4. Sapporo with Blair and Martha, October (photos)
When I look back on our trip to Hokkaido (Japan's north island), I tend to remember it being a debacle. But to be fair, that's only because one truly disastrous day cast something of a shadow over the whole thing. Briefly: we went to an art gallery that was shut, a brewery that was shut, a vegetarian restaurant that didn't exist, had a late lunch of deep fried things on sticks, attempted to go on a cable car that was closed for maintenance, and finally gave up and spent about 4 hours in a bar until it was time for our sleeper train.
However, the previous day had been better. We took a trip out to the port town of Otaru, which is famed for its European-style canals and warehouses. Fetching though the canal was in the moments of autumn sunshine between the showers, it was pretty underwhelming for a group of four actual Europeans.
The guidebook recommended an ice-cream parlour famed for its wacky flavours. We each got a double scoop, yours truly opting for a quintessentially Japanese combo of sake and ikazumi (squid ink), the latter being alarmingly black. I have to give them credit: in their tireless quest for gustatory authenticity, they had not let any concerns for whether the end product would be in any way palatable stand in their way. Blair's beer ice cream really did taste like beer (or perhaps beer foam), which isn't really what one looks for in a milky frozen confection. But the worst of the whole bunch had to be "buttered potato" flavour. Eww.
After some more canal-side strolling we went to a microbrewery that was decked out like a German bierkeller, in keeping with the whole European vibe. You know, the sort of place where one could actually get away with wearing lederhosen. We had some tankards of pricy but delicious weissbier, accompanied by sausages (of course), and a baguette that had been curved 180 degrees into a freestanding arch, in one of the more impressive examples of bread architecture that I've seen.
We got the train back into Sapporo, and after some slack time wandering around in a park, we headed for the entertainment district of Susukino for dinner. Sapporo is famed for its seafood, so we settled on kaitenzushi, allowing Amber to choose from the approximately 10% of the items that didn't involve any animal death. It was a good choice; the place was small and fairly quiet, not too flashy but with much nicer fish than you'd get in your average 100-yen-a-plate chain place. They didn't have that much on the conveyor at the time, so one had request things directly. Blair really got into this, enjoying the challenge of remembering the pronunciation that I whispered in his ear and then confidently shouting it to the chef. Despite some initial hiccups, he was ordering fried squid tentacles by himself by the end of the night. All told, it was probably the most fun I've ever had at a kaitenzushi joint.
Bellies full of vinegared rice, Sapporo beer and (mostly) raw seafood, it was of course time for our guests' first Japanese karaoke experience. Two hours, all you can drink, standard. As might be expected from someone who voluntarily raps in public, my little brother didn't hold back on his performance. Martha was no vocal slouch either, and had a knack of picking excellent tunes. For me, the highlight of the whole evening was Blair declaring, after a memorable performance of Lavigne's Sk8r Boi, that "We may as well just give up on 'music' now. Ever since the first caveman banged some rocks together, that's the song mankind has been aiming for."
3. Fake Christmas, December
'Twas the weekend before Christmas, but since Amber was going to be on holiday in the Philippines for the day itself, and neither of us had any prospect of experiencing any proper yuletide festivities, we decided to try to have a surrogate Christmas at hers, just the two of us. We exchanged presents, and then went for a walk (or rather, a trudge) through the snow-covered woods. It was a beautiful still day - all was calm, all was bright - and as we looked out over Amber's little village, a few flakes began to serenely fall.
Returning home, we fired up the kerosene, opened the wine, put on the Christmas tunes, and prepared dinner. Of course, there was no meat on the menu, but I have to say that Amber's fake chicken mix, despite tasting nothing like chicken (though a bit like stuffing) was actually really tasty. We even had some warm tamagozake (egg sake), a sickly yellow drink which I thought was a pretty good analog of eggnog.
You know that strangely intense sensation of satisfaction that comes with being indoors on a winter day, like you are inside a little protective sanctuary of warmth? Well, on top of that we had the pleasant feeling of having created a little bubble of home in a strange land that doesn't give a hoot (or indeed, a fig) about Christmas, where December 25th is just another day. There isn't really much more to report about this one; it was just a blissfully cosy and intimate day with the woman I love.
Sorry, with that last paragraph I was just trying to evoke the feeling of downing a whole cup of warm tamagozake.
Stick around for the exciting conclusion!