Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nuts Cafe Trip - A Not So Crazy Night Out

12th August, 2010 - Tonight was a bit of a special night for us... we were having one of our fairly infrequent date nights which have been very difficult to organise since L-kun. Still, grandparents can be a life-saver in many respects. Tonight we were heading into the city to visit a great little cafe known somewhat Japanesey as Nuts Cafe Trip. Don't ask me why.

First off, it was off to the city by train, arriving into Sapporo Station, which is a great place to start any evening (can do a spot of shopping, or indeed, can even find somewhere to eat up on the 7th floor of Daimaru). Sapporo Station may lack some of the architectural pop of Kyoto Station, but it's a well integrated station and perhaps a little less controversial.

There are a few nice architectural touches however... like the elevator mechanism exposed almost as one might do a grand-father clock or watch. Actually - it also reminds me a lot of a pipe organ (but from memory, no tunes get created out of this elevator).

Public transport is big in Japan... but so are taxis. A form of transport that is perhaps often overlooked by tourists. And when faced with a sea of taxi's, it's perhaps not surprising. One day... one of these days - the signal will be given and the revolution will begin. And I can't say that I've seen too many "eco" taxi's in Japan... unlike the move to changing the fleets to hybrids that I've seen elsewhere in Australia. I wonder if that's true elsewhere in Japan?

Although it was summer... in Japan that can mean quite stormy weather. This night looked a little ominous... and we were prepared for some rain - like we'd been caught in previously.

The cafe can be found by just a short walk east of the main Sapporo Station exit.
View Sapporo Map in a larger map

The doorway's a little non-de-script, but just look for the big ball up above with Nuts Cafe Trip written on it. Once through the door, it's up the appropriately "what the..." stairway to the first floor (noting that Japanese count the ground floor as the first floor, unlike in Australia where the first is always above the ground floor).

And voila... you're here.

Perhaps because I was still getting used to the new DSLR Canon camera... or just the fun of being out in an adult environment (no, not that kind of adult environment...). I just couldn't resist taking photos of just about any old thing. And those bottles did attract my eye.

And just to show that I'm not totally insensitive to the needs of my wife...he says, making sure that no one thinks that I would order a cocktail for myself...

Actually, the think I like about Japanese cafe's is they often have a very good feature or style that can capture the imagination. I know it's totally off the wall, but I can't get out the feeling of being in the famous Liverpudlian club, the Cavern (of Beatles fame).

And we had quite a nice meal there too... but I only took a photo of an absolutely scrumptious pizza. And of course - pizza in Japan seems to be synonymous with Tabasco Sauce. Back home in Australia, I don't think I've ever seen anyone put Tabasco Sauce on pizza. It's funny how tastes differ. I can honestly say we had a wonderful meal and can thoroughly recommend this place.

The ambiance was fairly simple in the main area - however I believe they've re-modelled the decor. The interesting story was that as we left the cafe, I was taking a few photos of place (with blog in mind), when I noticed the table of foreigners (gaigokujin) on the right were looking at me as if I had two heads. I always sort of wondered why I was getting that attention. Are foreigners so rare in Sapporo that any new faces were a source of much curiosity... or was it the more likely answer that they all felt that "here's another totally hopeless tourist... [cringe]... how embarrassing". I will never know, and perhaps for my own ego's sake, I may not want to.

The other thing to mention is that the cafe has a wonderful lunch set... and cheap to. You might not get full on the amount, but the taste and variety is good. If you're in that neck of the woods, check it out.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

For Tasty Times... Its Tonkatsu Time

10th of August, 2010  - After a long, very long day out (ok it most probably seems longer when it takes me a couple of weeks to write it up in a blog), we were all very tired. Otousan and Okaasan were all ready for an easy meal... and a convenient place on the way home was a nice tonkatsu restaurant... tonkatsu is simply pork schnitzel - but done in  a very Japanese style. And it's delicious. Which is odd, given that before I met my wife I didn't enjoy eating pork at all. Tonkatsu was one of the dishes that turned that around (and of course my wife's love and dogged persistence). Don't ask me why, but almost always served with shredded cabbage and a special tonkatsu sauce.

Actually, this place is called Tamafuji, and whilst it's a chain shop, it's a great place to relax. As far as I can tell, this is a Hokkaido only company... 

And it's always interesting when you get such a great view inside the kitchen. Ok, it's not like you're going to see any miracles of culinary creativity here, but it's nice to see your food being made, and more importantly, the state of the kitchen!

Another good thing we like is the fact that you can make your own topping/sauce. It's been a while since I've seen a meal being served with a mortar and pestle! L-kun's here grinding up some sesame seeds to be added to soy sauce to make a nice dipping sauce for the tonkatsu.

