Thursday 27 December 2012

Japanese Tea Ceremony at Hotel Okura Sapporo

With a free morning in Sapporo, we asked our tour organizer Y if it was possible for us to experience a traditional Japanese tea ceremony during this period. It was a terribly last minute request, but because the FMJ staff are like Christmas Elves and can magically get things done, a few calls were made and a slot was found for us at Hotel Okura's Tea Ceremony room. Another girl on the tour group was interested and joined us, while Y followed along to act as our interpreter. 

The nigiri-guchi (crawling in door) for more formal events
The way of tea involves both the choreographed ritual of preparing the tea, as well as a whole array of aesthetic concerns from the layout of the room to what we might wrongly regard as minutiae like the scent of incense that is burned. All these parts are important aspects of a process where every gesture and movement is laden with meaning. 
Winter falls within the season of the sunken hearth
Take for instance the decoration - one bushel on a shelf and one flower in a vase in front of a simple piece of calligraphy doesn't seem like much, but the flower in the vase is a white camellia, a flower often used to represent the winter season. Even the almost illegible calligraphy has a place in the tea room, where the imperfection of the ink seeping deep into the paper means the work was executed by a master calligrapher. Everything is understated according to the principles of 'sabi' and 'wabi' that emphasize beauty in simplicity and naturalism, and spiritual awakening in emptiness, so at the same time nothing lacks meaning. 

Winter Decorations
The sweets served likewise have their own purpose. The wagashi (bean paste wrapped in a skin of rice flour, painted and decorated according to the season) was in the shape of a brilliantly red camellia, another winter flower and matching with the white camellia stalk in the vase. The bean paste was heavy but only slightly sweet, and the rice cake later was soft. This was eaten before the making of the tea. 

The other confections we received were to directly balance out the taste of the tea. The green rice sugar candy was to be eaten before we drank the tea, while the senbe (rice cracker) was to be saved for after. 

We introduced ourselves to our Tea Master Soshu Oya, a wonderfully kind and patient lady who has inducted hundreds of foreign tourists into the art of the way of tea. She began learning her craft as a young girl under her mother, who was also a Tea Master, and has been performing the ceremony for decades. After teaching us the proper way to bow in greeting, she set about making the tea. 

Tea Master Soshu Oya

It being a fairly informal tea ceremony experience, after we witnessed the first cup of tea being made in absolute silence, she encouraged us to talk, and ask her questions as we savoured our tea. That's how we found out about things like how the best tea in Japan is from Uji near Nara, and that for very important tea ceremonies, well water is drawn at 4 am, the beginning of a new day. 

She also involved us in the preparation of the tea, with the girl who joined us and I both trying our hand at performing a ceremony and serving each other. The ratio we used was one and a half scoops of powder to a ladle of water, for a comfortable, light tea. We were served with gyokuro matcha, where the leaves are shaded from direct sunlight for three weeks before the spring harvest, to enhance the aroma of the tea. The tea is believed to be full of vitamins. 

The correct actions for the scooping out of the matcha powder and the ladling of the water from the pot over a charcoal burner were imparted, before we got to the mixing of the powder and water. For me, this mostly consisted of Master Soshu telling me encouragingly "Whisk! Whisk! More wrist action, and faster!", until she was finally satisfied with the level and quality of the froth I'd generated. (I'm fairly sure my arm would have dropped off if she'd made me whisk any longer.) Then, we each found the most beautiful part of the bowl, to present to the drinker. 

Kuniyaki - Pottery in the style of the Pre-Edo Kuni state

As a gesture of respect to the host, the bowl is raised after a small bow is performed, and after appropriate admiration for the most beautiful aspect of the bowl as it has been chosen and presented, the bowl much be rotated 90° clockwise before drinking. It is considered rude to drink directly from the side you are presented with, as that is the side you return the bowl to the Tea Master at the end. 

The front of D's bowl - a Dragon

There was much to admire about each of the cups we were given. D's cup had a fierce dragon, as well as flowers reflecting the season. 

M's cup had cranes soaring over mountains on the inner rim of the bowl, and pine trees by crashing waves on the outside. 

My lovely purple bowl was what is called a 'six hyotan (gourd)' bowl, which symbolises a wish for good health and happiness throughout the coming year. 

