(originally published in Word Vietnam, January 2015)
Ed Weinberg had enough of crazy Asian cities. Heading up to Hokkaido, in the north of Japan, he found the cure.
Photos by Ed Weinberg
In America we have a saying: “Tap the Rockies, doot-doot-doot, Coors Light.”
Well the mountains surrounding Sapporo aren’t exactly the Rockies, and judging from the subdued feeling of the beer halls we visited in my time in northern Japan, they’re more interested in extracting meditative feels than avalanches.
It’s been a tiring overnight trip on the shinkonsen bullet train, but the whoosh of mountain air puts a spring back in my step. It’s fall. The leaves in Hokkaido are still in the early stages of dying, turning that mottled golden colour that fills the lanes of storied Hokkaido University with amateur photographers.
Akiko turns up, just in time to prevent me from making the culinary mistake I’ll later make anyway — eating the squid sauce-coated, black-bunned Halloween burger at McDonald’s.
The Sapporo Ski Jump
First off, we head to the gondola ride up Sapporo’s Olympic hill. It’s a good point to begin my initiation — looking down on the well-planned grid, getting a sense of this pioneered city, which remains less in the thrall of its layers of history than the clean nature that surrounds it.
Old timers still think of the 1972 Winter Olympics every time Sapporo is mentioned. Now, the downhill portion is a popular tourist attraction, with the bright blue lift chairs taking smiling tourists (they smile at Akiko’s three-year-old son Kazu, in the seat in front of me, before their smile carries over to me) up to a glassed-in, ice cream-selling observatory. Kazu spots large bugs that he’s never seen in Saigon, walking on the inside of the windows. In the InterCon Residences he’s been raised in for most of his three years, stripy bugs like these are a rarity.
The Sapporo Beer Factory
Unlike the Vietnamese Sapporo factory in Long An Province, the factory in Hokkaido is set up for touring — with crates even laid out in the trademark star shape on the production floor. Wall-fastened lamps backlight the clean lines of the corridors, orange-tinted halogen gives the production floor that industrial parking lot feel.
We see the seamer — the machine that seams the can lids onto the cans — whirring at full-speed. Our guide points to a wall with an endless stack of Sapporo cans in front — that’s how many cans it seams up in a minute, 900.
Taking a can in two pieces, she opens a glass case onto a mini-seamer, spinning it to life in front of us. She takes out a cute, freshly-seamed coin bank, which we will later rock-paper-scissors for.
We’re served a glass of the Black Label variety, with a beautiful two-finger width head — “the perfect Black Label — creamy, clear, cold”. Then our guide sets us on each other at rock-paper-scissors — called janken in Japan, the land of its modern origin. I win and get the can coin bank. My secret: mis-hear the Japanese language prompt and keep my hand balled up in rock form.
“Unless you’re a volcanic seismologist or someone who was supposed to attend the 2008 G8 Summit but is very late, you’re probably going to Lake Toya to relax.”
We drive out to Lake Toya. The leaves are changing, the wooded mountains roll past.
The water swirls in this vacation caldera. The dormant volcanoes vent for holiday photographers.
We take the Usuzan Ropeway to the top of Mt. Usu. From the mountaintop, the changing colours of the leaves give the mountains a living texture, rippling through golf courses and roads like veins. They frame the seismic red rock of Mt. Showa Sin-zan, a beautiful coat the mountain will shed in the next eruption. Even the colours, like slow-motion fire, burn like the heat vacationers otherwise seek to harness in this resort place of hot cocoa and onsens.
We Eat Sushi
Back in Sapporo, the Nagoyaka Tei conveyor-belt sushi restaurant has the best sushi I’ve ever eaten: supple, buttery, perfectly-balanced and whatever other good sushi adjectives you can throw at it.
Akiko says, “Salmon eggs are a speciality of Hokkaido.”
“You say everything is a speciality of Hokkaido!” I counter.
“That’s right,” Akiko says, undeterred, “because Hokkaido is a seafood paradise.”
A Short History of Rock-Paper-Scissors
According to Wikipedia, the game dates back to Han Dynasty era China (206 BC — 220 AD), where it was called shoushiling — ‘hand command’. The three throws switched around a bit upon its import to Japan, where it started —
Snake > Slug > Frog > Snake
— before eventually settling into its modern shape in the late 19th century.
The jeu Japanois spread through Europe and the US in the 1920s and 1930s, where it is now used to decide court cases (see 2006 Florida case Avista Management v. Wausau Underwriters) and peacefully settle disputes as to who sits in the middle car seat.
