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treedaffs

Small weeping cherry tree by the car park

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weeping

Japan House

Sakura…cherry blossoms…weeping cherry trees. These signal spring in Japan, and here in Urbana, central Illinois, they are also a beautiful herald of spring.

We are very lucky here on our campus at the University of Illinois, as we have a Japan House, a cultural center run by the University to promote understanding of Japan, its culture and history. It’s a lovely traditional-style Japanese building, with a small enclosed garden to one side, complete with gurgling stream, stone lanterns and a quiet place to sit and meditate. The other side of the Japan House has a serene raked-stone garden and the whole overlooks a pond (complete with turtles and geese), encircled by a walkway, much loved by local residents.

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scene

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Start of the ‘tunnel’

A number of cherry trees are scattered around our university campus, but the most striking of them all are at the Japan House. There is one weeping cherry tree, a gorgeous tree with thickly clustered pink blossoms, right next to the building, and a couple of others near the small parking lot.

But, because of a generous donation by Dr Genshitsu Sen, we also have the Sen Cherry Tree Alee, the walkways approaching the Japan House. It was planted with cherry trees on both sides in 2008 and now the trees have grown big enough that it’s like walking through a tunnel. In Spring, we feel as though we are passing under a lacy white and delicate pink net, the blossoms on the cherry trees are so thiick. With the stone pagoda lanterns and the raked pebble garden in front of the wooden building, we can almost believe that we are in Japan.

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The plaque tells us that Dr Sen was a 15th-generation Grand Master Urasenke Tradition of Tea

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cherrylanternAs in Japan, it’s a ritual to go and view the cherry blossoms, to walk under them and be blessed if petals fall on you. Rod and I went last Sunday, as it’s close to our house and we can easily just walk there. It was a cool but sunny afternoon, and there were hundredss of others there, doing the same thing; ambling, ooh-ing and ahh-ing, taking photos, posing under the trees or amidst the drooping flower-laden branches. It’s a very special walk, and the collective feeling of happiness is palpable. Just to remind us of how wonderful Nature is, and how a walk in Nature (even in a somehwat urban environment) can really revitalize us.

(Thanks to Rod for the photos)cherrysky

Vtree

 

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Satoshi and Max enjoy the meal

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Max helps cook the meat and vegetables

Sapporo is well-known for special Ghengis Khan grilled lamb meals and the principle places are run by big beer halls. The two main ones are at Sapporo Beer Garden, which I wrote about before (https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2016/10/23/japan-a-hokkaido-special-dish/ ) and the other is at the Kirin Beer Hall. Both Sapporo and Kirin are very popular Japanese beers.

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Another marvelous meal!

On our final night in Sapporo this last trip, Satoshi booked us into the Premier Hotel. It’s in the Suskino area of town, where a lot of the nightlife is, so lots of neon lights, and really busy especially on a Saturday evening

For dinner that evening we went our for a Ghengis Khan meal again, somehow fitting, as we had Ghengis on our first evening in the city. The Kirin Beer Hall was within walking distance of the Premier Hotel, so very convenient.

Satoshi and Max took Rod and I and once again we had a lovely evening together and a

meat

The grill is set down in the center of the table

great meal. Here, the grills are set out differently: they are set down a bit in the center of the tables. But, otherwise the concept is very similar: first, put on bibs to protect clothes, then cook plenty of vegetables and pieces of thinly sliced meat on the grill, using large tongs. Wash it down with plenty of beer and/or wine.

We also had a smoked hokke fish as a snack first. Over the years, Rod and I have come to really like hokke and Satoshi wanted us to have it “one last time”. Delicious and much appreciated.

hokke

Hooke is great

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The new mountain

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General information board

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The whole area is also called a GeoPark

One of Japan’s Youngest Mountains

Most people know that Japan is a country that has many earthquakes and volcanoes—after all, it’s on the Pacific Ring of fire—and is a geologically very active, and unstable, part of the world. The whole country is on the Pacific Rim, including the northern island of Hokkaido. So, on our last visit to Hokkaido it was fascinating to visit a new mountain, to see these forces of Nature at work. We had a chance to see how that activity has worked—a new mountain that pushed up, and for all we know is still growing.

Hokkaido has had a lot of volcanic activity, and you see many conical mountains that are supposedly dormant, and not extinct. One day, our hosts Satoshi and Max took us on a day trip south from Sapporo to visit the evidence of new volcanic activity.

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Special National Monument SHOWA SHIN-ZAN

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We can walk up fairly close to the base of the new mountain

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View from one of the shopping areas and where the ropeway begins

In the south part of Hokkaido is Shikotsu-Toya National Park, which includes Showa Shinzan Special National Monument and Mount Usu, among other sights.

