Giant eight-layer soft serve?
That got your attention! But there's more to Otaru than crazy ice creams. This picturesque port city is a popular getaway for locals and tourists. It also makes for a handy base to explore Yoichi, the birthplace of Nikka Whisky Distillery. And then there's the ice cream. In addition to giant soft serves, it's also home to a shop with all kinds of wacky ice cream flavours
. We're talking squid ink
, sea urchin
Map of our Japan travels that started in Tokyo
It's only a 40 minute train ride from Sapporo
to Otaru. You'll notice the small town feel of the place as soon as you exit the train station. Its population in 2011 was a mere 130,000.
Tarche Sushi Corner
One of our first meals in Otaru is at Tarche Sushi Corner
, a tiny stand-up bar just ouside JR train station. We may have been two weeks into our Japan trip but I still wasn't sick of sushi. I have an insatiable appetite for it, constantly seeking out the holy grail of perfectly seasoned rice crowned with a layer of raw seafood as plump as the softest pillow.
Prepped fish and seafood ready for sashimi
There are only eight places around the sushi counter. There are no seats. I'm taken by the quiet seriousness of the sushi chef and the formal way in which he seems to interact with each customer. It's only later that I discover that this sushi bar is linked with the nearby Isezushi
, a one-star Michelin restaurant.
Our nigiri sushi being prepared
You can order your own sushi or you can leave it up to the chef, known as omakase. I order the eight piece omakase and watch the sushi show as his hands fly with ridiculous speed.
Brushing a soy glaze on our nigiri sushi
Each nigiri sushi is glazed lightly with soy sauce by the chef, meaning they're all ready to eat as they are, without having to perform the clumsy "dip in soy sauce dance".
Omakase sushi (8 pieces) 1600 yen / AU$17.60
The sushi tray is placed before you accompanied with a reverent bow. It's quality is immediately apparent, the seafood plump and glistening with freshness under the lights. Even small touches are noticed, like the pickled ginger slices gently shaped into a rose. The sushi wouldn't look out of place at a high end restaurant and yet there's a surreal juxtaposition with the scenes of everyday life unfurling around me - locals casually browsing in the adjoining food market and commuters rushing past in the corridor behind.
The sweetest botan ebi raw prawn
But everything blurs into the background once you start eating. It's just you and your tastebuds and the sushi with each mouthful. A quivering raw scallop
, a deep red hunk of tuna
, the slender delicacy of snow crab
and the sticky sweetness of raw prawn
make irresistible bedfellows with the mound of vinegared rice.
Photos don't do justice to the eye-popping display of speed and dexterity by the sushi chef at work. The ballet of finger movements is unlike anything I've ever seen. If you don't believe me, check out the video above.
Nikka Whisky Distillery, Yoichi
It's worth visiting the Nikka Whisky distillery from Otaru, an easy trip of about 25 minutes on a local train. From Sapporo, the journey takes about 80 minutes.
Masataka Taketsuru, founder of Nikka Whisky
Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky, is also credited with being one of the founders of Japan's whisky industry. The third son in a long line of sake brewers in Hiroshima, Taketsuru was more interested in learning about whisky, and travelled to Scotland where he studied organic chemistry and worked at several Scottish distilleries.
Rita Cowan, wife of Taketsuru
It was there that he met local lass, Rita Cowan. They married after a year of courting, in 1920, despite neither of their families approving of the union. She travelled back with him to Japan where Taketsuru eventually set up what was to become Nikka in Yoichi. Yoichi was chosen because it closely mirrored Scotland with its icy winters, rugged terrain and local peat bogs. Originally named Dai Nippon Kaju, the company was shortened to Nikka - the first syllable of the second and third words. Dai Nippon Kaju means "great Japanese juice company".
Free Nikka whisky sampling
The guided tours only take place in Japanese but several information panels include English translations of the Nikka story. No translations are required for the free Nikka whisky sampling room though.
17 year old Tsuru whisky
Access to the Nikka distillery is completely free so it's impressive that all visitors are allowed a sample of each whisky. We savour the 17 year old Tsuru
whisky, a blend of malt whisky and grain whisky with an alcohol content of 43%.
10 year old single malt Yoichi whisky
Also on offer is the 10 year old single malt Yoichi
whisky. The flavours mellow out as a the ice slowly melts. Unlike many Scottish whisky distilleries that have abandoned the practice, Nikka still uses coal fires during distillation, adding a characteristic spiciness.
