Saturday, 24 May 2008

Places to eat in Sapporo: Part one in an irregular series

As mentioned before, the dormitory provides breakfast and dinner six days a week (excluding holidays). I've also mentioned that I have been known to pick up lunch at a convenience store. But of course, I've also eaten at other places, too, and some of them are definitely worth mentioning. I hope to put more up about other places I have yet to eat at later on, but there are a few I've been to over the past weeks which I'd want to recommend. I'm going to start here with ones in the Maruyama Koen area, as that is where both the school and the dormitory are, and so is where I need to find my weekday lunches (and the occasional evening meal).

The web links given range from mentions on restaurant directory websites to other people's blog entries to official websites of the restaurants themselves, and the detail in them varies accordingly.

First, starting with lunch options.

The next block down from Exit 5 of Maruyama Koen subway station is a terrific “Omusubi parlour” called Nigi Maru. I have eaten the soba lunches there a few times, and they are delicious, and cheap, too (starting at 500 yen for a basic wake soba, and with a set lunch option around 700 yen). The soba are made with sesame seeds (“goma soba”) which makes them especially tasty. They do udon too, but I haven't tried them (personal taste only: if offered the choice between soba and udon, I'll almost always go for soba). The only thing I have found slightly disconcerting is that every time I've eaten there, they seem to be playing multiple versions of “Amazing Grace” in the background. But more recently, I've been buying the omusubi to take away and eat at school. Omusubi are rice balls. What the difference is between omusubi and onigiri (if any) I have no idea (if anyone knows the answer, feel free to comment below). Whatever the case, the ones from this shop are excellent. The rice is freshly made, so the omusubi are still warm. And the fillings are delicious: I'd highly recommend the crab mayo. Starting at only 170 yen each for the regular size, a couple of these makes a cheap and tasty lunch. Open daily from 10:00 to 17:00.

Further from the station, and fairly near to the school, is Sato coffee. This is a slightly pricey option for what you get, and only for a snacky lunch, but the coffee and the toast are excellent. They do cakes, too, but I always have the regular coffee and cheese on toast for 900 yen. Unlike most of the toast I've eaten in Japan, Sato's is made with particularly good bread: slightly darker and heavier, and with an excellent flavour and texture. The cheese is also decent, and the black pepper ground over the top finishes it off nicely. The coffee is good, too, and the owner (Sato, I presume) is happy to chat if the shop isn't busy. The atmosphere is very pleasant, too, with cool Jazzy music in the background. A cup of coffee is 500 yen, which is a little expensive, but it is good coffee, and it's worth splashing out for a nice cup of coffee in nice surroundings once in a while. Open 11:00-21:00 closed Tuesdays

On the way from the station to the school is a friendly Spanish place called El Cid. The woman who runs front of house has a Spanish father and a Japanese mother. I think the mother does the cooking (or at least some of it). The lunchtime options are mostly spaghetti (which I tend to think of almost as Japanese cooking, given its ubiquity), but in the evenings Tapas and paella are served, too (although the paellas are for a minimum of two people). On my first visit, I had tuna and aubergine spaghetti, which was very nicely seasoned. Lunch from 12:00 to 15:00, dinner from 17:30 to 22:30, closed Tuesdays.

A couple of other excellent options are a little further away again. The first is a rather lovely modern Japanese place called Toh-Toh. It serves terrific set lunches, with a weekly special at only 945 yen. It is the kind of restaurant which has a “concept”, being healthy, original Japanese cuisine. But don't let that put you off. The restaurant design is cool and modern, but with a traditional heart. And so is the food. On my first visit, the weekly special was a prawn burger (as pictured at the top of this page). The name wouldn't sound anything much, but the meal itself was wonderful, with the tasty “burger” accompanied by excellent rice, salad and miso soup: I have a theory that you can tell how good a Japanese restaurant is by the quality of its miso soup, and by that theory, this would be a very good restaurant indeed. I have yet to try this one in the evening, but it could well be worth a visit (although the prices will inevitably be higher). Open for lunch 11:30-14:00, for dinner 17:30-24:00, closed Thursdays.