The Japanese version, ever ahead of the game, is now featured in a ‘strip-poker’ type variant called yakyuken, which has become a minor part of the local porn culture.
The Perfect Pour
The Sapporo tour guides were methodical about their three-minute pours — in fact, the draught taps had a half-step for unleashing the 30 percent straight foam that crowns a ‘perfect pour’. From the can, here are the steps to follow:
1st Step: Pour beer from a decent height, until the foam reaches the 60 percent level.
2nd Step: Wait until the ration of foam and beer reaches 50/50. Holding the beer close, pour until the foam reaches the 90 percent point on the glass.
3rd Step: Let the foam settle again, and pour slowly until the beer/foam split is 70/30. The beer should reach the horizontal line of the glass’s Sapporo star, while the foam crests over the rim of the glass in an iceberg-like tip.
Where To Stay
In Sapporo: Hotel Clubby Sapporo
Hotel Clubby is a centrally-located hotel, right across from the ivy-covered brick building that housed the first Sapporo beer brewery. Their concept is in rooms with about 50 percent more space than your average Sapporo hotel room, at similar rates. I had space to do my morning yoga routine, which I consider a win. The breakfast buffet was also tremendous.
For more info or to book a stay, go to sapporofactory.jp/clubby
In Lake Toya: Toya Sansui Hotel Kafu
Unless you’re a volcanic seismologist or someone who was supposed to attend the 2008 G8 Summit but is very late, you’re probably going to Lake Toya to relax. In that case, I can heartily recommend Toya Sansui Hotel Kafu. Everyone was really nice, in typical ryokan style — it felt more like staying at a relative’s house than a hotel. They have two sex-separated onsen areas, which switch sides at 9pm nightly so you can experience both.
The lobby has an easy elegance, like something out of a 1980s magazine ad for a cigarette. Everywhere people are subdued, wearing their yukatas, quietly chatting. A man with big boxy sunglasses takes a picture of two pumpkins sitting beneath a side table. Rays of light stream through the curtain of trees outside the lobby’s picture window. It’s enough to make you think the morning will never end, the easy rays of light will continue to fall in increasingly charming angles.
Their real site is sansui-hotel.com, but you non-Japanese speakers are better off trying ryokan.or.jp/english/yado/main/03430
What To Do
In Sapporo: The Sapporo Beer Garden
The Sapporo Museum is just the preamble. Take it all in, then get ready to eat some serious lamb.
They’ll give you a plastic bag for your jacket — as good as the lamb smells now, you should use it. The delicacy is called jingisukan — ‘Genghis Khan’ — rumoured to be so-named because it was the meat of choice amongst Mongolian soldiers. The dome-shaped skillet is meant to the soldiers’ helmets, which they supposedly used to cook their food.
For more info, go to sapporo-bier-garten.jp
In Sapporo: Sapporo Citizens Disaster Prevention Center
Akiko wanted to show me what an earthquake feels like, so we went to the disaster museum. We sat in a fake living room balanced on a mechanical platform, then the attendant dialed up the 9.0-magnitude 2011 Tohoku earthquake — the fourth most powerful earthquake in recorded history. The couches we were sitting on shook a lot. I tried standing up, and sat back down. Apparently that’s not a good idea.
I went into the Smoke Evacuation Simulation Corner next, solo. Vapour was pumped in, as I stayed low and clung to the walls. My flashlight started dying but I didn’t know, I just thought the smoke was super thick. I couldn’t find my way for a bit, and my animal instinct kicked in. I was frightened. When I made it out, I felt I’d survived something.
For more info, go to city.sapporo.jp/shobo/tenji
In Sapporo: Moerenuma Park
Once upon a time, Japanese-American Isamu Noguchi built those amoeba-looking glass tables that were really cutting edge in the 1950s. He also built a lot of other stuff — like this sculpture park that took 17 years to complete. And it’s breathtaking.
For more info, go to sapporo-park.or.jp/moere
In Lake Toya: The Usuzan Ropeway
People travel to Lake Toya to take in the hot springs and the natural beauty that produces them — all in Japan’s first geopark, Toya Caldera and Usu Volcano Geopark.
This is where Fusakichi Omori pioneered the study of volcanic seismology — correlating minor earth tremors to future volcanic potential. Much of his work led into the latter-day discovery of plate tectonics. There’s a pretty convenient statue photo-op on the side of the boiling sister volcano to Mt. Usu, the Showa Sin-zan lava dome.
Mt. Usu last went off in 2000. We took the gondola ride to its summit, and except for the steam venting up in picturesque valleys, things were relatively calm and wondrous.
For more info, go to wakasaresort.com/usuzan