Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Fascinating Japan

It's been 26 years since I was last in Japan. During junior year of college I spent the month of January studying economics with a group of 15 students from St. Olaf.

My memories of that time aren't that sharp. I remember living with a lovely host family in Tokyo for 3 weeks. I remember drinking alcohol for the first time (!) at age 20 when my host father offered me sake and beer. I remember the vast cultural differences that weren't due to financial reasons. I remember feeling like a prairie dog because Tokyo is a big city undercut by a vast network of subways. When traveling around the city I'd ride the subway. Then I'd explore above ground in a small area around the subway stop. Next I'd go back underground and then pop up somewhere else, never really understanding how the areas were connected. I remember visiting Hiroshima.

Our student group also visited Osaka where we toured an automobile factory and learned about some of the legendary Japanese quality control processes, like Kaizen, that later made their way around the world.

Since that experience I've been curious about the rest of Japan -- historic Kyoto, the Japanese countryside, the mountains and the skiing, the distant northern island of Hokkaido.

Fortunately, my buddy Mike scoped out the skiing last year and raved about the daily powder dumps up at Niseko on Hokkaido. So we arranged to meet.

Skiing in Niseko, Japan

Skiing in northern Japan lived up to all the hype for me. They average almost 600" of snow per year, twice that of the popular areas in Colorado, and more even than my beloved Alta. For a powder junkie like me that's just what I was looking for. Alas, in the winter of '16-17 the American West has been getting hammered but it's been a relatively low snow year in Japan. 

But Ullr was shining on me. In the previous weeks they'd actually had rain at Niseko, but Mike and I received back-to-back days of 6-8" and then followed with a third bluebird day.
Ullr, the Norse God of Skiing

Bluebird JaPow with Volcano
The in-bounds area doesn't have a whole lot of expert terrain, but the vast powder more than makes up for it. Tree skiing JaPow is the strength here and I would gladly return. There's a nice, and booming, town at the base of the Grand Hirafu ski area (one of 4 ski areas that neighbor each other ringing halfway around the big mountain). Lots of Australians ski here.


The other supreme pleasure of Japan so far has been the food. After spending 14 months eating the mostly simple cuisine of Latin America, my tongue and taste buds are thrilled for a change of pace. Tortillas and chicken have given way to noodles and sashimi and yakitori.

In Sapporo we visited the Sapporo brewery. Here's Mike enjoying the local delicacy Jingisukan (named after Genghis Khan). This food wasn't that great, actually, but the photo is pretty good. It was grill-your-own meat and vegetables. But grill-your-own? At a restaurant? I thought that's what I pay the professional chefs for.
Ullr eats Genghis Kahn
Yakatori is a Japanese delight similar to the Spanish tradition of tapas -- small plates that you order a bunch of and share with friends. The two sticks on the left of this platter are kimchi meatballs on a stick and were phenomenal. Yakatori tends to be fried meat (beef, chicken, gizzards, livers, etc) but can also include such delights as asparagus wrapped in bacon and spicy mushrooms.
Yaktori, kind of like tapas
 Behind the counter at a couple yakatori places...

The tab for the evening appears to be unhappy. Not sure why that is. Perhaps it didn't like the way I manhandled my chopsticks.
Check, please
The pork in this ramen dish in the town of Otaru, Japan was the best thing I'd eaten in months. As the Japanese would say, oishii!
Ramen with pork that will blow your mind
Visiting the fish market is always fun.

Fresh Fish
And it was at the fish market in Hakodate, Japan on the southern coast of Hokkaido that I finally understand why television food traveler Anthony Bourdain raves about uni, or sea urchin. I'd had it twice before in the USA as sushi and didn't really care for it. I tried it as sushi a couple days prior to this here experience and it was better than in America. But this fourth and most simply prepared experience was the one that will keep me singing its praises forevermore. Those yellow pieces of meat are attached to the shell by a little nubbin, kind of like how an oyster is attached. When in Hokkaido, you must try the uni.
Uni, or sea urchin

Drinking in Japan

Drinking is a big part of the Japanese culture. Many employees work long hours and after work go out drinking with their coworkers. They drink to get drunk. Because Japan has such a formal and polite outer shell of a culture, it is after work when people are allowed to let their hair down and say what they think. 

So in the spirit of multi-culturism, Mike and I decided we should try out a few of these drinking establishments.

The options are plenty, whether they be in a hopping main drag in Tokyo...

Or in a warren of small joints that only have room for 6-8 customers...
Mike looking for a drink

 Or a joint on the snowy streets of Sapporo.

And if you know me at all, you know I couldn't pass up a chance to drink at a place called Bar Boozer in Hakodate.
Mike patiently awaiting the opening of Bar Boozer

We returned later that night...

and were slightly surprised when it turned out to be a nice whiskey bar. So we helped ourselves to some from the Nikka distillery that we toured when up on Hokkaido.

We also had a few great encounters with bars that spin vinyl records. This was the first one, I think, in Otaru or Sapporo. The sign outside said Jazz Bar so we went in thinking there would be live jazz music. An interesting thing about Japanese restaurants and bars is that they make it almost impossible to see inside from the outside. The Japanese are very shy and private about their vices -- booze and sex. There were plenty of times when I opened a door to a place that seemed interesting, only to be turned away because they didn't serve foreigners (true: if you don't speak Japanese some restaurant owners just don't want to deal with you) or because it just wasn't our style. There was no live music here, but a great soundsystem and a hep cat owner spinning jazz vinyl.

Our most fun night (and most hungover morning) came at this place: Soul Bar Jody. It was in the basement of a building and surrounded by some of the weirder sex-type clubs they have in Japan.
This is in the city of Morioka, Japan. We walk in and instantly see a Prince record proudly displayed on the counter. Good sign. There's just the proprietor sitting behing the bar having a smoke and nobody else in the small room that could maybe hold 20 people tightly.

The gentleman owner spoke pretty decent English so we asked if he could play some Prince for us, seeing as we were from Prince's home town and all. He did and we ordered whiskey and beer. He had lots of photos on the walls of the bar and some of them were former professional wrestlers. I remembered that AWA wrestling, the professional outfit out of Minneapolis in the 1980s, had a connection with Japan. We started talking pro wrestling and soul music and then he put a VHS tape into his VCR and up on the screen popped the AWA's champion Nick Bockwinkel wrestling in Japan around 1984 or so. Awesome!

Do you remember Mad Dog Vachon? Because the Japanese sure do:
Mad Dog Vachon
More beer and whiskey flowed. Cigarettes were bummed and still no one else entered the bar. We had been there for a few hours listening to great records and watching old wrestling videos with this fifty-something Japanese gentleman.

So much fun.


Zuma Luna said...

Love this. You guys are rocking it. Nice write up, KMA.

Ann Vinciguerra said...

Powder, good food, city nightlife, a wonderful combination of experiences. Sounds like you are having a great time!

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