Given the thickness of 'light' or 'weak' tea compared to everything we've ever tried before, we were very nearly overwhelmed by the cup of koicha (Thick tea) that Master Soshu prepared for us to taste. In a koicha ceremony, an entirely different matcha is used, and the ratio is three scoops of powder and a ladle of water per drinker involved, so a meal is needed before the ceremony to stomach the tea. In this ceremony, everyone shares from the same bowl. The true skill of a master is shown the thicker the tea gets, as the thick tea is not whisked but folded, and the end result cannot taste powdery, or like a paste. 

Karatsu Pottery, one of the top styles used in tea ceremonies

The tea given to us tasted heavy and intense, but was very smooth and liquid with no tell-tale crumble of powder on the tongue. 

Before we put on our coats and shoes and left for lunch, we took the time to admire the small garden outside the tea room, as well as the walkway with the stone basin at the end for ritual purification before very important ceremonies. 

Our Tea Master took a whole bunch of photos with us, got us to sign her guestbook and gave us the address of the blog saying that she'd definitely write about it, but I've lost the slip of paper she scribbled on. I've tried scouring the far reaches of the internet, but since your tea name is different from your real name (!!) I can't seem to find anything. 

She walked us out to the lift lobby, where this origami piece was on display in a glass case. It was a morning filled with beauty. 

5th Floor Hotel Okura, 9-1 Nishi 5 Chome Minami 1-Jo Chuo Ku Sapporo 060-0061 Japan

Wednesday 26 December 2012

Restaurant Moliere Sapporo

When we came out of the train station, Google Maps refused to show the route I'd loaded on my phone for lack of wifi, so there was a brief period of massive panic as I stared about the whited out roads around us while wondering how we'd make it to the restaurant on time. I was still feeling super traumatized from the last time we spent nearly an hour trudging through snow to get to Kumagera, so we ended up flagging the first cab we saw.

The driver reassured us that we would not be late: "Ah! It is very near by."

When we pulled up next to the restaurant, we'd been in the cab less than three minutes, so I felt rather foolish, but it was a relief we made it for our reservation on time and in one piece.

Really good, creamy butter that came with crisp, crackly baguette slices

Stomping off the snow from our shoes on the large brown mat at the entrance, we walked in to the restaurant. The hush that descended on us as we walked in was not quite reverential, but it certainly was calming, and the tizzy I'd worked myself into over travelling here melted cleanly away. It's not a very big space, and the tables are placed fairly close together. But thanks to the natural light, the overall effect is intimate and cozy rather than claustrophobic. 

The atmosphere continued to be light and pleasant the whole afternoon through. The other diners were a mix of elderly couples or groups of ladies in their 30s, and conversation ebbed and flowed in polite, low tones. The three of us, with our hushed but excited whispers, were probably the rowdiest table in the room. 

Once they ascertained that we really couldn't converse with most of the staff on important matters like what types of wine they had on offer, their English-speaking sommelier very kindly took it upon himself to walk us through our meal. After taking our order for drinks, he explained the menu to us throughout the meal and answered all our queries. 

Moliere sits on one end of Maruyama Park, and the round table we were shown to was right by the windows facing out to it. Safely ensconced within the restaurant, the snowy landscape stopped being an obstacle, transforming instead into a picturesque winter wonderland I could take my time to admire. With the menu showcasing the best of Hokkaido's bountiful produce and changing to reflect the seasons, the view of the park seemed rather apt. 

Maruyama Koen
We went for the ¥3600 Lunch Menu, as five courses seemed like a reasonable amount to have for lunch. Having dined at Pontocho Misoguigawa in Kyoto, we were keen to see what this iteration of Japanese-interpreted French food would be like. 

The meal began with an amuse of cod and potato balls with mikan (satsuma) jelly, atop a bed of squid ink bread crumbs. It was a good start, with the fresh citrus-y jelly adding a hint of sweetness to the delicate cod and potato. 

Cod Balls
It was followed on by a mushroom cappuccino, where the milk foam gave way to a deeply umami mushroom soup. For all its dense flavours though, the soup itself was light and highly drinkable. 

