Sunday, 29 December 2013


Tomoko-san hails from Otaru and is understandably proud of her hometown, so as our coach driver Nagane-san expertly drove us there over icy roads and through heavy snow on our departure from Rusutsu, she regaled us with the town's history. 

Didn't feel like braving the snow at the rest stop, so I stayed on the bus. D went, and came back with steaming buns for me to snack on. 
In brief, it goes like this: Otaru was the richest city in Hokkaido in the early 20th century, thanks to its booming herring trade and its position as the main hub of Hokkaido's coal industry. With goods traffic flowing both from its port and via the first railway line in Hokkaido (Between Otaru and Sapporo), Otaru flourished commercially. It was designated as an international port just before the turn of the century, and the town's buildings dating from that era still have a vaguely Belle Epoque air about them. 


It became something of a business and financial centre, and today the buildings that housed the banks are still recognizable with their grand Western-style architecture. The city went into a decline in the middle of the 20th century as coal mining ceased and the other major industries moved to the bigger city of Sapporo, but Otaru remains a tourist favourite. There's a decided romanticism about its canal, along which a number of converted warehouses remain. The town is also famous for its Music Box Museum, located at the end of an old merchant street, Sakaimachi. The shops there are housed in the offices and warehouses of shipping companies from the city's heyday, which have been preserved.  

Our first stop in Otaru was Tanaka Shuzo (Sake Brewery) Kikko Gura (田中酒造亀甲蔵). The brewery was founded in 1899, and the stone building where all the magic happens was built in 1905, and has been designated as an important historical property in Otaru. In English, Kikko Gura means turtle warehouse, and I suppose if you squint a bit at the picture of the brewery on its website, it does look a little like a giant turtle - the colour scheme fits at least. 

Traditionally, sake brewing begins in October, and a ball of green cedar leaves is hung at the entrance when the first of the new sake is pressed. Over the course of the brewing season, the leaves turn brown. The brown ball is meant to indicate that fresh sake is ready, but in many places the Sakabayashi (Sake Forest) Cedar Ball remains in place more as an indicator that a places sells sake at all.  Turns out, at Tanaka brewery the cedar ball retains its originally intended significance as the brewery operates throughout the entire year. Thanks to its employment of the latest technology, the cedar ball very legitimately hangs out by the front of Tanaka Brewery all year long because there's always fresh sake to be had inside. 

Tanaka Brewery uses only proper sake rice cultivated in Hokkaido for their various brews, which contains much more starch in its core than normal rice for eating. For premium sake (Ginjo), at least 40% of the outer kernel is milled away, while for super premium sake (Daiginjo), at least 50% is milled away, which affects the eventual taste profile of the resultant sake.

We went upstairs for the brewery tour, and since we had the place to ourselves we were able to fan out and take our time looking around. The information charts provided were entirely in Japanese, and without a guide to translate it can be massively confusing. However, we had Tomoko-san, and the detailed flow-chart of the various steps involved in sake-brewing was explained to us clearly. Also, thanks to Tanaka Shuzo's year-round brewing policy, for the first time ever we got to see people actually involved in the the process of sake brewing, rather than just wax models or empty rooms. 

The brewer in the room was making preparations for the production of Koji, the steamed rice that has koji mould spores cultivated onto it, without which there can be no sake. The Koji is responsible for breaking down the starch in rice to specific sugars that can actually be fermented by the yeast added, resulting in the production of alcohol. Outside the cultivation room was a glass jar full of Koji, which looked like the disturbing green of sickly miasmas. It made me wonder how exactly sake brewing developed in ancient times, and why the first person to employ Koji thought it was a good idea to add mould to rice.  

Next was the actual brewing, which we'd never seen before. The vats were very helpfully labelled with the number of days the sake had been brewed for, and we could see the progression from day 2 to day 23 as the clumps of rice gave way to smoothness and the production of alcohol increased - the bubbles were carbon dioxide, another by-product of the fermentation process. Once we finished our short brewery tour, it was time for our favourite bit, the free tastings in the shop of the ground floor. 

