Sunday, December 30, 2012

Highlight * The Making of Real Good Chocolate at the Airport * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

It's quite a surprise to see a working chocolate factory in an airport, and Chitose Airport in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, has one: the Royce' Chocolate Factory. You can view the process from finish to end along the stretch of the terminal. They have recently renovated the terminal and it looks like a small amusement park. Aside from the chocolate factory, they even have a Doraemon Park.

Royce' was founded in Sapporo and they're known for making very good quality chocolates. I first encountered Royce during a visit to Hong Kong, and I've always managed to bring some home. They're popular in Asia. But since then, branches have also opened up back home in the Philippines. In fact, they have also very recently opened their 1st US store in New York and a second shop in Russia.

My favorite is still their Classic Bitter Nama Chocolate made with dark chocolate. Each box comes with a small spatula used to lift each piece of chocolate from it's casing. The chocolate pieces are also sprinkled with powdered chocolate on top. Aside from the usual milk chocolate and white chocolate flavors, they also have Maccha or Green Tea flavor. Their Nama chocolates are also available in chocolate liquor versions.

Some other unique items included their chocolate covered potato chips or some with strawberry or lemon fillings.

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Tennis Balls for Dessert? * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

Curious at the clear tube of yellow balls that looked like a can of tennis balls, I had to get one of these interesting Hokkaido desserts. I was on my way back home, and was at the Chitose Airport when I saw this in one of the refrigerated shelves.They had two different flavors available: one was white pudding and the other was cream custard with egg. Apparently, the company also produces a chocolate one but they didn't have it in that store. They offer a cooling bag if you wanted, but I figured I'll be eating it soon anyway.

But I got back home after about 8 hours, and I suddenly realized that I had this tube of cream custard in my bag. Oh no! I might end up with a melted lump of cream! But it was still in good shape, phew!

Now, how to eat it? There seemed to be some kind of balloon on each ball, sealed with a pink clip that can't easily be removed. No instructions apparently in the packaging either. Hmmm, what should I do? I asked Google, LOL! See the video link I found below.

And true enough, there's a special way to open it. I had to use a sharp needle or pin and pinch it slightly on the balloon. Pop the balloon and out emerges a bouncy ball of custard ;-)

As I took my first bite, the creaminess of the custard filled my mouth. The best thing I liked about it is that the creaminess didn't overpower the flavor and it remained light and not too sweet. I think the nearest thing I could compare the taste and texture to would be the Italian Pannacotta.

How To Video for Opening and Eating Bocca Pudding

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Hokkaido Souvenirs, Japanese Petit Piece Puzzles and Gap * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

This may look like a typical outlet mall in the US, but this photo of a mini food truck was actually taken in Chitose, near the international airport in Sapporo, Japan.

Most of the shops are actually Western brands and thus the look of the US outlet malls: Lego, North Face, Columbia, Samsonite, Gap, Claire's and so on. Prices are actually quite good, considering they're imported.

There are only a handful of shops that are local, one of which is a big one-stop shop for Hokkaido souvenir and food items, great for some last minute shopping before you head out to the airport, which is just 10 minutes away, and serviced by a regular shuttle bus.

Another shop worth visiting is the puzzle shop which sells good quality unique miniature piece puzzles that are only made in Japan. Aside from them being postcard size puzzles, they also use the petit pieces that are sized like half of your fingertip. Most of the designs are Disney, but they also offer other ones like a Mona Lisa. Another unique find there are the stained art puzzles, which looks like small stained glass windows.

This winter, the outlet grounds had a small snow covered slide where kids can do some sledding. Christmas trees and igloos were also set up.

There was one amazing exhibit where a working maze was set up using empty cardboard boxes, courtesy of one of the shops called The Box Outlet. Kids can crawl in and enjoy.

If you have a few hours to spare while waiting for your flight, it's worth a visit.

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Highlight * Window of Fishes * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

As we drove past one of the streets of Sapporo, red light flashed, and we stopped at an intersection. I was panning my camera and suddenly stopped when I saw this interesting looking window. I was trying to figure out what they were from afar, but eventually figured out when I zoomed in, that these were fishes being hanged out to dry (himono).

Drying fish is the oldest preservation method and it not surprising to see this in a country that has abundant seafood. Traditionally, these are sun dried, but modern technology has used fans to dry them. Experts have of course claimed that the traditional method is still much better.

