Thursday, February 10, 2011


As a break from my regularly scheduled gallavanting around Tokyo, I'm in Sapporo, instead. It's the capital of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost main island, and roughly equivalent to, I don't know, Alaska or Siberia, or some of the outer reaches of Canada. At least in terms of the Japanese understanding of it, if not actual temperatures and climate. But it is snowy:
A street in Sapporo, near Odori Park
I arrived last Sunday night after taking a short flight from Tokyo's Narita airport. For the record, domestic flights in Japan seem wonderfully simple: my tickets actually requested I get to the gate fifteen minutes before departure, so arriving a good hour and a half early after taking the Skyliner from Nippori was something of a waste. The ANA staff also had no trouble dealing with a couple of foreigners (as one would hope from an airline, I suppose), though did seem perplexed by our lack of baggage. Since there's no need to arrive early, except to head through the security checkpoint - also far more painless than international travel, with no messing about with liquids and the hardest part being getting your laptop out for inspection - the departures area is excruciatingly boring, with nothing but a small gift shop and a noodle/fried rice bar. Fortunately we were quickly bused to our plane, and then, off to Hokkaido.

The main reason I wanted to visit Sapporo was for the Snow Festival, or Yuki Matsuri. It's held every year, and ice and snow sculptures are built by teams from around the world, and inexplicably, by the Japanese Self-Defense Force (their, er, army), who also truck in loads of snow for the production. At least, that's the main reason I wanted to go at this particular time of year - mostly, I just wanted to go see snow. I'd also heard, from both my foreign co-workers and my Japanese clients, that Sapporo was some mythical wonderland of food: miso ramen! Jingisu-kan! Crab! Fish! Sushi! Soup curry! Everything seems to come with an extra layer of butter and/or friedness, or is loaded with yuzu, or is just generally delicious. I haven't sampled all the delights of Sapporo cooking just yet, but I think the highlist is either the aforementioned jingisu-kan - or Genghis Khan, a lamb dish named after, well, him, that you barbecue on a metal dome in the middle of your table - or possibly the menu at Kushidori, a Sapporo chain restaurant that specialises in skewered meats (and a little bit of skewered veg - their ginkgo nuts are great).

Oh, and the beer. I'm a huge fan of Japanese beer. I wouldn't quite leap to saying it's the best beer in the world - I have perhaps had better beers in the Czech Republic, or from various microbreweries, and so on. However, Japanese beer, for me, has one huge advantage: it doesn't give me an automatic hangover. It must be something to do with what it's brewed from in comparison to Western beers, but most alcohol (especially red wine - I think it's the tannin) gives me terrible headaches the next day. Not Japanese beer. Plus, it's light and smooth, and generally goes well as a complement to Japanse food. But I'm digressing - beer in Sapporo. Sapporo is, after all, one Japan's major breweries (the others, I guess, being Asahi, Yebisu, Kirin and possibly Suntory, though I always think of them as more in the spirits line of work. For relaxing times...). Beer, and of course Sapporo beer, originated here in Hokkaido, during the Meiji period [I might make a bigger post about this particular subject later - it's quite fascinating, especially in how the fate of the company is tied up with Japan's colonial past and the post-war deconstruction of large Japanese companies by the US military administration]. So, one of my big goals was visiting...
The Sapporo Beer Museum
Located within the city and accessible by bus or on the Toho subway line, at Higashi-Kuyakusho-Mae Station. If you take the most south-western exit (I believe it was no. 6, but might have been no. 3) and follow the road south, the entrance to the museum will be on your left after a few minutes, just before a complex with a Lawson convenience store, a Book Off, and a parking lot. There's a massive sign on stilts down that road on the left, but I think it's in Japanese. Head in that direction, though, and it's impossible to miss the red brick museum building with it's oddly-Soviet-styled polar star emblems and smoke stack. Admission the museum is free, and you can either take a tour or wander around on your own - I'm not sure if the tours are available in English, but if you wander solo, the staff at the information desk will lend you a booklet of English translations that covers many of the exhibits (though unfortunately, almost none of the history sections are translated, leaving you to infer some of it or just wonder at the rest - as for me, I'm hoping to translate the stacks of photographed notes I have. I'm also hoping it isn't just the same information already on Wikipedia). The museum tour itself takes you through the founding of the brewery in the late 1800s, shows off some early bottle and logo designs, and explains the production process. Downstairs - since you start on the third floor - there's a gallery of classic Sapporo poster designs, as well as various Sapporo bottle and can designs through the ages. Finally, you end up in a tasting area where for 200 yen (a freakin' steal in Japan) you can sample reasonably sized glasses of Sapporo's three offerings - Black Label, the beer they sell all over Japan; Classic, the beer they only appear to sell in Hokkaido; and Kaitakushi, a microbrew they only sell at the museum itself. You can get a set of all three for a mildly discounted 500 yen, but I strongly recommend at least checking out the Kaitakushi, since you can't get it elsewhere.
Early Japanese beers - from left to right, Yebisu, Sapporo and Asahi
Next door to the museum part of the area is the Bier Garten, where they specialise in jingisu-kan. It's great, but a little expensive - however, I don't have a reference point for the price of that dish elsewhere in the city, so maybe that's just the norm. There are a few other beer halls here too, each offering different menus, but I didn't check them out - lamb and beer was fine for me. Before leaving, though, don't forget to check out the museum gift shop - in addition to many, many beers that would probably be difficult to actually get home (including the surprising delicious Sapporo x Royce chocolate beers) they have shirts, phone charms, and all sorts of Sapporo-related paraphenalia, like beer glasses and steins. You can also buy prints of the classic Sapporo posters, though if you're either cash-strapped or wondering how to get the things home, you can get a pack of seventeen postcard-sized prints for 530 yen instead of 700 for a single large one.

Next time: the Snow Festival itself, and Otaru, a small port city northwest of Sapporo.