Japan: Day 1 – Sapporo
We had an incredible flight over from Taipei to Sapporo. The entire plane was Hello Kitty to the absolute max. Hello Kitty pillows. Hello Kitty coasters. Hello Kitty safety instructions. Hello Kitty radishes at the bottom of my miso soup. Everything on the plane was Hello Kitty, from the air freshener in the bathroom to the pen I used to fill out my customs form. What a riot!
We arrived in downtown Sapporo with plenty of time to explore before dinner. A few of us put down our suitcases, changed into heavier jackets (sub-40 temperatures in Hokkaido), and hit the streets to see the sights.
Right downtown sits a gigantic neon Nikka billboard with an Asahi complement just across the street. Not more than thirty feet away is a huge Sapporo competitor. It might seem strange to visit Sapporo and not drink a Sapporo beer, but remember we're here to visit Nikka. Asahi is the Nikka brand, while Sapporo is the Suntory brand. These two companies do not like each other. Suntory is like Coca-Cola to Nikka's Pepsi. Suntory is the Dodgers to Nikka's San Francisco Giants. It's a serious rivalry, to say the least.
Since we were here to drink (and learn more about) Nikka, what better place to visit than the Nikka Bar situated just a few blocks from our hotel? Highballs all around! If you're not familiar with Japanese whisky culture, the Highball is the prefered whisky cocktail: a huge block of handcut ice and a splash of whisky, topped with soda water. It's a very serious drink in Japan and the preparation is quite ceremonial for something so simple. Even our quaint hotel bar (not pictured due to a charging camera battery) had a professional guy behind the counter cutting blocks of ice with supreme skill.
This being the Nikka Bar, there were all kinds of exclusive, unseen-in-the-states whiskies behind the counter. Single casks galore!
Our guide from Nikka, a man by the name of Naoki, picked us up at the hotel and took us out for some drinks and nibbles. Super cold draft Asahi (served at 2 degrees Celcius) was the name of the game, along side fried chicken with ginger, picked vegetables, and crispy potatoes. This was all a precursor, however, to the meal I had been waiting for my entire adult life.
I discovered Japanese ramen not by reading Yelp or following the advise of my generation's hipster culture, but rather simply by geographical coincidence. I live in San Mateo, which happens to be the Japanese ramen mecca of the Bay Area. It's impossible not to see the lines wrapping halfway around the block outside these esteemed eateries and not take notice. Since 2007, when I moved to the Peninsula capital and finally waited the half hour requisite to enter one of these über-popular joints, I've been a ramen addict. Sapporo happens to be the spiritual home of my particular favorite type: miso ramen. Naoki walked us outside of the general city center and towards a hole-in-the-wall filled with dinner time guests.
After tolerating our over-excited American behavior the entire evening, Naoki turned to us before we entered the tiny establishment and said, "All right guys; let's all tone it down and be cool. This isn't a tourist spot." I grabbed one of the few open seats at the counter and gazed at the noodles sitting nearby.
Chris Fu and I were in hog heaven. We kept giggling to each other and shaking our heads. Holy shit, the ramen was incredible. The miso broth was thick and creamy; the noodles were hearty and filling. We slurped, swallowed, and placed our bowls onto the upper counter. Time to clear out and offer our seats to the fifty guests waiting patiently behind us.
Tomorrow we go to Yoichi.