Living in Asia, dried fish is no stranger to me, but there are all kinds of fishes and many more kinds of drying, salting and fermenting fish. Some are of good quality while others are not. Some are dried wide open and some whole. I always remember my mom searching for a good quality dried salted fish when she travels.

Imagine the smell! But I have to agree, the taste and flavor, when eaten, makes it all so much worth it, haha!

While I am more used to dried fish being deep fried to that ultra light and crispy level where the bones are already edible, we noticed that in Japan, the dried fish are served grilled, either over the traditional charcoal or an electric grill.

Typical fishes use are mackarel (aji), smelt, herring (nishin) or even flying fish (tobuio) which are popular for supplying the orange roe (tobiko) that we see in our sushis.

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Interesting Finds at the Tanukikoji Shopping Street * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

I love going to shopping streets around the world and in Sapporo, they have Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, which is a ten block stretch of covered pedestrian passageway surrounded by stores, restaurants, clubs, amusement centers and even a capsule hotel.

I usually like to shop in places like these. It's a little bit different from the usual mall shopping as you'd usually expect to find more unique items being sold here, like these colorful looking floor mats made of scrap cloths. It could actually be used as a decor too ;-)

A very unusual item I bought here was actually some Japanese digestive medicine from one of the local drugstores here, called Wakamoto. It's a popular and effective digestion medicine that I could buy back home but of course, would cost me a fortune with all the embedded taxes and import costs. Where best to buy it but from where it was originally made :-)

I also managed to step in one of the amusement centers. If you're familiar with those claw machines in circuses or carnivals, where you try to grab a stuffed toy with a mechanical claw but fail immensely 99% of the time, then this is the place to see. They've got hundreds of them in these centers and I dare not spare a dime as this could be really addicting, haha!

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Sapporo JR Station Eat and Shop * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

Sapporo JR Station is the central railway station of the city of Sapporo. We stayed in a hotel near this area, so it was really convenient.

JR Tower sits at the top of the station, which houses one of the best observation decks to see Sapporo at night. It also houses one of the two famous Ramen places for which Hokkaido is known for, the other one is Ramen Alley in Susukino, 2 stations away. Here in the Sapporo JR Station area, you can choose one of the Ramen places at the 10th floor of the Esta Building and get a great view of the city at night. Esta Building is interconnected to the JR Tower at the basement level. Aside from the popular Ramen restaurants, there is a large Japanese electronics chain named Bic Camera, for the tech-lovers.

Interconnected also to these buildings from the inside are the Stellar Place and Daimaru. Stellar Place is a shopping center which houses a variety of restaurants at the 6th floor and lots of the local retail chains, including Uniqlo and Muji. Daimaru, on the other hand, is one of the popular Japanese department store chains.

Make sure you drop by the basement floor of both Daimaru and Esta, which sells all sorts of food and delicacies, and best of all, offers free tastings, so that you can taste before you buy. This in itself is a very interesting and popular attraction common to the Japanese. Be ready cause it's always crowded and full of people; but very interesting things to see, even if you don't intend to buy anything.

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Genghis Khan Lamb BBQ with Sapporo Beer, perfect combination! * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

One of the popular dishes that originated in Hokkaido is the Jingisukan, which is lamb bbq or mutton bbq. Instead of the usual open grill on charcoal used in western barbeques, the Japanese use a non-smoke pan like the one in the photo, sometimes also come in a convex version.Jingisukan, or otherwise translated as Genghis Khan, came from the belief that lamb was a favorite dish of the Mongolian soldiers and they used to cook it using their helmets. Interesting :-)

Having the grilled meat paired with beer is perfect combination. You can have it dish in many places in Hokkaido, but the popular Sapporo Beer Garden offers a delicious meal combined with the original Sapporo beer, oldest and most popular beer in Japan.

There are two restaurants in the Sapporo Beer Garden, the Genghis Hall which has the noisier beer hall type environment, and Garden Grill, which is a more relaxed family oriented environment.

We chose the Garden Grill so that we can have a relaxing conversation during dinner :-) We had a plate of delicious lamb bbq, some wagyu beef and a glass of Sapporo Five Star, a beer that you get to taste only the Garden since it's a limited edition beer that was sold only in the 70's. The lamb was tender and fresh, flavorful yet rid of the gamey smell that are sometimes found in lamb.

In the same complex (used to be the old Sapporo Brewery) is the Sapporo Beer Museum. And nearby is also the Ario shopping mall. It's approx 20 minutes from Sapporo JR Station.