I really enjoyed the salad that came next. Accompanied by a trio of sauces - plum, lemon jam and beet paste, over ten types of herbs and vegetables sat atop a bed of rice. I identified a baby carrot, half a cherry tomato, a slice of courgette, olive paste holding things in place, a sliver of lady's finger, baby radish, ginger, mushrooms, mange tout (snow peas), a french bean, sprouts, parsley and two more herbs I cannot name, one of which tasted vaguely of licorice. All this was garnished with chrysanthemum and pansy petals, with toasted sesame seeds on the side. 

All the individual vegetable's natural sweetness was on display in this dish, really fulfilling the restaurant's mission of highlighting the wonderful local produce of Hokkaido. The mashed salted plum went excellently with the mushrooms and rice, and the complex sweetness of the beet brought out the bit of ginger to great effect. 

When the Angler Fish Meunière appeared, it looked remarkably like an abstract art piece I'd seen in Bruges once. The slice of fish was crumbed with the squid ink bread that had served as a base for the cod earlier, and was served with a puddle of squid ink sauce that looked a rather interesting deep purple brushed across the white plate, dark crumbs of squid ink salt, and baby corn in milk foam. 

Angler fish always seem like dreadful, ugly things, but it's very easy to forget all that once it's on the plate. Our fish was cooked to perfection - juicy, soft, with a hint of chewiness to the flakes to keep things interesting. The squid ink crumb crust on its own didn't have all that much flavour beyond smoky, but added crunch and not once seemed dry.

Fish juices puddling on the plate

Right before the main course, we were given a palate cleanser in the form of a cup of lemon tea sorbet, with a spoonful of Williams Pear Brandy splashed in. I was so taken with the taste of the sorbet on its own that I passed on the pear brandy, but regretted it when I helped myself to D's spiked version. The intense pear aroma didn't detract from the lemon tea, but created a super fresh and clean flavour profile. 

Palates duly cleansed, it was time for the main event. 

Our main course was Braised Tokachi Beef Cheek in red wine sauce, with black pepper and mustard, next to a dollop of pumpkin purée. We asked how long the beef had been braised for, since in Singapore it seems as though restaurants are going the 'longer is better' route, and were surprised to hear that the beef had only been simmered for three hours. 

That didn't stop it from being meltingly tender. When I used my fork to split apart the cheek, I was greeted by the gentle jiggling of the layer of fat hidden inside. It looked overwhelming, but taste-wise it was so good, that even M, who usually won't touch such things with a twenty foot pole, finished everything and enjoyed it. 

And now a much deserved shout-out to the pumpkin purée. Japanese produce already has a reputation for being almost other-worldly in their perfection, and when I had the purée I had the sudden thought that they must have picked the best pumpkin from the patch and turned it into this purée because it was really ridiculously good. Like rich, sweet and creamy, but you know all of it came from the pumpkin and nowhere else - the essence of what pumpkins ought to be. 


Now back to the cheek, which was lovely and disappearing from my plate very quickly. As I was halfway through the cheek, the sommelier came out with a serving dish containing the Gratin Dauphinoise. We initially said no to more food because the portions had been quite filling, but the look of dismay on the sommelier's face at this, and his entreaties that we at least try a bit of it because it is apparently what the restaurant is famous for, quickly convinced us otherwise. 

The Perfect Gratin Dauphinoise

It seemed odd for a restaurant like this to specialize in potatoes, but once we ate it we understood. Hokkaido is especially famous within for its potatoes and milk, and this dish is an exemplar of the perfect marriage between these two ingredients. It's a completely legitimate reason for me to descend into the use of hyperbole. It was amazing. People should write songs about it. If I were so inclined, I probably would have because it was beautiful. 

(Okay I'll stop now.) 

After we thoroughly demolished our plates and left nothing behind (Because I totally mopped up that sauce with the pumpkin), we recovered a little by taking snaps of the lovely Christmas season decorations around the restaurant. One of the waiters noticed our attempt to take a picture of this moose that sat on a nearby table, and very kindly brought it over and placed it in front of us. 

Rest interval done, the dessert of baked meringue with ice cream, pineapple cubes and gold flakes was served. I've honestly never understood the rationale behind the use of gold in food, but I suppose I'll admit the dish would have looked rather bland without that pop of shiny. Needless to say, the gold added nothing to the taste of the dessert. Lovely crumbly and not too sweet meringue pieces with stewed pineapple is a great combination. 