So whilst it may not be haute cuisine, it was a great (and relaxing) way to end a very big, but completely enjoyable day. Thoroughly recommend it. And if you wanted a recipe for tonkatsu, check out my other blog Raising Adelaide


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beautiful Biei - Breath-taking Brilliance

10th of August, 2010 - After a stop at the Hill of Zerubu, we came to the place that T-chan's parents had been looking for. A wonderful part of paradise known as Shikisainooka - the Colours of Four Seasons Hill. This is about 6-7 km south (as the crow flies) of the actual town of Biei and is definitely one of the must see places in the area. The map below shows you how to get there from Biei itself (you may need to zoom in). The farm is free - however they do request a 200 yen donation for the up-keep. The following link also shows the calender of flower blooms throughout the year across Biei.

View Hokkaido Map in a larger map

Shikisainooka is a cross between a working flower farm and a tourist attraction, and shows just how well such multi-purpose industry can work. The farm sits on about 7 hectares , and is open all throughout the year. It also happens to be home to the obligatory hay bale giants. At night they come alive and devour any stray tourist that mistakenly finds their way onto the farm... it's tragic, but what a great place to be eaten by a straw monster.

The garden - earlier in the year - has a lot of lavender, but like most such places the season for lavender had already passed us by.  Still, whilst there wasn't much in the way of lavender available, the farm more than made up for it in terms of sheer colour. And I won't even pretend to know what all the flowers are.... but instead, I will let the photos do the talking. I most probably should try culling down the number of similar photos - but for the life of me I just don't know which I can take off.

The one thing I will say however is - this was one of those moments as you come over the rise that you just can't believe how beautiful the flowers are....

There's just so much variety... even in the uniformity!

This is not the only such farm in the area - in fact Biei and Furano are famous throughout Japan for such beautiful vistas.

And another feature of the area - other than the hills of flowers - are the trees (though I didn't shoot any good examples). They have a fetish here for the unusual single tree (or clump of trees) set against the hillside.  An example is the famous Ken and Mary Tree.

And once again, the landscape of Hokkaido is a fantastic supporting star in this production... looking more like the sweeping tree-covered European plains than a Japanese countryside. Unfortunately we arrived quite late in the afternoon... hence the long shadows of our family in the foreground. On the downside we only had about 30 mins to look around before it was due to close - but on the upside, the lower sun had started to cast a wonderful light over the fields. Another highlight that really didn't come out in the photos was the giant of a mountain, Daisetsuzan that loomed amazingly over the landscape... unfortunately there was too much cloud around to get a good pic of it - but it made me want to pencil in a driving trip through Daisetsuzan National Park on one of our up-coming trips back to Japan.

Here's one last one for luck. Beautiful... and that has nothing to do with the photos either.

Of course - L-kun was having fun, but there's only so many flowers to examine. A tractor however is a source of endless joy and curious fun. Of course, I'm not entire sure that this was meant to be part of a play gym (and thinking back on it, we were perhaps lucky the he didn't find the key and start it up and go for a late afternoon drive through the flowers - one way to get on the news).

And I mentioned that the farm also has a strong lavender connection. Well, that extends to the favourite tourist item in Japan - the seasonally flavoured ice-cream. In this case, lavender soft-serve. Whilst the flavour is not designed to knock your socks off, it was most definitely lavender.

And just to show that I don't let my wife do all the stunt work, here I am getting stuck into my own.... but hold on... what's that moving in the background. Oh no! The boy hay monster has come to have it's own just-woke-up-and-have-a-horrible-gnawing-hunger-pain satisfying snack. 
Will I escape?... you'll just have to stay tuned for the next post.

Meanwhile... at least someone with a camera drove back to Sapporo that night (it's about 2+ hours). The driver was Otousan, who had done a brilliant job throughout the day - despite repeated requests to share the driving. It was definitely a long, long day... and yet it was beautiful to watch the passing scenery as the sun set - the hot humid summer mist rising from the fields.

Then again... maybe I never left that field of flowers...

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Journey To Biei - A Breath of Fresh Air

10th of August, 2010 - After a very long (and a bit turbulent) day at Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa (to the north of Sapporo), we were on our way back home when Otousan decided to take us through Biei. Now Biei is a small town, notably on the way to the much more well known area of Furano. What's the area well known for? Well come Spring/Summer, it's famous for flowers - and in particular lavender fields. Well - it was too late in the year for Lavender (which is harvested and the hills are left decided unadorned), but we were hoping to see a few flowers anyhow.