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Ski Jumping, Anyone? * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

Coming from a tropical country, it was interesting for me to explore the unfamiliar world of winter sports in one of the actual Olympic sites. Mt. Okura was one of the venues for the 1972 Olympics and home to ski jumping events. Today, it holds an observatory at the top (300meters) where you can get on a lift from the base of the ski jump, which runs parallel to the ski jump. So you can see each section of it, including the audience area, the judge's station and the giant scoreboard. At the top, you can get a firsthand view of where the skier jumps take off as well as get breathtaking views of the city of Sapporo.

Down at the base, there is a Winter Sports Museum, where you can experience the world of winter sports through simulators. I got to try the ski jump, and bobsled and speed skating. Information about history and records are also available there.

Lucky for us as we were about to leave, there were a couple of ski jumpers doing their practice jumps. It was a whole lot different to see it in person than just trying to visualize in our minds how they do it :-)

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Highlight * My First Sea Urchin Experience * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

I've been quite adventurous with food in most cases, I eat sashimi (raw), both fish and meat in fact. But for some reason, Uni (Japanese for sea urchin) was one of the things that I never dared to try. Maybe it's the color, maybe it's the texture, maybe it's the fishy smell or maybe it's that black spiky shell where it came from, maybe it's the name, I'm not really sure. Or maybe because my brother possibly got typhoid from eating it when we were young, haha!

Okay, so I'm here in Hokkaido, where the freshest sea urchin is one of the must-tries. Quite a dilemma indeed! But after realizing that this is a rare opportunity, I managed to try it before I changed my mind. With my chopsticks, I got a small piece, trying the ignore the look of it and threw it inside my mouth, hahaha!

The verdict? Hmmm, it wasn't so bad after all. The texture was just soft but not mushy and the fresh taste made it less daunting. At the Hakodate morning market, where people commonly have seafood for breakfast, I ordered a bowl of uni (brown colored sea urchin) and ikura (orange colored salmon roe) with rice, a very typical dish in Hokkaido. The rice was mixed with a vinegar mixture typically used in sushi rolls.

I didn't pass the chance to try my favorite: sake (salmon) and maguro (tuna) sashimis. Also had ebi (shrimp) and hotate (scallop) sashimis. Unlike some sashimis served in the restaurants back home, these fresh ones had that natural sweet flavor and bright natural color. Yum yum!

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Highlight * Waving Bears * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

Have you ever seen a bear standing up and waving at you? Well, you can definitely see them here in Showa-shinzan Bear Ranch. It's a bit funny to see them this way, cause even in a zoo, you don't get to see them like that. I'm sure these are trained, which is somehow a bit sad, cause it's unnatural.

Anyway, when we visited, we bought a couple of bags of apples and cookies to feed them. They'll wave at you, begging you to throw them either an apple or a cookie.

According to them, there are about 100 bears being bred here. There is a section on the side where there are younger bears too.

At the bear ranch souvenir shop, we were able to buy bear oil, which is used for dry skin as well as treating small sores. Actually, the more popular one is horse oil cream. Our local guide told us the one sold at the bear ranch, orange box, is quite a good quality one, absorbs well and does not leave a greasy feeling. She also explained that the horse oil comes from the fatty acids found in the horse neck under the mane. Although it seems a bit gross at first, I quickly realized how our ancestors in the early days use animal fats for almost anything, including medicinal purposes, fueling and cooking.

Nearby, you'll get a good close look at Showa-shinzan, the new volcano, which is still active and spewing smoke. There is also a ropeway (cable car) to Mt. Usu, where you can get a good view from the top of Lake Toya area. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go up.

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Monday, December 24, 2012

Highlight * Snow, Snow, Snow * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

Snow, snow, snow! I'm sure folks from places that have snow in the winter will say "What's the big deal?" hahaha! But coming from a tropical country, the highlight of our trip was the soft fluffy snow, not just any snow, but one of the best powder snows in the world :-)

Although I've seen and experienced snow several times before, this is first time I've experienced continuous powder snow. For 8 days straight that we were in Hokkaido, it snowed every single day, whether we're in the city or up in the mountains. Sometimes, it's just flurries, but other times, almost a snow storm.

I love the sight of falling snow, it's just so serene and peaceful. I love falling down on the fluffy snow pile, just like a goose down bed :-) I love the detail of the snowflakes, where no two are alike :-)

Hokkaido is home to one of the best powder snow areas in the world. Although may be debatable, snow experts have rated Hokkaido as one of the top two, the only other comparable powder snow area is in Utah, in the US.

