Monday 23 December 2013

Day 2 in Hakodate (Part 1)

La Vista Hakodate Bay had really relaxing indoor and outdoor hot spring pools, and because I loved the night view from the individual outdoor tubs so much, I ended up going twice - once before dinner and once after. Coupled with the comfortable bed and a very snuggly duvet, this meant that I slept extremely soundly (I.E. I missed my phone alarm) till D came knocking on the door to tell BB and I to "Go get breakfast! It's so amazing! Wake up!"

Tomoko-san had already told us rather complimentary things about breakfast at the hotel, but D truly outdid her in waxing lyrical about the build-your-own Chirashi bowl. And it seems he isn't the only person with strong positive feelings about the breakfast, since it was voted TripAdvisor's Most Delicious Hotel Breakfast in Japan for two consecutive years (2011, 2012). In 2013 it dropped to No. 2 (They had the certificate out by the counter), which isn't too shabby either. 

The lines for the breakfast buffet (Or Viking, as the Japanese call it) moved fairly slowly because people seemed to be trying to pile as much seafood into their bowls as possible. Once we got past the bottleneck though, it was smooth sailing as we picked up soup, juice, and in my case a bowl of shiratama zenzai (Red bean soup with rice dumplings) and a creme brulee. The Chirashi was wonderfully decadent (Thanks to a 1:1 rice to ikura ratio), but the freshly grilled Hokkaido potato (Remember to slather on some butter) should not be missed, and neither should the salmon and leek soup.  

Our first stop of the day was the Hakodate Morning Market (函館朝市), whose origins can be traced to the immediate post-war black market in 1945 when farmers peddled produce on the square in front of Hakodate Station. The market only moved to its present location in 1956, and now spans about four city blocks. As markets go, it's very well-organized and clean, thanks to the merchant federation that oversees the running of the place. 

The biggest (Or at least noisiest) attraction in the main building is probably the squid fishing experience, where for a given market rate you get to hook your own squid. It's then prepared on the spot for you to eat raw or grilled. I badly wanted to catch a squid, but D & BB weren't keen on eating it for me, so there my dreams went, like foam on the sea. 

It was while lamenting that I realized all my family members had disappeared, so I went out to comb the rest of the market in search of them. While looking for them, I found all manner of marvels, including live squid in a bag, all the better to bring home and eat raw. The squid were mostly just waving their tentacles about, but every once in a while they'd try for a bit of propulsion, only to hit the edges of the bag.

Then there was this stall, which could air freight king crab over to Singapore, Malaysia, Taiwan and Hong Kong - "All possible!" said the salesman, who was on a roll with his pitch, "Very fresh! You get to taste Hokkaido even at home."

Eventually I spied the lot of them hanging around the fruit stall. There were slices of melon on sale, but it was the strawberries that called to us like a homing beacon. We were assured that we could eat the strawberries there and then, no need for washing even, because they were already clean. I'm glad to say that this was true, since when BB and I ate the lot that evening, neither of us was the least bit inclined to move off our chairs to rinse them. 

There are fruits, and then there are perfect Japanese fruits. 

The morning market is great for fresh seafood breakfasts, but after the one we already had, we weren't really in the mood for anything heavy. We wandered together towards the ends of the market, bypassing the sea urchin rice bowl restaurant, and ended up in front of the ice cream parlour, where there was a stall selling grilled seafood. Well, more like cooked-with-a-flamethrower seafood. D felt like this was cheating somehow, and refused to get anything, so we wandered back to the main building to have another look-see. 

When we found a rather cheery looking stall, we stopped for grilled oysters. D also ordered us a beer, which came in an ice cold glass that I swear nearly gave me frostbite. It was all very tasty.

Our next stop was Goryokaku (五稜郭) Tower, overlooking the star-shaped fort that was the first of its kind in Japan. The fort had been built as a defense against a potential Western invasion and was based on the trace italienne (That class on War and Society in Early Modern Europe is totally paying off now) style that's more resistant to solid shot canon-fire. However, its major historical significance now is as a civil war battle site between the troops of the newly established Meiji government and a shogunate army.

The tower has a few exhibits tracing the impact of the opening up of Japan, but mostly people visit for the panoramic views from the tower. The moat was covered in snow when we visited, neatly outlining the fort. The best views though are supposed to be in Spring, as the abundance of cherry trees lining the fortress makes Goryokaku (Now a national park) one of Hokkaido's top cherry blossom viewing locations. 

One of the unsuccessful rebels in the civil war was the samurai Hijikata Toshizo, and today a chibi version of him acts as one of Hakodate's mascots. While eating some pretty good anpan from the atrium cafe, Tomoko-san and I discussed the vagaries of history, and also how he was rather good looking. 

After all that snacking, it was time for lunch at Kaiseki no Sato Kira (懐石の里 煌), a restaurant located on the hillside by Mt. Hakodate. It was at the end of a series of steep and narrow roads that our coach could not enter, so we were transported there by mini vans provided by the restaurant. 

The first thing that we noticed was the amazing view, and we caught a glimpse of Mt Hakodate from a completely different angle. The night views from Kira are stunning apparently, as you can see both the city and the glittering lights of the squid fishing boats out at sea, but I always prefer scenery in the day given all the detail you can make out. 

As with all good kaiseki restaurants, Kira uses the best seasonal produce in their cooking, but the dishes they serve up aren't always traditional, which made for a very interesting but no less enjoyable lunch. 

Our first course was a refreshing shot of honey vinegar, which paved the way nicely for the appetizer - a mosaic terrine wrapped in bacon, with honey mustard dressing, tomatoes and white asparagus. The terrine was studded with perfectly grilled aubergine and bell peppers, and really did look like a rather colourful mosaic. 

Next up were even chunks of okra with a deeply savoury coarse red miso paste. Really liked the bowl it was served in. 

From our private dining room on the second floor we could see out to the city, and in between the courses I tried to spot our hotel. 

We were served a prawn dumpling in consomme, and a few of us tried to practice the chopstick maneuvers we'd been taught the previous evening at Fumoto. It didn't go too badly, so I think more practice will see us master the skill eventually. (Fingers crossed!)

Our sashimi course came covered by large strips of paper with "Yuba-sashi" written on them in lovely calligraphy. After removing the paper, we found slivers of scallops atop the freshly made, rather milky-tasting Yuba (The skin that forms on the top when soy milk is warmed on low heat, and it's a long and rather painstaking process collecting the resulting thin sheets and then cooling them down.), decorated simply with a camellia leaf. 

Meals at Kira tend to be rather drawn-out affairs, with time for you to linger over each dish. Given how quickly we scarf everything down though, this meant we ended up with lots of time in between courses to study the individualized strips of calligraphy that everyone had on their serving trays. Eventually the following dish arrived, a jagaimo (Potato) dumpling stuffed with shrimp and mushrooms. The potato was fluffy, but with an interestingly chewy bread-like consistency. 

The main course was grilled lobster with prawn crackers. We were initially given little bowls of water with lemon in it, and D thought it was another dish but was thankfully stopped before he could drink it when the waitress explained that it was in fact a finger bowl. In the end, we all managed to use the utensils provided to scoop out the lobster meat with very little difficulty, so the finger bowls remained untouched. It was a good lobster dish - the grilling didn't dry it out, and the accompanying lemon sauce added a nice bit of tartness. 

As always, rice, soup and pickles. 

Dessert was a matcha pudding with fruit bits. By the end of the meal, we'd spent over two hours having lunch, and we were all rather zonked. So, it was back to the hotel, before more exploring. 

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