enjoyed our stay, it’s also been apparent how little we know about the region. Hokkaidō and other remote parts of Japan are at the forefront of the reverse growth that has been reshaping the country and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Now that we’ve spent some time in most of the largest cities and quite a few of the medium sized ones, these harder to reach areas have become the frontier of our own education too.