We went to the Showa Shinzan Special National Monument, just off Lake Toya. Lake Toya is a caldera lake created by a major volcanic eruption tens of thousands of years ago. Around the lake today is a hot spring region, with many spa facilities, and fertile soul for agriculture. There is also Showa Shinzan, sometimes called the “natural volcanic museum”. It’s a volcanic lava dome, next to Mount Usu. The story of this mountain shows that volcanic activity around here continues and it’s a hot spot for volcanic activity. And it’s a pretty amazing story.

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The mountain is still smoking

The name Showa Shinzan means Showa new (shin) mountain (zan), as it formed during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, in the Showa period. The mountain was created between December 28, 1943 and September 1945. Initially a series of strong earthquakes shook the area from December 1943-June 1944 and wheat fields were uplifted. Next came the eruption phase, which lasted between the end of June 1944 and the end of October 1944, when lava broke through the surface. Lava reached the banks of Lake Toya, burning houses and forests in its path. Volcanic ash was deposited kilometers away, and the protuberance in the ground continued to grow. In the post-eruption phase (November 1944-September 1945) eruption activity stopped and the lava dome began to take shape and the current peak was created. It is now 1,306 ft (398m) tall and still actively smoking and gently steaming, so who knows what’s coming next!

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No doubt that this is still active!

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The board is rather damaged and not clear, but you can still see one of the postmaster’s diagrams

Showa-shinzan first appeared during WW2 so the Japanese authorities were worried that it might be interpreted as an unlucky wartime omen, and therefore its existence was kept secret. Much of the information about the peak’s formation during these years comes from local postmaster, Masao Mimatsu, who kept detailed measurements of its progress. Those records are very important, with lots of geological information.

It was really interesting to see the new peak, smoking, and giving off a faint sulphur smell. The top of the new mountain is still barren: vegetation only starts growing slowly from the base. It’s a very pretty park, as there are woods below the mountain with many silver birch trees and plenty of bright green bushes. The day we were there the new mountain, reddish-orange in color, was glowing in the sunshine, so the view was like a landscape painting. Interestingly, the colors of the mountain changed a bit, depending on the vantage point and on the light, so sometimes it seemed more reddish and at others more yellowish.

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Very pretty woods

Max

Max shows us an Ezo deer at the Visitors’ Center

There is a small Visitors Center to one side, with information on the development of this whole area. We were also fascinated to learn about certain animals that are unique to Hokkaido. Ezo is the old word for Hokkaido so these animals are known as Ezo higuma (bear), Ezo lisu (squirrel) and Ezo shika (deer), for example.

Lining the carpark are many small shops selling curios, souvenirs etc.

A ropeway takes you from near the foot of Showa Shinzan to the top of Mount Usu, with great views out over the area and the lake, but we didn’t do that.

Thanks again to Satoshi and Max for being such wonderful hosts!

 

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Vineyards below mountain

Day Trip out of Sapporo to a Winery

Hakkenzan Winery, Hokkaido, Japan

On one of the days we were in Hokkaido on our last visit, our hosts Satoshi and Max took us on a really interesting day trip: to a winery. Rod had read that Hokkaido was producing some wine, so we were very interested to see how and where that was taking place. Besides being a new crop/product in Hokkaido, the vines and winery are in a lovely setting below a famous mountain. Satoshi and Max explained that Hak=8, Ken=peak, and Zan=mountain.

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Inside the winery

So, the meaning is 8-peak mountain and the winery sits below a mountain that does indeed look like that; some even say it looks like the back of a Stegosaurus. We also went through a tunnel of the same name to get there.

Hakkenzan Winery is an interesting place, unlike any other winery we’ve been to in various countries (and we’ve been to many!). The location under the peaks is very pretty, and the notion of producing wine in Japan’s northernmost island is new and fairly revolutionary.

Trial viticulture started in 2006, and the building was constructed in 2011, the same year the first vintage was produced. It’s apparently a co-op with around 120 shareholders.

It’s not a traditional-looking wine place, but then it’s not in a traditional wine growing area! The building and surrounds are a bit ramshackle and the rooms set out a bit haphazardly, and not well signed or organized inside. If we weren’t with Satoshi and Max we wouldn’t really know what was going on, but then if we weren’t with them we wouldn’t have even known about such a place.

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Us in front of winery building

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Vines labeled in Japanese and English

seibelbottleTasting is offered but isn’t well set out—just some open bottles on a table with small plastic glasses, sip-size.