Coffee and tea were duly brought out, and was accompanied with candied grapefruit peel atop candied kiwi jelly, looking for all the world like rather odd pieces of sushi. D went mad for all of it, so I gave him my share. 

With that done, out came the jar of homemade Grand Marnier marshmallows. The marshmallow came in a roll, from which three segments were snipped off and the jar whisked away.

The cutting of the marshmallow

The marshmallow bits held a hint of bitter orange when I sniffed them, but tasted mainly of well made marshmallow. Which I suppose it was. 

Thoroughly, thoroughly stuffed, we slowly ambled from our table to the front desk to be bundled back into our coats. But not before I asked them about the restaurant's Michelin status. I'd read somewhere they had a star or something and wanted to check. The Michelin guide was eagerly proffered and I took a picture of Moliere's page. 
Three Michelin Stars. Three!

Moliere is easily the best value three Michelin-starred restaurant in the world. We're already calmly plotting our return. 

2 chome 1-1 Miyagaoka Sapporo-shi Chuo Ward, Hokkaido 064-0959

Tuesday 25 December 2012

Sukiyaki Sankosha (すき焼き三光舎)

When you go on a tour with Follow Me Japan, a disclaimer they make on the first day is that people who travel with them tend to put on weight, with a guesstimated average of 2 kg per person. This was met with slightly nervous but mostly incredulous laughter from first timers like us, but after a few days on the road, we soon learned that they were utterly serious about the weight gain. 

The raw egg is beaten, and used as a dip for the beef

On this particular day, after spending a rather chilly morning exploring Asahikawa Zoo, and cooing over the Penguin march and the Seal feeding, I was inspired to make like a bear and hibernate when we got back to the bus. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up and it was already time for lunch. They'd brought us for Sukiyaki (Beef hotpot, cooked in a sweet soy broth) at a restaurant in Asahikawa that has been around for almost a century. 

Beef, with tofu, leek, bamboo shoots, konjac noodles, burdock root and onions

The Asahikawa branch is but one of their outlets, but as a whole Sankosha was founded in 1917. The Asahikawa restaurant is a two storied building on a street corner that very cozily seats 72. Most of the other families were shown to the more traditional parlour rooms where you kneel or sit on cushions on tatami flooring, but M requested normal tables and chairs for her knees. 

D & I had the hot sake, because why not?

Someone mentioned that the owner of the restaurant used to be a butcher, which is why they're so good at selecting top quality Japanese beef to serve. I haven't been able to corroborate this because Japanese to English translation services still remain laughably inaccurate and I keep getting bunches of gibberish. All I know is that the beef we had was really excellent.

Everything was nicely arranged for us in the pot and simmered at the table

Sukiyaki is traditionally a winter dish, and dashing in from the cold to a bubbling pot of fatty but non-greasy, and thinly cut but otherwise massive slices of beef really enhances the whole dining experience. D swears that everything tastes better in Winter, and I completely agree, which was probably why by this day on the trip I was having difficulty doing up the button on my jeans. 

The bowls were so gorgeous
Part of the fun of Japanese hot pot is cooking the beef exactly right for your own tastes in the pot you all sit around. M boils hers to death, while I like leaving a bit of pinkness in mine. The restaurant boasts an 'authentic taste', which apparently explains the inclusion of crunchy slivers of burdock root in the pot. The broth was rich and not too sweet, so we only asked for a top up of clear soup just once when the soup levels dipped perilously low. 

Just four slices of beef on a plate nearly the size of the pot - those were huge pieces
Being rather greedy creatures, D & I ordered an extra plate of beef to share while M looked on at us in horror at the amount we were eating. The marbling on the extra plate of high end beef we got was so, so beautiful though. D and I very nearly swooned when we saw it. 

Asahikawa City, 5 Jyo, 9 Chome, Hokkaido 

Monday 24 December 2012

Furano Delice

On the outskirts of Furano City just before the string of ski resorts that dot the hilly landscape to the West, there is a small very terribly popular bakery-cafe that sits atop a slope. It looks like a small alpine lodge out of Heidi, and as you can imagine, is immensely charming. In the summer you can look out the big glass windows to the lavender terraces that surround the building, or even take a walk around the small garden, but it being winter there was nothing much to see but snow, and more snow. 

