We’re two weeks in, and slowly getting to grips with our new routine. It feels like we’ve been on a billion buses and trains already, and living in a tent or van is a distant memory, replaced by a mixture of hostels, Air BNB, and traditional Ryokan.
We moved on from Furano to Kushiro, on the south coast of Hokkaido, primarily to visit the wetlands and local observation areas to see red crowned cranes, Ben’s main bird aim for this part of the country (which we did). To break up the journey a little, we stayed briefly in Otofuke, and actually saw this particular bird on our first walk there. Otofuke was a fairly non-descript place, but the hostel we stayed in was anything but.
Filled with character, this wooden lodge had numerous objects that represented the eclectic couple who ran it (objects that were mysteriously moved onto higher shelves as soon as they realised that Otis is literally into everything these days). The stand out feature however, and the feature that has represented our last week since our stay there, was the food.
This was no ordinary hostel when it came to dining. Providing breakfast and dinner, this was a multi-faceted meal – almost a single person buffet, of the highest quality. Seasoned tofu, little gel squares with flowers in, marinated meat, sashimi, tasty broth with noodles, stir fry, homemade bread…you name it, it came. The table was a feast for the eyes as you sat down, and not what we’d expected from a hostel experience.
From here, we moved on to Kushiro, which turned out to be a further treat when it came to food. Our first experience was visiting the local fish market, where you basically buy a bowl of rice, and top it with whatever sashimi you fancy. There’s every kind of fish imaginable at this place, and it makes Itsu at home seem pretty expensive, so we piled our bowls high and dug in. Otis enjoyed the experience too, surrounded by women from the fish stalls who continuously squished his little cheeks and high fived him as he ate.
Kushiro also treated us to an amazing bbq experience near the dock area – called Robata. You have a series of stalls you can buy your ingredients from – a mixture of fresh seafood, marinated meats and other veggie delights – and then your server grills them on the bbq in front of you while you look out at the boats passing you buy. Washed down with a beer and some sake, it was a brilliant early dinner with Otis, and again worked really well with him, as he loves a bit of yakitori.
We also sampled a local soba restaurant – a little bit more trial and error involved here, with a menu that had no photos or illustrations of food (a tactic quite a few places use so that you can somehow decipher what you’re ordering), and just a lot of Japanese script, and not an English word in sight, or spoken by the staff (fair enough, we’re a bloody lazy race when it comes to language!). Anyway, somehow, we managed to muddle through and had an amazing local venison curry, some chicken soba and some dumplings. Sign language is a wonderful thing when it comes to ordering.
Our food experience continued with our final evening meal in Kushiro. There’s a whole area they call the ‘entertainment area’ which we’d intended on visiting, as it’s filled with restaurants and bars – but they all opened too late to work for having dinner with Otis, so we just decided to try a place near our hotel. It turned out to be the best random decision we’d made, with the staff being super friendly and helpful. They gave us the whole upstairs area to ourselves, sitting at low tables with tatami matting, and bringing us some of the tastiest sashimi, ramen, yakitori and tempura we’d ever had. Otis got stuck in, was able to wander around as he ate, and we were totally relaxed, for once not worried if our neighbours took a dislike to the general food throwing and noise that baby led weaning can involve.
Even on the day we were leaving (a Saturday), there was an amazing food market on by the docks, with every food imaginable on a stick (see lead photo with an entire squid on a stick, which was amazing) - always a favourite with Otis. We tasted little vegetable pancakes, squid balls, the amazing squid, and little Japanese sweet cakes that you buy by the bag.
We moved on from Kushiro to Kawayu-Onsen, a small (and incredibly hipster, randomly) town in between Lake Machu and Lake Kussharo-ko. We stayed in a room in a BnB, albeit with a very random owner, but one who did brilliant meals that seemed to be a protein onslaught of barbecued meat and fish with various traditional accompaniments. On our last night, we felt like we were going to fall over, but the food was bloody brilliant. Up the road was a lovely café that did some of the best patisserie I’ve seen, despite being in a tiny town in the north of Japan, rather than a Parisienne street.
And now, we’re in Otaru, a small coastal town based around a port, but with canals and old warehouses that have been converted into restaurants and bars. It’s a really atmospheric place, with lots of traditional buildings, but with contemporary businesses sitting alongside those with heritage. We’ve had amazing sushi here, and ice creams based around unusual flavour combinations, including purple sweet potato.
Some of what we’d expected of Japan hasn’t quite come to fruition so far – we’d come to Hokkaido for the outdoorsiness and walking generally, and having spent so much time in places like NZ where it’s set up primarily for that activity, it doesn’t quite compare. But on the food front, Japan, you’re hitting it out of the park on every measure.
Tokyo next… and we are buzzing about our full bellies as our trip continues.