October 25, 2013
The temperature readings for the past week have been falling to lows of nines and elevens (that’s Celsius, for all you Americans out there). Ladies and gentlemen, I hate to admit it, but summer has passed us by. You could still kind of pretend in September that it wasn’t so, but we’re now well and truly in the depths of autumn. Most mornings I wake up to grey skies, wussy drizzle and London fog as thick as all the rumours claim it is, and as much as I hate temperatures above 20˚C, right now I kind of miss summer.
More than that, though, I miss the sea. I miss many things associated with the waters: the salt-scented winds, freshly grilled shellfish, the part of the beach that starts getting damp and squidgy, a perfect blue horizon, obnoxiously bright sunshine. I especially long for the seafood, but you probably knew that already.
Otaru is famous for its seafood, so while I was in Sapporo I took a day trip out there. Otaru is a picturesque harbour city about 30 minutes away by train from Hokkaido’s capital, and what that really means is that there is pretty much nothing to do there except eat, shop, enjoy the scenery and eat some more. In that respect it’s a great place for someone like me, since I tend to be a bit of a cultural philistine. Though I love walking through cities — especially shitamachi (low city), alleys and cemeteries — I don’t care that much about temples, shrines, castles, historical architecture, music boxes, etc. So it was enough to stroll around Otaru and eat my way through its streets.
I started my day at Sawazaki Suisan, a place recommended by a friend. There’s another branch of the same shop a few steps away inside the maze of shops. Sawazaki Suisan #3, the one I went to, is the cute and rather kitsch-looking building on the corner of the road.
I had a late and light brunch of a scallop, crab, ikura and sea urchin bowl:
It wasn’t mind-blowing — I was expecting cooler, lightly vinegared rice, not hot rice — but it was a pleasant meal, the seafood appropriately fresh, and the sea urchin good and creamy. They cure their ikura in-house, and serve you a bowl of crab miso soup along with your rice bowl.
Since I had a few hours to kill while waiting for S to arrive and join me on an eating expedition, I wandered around the city. It was like being inside a series of postcards (which you can of course buy from various vendors) — the very beautiful canal (with unfortunate hordes of tourists), old train tracks, and hydrangeas still flowering in July.
At the end of the train tracks were benches with rather charming drawings of trains by primary school kids.
If you have the temerity to step into a little street off the train tracks and into someone’s backyard, you might spot these two cats disdainfully ignoring all attempts to pet them.
S, the only person on this planet who calls me ‘Flora’, finally arrived at around 2pm. A Sapporo boy through and through, he knows quite a few good places to eat — so we began by sharing fried chicken at Naruto-ya.
See that look of anticipation right there? That’s some good fried chicken we’ve got here.
Naruto-ya is a chain of restaurants specialising in fried chicken, and the branch we went to is right next to Sawazaki Suisan, mentioned above.
Interestingly enough, they don’t call fried chicken karaage up north — it’s called zangi. If you can read Japanese, you can see that it’s written on the banner ざんぎ — and that it’s marinated with salt, pepper and ginger. When it comes to deep-frying chicken, they’re basically two names for the same thing. However, as far as I can tell, the term zangi is also used when seafood is deep-fried in the karaage style. Some Hokkaido people think of karaage as “zangi’d chicken”, while some insist that it is a special style separate from karaage.
Whatever you choose to call it, it was finger lickin’ good — certainly more so than the fried chicken brand I stole that line from.
We ate a lot of food that day, including two mind-blowing desserts which deserve a post of their own. But one of the things that really stands out in my memories of Hokkaido is the grilled tsubu (a kind of whelk) at one of the numerous grilled-seafood stalls dotting the streets around the touristy section of Otaru.
I’d never eaten it before, but it was highly delicious. You handed your shellfish of choice to the man behind the grill, who clean and prepare it under running tap water with a pair of scissors. For the tsubu, he squirted a secret sauce (of dashi, shoyu and other magical things) into its shell and grilled it for a few minutes. Then he pulled out its flesh, snipped it into bite-sized chunks and stuffed them back into the shell. It had a wonderfully resilient, bouncy texture, a bit like abalone. It was dead fresh and only 400 yen, absolutely unthinkable for London.
Preparing uni for grilling:
Afterwards, Stall Dude wrapped up the shell for me to take back as a souvenir. Despite repeated rinsing, it still smells a little of shellfish and shoyu. You could say that’s a little gross, but the lingering, savoury scent always makes me nostalgic for that summer day in Otaru. And right now, on a cold autumn day like this, that’s exactly what I need.
Otaru Denuki-koji, 1-3-10 Ironai
Otaru Denuki-koji, 1-3-10 Ironai