And if whisky is not your thing, or you're the designated driver, you haven't been forgotten either. They provide apple juice and two types of cold tea to keep you refreshed while everyone else is getting ruddy cheeks!
After our day out in Yoichi, we thought we may as well get the train back to Sapporo for a monster buffet. Nanda
is one of the biggest buffets on offer, promising unlimited king crab, hairy crab and sashimi.
The entrance is non-descript, only a small sign pointing toward the basement of a large multi-storey office building. Downstairs it occupies the full floor with seating for over 200 people. It's hugely popular with tour groups who pile in by the bus-load.
All-you-can marinated and raw meat buffet
We arrive without a booking and have to wait for about 45 minutes for a table. When we finally get in, we join the teeming masses. This is not somewhere to slowly savour each mouthful with soft music and gentle conversation. It's a shameless free-for-all to get your money's worth. We've handed over 3,980 yen / AU$44 and have 90 minutes to eat as much as we can.
The quality of food here is nevertheless impressive. There's attention to plating, to marinades and variety. We're also taken aback by how many dishes are on offer.
Pork belly skewers
Raw prawn nigiri sushi
Live scallops in the shell
The seafood section is particularly abundant, with live scallops, crab and oysters.
Kegani horsehair crab
Tarabagani king crab
Loading up at the buffet
Barbecue grills inlaid into each table
Marbled beef slices
A lot of our meals had been light on protein, but we definitely make up for it here, overloading on fatty beef slices and marinated pork until we can take no more.
Marinated beef and pork on the grill
Mushrooms, oysters, scallops and king crab on the barbecue grill
We also grill oysters, scallops, crab and mushrooms. Word of warning: exploding scallops on the grill are terrifying!
DIY soft serve machine
We also get to make our own soft serves, a process that is harder than it looks. This machine uses pre-frozen tubs of soft serve. It brings the kid out in everyone.
Traffic and buildings in Otaru
In comparison to Sapporo, Otaru is quieter and slower in pace.
Otaru Canal, no longer used for shipping, is one of the more scenic parts of town. We're lucky to still catch some of the cherry blossoms in bloom.
The old Temiya Railway track that was abandoned after the Hakodate Railway line was completed in 1985
We happily succumb to the slower pace of life here. It almost feels like we're on a holiday from our holiday.
Creepers and moss on buildings
Blossoms and street lamps
One of our favourite meals turns out to be a lunch of soba noodles in a tiny eatery near the bus station.
Behind-the-scenes in the kitchen
We sneak glances into the kitchen as we wait and then realise they're actually making soba from scratch back there, using a special machine that cuts the dough into uniform noodle strands.
Dough being fed through the soba maker
The owner laughs at our frenzied interest, but it's such a surprise find we can't get over our excitement.
Perfect strands of fresh soba
Shaking off the excess flour
Folding them gently into a wooden crate
Here's a brief video clip of the soba machine in action.
Boiling the soba noodles using a bamboo basket
We watch transfixed as the freshly made noodles are then cooked in a little bamboo basket, plunged into a simmering vat of boiling water.
Some of us have ordered soba noodles in soup with chicken
. We hold back our drool as the steaming soup is poured over the noodles.
Soba noodles with chicken and vegetables
The chicken is soft and juicy, huddled with chewy soba noodles and shallots.
Adding vegetables to the tempura prawn zaru soba
I order the zaru soba
, a cold noodle dish topped with tempura prawn, boiled egg, fish cake and vegetables.
Cold soba noodles with tempura prawn
Adding zaru soba dressing
Pour over the dressing made from dashi, soy and mirin for a hint of sweetness. It's one of my favourite dishes in summer that leaves you feeling cool and refreshed. And yes those soba noodles were some of the best we had - beautifully firm and chewy.
Hokkaido is famed for its high quality creamy milk and I love that this has led to an abundance of dairy-based desserts in the area. What better way to celebrate a region's bounty than with sweets?
The LeTAO cheesecake
is one of the must-have treats from the area.
LeTAO double layer cheesecake with baked cream cheese and unbaked mascarpone
The Fromage Double
is a pretty spectacular cheesecake masterpiece. On the bottom is a baked cream cheese cake. Layered across the top is an unbaked mascarpone cheesecake. Both are ridiculously light and fluffy, your fork sinking through both with only the faintest whisper. It's so cloud-like in texture and yet there's a tanginess that comes through with each mouthful.
Yamanaka Dairy Farm
And of course there were soft serves to be eaten too.
