Japan Day 6 - Sendai to Sapporo

Fletch and I checked out of Hotel Vista Sendai where we had spent the last two nights, and walked the five minutes across the street to the train station. I had tried to strategically position us as close to the train stations as possible in each city, so that we wouldn’t have to deal with maneuvering our backpacks through packed subways or local trains. Japan is a place where you definitely don’t want to overpack, because maneuvering between crowds and small areas can get to feeling very claustrophobic. I feel claustrophobic at times and I’m about average sized here. I can’t imagine how Fletch must feel.

We picked up Starbucks, and then found the ticket office to buy tickets to our next destination, and uncharted territory for me: Sapporo. I have a friend from college who has been living there for a while now, so we were going to go visit him. Our visit would also coincide with the Hokkaido Shrine Festival.

Before we found our platform, Fletch waited with the bags while I ran to find us some bento boxes. It was going to be a long day of sitting on trains up to Japan’s northern island. Sendai station had an impressive amount of food. The basement was an endless city of restaurants, and the main floor had enough gift boxes of specialty foods to feed a small country. Japanese people are very fond of giving food as gifts. Usually, train stations have large assortments of bento boxes as well, boxed lunches to bring on the train that have a good variety of different foods and are reasonably priced. I ran around for what felt like ages, painfully aware of the ticking clock, without finding anything but dine-in restaurants and gift boxes, containing a dozen of the same kind of sweet. Not exactly what you want for a meal. Finally a “News Stand” had a couple bento boxes for sale, and I snagged the last few before anyone else could eye them too closely.

The bullet train from Sendai to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto was three hours long, the last thirty minutes or so of which was spent in a tunnel going under the Tsugaru Strait. I excitedly told Fletch that when we emerged above ground again, we would be on a different island, then got up to find the car with the restroom. I didn’t expect to emerge from the tunnel quite so quickly, and so was startled to see daylight as I was sliding the bathroom door open. Abandoning that plan, I instead ran to the window to see what was outside. It looked like Jurassic Park. Rolling hills covered in thick green foliage made up the entire landscape, as the train whisked us up north to what is essentially Japan’s wild west.

Our train to Sapporo arriving at the platform.

I was surprised when Shin-Hokodate-Hokuto station had way more English than any other place we had encountered yet. We found the platform for our second train, and rather than having the car numbers listed to line up next to, Letters of the roman alphabet were spaced along the length of the platform. A gate attendant asked us in English where we were sitting. Unfortunately the train had been booked, so we were relying on there being two seats in the unreserved car. The attendant told us which letter we should stand by, somewhere down near the end of the alphabet. As we walked, we noticed that each letter had a corresponding english word that began with that letter. It was like being at an english-speaking kindergarten.

The train to Sapporo was another three and a half hours. The distance was shorter but the train was slower. We chugged along and enjoyed the scenery out the window. When we finally arrived, we managed to find the subway without too much hassle and figured out how to ride the three or four stops over to Nakajima Park. The park was one of the central locations of the festival, and so I had booked an Airbnb in the area. We emerged from the subway station into the center of the park. Not only were we surrounded by green and trees, but the festival booths were starting to set up for the next day, and so we got a preview of colorful stalls with games and fair food. There was excitement in the frigid, cold air. The fair vendors were all in hats and plushy down coats. Fletch and I were in the warmest clothes we had packed, which still weren’t nearly warm enough.

The Airbnb host had sent me a wonderful PDF with picture instructions with arrows on how to find his place from the subway. We followed the picture trail like kids following a treasure map, through the park and over to the main street. He had even pointed out where the crosswalk was, even though we later found out that people in Sapporo are perfectly fine with jaywalking, and there was no one on the street at that dusky hour.

Our scavenger hunt continued as we found the building, and then the mailbox with a combination lock to unlock the apartment key. Every step of the instructions were perfectly clear and easy to follow. We finally found our treasure, the room key, and headed up to the top floor. We opened the door and walked into a comfortable apartment with two beds, a futon, and a love seat, although I’m sure I’ve seen recliners in the US that were bigger than that love seat. Nevertheless, it was a cozy space with a welcome amount of room to stretch out after all the cramped, business hotels.

Jon couldn’t meet us that night as he had a Japanese tutor, but he recommended a ramen shop on the block, and the welcome packet that the Airbnb host had left, recommended the same ramen shop. It sounded perfect. The cuisine that Sapporo was known for was, after all, miso ramen. We walked around the block to discover that the little shop was closed. Disappointed, Fletch and I both pulled out our phones to see which direction we should begin walking to find more food options, as all we could see in either direction were more apartment buildings. We both found a Kirin Beer Garden at the same time. That had to be a sign.

We quickly power walked through the cold, the few blocks over to the restaurant, shivering all the way. When we looked in, the reception area was much too large, and we wondered if maybe we had found a museum; it had that same cold, open feeling. But then we discovered menus by the door and so walked in. A waiter led us around a corner into what felt like a spacious speakeasy with warm lighting. It was a very comfortable setting, and the grills built into each table added a welcome amount of warmth to the atmosphere after the cold walk.

We ordered ciders, which we were delighted to find they had on tap, and then looked at the dinner menu. We had found a shabu shabu restaurant, which is essentially Korean barbecue. You get a big pot of boiling water, and then a bunch of uncooked vegetables and very thinly sliced meats. The vegetables season the broth, and then the meat is so thinly sliced that it cooks within moments when placed in the simmering broth. There were different all-you-can-eat sets, and Fletch ordered one. I tried to order just some of the side vegetable dishes, but the server said we had to order per person since it was all-you-can-eat. I did my best to tell him that I didn’t eat meat, and he said I could just order the seafood.

And then the food started arriving.

Without meaning to, we had ordered an entire feast. The first few dishes were served, and then we knew we were really in trouble when the server rolled an entire cart of platters up to our table. What had we done? More arrived than could fit on our table.

A good portion of the table was occupied by the grill of course, and then we got a pot of boiling water on its own little burner. Then there were bowls of veggies, a bowl of mushrooms, and an entire basket of three different kinds of thinly sliced meats, and when I say basket, I mean one big enough to serve to an entire party. A plate of massive king crabs appeared in front of Fletch, with all the tools to crack them open. There was a basket of squids, shrimps, and scallops. We each were given an entire plate of sushi. Pots of seasonings for the broth arrived, and almost as an afterthought, a bowl of edamame was set down in front of me. I nibbled on the edamame while trying to comprehend what had just happened. We both stared, lost for words at the impressive spread in front of us. Fletch ordered us more ciders; we were going to be here a while. 

Shabu shabu at Kirin Beer Garden, Sapporo

I must’ve slipped into a food coma because I really don’t remember getting home or falling asleep.