We had a taste of their celebration sake, freshly bottled for the new year, the seasonal winter sake, as well as a couple of their award winning bottles. Those who didn't take alcohol were offered cups of their black bean tea. There was also plum wine to be had, which was surprisingly sour. The liqueur was made from plums produced in the Shiribeshi Subprefecture to which Otaru belongs. The reason Japanese fruits always look so magnificent is because those that don't meet quality control standards are destroyed, and employing these less pretty but no less tasty fruit for brewing purposes helps to make the most of these otherwise under-utilized produce. I loved the tang from the plum wine, but it proved to be too much for D, who made a face that looked like this: (  ゜Д゜)⊃旦 

While snacking on sake kasu (酒粕) crackers, made from the lees left once the clear sake has been pressed out from the fermented mash, we made the necessary decisions regarding our purchases. D preferred the heavier flavours of the first Daiginjo they offered us and got that for himself, and I liked their award winning sake (大吟醸酒 宝川) better, and bought myself a bottle to bring back to London along with the plum wine, for the party MC & I were planning (づ ̄ ³ ̄)づ

By the time everyone made it back to the bus, it was time for us to head to lunch. Otaru is also famous for the freshness of its sushi, so for lunch we dined along the sushi street (寿司通り), an informal moniker for the road liberally dotted with sushi establishments. Our restaurant, Sushisho Sakai (すし処 さかい), was a cozy family-run establishment that's known for only using locally-sourced produce. 

While everyone else went for the Japanese-style seats upstairs, BB's insistence that his knees were going to give out meant that the four of us sat at the bar counter on the ground floor. This gave us the perfect opportunity to watch the chef in action. Unlike other places, which would have pre-made everything, the chef's insistence on freshness and quality meant a bit of a wait as he began assembling the pieces of sushi only once everyone was in the restaurant. It's totally the kind of eccentricity we can get behind. 

As we waited for our sushi, we had other things to occupy ourselves with, like this massive bowl of chawanmushi. It was extremely well made. Sometimes you get the really gloopy ones that end up falling to bits, but this one, while silky, retained a pleasing firmness. The massive piece of chestnut nestled in the middle made it one of the sweetest chawanmushis I've ever had, but somehow it worked. 

Our platter was a mixture of medium fatty tuna, yellow tail (Which was in season), salmon, botan shrimp, scallop, salmon roe and sea urchin. Everything was extremely fresh, and we got chatting with the chef, who told us that the best time for sea urchin in Hokkaido is in the summer, save for Hakodate, which seems to run on a different schedule from everywhere else, where the sea urchin is freshest in March and April. 

Mm - look at that lovely bit of marbling on the tuna. 

Bowls of scallop miso soup were brought round for us to enjoy with our sushi, and it was utterly delicious. D ordered some mantis shrimp to try after seeing them in the display case and thoroughly enjoyed it - the shrimp generally don't travel well, and by the time they reach Singapore they taste a little dried out, but here it was nice and juicy. 

After lunch, we had free time to ourselves to explore Sakaimachi. M wanted to check if Otaru Orgel (The Music Box Museum) still sold the doll she'd purchased there the first time we visited (They didn't), D wanted to check out his sake tasting store (They'd been thoroughly refurbished and just wasn't the same anymore apparently), I wanted cheesecake, and BB was just along for the ride.  

The first time we visited Otaru, LeTAO (In Japanese, it's the syllables of Otaru pronounced backwards - the first time I heard it, my mind was blown) was just one store across the street from the museum, where all the tourists would camp out for free chocolate samples, and to buy boxes and boxes of cake. Today, it feels as though they've taken over half the shops in town. 

We'd visited Otaru on a whim last winter after our lunch at Moliere, but by the time we made it there all the stores were in the midst of closing up for the day and there were no cakes to be had. So this time, I was determined to make up for it. We went for a spot of dessert at LeTAO's PATHOS Cafe at one of their newer stores. The Cafe had a long wall showing the changing of the seasons, while we sat next to a panel with an endless falling stream of cakes. 

All that walking down the snowy streets of Otaru gave us just about enough space left over after lunch for BB to have a chocolate cake, while D tried the braided Danish pastry, and M & I both had the tea set.

LeTAO has all kinds of limited edition seasonal goodies on offer, but I was there for their most famous product - the original Double Fromage cake of Italian mascarpone cheese atop a caked cream cheesecake. The tea set had a selection of best sellers, and apart from the original Double Fromage there was a slice of the Chocolat Double and a helping of their Markuchen rolls, a different type of cheesecake made with butter cheese cream. They came with a raspberry compote and decorative toppings like spun sugar, which went quite well with the cakes. The Chocolat Double was my favourite, with the chocolate giving more complexity to the delicate flavour of the cheese.

Afterwards, M & I wandered around together and ended up at the Kitaichi Glass Company. In the 19th century the craftsmen made lamps for the fishing vessels, but today they've branched out to more decorative wares, and allow visitors to try their own hand at glass blowing. M found herself a nice blue-yellow vase, and they gave us a free wall calendar with our purchase. 

When we got back to the bus, we found that D had dragged BB for even more food, and there was a tub of oden waiting for me at my seat. D was in raptures over the soup, and made me drink it immediately, after which I too marvelled at the richness of the broth. It was off to Sapporo from there, where M & I spent the rest of the evening doing some intensive shopping.

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