Chocolate and vanilla soft serves by Yamanaka Dairy Farm
We stumbled upon the Yamanaka Dairy Farm
shop and promptly ordered both the chocolate and vanilla soft serves. Soft serves made with Hokkaido milk are indescribably good - the taste of milk fat intensified without feeling overly rich.
The chocolate one is tasty but you can't go past classic vanilla in my books.
Yamanaka Dairy Farm
Yamanaka Dairy Farm milk
We find Yamanaka Dairy Farm milk in the supermarket aisle too. Have I told you how rarely I drink milk? I even drink my tea black and without sugar. But everyday in Hokkaido I happily would have had a glass of milk every night if I could. Maybe two.
Kita No Ice Cream Ya San
Scooping squid ink ice cream
If you do find yourself in Otaru, you will have to seek out Kita No Ice Cream Ya San
The arrow to crazy town
This tiny ice cream shop is hidden down an alleyway off the main street alongside Otaru Canal, but it's legendary status to producing kooky flavours means you can usually follow a trail of ice cream hunting customers any time of the day.
Ice cream flavours include sea urchin, squid, beer and purple sweet potato
Forget about the soft serves and go straight toward the chiller cabinet. Skip past the usual green tea flavours and go straight for the crazy. Hello squid ink, sea urchin, beer and purple sweet potato! Other strangely beautiful flavours include natto fermented soy bean, Japanese pumpkin and potato with butter.
Squid ink and sea urchin ice cream
with purple sweet potato ice cream
How could we order anything but the squid ink
and the sea urchin
? The squid ink looks ominously with its glossy black appearance but the flavour is surprisingly mild. There's a faint hint of the sea but the most striking effect you'll get is a black tongue.
The sea urchin
, on the other hand, is terrific. Sure it sounds weird but just imagine a sea urchin sauce, buttery and rich, that's been mixed with cream. It tastes just like a frozen version of that, and we're super excited to find minute flecks of sea urchin within the ice cream.
The purple sweet potato
ice cream tastes just like the real thing, and we also dig the sherbetty fizz of the ramune blue lemonade one too.
Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace
Follow that monster soft serve
And then there was the monster soft serve, a tip-off
we followed up with incredulity. We started to hunt down this five layer soft serve and then discovered this shop had upped the ante and increased the number of layers to eight. Challenge accepted.
Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace
isn't easy to find at first, but when we spy the giant poster ad, we know we're on the right track.
Green tea and blue lemonade soft serve swirls
The ice cream parlour is at the back of a glassware shop. The shop assistant doesn't bat an eyelid when we order the eight layer soft serve.
Eight swirls later
Watching each layer being added is mesmerising. It's like watching a pastel skyscraper being built on a cone.
Eight layer soft serve 580 yen / AU$6.40
And then it is ours! We're reduced to shrieks of laughter when we come face to face with its size, and then realise its inordinate heaviness. The cone barely feels strong enough to support the weight of the soft serve.
The eight layers, from the bottom, are: green tea, lemon pop, lavender, melon, milk, chocolate, lavender vanilla swirl and chocolate vanilla swirl. Did I mention this was our third ice cream in two hours?
There was no other logical decision than to share this between us. Armed with spoons, we attack with gusto. Even then we're still defeated, but our memories of that glorious moment, when we met the mother of all soft serves - will stay with us forever.
<< Read the first Japan 2015 post: Toyama black ramen and firefly squid
Kita no Ice Cream Ya San
1-2-18 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan
Tel: +81 (013) 423 8983
Open daily 10am - 7pm
Kitaichi Glass No. 3 Terrace
7-26 Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan 047-0027
(head to the ice cream shop on the street at the very back of the building)
Open daily 11am-5pm
Minami 5, Jonishi 2 (South 5, West 2), Cyber City building
Basement 2, Susukino, Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan
Tel: +81 (011) 532 7887
Open daily 4.30pm-10.30pm
Nikka Whisky Distillery
7 Chome-6 Kurokawachi, Yoichi-chi, Yoichi-gun, Hokkaido, Japan 046-0003
Free guided Japanese tours 9am-5pm. No English tours are available
Tarche Sushi Corner タルシェ 寿司コーナー
2-22-15 Inaho, JR Otaru Station, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan 047-0032
Tel: +81 (013) 431 1111
Open daily 11am-3pm and 4.30pm-7.30pm
Yamanaka Dairy Farm
1-6-18 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan
Tel: +81 (013) 427 5123
Open daily 11am - 6pm