Actually - the area between Asahikawa and Biei were quite remarkable for their open pastures and distinctly non-Japaneseness... though that's perhaps being a little too stereotypical. The openness of Hokkaido is wonderful. Despite the fact that Okaasan had suffered a strong bout of heat-stroke, she'd recovered well enough to indulge us (and here I mean, me) by stopping occasionally to get out the car to enjoy the scenery.

I hadn't really had much of an expectation of Biei... I knew they grew lots of flowers, but that was about it. Then we came across a small field on the way to Biei and we pulled over to have a better look. The place was called Zerubunooka (The Hill of Zeruba... for some reason).
View Hokkaido Map in a larger map

We jumped out of the car, and I was a little excited at this point... Not sure what the flowers were below, but they seemed to sign-post a flower field. That was good enough for us - though it was clear that T-chan's parents thought we might have better luck down the road. Still, it was late in the afternoon, and as they say - a bird in the hand...

Now this is very much a tourist location - and you can buy all sorts of gifts and go for quad-bike rides. The real reason to come here is the flower fields - and we found that the Lavender fields had definitely gone (beware, I've read a lot of English literature that suggests the Lavender fields are open till the end of August... I'd suggest that July is the latest you'd want to leave it). Still the flowers were nice, and there were a wide assortment there.

The name doesn't mean a whole heap to me - however, they seem to think it's important to announce the proper coordinates: latitude: 43°35'13" and longitude: 142°28'13"... Good ol' Google Maps tells me it's 43.60674° (lat) and 142.47102° (lat). Does any of this matter? Well, most probably not unless you were planning to attack the flower field with Cruise Missile. Not perhaps the most likely thing... all things considered.

The flowers were quite muted, and I have to admit that I was a little disappointed (after hearing of the famous flower fields). Still, you have to make the most of what you've got, so we had a bit of fun walking around enjoying the blooms (and the tonbo, dragonflies).

And it was a good time to just relax in the late summer evening... and I think Okaasan enjoyed the fresh (cooler) air. It was nice to be able to spend some time together just walking around talking and enjoying the scenery.

And the scenery wasn't just "flower fields"... but there was sunflowers (ok, I know, they're flowers too), and some more of the open pastures. As I said, not an image that I would normally associate with Japan. I could have stayed around a lot longer taking photos... and enjoying that fresh country-pure air.

But Otousan was getting a little frustrated with all of the dawdling - he wanted to get a move on (as he something else to show us... ). We all jumped in the car and headed off for our next destination. Biei.

But you'll have to wait for the next post to see what we found... and to give you a hint, we finally found what we'd been looking for.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Asahiyama Zoo Pt 2 - Snacks and Snackees

10th of August, 2010 - This is the second instalment from Arashiyama Zoo - and we'll see how I go in terms of finishing it off. Still getting over a cold and a heavy bout of working for a living. The first thing I'll say is that Japan is not the first place I'd think of for watching penguins - however that's most probably far from the reality. Indeed, Japan has a somewhat natural affinity to these strange birds of the ice - you just need to google penguins in Japan to see things like the famous Penguin Parade in Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe in Hokkaido.

Arashiyama Zoo's exhibit is a lot less 'exploitative' and features some novel experiences, such as the underwater glass tunnel that allows you to view the penguins in their almost natural environment. The water. Unfortunately for us, when we were there, only a single penguin (out of quite a few) felt the need for a swim. Which was surprising given how hot it was. Did I mention the queues. You have to wait a long time in queues to see any of the main exhibits such as the polar bears or the seals.

Now penguins have a certain grace - especially in water. Baby penguins however are a different story. They just look tragic in their over-sized-mum-knitted-70's-sweaters. I can imagine however why they might be a tasty morsel for sharks, orca and polar bears (who must look somewhat ruefully over at the penguin pen) if only polar bears lived in the southern hemisphere - the penguins natural habitat.

One of the other major exhibits is the seals... where their area features a remarkable underwater tube through which they can swim and observe the visitors as if we were the animals in the cage. Unfortunately the queue for that was about 30 mins or more, and we'd reached our limit. I was satisfied enough to watch the seal show on the surface. It's a hard life being fed a diet of fresh fish every other hour. This brings up one word of warning. Like most Japanese attractions, there's a squillion people there and all waiting in line. In summer time it can be oppressive.

Changing tack slightly... but no less un-Japanese, we then visited the Lion area. This was a good area as it let you get all sorts of different views of the Lion (from close up to long distance views from above). 

I had the very distinct feeling that he was looking right down my 250mm camera lens....  just hoping and praying that I'd fall into the Lion's Den and make an early lunch.

