Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Royce chocolates and sushi in Hokkaido

Yesterday in Hokkaido, we stopped to have lunch in the picturesque seaside town of Otaru, known for several well-preserved neighborhoods of old houses and storehouses. These have now mostly been turned into tourist shops and restaurants, but they’re still pretty all the same.

A couple of them have been converted very nicely so that you can appreciate the beauty of the old structure outside, and then experience a fashionable café or shop in keeping with the old atmosphere inside.


One of these old stone storehouses had been turned into a pretty unique coffeeshop, with giant glass chandeliers (handblown glass being a famous product in these parts) and a dark and rather romantic atmosphere for drinking specially blended coffees – if there is such a thing as a romantic coffee shop.

Other storehouses, which probably used to hold grain and agricultural produce, were converted into crafts boutiques selling the ubiquitious glass products, and everything that can be made from them – from Venetian-style brooches and pins, to every conceivable kind of glass item for the table.


Lots of things were quite lovely, really, but I figured my life is too complicated as it is, and there’s no room for more breakable glass in it. Talk about fragile. And for lunch we went to a local sushi shop, as these parts are famous for sushi. They’re a dime a dozen along this street, by the way, so you’ll be spoiled for choice.

Some of the restaurants have photos and signed autographs on the windows, of all the famous people who have eaten there. And one thing very noticeable is how cheap everything was compared to Tokyo – although if you start converting into pesos, of course, everything is expensive all the same.

The sushi shop we went into let us try making sushi ourselves, and this is what we had for lunch. In a way, it was easier than it looked, considering we all know that the art of sushi making actually takes years and years – and there we were making our own sushi in under ten minutes and then having it for lunch afterwards.


Frankly, I didn’t think the ten-minute sushi would be good at all, but they actually tasted okay and were fun to do. Seafood is a big thing here, so after lunch we went around the street for about half an hour, wide-eyed and wishing to try everything – from the giant Hokkaido hairy crabs to the sea urchins still alive and waiting to be cracked open.

If I hadn’t had lunch, I would’ve tried very fresh sea urchin on hot rice with a hint of wasabi and soy sauce – especially as I just saw these on the sea bed a couple of hours ago.


Instead I went for the chocolate shops and cake shops. Being an agricultural country, Hokkaido is famous for its dairy and rightly so. Royce chocolates, by the way, which has become more famous in Manila than in Japan, is from Hokkaido.

I first heard about Royce from all my visiting Filipino friends who were crazy about trying to buy it and bring boxes home as presents; but here in Japan, where we are really spoiled for choice as far as world-class chocolates and artisanal chocolates are concerned, there are so many great and perhaps even unknown brands, and Royce is just one of the better known brands.

And, if you must know, the most famous Hokkaido chocolate brand is actually called Shiroi Koibito (white lover). Almost everyone in Japan, and certainly everyone in Hokkaido, knows this brand. They also have a factory right in Sapporo that you can visit, which they've turned into a mini-Disneyland. More on this in a later blog entry.

So, anyway, this is why we all have our own favorites and they're not necessarily the most famous brands people from abroad have heard of. Lots of times, we’re just happy to discover some small shop where a young chocolatier has been making chocolates himself ever since he graduated from high school and apprenticed at a famous Paris chocolate shop for two years or so. There are lots of stories like that in Japan, and many of the chocolates are just as good, if not better, than the famous ones.

More on our adventures in Hokkaido later on. In the meantime, good afternoon from Sapporo, after an excellent and authentic Sapporo ramen for lunch.


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