With little of interest outside, the cafe interior seemed even more cheery, and the cakes were very rightly given our undivided attention. We ended up visiting Furano Delice twice in as many days, because I couldn't stop thinking about the cakes. None of us were remotely into skiing, so why not spend our free time sampling some of Hokkaido's wonderful fresh produce? 

Furano Delice prides itself on the freshness of the ingredients used in its bakery, hence most of what goes into the dainty little cakes and pastries comes from Hokkaido itself, especially the milk used in its famous Furano Milk Pudding, which is locally sourced. The milk pudding is the most popular item produced by the bakery, which makes as many as 10, 000 bottles of the stuff a day. The pudding is made of milk, fresh Furano eggs, sugar and vanilla, and because it contains absolutely no preservatives, it has to be consumed within five days of manufacture. 

Usually the pudding comes in a simple clear glass bottle with 'FURANO MILK PUDDING' printed on it in teal, but it being Christmas season, the bottle my pudding came in was decidedly more festive. 'FROM FURANO DELICE, FOR YOUR HAPPINESS'. It was a gorgeous pudding, wonderfully silky and soft without being too overpowering, and the caramel at the bottom of the glass had just the slightest hint of burn bitterness that made the fresh milk taste stand out even more. 

On both occasions, we ordered a mix of cake sets A (Pudding or Double Fromage with Cake of the Day and one drink ¥850) and B (Two cakes of your choice and one drink ¥1000). The first time around, they ran out of the Cake of the Day, which was the Chocolate Double Fromage cheesecake, so we were given the Chocolate Swiss instead. We also had a Chestnut Roll and a gleaming slice of Strawberry Tart. All the cakes were soft and the tart topped with perfect, blemish-free strawberries. 

I thought the pudding was amazing, but not quite being pudding people, Ma & Da were more taken by the Double Fromage cheesecake, the second most popular item on the menu. Made with cream cheese from Hokkaido, Tokachi fresh cream and mascarpone from Betsukai, the cake consists of a foam mousse layer and a denser baked layer encased in a thin sliver of sponge. Much like the pudding, the cake must be consumed within five days of manufacture. For delivery orders, the cake they sell is 12 inches across, but in the cafe a smaller, individual serving is sold. 

Cross Section of Double Fromage - The mousse layer sits atop the baked layer
The Double Fromage is a light, airy confection. The cheese flavour is a delicate thing that sits on your tongue alongside a hint of creaminess, and it's all too easy to inhale the whole cake and stare bewilderingly at an empty plate not a moment later. 

Don't let the still and silent roads leading up to the cafe fool you - even during the usually dead hours of 3.30 to 4 pm on a weekday, the cafe is utterly packed. And in all likelihood, most of the good stuff is already gone, or very nearly so. On both occasions, we went to the store in the middle of the afternoon and ended up buying out the last of the Double Fromage cheesecakes. The cafe has a very small seating area, and chances are you'll have to hover a bit before getting a table. 

Thankfully, although the queue for cakes is long and it tends to take an age for them to get round to you, most of the people in line are picking up their stuff to go, so there's less competition for seats. Just be very patient, and have a backup plan in mind in case you see the person in front of you acting like a swarm of locusts and utterly wiping out the row of cakes you were so eagerly eyeing not five seconds before. 

The kitchen is located just behind the cake counter, and throughout the day you can see the patissiers hard at work. The view makes it a little less boring to be standing in line, although you do find yourself hoping rather irrationally that they'd quickly do up a new batch of the cakes you want that seems to have vanished from the counter since the last time you looked. 

We did ask why there weren't more branches of Furano Delice all over, and apparently the strong desire to ensure consistency in the quality of the ingredients and baked goods trumps any wish to expand or franchise. The bakery does a nationwide delivery service within Japan though, which costs ¥700 normally but is free for orders above ¥5000. The cakes are speed-posted to ensure freshness, but they do encourage you to consume everything as quickly as possible (Which isn't terribly difficult, no.) At the back of the store there's even a big table all set up with Macs entirely devoted to allowing walk-in customers to place cake delivery orders. 

For those of us who can't bring half the bakery home with us for fear of the cakes spoiling, there's always postcards! Utterly delicious looking postcards you wish were edible. 

Just be careful when walking up and down the outside stairs in winter. With all the snow packing into slippery blocks of ice, it can get rather treacherous. 

2156-1 ShimogoryoFuranoHokkaidoJapan,