Treats galore in summertime Sapporo

by Mandy Bartok

Special To The Japan Times

I barely recognize Sapporo’s Odori Park clothed in its summer coat of flowers. The last time I journeyed north to Hokkaido, this dozen-block strip of land running straight as a die through the middle of its capital city was sporting massive artistic creations fashioned for the annual Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival). That February, the lush greenery, the beds of marigolds and the elegant rose garden — which in summer marks the park’s western end — were all under meters of snow. So it’s nice to see the city without shivering my way through it.

The only one in danger of a chill at the moment is my 2-year-old, as she cavorts in a mini-waterpark of fountains, bridges and stone obstacles near the park’s ninth block. For a cold-weather city, Sapporo has some of the best water features to help little ones beat the heat — all for free.

And indeed, Sapporo is warmer than usual this week. My family and I have come north to escape the suffocating heat and draining humidity on our home island of Kyushu — only to find the sticky weather has trailed us. It’s not nearly as oppressive as it is down south, but it’s enough for residents to pull out their fans and turn on their air conditioners. As the apartment we’ve rented has a pitiful airflow, we’re tasked with staying out all day while still entertaining a toddler and appeasing her needs.

Odori Park’s playground and water fountains were our concession to her after a full morning of sightseeing at the Hokkaido Historical Village on the outskirts of the city. There, on a wooded 133-acre plot in the Nopporo Forest Park, buildings from all over Hokkaido have been reassembled or reconstructed to tell the story of the prefecture in its frontier era.

Hokkaido was mainly Ainu territory until the mid-1800s, with occasional incursions by samurai from the south during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Only the Matsumae clan ever gained a significant foothold, basing themselves in the island’s southwest and trading with the indigenous people. When the Tokugawa military government was overthrown and replaced by forward-thinking Emperor Meiji and his advisers in 1868, Hokkaido was seen as ripe for colonization and industrialization. The former resulted in the disenfranchisement of the native Ainu; the latter focused on the island’s abundance of such resources as herring and timber. With the help of some key Western immigrants, the land was cleared, the fish were caught and the wild face of Hokkaido was changed forever.

You can get an excellent idea of that dramatic period of transition from the exhibits at the Hokkaido Historical Village. Pore over old surveyors’ maps, explore the cramped quarters of herring-industry employees and sit behind the desks in one of Hokkaido’s first primary school buildings that’s been relocated here.

The site is divided into multiple sections — a townscape, a fishing village, a farmstead and a forest camp — and a thorough exploration could take a full day. Musty homes and black-and-white photos might not appeal to the younger crowd, but our daughter had a ball simply sprinting through the wide open space until, when she was exhausted, we all clambered aboard a horse-drawn trolley that conveyed us in style down the village’s main street.

With some history, decent playtime and a bit of lunch under our belts, we squeeze in a short nap (for our toddler’s sake!) en route to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory in the city’s Nishi Ward.

Looking like a theme park crossed with an English country village, this place doesn’t endear on first impression: its half-timbered buildings are too cutesy, the tour bus parking lot too full. We buy tickets for the factory tour and pay a supplement for a cookie-decorating workshop in the sweetly named Cookiecraft Studio.

The staff make us all don blue booties and plastic aprons. We feel ridiculous but it makes for cute pictures of the kid. Together, we squeeze icing and sprinkle candy stars all over a cookie shaped like Hokkaido. Realizing we’ll pay a higher price in collateral terms if our child is left to consume said cookie on her own, we quickly have it boxed up and distract her with the factory tour.

After a brief introduction on cacao pods and an animatronic exhibit detailing chocolate-making in England, we end up at the fabulously painted production line. Trompe l’oeil murals spring out from the walls, adding to the somewhat hypnotic sensation of watching sandwich cookies being sliced, filled and deftly packaged before they slide out of sight on the conveyor belt. It’s not long, though, before we end up at a table near the factory’s rose garden, munching free sample cookies while junior amuses herself in a village of Victorian-style playhouses.

Sugar fuels us for the ride back into the city but I luckily get to escape any fallout from said toddler’s sweetened snack. With her safely left in my husband’s care, I set out on my solo portion of the day, an unhurried gastronomic progress hopefully featuring some of Hokkaido’s best fare.

Prior research on foodie websites led me to a tiny outpost of Italian cuisine at the back of the city’s Nijo Fish Market. Only a small sign bearing the name Picchu makes the unassuming shack stand out from its surroundings; no passerby would ever suspect the culinary masterpieces produced within by Chef Takaaki Mori.

I take my seat at the bar — there are only 12 places here — and order up the omakase (chef’s choice) menu. While his assistant pours my wine and we chat about the weather, my first dish is plated and served with minimal flourish.

One bite of the granita-infused sorbet dusted with cracked black pepper that tops a tangy gazpacho and my taste buds are standing at full attention. I contemplate the etiquette of asking for seconds, but the subsequent offerings are more than satisfying — a plump oyster garnished with bitter celery greens, a sausage stuffed with fresh crab from nearby frigid waters and handmade pasta topped with cheese and fresh-grated Hokkaido wasabi followed by a second pasta plate of noodles with uni (sea urchin) carbonara. Delicious!

Chef Mori’s choice offerings are then rounded off with a scallop, lightly seasoned and perfectly grilled — and I’m already frantically flipping through my planner, trying to find a free weekend to fly back up for another meal at Picchu.

Hokkaido in winter may be visually stunning, but knowing what I now know I’d opt for a warm-weather return trip any day. The sun may rise early and set late at this latitude then, but that just gives visitors of all ages more time to explore Sapporo at its summer best.

Hokkaido Historical Village is 35 min. by bus from Shin-Sapporo Station. Shiroi Koibito Chocolate Factory is near Miyanosawa Station on the Tozai Metro Line. Reservations for Picchu are essential — for more details, visit www.picchu.jp (Japanese only).