Two areas in Hokkaido that's popular for skiing and other snow adventures are Niseko and Rusutsu. Niseko is larger and more foreigners visit this place, while Rusutsu is more family oriented and a local favorite. My opinion is that both are really great, just offer a different ambiance. Both areas offer places to stay, great food options, great views, and of course, world-class powder snow adventures.

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Great Views of Lake Toya from our room * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

One is met with a very refreshing view of Lake Toya and Ezo Fuji (Mt Yotei) at the far end, when you wake up in the morning as you look out the large picture window of your tatami room.

This is a nice place to stay overnight when you're exploring the Lake Toya area.

At night, they feature lights at the garden just by the lake and a few minutes of fireworks. It's great to go for a walk. In our case, it was winter time but it was still nice to go for an evening stroll. We were lucky to see a couple of big white swans swimming around the edge of the lake.

Since the area is also quite remote, there is not much options to go out. The hotel offers great buffet dinner. They have a large dining hall, but despite it being full when we visited, the ambiance was rather relaxing.

Nearby, we went for snow activities at the famous Rusutsu Ski Resort, visited the Bear Farm in Showa-Shinsan, and just enjoyed the drive in the midst of all the beautiful sceneries.

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Ezo Fuji * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

On our way from Sapporo to Lake Toya in Hokkaido, Japan, what emerged from the road ahead was this beautiful snow-capped mountain that looks very much like the famous majestic Mt. Fuji (highest mountain in Japan).

And as we jokingly called out Mt. Fuji to the kids, our local guide overheard us said we were actually right. Well, half right! This mountain is quite famous and is the Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido, and is nicknamed Ezo Mt. Fuji. Ezo is the old name of Hokkaido, the island on the northern end of Japan.

Ezo Mt. Fuji is located in the area of Shiribeshi, the southwestern part of Hokkaido, where its main attraction is its amazing natural scenery. The area consists of volcanoes, mountain ranges, valleys, rivers, amazing lakes, ponds and a wealth of natural wildlife. Visitors to the area do skiing, snowboarding, other snow activities, rafting, and of course the traditional Japanese hot spring (onsen). In the summer, there are a lot of national park activities, farming, jam making, enjoying the seafood and fresh produce.

The official name of this mountain though is called Mt. Yotei and it's approx ~1,900 meters high, compared to the ~3,700 meter Mt. Fuji.

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Family Owned Cafe in the Backroads of Hokkaido * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

What a wonderful surprise to have one of our meals in a family-owned cafe out in Chirabetsu, Hokkaido, almost in the middle of nowhere, but with great views of Ezo Mt Fuji (Mt. Yotei) as well as delicious food!

Knowing that we wanted to explore the backroads of Hokkaido, our local guide searched the internet for locally recommended place like this. It's a quaint and cozy little home, owned by a Japanese couple who runs the restaurant themselves. It is actually an active home, and they live on the 2nd floor :-) Small tables of 4-6 were set up on the 1st floor. We were a group of 16 in the family and we had the place to ourselves :-)

The menu was amazing! Started off with home made bread and Hokkaido butter, hot miso soup, cold sesame tofu for appetizer, grilled salmon with enoki mushrooms kept hot on a foil pouch, with a side of fresh colorful veggies, pumpkin and potato topped with Japanese

dressing made of mayo with fish/shrimp roe.

The view was equally amazing! Fresh powder snow on a large field and Ezo Mt. Fuji in the background.

The home also hosts a very beautiful owl believed to bring good luck and happiness. Owl is fu-kuro in Japanese, which means "no troubles".

Upon leaving, the lovely Japanese couple came out and bade us goodbye, and gave us each a candy cane as a souvenir :-)

If you're driving from Sapporo to one of the ski resorts in the area such as Rusutsu, stop by this place for an amazing lunch with friends. Highly recommended!

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Deep Fried Potato on a Stick (Age-Imo) * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

Upon reading up about Hokkaido, one of the popular "must tries" listed by fellow travelers was the age-imo, deep fried potato. Wondering what the fuss was all about, I had to try this. Living in Asia, we are quite familiar with deep fried sweet potatoes, so we were expecting something like that, but we were surprised to see that age-imo is actually made with regular potatoes, a popular produce of Hokkaido, much the same way the Americans consider the Idaho potato :-)

Age-imo is usually sold in 3's like the one in the photo. Upon biting into it, you'll get a taste of that soft steaming hot potato inside. The batter tastes a lot like the hotdog on a stick batter :-)

I think these are also sold in some of the outdoor food trucks but the one in the Nakayama Mountain Pass rest stop has been popularly mentioned. So if you're on your way out of Sapporo to the Southwestern part of Hokkaido, you'll most probably pass by Highway 230, and Nakayama Mountain Pass rest stop is just about an hour from Sapporo city center.

