Visiting Japan is a bit like going home, or at least a second home. Having lived there, in a couple of stints, for around seven years, with two children born there, and now two Australian-Japanese grandchildren, Japan arouses a warm familiarity and prompts sweet reminiscences. While Tokyo was my early stomping ground, in recent times the northern island of Hokkaido mostly calls.
Japanese noodle shop, and signs.
Mother Nature gives Japan such a hard time – volcanos, earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, mudslides – so I counted my blessings when my just-ended visit to Hokkaido slotted neatly between the tail end of one typhoon and fringe buffeting from another. No cancelled flights, no scary landings. And, to top it off, not one earth tremor felt during my stay. The time was perfect too to catch the annual spectacle of the momiji trees – Japanese miniature maples – and other autumn beauties transforming the hillsides with yellows, crimsons, oranges and reds. In aki – autumn – Mother Nature smiles on Japan.
Aki – autumn.
When I go to Japan I have a list of must-dos. High on the list is eating real sushi, the type topped with an array of absolutely fresh seafood, some of which you probably didn’t know was edible, on gluggy pats of sweet and tangy sushi rice with a lick of wasabi. Not the nori seaweed wrapped rolls with strange fillings like tandoori chicken and canned tuna and chilli that proliferate in local food courts. And real Japanese noodles, like the miso ramen that’s popular in Hokkaido. And that’s just for starters. Another absolute must is visiting an onsen, the luxurious thermal hot spring baths that proliferate across the country, one blessing from Japan’s volcanic disposition.
I spent my stay in the charming city of Sapporo the most ordered of Japanese cities, having been built in the last 150 years, adopting an American-style grid pattern, the opposite of the higgledy piggledy nature of Tokyo and other Japanese cities and villages, which are a challenge to navigate for the newcomer. Sapporo is known for its annual Yuki Matsuri or Snow Festival, its eponymous beer and as the home of the 1972 Winter Olympics. It’s also gaining a reputation as a formidable food destination with an increasing number of Michelin Star restaurants, a trend which is also spreading to the burgeoning ski resort of Niseko and the second city of Hokkaido, Asahikawa. Much of Japan’s fresh produce – fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and, increasingly specialties such as wine – are grown in Hokkaido which could account for the gourmet tag.
Apples, wine…some of Hokkaido’s bounty.
Mt Teine , home to the 1972 Winter Olympics, dominates Sapporo.