Last of the lunch options for now, a rather excellent curry restaurant named Mirch. This falls somewhere between being an Indian curry restaurant and a Japanese one. You can choose how hot you want your curry (a feature which seems to be common in Sapporo – home of the “soup curry”, which you may hear more about on a later occasion), and the flavourings are richer and closer to Indian curry than is normal in Japan. Also, you can choose to eat naan bread, rather than rice, with your meal, but if you do have rice, it is definitely Japanese rice, not Indian (I don't believe I've ever come across Basmati in Japan!). On my first visit, I had the special of scallop and mushroom curry, and it was very good indeed. The scallops were plump and tasty, and the curry itself (which I has at a heat setting of 5 out of 7) was delicious. Open 11:30-22:00, closed Mondays and Tuesdays.

A few places I've had evening meals in around the Maruyama Koen are also deserve particular mention.

The first is a spaghetti restaurant called Don Pasta (by the way, while trying to find web references for Don Pasta, I hit this blog which looks like it covers – in Japanese – a lot of Maruyama eateries). This is a friendly little place, which seems to be run by a family, with the husband cooking the sauces, and everyone else chipping in with cooking the spaghetti, preparing the ingredients, serving and washing up and the like (of course, they might not be related at all, but it certainly felt like they were a family). Downstairs, where I ate, is a counter only, and there are tables upstairs. The cooking is done directly in front of the counter, so personally I think that's more fun, particularly if you are dining alone. Anyway. The spaghetti is very good. On my first visit, I had a crab special, which was delicious, but other diners' meals also looked good. And the prices are perfectly reasonable for an evening meal, with pasta dishes start around the 1000 yen mark (the seafood ones I've had came in at 1380 yen). There is also a separate, cheaper, weekday lunch menu (plain spaghetti starting at 500 yen, or vegetables in tomato sauce, for example, at 815 yen). There is no menu on display from the street, but it is definitely worth going inside and getting some very tasty spaghetti (the espresso afterwards was excellent, too). Open 11:00-21:30, closed Mondays.

Next, another friendly little place, this time specialising in pizzas. Unlike all the other Maruyama restaurants mentioned here, I didn't actually just find piacere on my walks around the area: it was actually a recommendation from poroco's Sapporo 10-ku Gourmet Guide (さっぽろ10区グルメガイド) which I bought early on in my visit (and I think may be the only restaurant so far which I have visited from the guide!). The pizzas are freshly made, with a nice thin base, although the small size is, indeed, a little small. If you are in the mood for a pizza, this place is worth a look. Open 11:30-20:00 (22:00 Fridays and Saturdays), closed Mondays.

Finally for the Maruyama Koen area (at least, for now), a rather splendid and stylish Italian called Caäo ((face) – in Japanese). I'd walked past and peered into this place a few times before I finally went in, mainly to check it would have something I would want to eat. The specials are written on a blackboard visible from the street, but there is a regular menu, too, and in the end the spaghetti vongole I chose was from that menu. The food is delicious and beautifully presented, and the glass of wine I had to accompany it (French, probably chardonnay: I can't tell you any more, because I didn't see the bottle) was excellent too (they have a more extensive selection available by the bottle). I sat at the counter, but there are also tables. It's not the cheapest of options, but then again, not that expensive, really, particularly for an evening meal: mains start around the 1000 yen mark, and my spaghetti vongole and a glass of decent wine came to 1800 yen. Evenings only, from 6:00pm to 3:00am, and closed on Sundays.

That's all for now. I hope to post further comments about restaurants in other parts of Sapporo (and possibly other places in Hokkaido), but that should whet your appetite.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

How to help get your 5 a day in Japan

Much as I like Japanese cuisine (well, the parts of it which don't include meat), it has to be said that it is a bit light on vegetables, aside from bits of side salad which appear with many meals, particularly breakfast. And fruit is notoriously expensive in Japan, too. Back home, I get a couple of my 5 a day regularly from Innocent Smoothies – I make no apologies for giving them free publicity, because they are extremely yummy, as well as being good for you. Anyway, Innocent don't have a foothold in Japan, so, particularly bearing in mind I'm not a fan of salad at any time of day, but especially not at breakfast time, how was I to get more fruit and vegetables into my diet?

The answer was these juices from Kagome.

They are no Innocent, it has to be said, and some of the combinations are perhaps a little strange. But you have to give them credit for getting large numbers of different fruits and vegetables into the carton. And they are 100% fruit & veg, unlike many of the cartons in the supermarkets here. So I'm going to give them a bit of free publicity, too.

Here are the ones I have had, with lists of ingredients, and brief comments.

1. 5 fruits and 13 vegetables - “Purple

That's apple, black grapes, green grapes, blackcurrant, lemon, carrots, purple carrots, purple sweet potato, red cabbage, beetroot, broccoli, kale, spinach, asparagus, green pepper, red pepper, a green leafy vegetable which I haven't got a translation for but which might be a pak-choi, and pumpkin.