You can also buy soft ice cream here. Be sure to try a special flavor like orange or melon. It is actually quite nice to eat ice cream in winter :-)

There is a souvenir shop which sells all sorts of Hokkaido products. Get a cream puff, or buy a pack of those wonderful light and crisp Hokkaido cookies.

Nakayama Mountain Pass is also where you can get great views of the famous Ezo Fuji (Mt Yotei) so be sure to get your cameras ready.

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * Home Made Ice Cream and Fresh Farm Milk * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

If you are visiting the southwestern part of Hokkaido, be sure to visit Lake Hill Farm to taste the wonderful home made ice cream. They have a wide variety of flavors. We tried the Milk (they also have Double Cream or Cream and Milk), Green Tea, Milk Tea, Chocolate, Strawberry. Hard to describe but it's creamy yet light and refreshing. If the place wasn't closing when we arrived, we would have probably ordered more, haha! Funny looking scoop too, for a moment there I thought it was a piece of cake on a cone :-)

At the back of the ice cream shop, there is an open area where you can sit and enjoy wonderful views of Ezo Mt. Fuji (Mt. Yotei). Too bad it was already dark when we arrived.

There is also a cafe on the other side of the building that sells hot coffee, and other food like curry etc. We went to get a cup of hot Hokkaido fresh milk, fresh from the farm itself.

During the summer, the local guide told me that you can also pet the animals, do some other activities like ice cream making, butter making, etc. I must return :-)

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Highlight * There's Something About Hokkaido Milk * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

I've often heard about Hokkaido milk being really popular and special. In fact, everything Hokkaido-related like its chocolates, butter, cakes, ice creams, and even bread are extra special. Well, they all use the same raw ingredient: Hokkaido milk.

So what is it with Hokkaido milk that makes it really great? I'm not a big milk drinker but I can tell that Hokkaido milk is more special. I guess it's the freshness, creamy yet light and refreshing, and the natural flavor that it comes with it. Difficult to describe through words the uniqueness of its taste, but definitely, it's in what they feed their cows over there, haha!

During this trip, I got to taste the fresh farm milk as well as the milk in bottles sold everywhere in Hokkaido, and they both taste really fresh, even the ones already flavored with chocolate.

What's the secret? Only Hokkaido knows :-)

If you get a chance to visit Japan and love food, do make a trip to Hokkaido, it's really an amazing region of its own. With the ability to be self-sufficient, most of the things, they produce and supply themselves. You can fly into Chitose Airport in Sapporo, and from there, explore the other cities. Two popular itineraries cover the Southwestern region and the Eastern region each.

Note:  This highlight also appears in AFAR Website

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Highlight * Braved the cold for Anthony Bourdain's Ramen Find in Sapporo * Amazing Asia * Hokkaido, Japan (December 2012)

In search for the perfect ramen, we journeyed into Susukino district in Sapporo, despite the snow, to find this small little ramen place in the corner that sits about 20 people max.

We think we know ramen, with the loads of authentic Japanese restaurants run by Japanese themselves in my home country. But that's nothing compared to the real ramen in Japan, and especially Hokkaido where ramen first originated.

The noodles were cooked perfectly, al dente! - even more perfect than the perfect al dente noodles I've tasted before :-) The broth is miso based and it's the type of ramen broth that's famous in Sapporo. Apparently, other areas of Hokkaido serve the other types: shoyu (soy-based) and shio (salt-based).

So I tried the miso ramen, with some thin slices of beef, corn & a slice of butter. Sounds weird? Well, it's weirdly delicious as a matter of fact ! I also noticed that the chasu beef slices were just put on top cold. Apparently, the beef is already half-cooked, and the secret is the hot broth will heat it up to a just-right level w/o overcooking it.

We also tried the gyoza dumplings which is yummy too.

The place is really small, it's a bar type eating area, and seats surround the open kitchen counter where 2 gentlemen do their ramen magic. On the walls around, you'll see signed tiles from famous people, which also included culinary expert Anthony Bourdain.

It's easy to find, near the Susukino JR station, and it's the 1st restaurant as you enter Ramen Alley.

Note: This highlight also appears in AFAR Website