An island encased in ice and snow, the place where Japan ends, home of the Ainu and their blue and white whorling patterns, winter playground, place of bears and orca. Hokkaido, as we have already seen exerts a great pull on all who love open spaces, tranquility and a certain adventurousness. Of course it has important historical and contemporary links with the Japanese whisky industry, but there is more to Hokkaido than just the distilled spirit.
Our exploration started as the train reached the port of Otaru on Hokkaido’s west coast. Box-like pale blue and tawny houses huddle on the slopes above the busy harbour. The quiet streets are snow-filled. Breath steams in cold, ozone-rich air as the suns dips into Ishikara Bay.
Time for a snack
Otaru Fish market
Otaru’s location means only one thing in terms of food: fish and the long tented corridor which comprises its market is immediately on the left of the station. Massive spider crabs dance in slow motion in tanks, Ikura [salmon roe] piled like glass beads at Mardi Gras time, wet piles of Uni [sea urchin]. Many of the stalls have a couple of tables in the rear. Pick your fish, they’ll cook it for you. There’s no need for a menu.
Our day’s catch included Hakkaku [sailfin poacher], evil-looking, glossy purple in colour, served sashimi-style; abalone, uni, pickled squid and a bowl of crab in miso which was a potent essence of the crustacean.
Time for a drink
Finding a craft brewery in Japan these days isn’t unusual. Finding one which is a perfect recreation of a German bierhalle is, well, less common. When the head brewer appears it begins to make more sense. Johannes Braun’s family has 250 years of brewing history. He’s been in Otaru for 15 years, having been head-hunted by the Japanese owner.
The enterprise, as he sees it, is more than brewing, but selling Germany’s rich beer culture. “I want to show how beer has been made for 4,000 years,” he says, hand slotted through the handle of his stein. He also sticks to the principles with which he was raised, only selling within a 100km radius, sticking to German malt and hops, using his own yeast.
A tray of tasting samples arrives containing a crisp, citric Pilsener; a caramel, red fruit-rich Dunkel, a palate-cleansing, clove-like Weiss and the current seasonal speciality a ripe, bacon-like Bamberger Spezial (smoked beer) using malt infused with beech wood smoke. All are full-flavoured with a rich mouthfeel. “My bonus is seeing people enjoying my beer and forgetting their worries.
“If I have achieved that, it’s the best I can do.” Judging from the smiles, he’s succeeding.
Time for a dram
Yasuhiro Hatta opened his eponymous bar in 1983 and this small, cosy 12-seater remains Otaru’s only specialised bar whose whisky-heavy shelves show a preference for Yoichi, which is made less than 13 miles away.
It’s HiBall time and he mixes up one based on Yoichi 10 Years Old which though as cold as the temperature outside, has a silky richness in the mouth.
It transpires that the local distillery, is only a relatively recent big-seller here. “Local people love Nikka, but there wasn’t really much of a demand for single malt and certainly not single cask,” he says. “Now demand is growing.” It’s a cue to try a 10 Years Old single cask (No 407510) with bottled Otaru water on the side. It’s Yoichi in full, oceanic boisterous mode, but whose soft tropical fruits make it more like a hurricane hitting a Caribbean port rather than the Hokkaido coastline.
Time for more food
No surprise that Otaru has its own ‘Sushi Street’ which is where Hatta-san’s recommendation, Isezushi, is located. It offers sushi and sashimi unlike any I’d had before in Japan, a revelatory meal filled with subtle, and surprising, flavours and textures.
Our feast started with buttery-textured Hirame [flounder] with salt; the slightly fatter Soi [Fox Jacopever] was more delicate given extra complexity by wasabi, while two types of tuna were exemplary, especially the fatty tuna whose creaminess led to a subtle, nutty finish; Tiger fish was as oily as Yoichi, while unctuous, sweet shrimp had a remarkably floral, carnation-like character.
This was followed by a serving of a rare shellfish known locally as Mizo-kai whose flavour was reminiscent of grass and herbs, a quality shared by the next serving of Hoki (local name for fish unknown) which ushered in another note of crisp linen shared with salted Subu.
Suwai (snow crab) was both the essence of crabbiness, but with immense subtlety, while Skaho (squilla) had a yeasty floury iodine finish. Even Ikura, instead being explosively poppy had more of a liquid, foggy fizziness.
Almost exhausted, we finished with salty Komai [cod roe] and Uni and a deep, fragrant miso soup with seaweed and a prawn head stock.
We left, filled with the freshness and depth of the ocean shaking our heads at how a small town can be so filled with flavour.