This one was very pleasant and got me started on the whole thing. Actually, before I'd tried this one, I did have one with just grape juice and blackcurrant. But once I'd had this one, and realised there were a bunch of these things out there, I started on my project to try as many as I could.

2. 10 vegetables and 9 fruits - “Red

Tomato, red pepper, beetroot, shiso, parsley, spinach, kale, watercress, asparagus, lettuce, apple, lemon, raspberry, cranberry, strawberry, pomegranate, acerola, grape, grapefruit.

(Although technically tomato is a fruit, of course, as I suppose red pepper would be. And whether shiso, parley and watercress are vegetables or herbs could be a matter of interpretation...)

There was a slight smell and after-taste of tomato, which made this a little strange at first, but otherwise this wasn't too bad. Not that I have a problem with tomato juice per se, but as the predominant taste was sweet and fruity, rather than savoury and vegetably, it was slightly jarring.

3. 18 vegetables and 5 fruits - “Yellow

Yellow carrot, carrot, pumpkin, yellow pepper, maize, onion, cabbage, aubergine, asparagus, celery, Chinese cabbage, daikon radish, kale, lettuce, watercress, spinach, parsley, beetroot, some kind of angelica which seems to be specific to Japan (known as Ashitaba in Japanese, and which Wikipedia gives as Angelica keiske), apple, mango, banana, lemon, passionfruit.

This was in fact very tasty. I was a little concerned in advance by the presence of onion in the list of ingredients, but there was no hint of that on either the nose or the palate. The nose was, in fact, dominated by mango, although there was certainly more to it than just the mango, and the taste was similarly complex, with the passionfruit lingering most.

4. 21 vegetables and 3 fruits - “Original

Carrots, spinach, asparagus, red pepper, the one I think might be a pak-choi, watercress, pumpkin, purple cabbage, broccoli, something called petit vert (another Japanese veg, cross between kale and cabbage), beetroot, red shiso, celery, lettuce, Chinese cabbage, kale, parsley, aubergine, onion, daikon radish, cabbage, apple, orange, lemon.

Certainly a citrus-y taste to this one, with something somehow reminiscent of sherbet to it. Apart from the general citus taste, no other fruit of vegetable predominates.

As far as I can tell, that's all the fruit and vegetable ones which Kagome make. There is an all vegetable one, but I'm not so keen on that as an idea, so I probably won't have that one. And there are cheap imitations, too. But unless anyone knows of any fruit and vegetable ones I've missed – and you can let me know by leaving a comment if you do – I think that's my lot. Personally, I'll probably be alternating between “yellow” and “purple”, given the chance.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

A public information announcement for Smokers

Just a short one. Something most people know about Japan is that there are vending machines for all sorts of things. Everywhere. From soft drinks to alcohol, flowers to rice, hot food to cigarettes, and some rather more infamous ones (which personally I've never seen). Of course, having vending machines for such things as alcohol and cigarettes does mean anyone can buy from them. Well, from today, 1st May, for cigarettes, that is no longer true here in Hokkaido. Because today an age verification system known as “Taspo” - essentially an identity card for use when buying cigarettes from vending machines - is introduced: I imagine the name “Taspo” comes from a contraction of the Japanese for tobacco and passport.

The system was initially trialled in parts of Kyushu, and has now been introduced in the rest of Kyushu, Shikoku, Western and Northern Honshu and Hokkaido. The plan is to roll it out to the whole of Japan by July. The “Taspo” card is a contactless “smart-card”, which can also optionally be loaded up with cash for use when buying cigarettes. To get a “Taspo” card, you have to register by producing relevant documentary evidence of identity: name, address, and date of birth (minimum smoking age in Japan is 20). Note that only documents issued in Japan are valid for this purpose. So foreign residents with valid residency or registration documentation will be able to get one, but, from my understanding, tourists and others on short-term visas who have not registered will not. So they'll presumably just have to go into the shop to buy their cigarettes from now on.

As a non-smoker, I'm not affected by this at all. But I thought it a very Japanese solution to the problem of under-age smoking, rather than just getting rid if the machines – there haven't been cigarette vending machines in the UK for a very long time (although this Japan Times article mentions that the same solution to the problem has also been introduced in Germany) - so I thought it worth mentioning here. Full details on the system, registration process, and how to use the cards, can be found here.