But, that being said, the guy was very friendly when approached in his office to the side of the tasting area and this whole idea of wine here in Hokkaido is a relatively new venture. So, they are still in the process of learning how to do it. The terroir is totally different to, say, France or South Africa; the cultivars are different; and therefore the resulting wines are too.

The soil of the vineyard is clayey with a lot of gravel. He said that in the test field they are cultivating about 25 varieties of grapes, including Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

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kernergrapes

Kerner grapes

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Riesling vines

The rows of vines outside are neatly labeled and it was fun to see those in such an awesome setting and all with English and Japanese names. We noticed some German cultivars (such as Kerner, Seibel, and Riesling) and some hybrids, so it’s still an experiment really. The owners are searching for new cultivars that work here and therefore produce a good local wine that reflects the terroir. In the vineyard there are not many vines though and some are yielding rather meager bunches. As I said, a whole new venture. It’s a small operation, but you don’t need many vines to make some wine.

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Sauvignon blanc grapes

meagreWe tried a couple of wines: they weren’t great (not unexpected, given the climate and soil) but the Portland white had a good flavor. This is a white cultivar that grows well in the US Great Lakes region too. They working on improving things and appear to be making some profit.

When Satoshi asked, the owner did have a pamphlet in English. We discovered that one of their wines is called Kanonz. The name comes from the name of the mountain, as another name for Hakkenzan is Kannon-iwayama. Kannon is the name of one of the Japanese Bosatsu (Buddhist deities). The wine is a blend of Seibel, Merlot and Riesling.

They also sell jams, sauces, sparkling water and a few curios.redgrapesEntrance and tasting are free.

It’s about 20km SW of Sapporo city and easily drivable.

www.hakkenzanwinery.com

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Asparagus field on Hokkaido

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Plaque at rest area

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View point, but Ezo Fuji is shrouded

Hail to the Asparagus!

Hokkaido, Japan: Boyonakayama Rest Area, on Hokkaido Route 230

Satoshi and Max planned a big day trip out of Sapporo one day, making a loop around the south part of the island. We saw and did many things, such as visiting a winery; having a great soba lunch; and visiting Lake Toya to look at the new volcanic mountain, Showa Shinzan. I’ll cover those later.

On our way to Lake Toya we stopped at Boyonakayama, which has been open since 1993. This is a big rest area and shopping/souvenir place at the top of the mountain pass in Lake Shikotsu-Toya National Park in the south of Hokkaido. People stop here, as on a clear day there are good views across to the local Fuji Mountain, called “Ezo-Fuji”. “Ezo” is the old word for Hokkaido, so it means “Hokkaido’s Fuji”. Apparently this mountain does look a lot like the original Mount Fuji, but we never got to see it, as the whole area was shrouded in mist.

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Asparagus statue

Close to the large building at the summit is a statue of a young monk who came here at age 19 from Kyoto to help build roads, which must have been quite a feat in those days.

There’s also a marker explaining that this area was the first place in Hokkaido to grow asparagus, now a very popular crop. There’s also a modern sculpture of asparagus spears—honoring a popular vegetable. A lot of fun to see and to talk about.

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Almost too pretty to eat

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Tofu

Kuwana Restaurant in Sapporo, Japan

Miniature edible works of art

Another Amazing Meal in Hokkaido—-Have we ever had a mediocre meal?!

This is a very special restaurant in Sapporo, in the busy downtown Susukino area (think chain stores, neon lights, night life). We went here one evening with Dr K, Satoshi, Max and 2 students from the lab. It’s in a busy nightlife area, down a small side street with many obvious adult entertainment places, so we’d never find it on our own. I doubt many tourists come here, unless they speak and read Japanese, as nothing is in English really.

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Baby tempura

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A pork dish

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Our plates arrive with a clothes peg

So, once again, we are so lucky to have very involved hosts who want us to experience the best their city has to offer. We came by subway, on the Green line from Sapporo JR Station. This is the second stop; the first is Odori.

Kuwana is a small place on two levels: downstairs is a bar-counter, and upstairs is zashiki seating, where we sit with our feet dangling in a cut-out area below the low table. It might be small, with only 28 seats, but it’s a very nice place, quite formal with all the dishes exquisitely presented.

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How to hold the hot clam shell with the clothes peg

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Plate of clams

It is known for baked clams in particular. They use the Hamaguri, or common orient clam, a saltwater clam found in Japan. When we sat down we wondered why each person had a clothes-peg on their side plate, but soon found out. We used the peg to hold the shell of the baked clams, as the shells are extremely hot, and then picked out the clam with chopsticks. The clams were delicious, but so many other small amazing dishes appeared after the clams that I’d be really hard-pressed to pick a favorite.