Time too cool off... with a taco dispenser. Actually - it was a VERY hot day, and we did have one serious event during the afternoon. T-chan's mother suddenly got quite sick, and we ended up having to go to the first aid centre. Heat stroke. It was something that was afflicting a lot of the people that year all over Japan. And it suddenly became a very real problem. Thankfully, rest, fluid and some time laying down in the air-conditioned first aid room was what was required. Scary.

Whilst Okaasan rested, the rest of us had a quick look around the rest of the zoo (though less waiting in lines). Now as you might remember from my post on Maruyama Zoo in Sapporo, I have a somewhat uneasy relationship with zoos. Even when we go to the Adelaide Zoo, I have a few qualms. I especially feel uneasy when I see the primates in the zoo. We came across the orang-utan enclosure, and there on the outside (I'm not sure if this was intentionally separated) was the big male. There was a look of total resignation and sadness in his eyes. It really did make me start questioning my position on zoos again...

Then again, when we went inside, there was another moment that seemed to wipe away any feelings of sadness. The young orang-utan was in fine form.... and I have to admit that I was totally captivated as was L-kun and T-chan. Whilst the grumpy old Dad may have been a little less than inspiring, the child was just a bundle of life.

It's also interesting to see how similar the relationships between our hairier cousins and our own families. I'm sure T-chan has felt like this on many an occasion. Not entirely sure what's going on, but having the sense that something bad was about to happen at any instant.

Outside, we checked out a few other animals enclosures... the deer were nice, and I'd not see impressive horns like this up close before. Of course, if you've ever been to Nara you would have experienced enough deer to last a lifetime.

Now we come to the final sorry tale of the day... T-chan and I had taken L-kun to visit the giraffe or kirin which is also the name for the mythical asian animal that adorns the beer of the same name. Well - we were quite surprised to find that the enclosure was designed in such a way that the giraffe could literally bend over the fence and grab branches from the crowd. And do you think that they were lapping it up. The kids were going crazy.

And I have to say that this is one father who let the love for his son make him do something he knew he shouldn't have. I joined in. And yes, lifted L-kun up so that he could feed the giraffe which was one of the things that really excited him. He just wanted to do it more and more. Now I am a sensible, well educated adult that knows that captive animals most probably aren't adapted to eat any old vegetation... so feeding them isn't such a good idea. I know this - but still I let L-kun try.

Suddenly, I felt a tap on my shoulder... and a rather agitated Japanese man was telling me that it wasn't safe... to which I rather foolishly replied that it was ok, I was holding my son well. To which he replied that he wasn't talking about my son. The penny dropped... he was criticising me for feeding the animal. At which point I had to think - well, yes, it was something I would have agreed with (if I hadn't been touched by the glowing smiles of my son). But I also felt a strong sense of anger. He hadn't said anything to anyone else that was there. Just the foreigner. The person that he felt that he could chastise... though I will be careful not to ascribe too many cultural stereotypes to this. Of course, my indignation might have been more vocal if it wasn't for the fact that I knew he was most likely right. I do wonder however about the zoo's clearly tacit approval of the behaviour... I can't believe that this was the first time that feeding the giraffe has happened.

Japan is very friendly - but in a culturally restrained mono-culture, I sometimes do feel that it's very easy to stand out. I'm sure every foreigner that lives in Japan feels the same way, but most probably have much more disturbing stories.

Changing the subject... you never know what you'll find in a zoo. Interestingly, mushrooms (of fungi more broadly) do not belong to the plant kingdom (or the animal kingdom for that matter). Rather they come from same sort of family that spawned (pun intended) yeasts and moulds. Japanese mushrooms are well known for their psycho-active qualities... but I'm sure they're also know for their ability to be mistaken with poisonous mushrooms. One of my favourite dishes to make is mushroom risotto - not sure what the reaction would be to these sorts of ingredients however.

Well - we come to the end of the Arashiyama Zoo story... it's a great place to visit if you're in Hokkaido and either have a car, or willing to catch the train up to visit Asahikawa (there price's a little expensive however ranging from 4940 yen for a discounted "free seating" ticket - with half price for children). The train take just over 1.5 hours from Sapporo. For me, it'd be cheaper and more enjoyable to hire a car for the day if there's more than one of you going.

But remember - it can get quite hot (and humid) in summer, and the queues can be extraordinary. Take plenty of liquids (especially water / sports drink) and be patient. Asahiyama Zoo is one of the most popular in Japan - and the enclosures are nice - and much nicer than in some Japanese zoos that I've seen. It is however a zoo, so if you don't like animals in captivity, it may be one to avoid.

If you go up however, be sure to pop in to at least Biei on the way back to Sapporo if you're doing only a day trip.... which leads on to my next post....