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Sea grape seaweed pops in the mouth

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Tuna tomato salad

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A tuna bone is a delicacy

All were tasty, all beautifully presented—the whole meal like a work of art. One was umibudo (sea grape), a special kind of seaweed that looks like tiny green grapes, which pop in your mouth when you bite them.

Again, we are really fortunate to be taken out to places like this, and to be treated so well. This is a wonderful way of learning about a very special part of Japanese culture: its cuisine. The Japanese are very proud of their cuisine, and we are very willing learners and experimenters.

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Max, Risa and Yuki

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They even had a cheese plate

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The venue

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The menu

beersignSapporo Beer Garden and Genghis Khan Lamb Grill—For Old Times Sake

Sapporo Beer Garden, its slogan “The Beer that Made Sapporo Famous”

Genghis Khan Grilled Lamb, or Jinghis Khan Barbecued Lamb is the speciality of Hokkaido. Whatever you call it, it’s delicious.

On our first evening of our recent visit to Sapporo we went with our hosts, Satoshi and Max, to the Sapporo Beer Garden, one of the most well-known eating places in the city, and recommended by all the guidebooks and the CVB brochures. It’s also called Sapporo Bier Garten, as it is modeled on the German concept of a beer hall and the beer is based on German-style brewing techniques. We’d been there a number of times on our last visits, so this was a great place to eat and reminisce about the wonderful former dinners. We’d had fondue before (hot oil or broth), and Chinese Hot Pot (hot broth in a pot, either individual or shared), and food cooked on a hot stone. But never quite like this until we came to Hokkaido six years ago—meat on a grill surface but not touching an open flame or any liquid.

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50yearsWe went by taxi, as many people do, but there is also a direct bus from the Sapporo Station. Sapporo Beer Garden is a huge, very popular, place, in a traditional red brick building next to the Beer Museum. It was built in 1890 as a sugar factory, and then was used as a malting plant until 1963. From 1966 it became the Sapporo Beer Garden. So, this year is a special year, as they are celebrating 50 years in business.

The beer hall-restaurant in Kessel Hall is on a number of levels around an open atrium, with many tables. The speciality is Genghis Khan lamb, and each table is especially equipped with a couple of black gas grills, in a special domed shape/design. There are also other eating halls and an outdoor beer garden in the warm season.

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Kessel Hall

4beersModeled on a German beer-drinking hall, the main floor of Kessel Hall has tables and a large copper kettle dating from 1912 in the corner. There are also tables upstairs, overlooking the main hall.

Beer of 3 types (light, dark, and medium) comes in small (500ml), medium (830ml) and large (1L) glass steins—pretty good, very cold. It’s fresh draft beer, straight out of the factory. The hall has a very convivial atmosphere and it seems that most people choose the speciality, the Genghis Khan lamb. Depending on size, each table is equipped with a number of the specially designed gas grills (our table for 6 had 2 grills). The grill is ridged domed, with an outer lip along the bottom, and the handles and outer edges have a shape that Satoshi tells me look like the shape of Hokkaido.

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Satoshi rubs the surface with fat

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cooking2Here’s how you do it:

When we arrived we put on our bibs, a large plastic white one with the blue symbols of the Beer Garden: 2 lions round a star. The servers also brought large plastic bags for handbags, scarves etc, so they don’t take up the lamb cooking smell. There are two types of lamb, both thinly sliced: fresh strips, or the frozen ones, which are all circular as the meat was frozen in a cylinder shape. Many people think that the round slices look much more attractive. The slices of the two meats came on separate platters, plus a platter of raw vegetables—pumpkin slices, very coarsely shredded cabbage, onion strips, mushrooms, and huge bean sprouts.

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groupOne of the servers turned on the grills and our hosts rubbed the top point of the dome with a piece of lamb fat till it dripped down and the grill was coated. Using wooden chopsticks or metal tongs they put vegetables round the bottom edge, then slices of meat, turning and manipulating frequently. Each person got a small serving plate and a dipping bowl, which the waitress filled with dipping sauce from a metal jug on the table.

It gets very hot and steamy round the grill, with wonderful lamb aromas. Very tasty and perfect for a group. It’s quite noisy, but that’s part of the atmosphere.4sign

The menu has pictures and English sub-titles, but the wait staff don’t speak much English, so we were very happy to have guidance.

Address: Kita (N) 7, Higashi (E) 9.

Open 11:30am-10pm (last order 9:30pm), 7 days a week.

Note: they really do close at 10pm, as they warn the patrons promptly at 9:55pm, and begin playing a version of “Aulde Lang Syne”!

www.sapporo-bier-garten.jp (click on English on the top menu bar, towards the right)

chocs

You can even buy beer chocolates

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