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Publication Date : 15-03-2013
From whizzing down the ski slopes to tasting the finest Japanese whiskey, Hokkaido is perfect for a winter holiday
Every day in Sapporo is a white day in winter with the snow lying thick and deep on the ground. Wake up and you have two choices - cold or hot - for how to spend your day. The cold decision takes you skiing or snowboarding while the hot involves stripping off and soaking in a steaming bath and trying to improve your Japanese language skills in the onsen.
I'm sore from skiing and I hate onsen. Uncomfortable and hot, I always end up looking like a live shrimp in a hotpot. I opt for a third option and hit the road to experience life in the midst of snow.
Rounding up a few travel mates, we leave our "cavern", the Green Leaf Niseko Village hotel in the south of Hokkaido Island and head north to the port city of Otaru. We'll be stopping along the road with fate introducing us to a bartender who looks stiffer than the single malt he pours, a sushi master who, like a Japanese ninja, "jumps" out of the wall and generous chocolatiers who beckon visitors by offering sinful bites of confectionery.
Think of the map of Japan as a snake, stretching North to South along the Sea of Japan and you get an idea where are we. Kyushu with Fukuoka and southern islands make up the hairy tail of the snake while Honshu with Tokyo form its body. We're on the snake's head in the northernmost part of Japan.
Hokkaido, with its rolling fields, mountains and national parks, resembles the Swiss Alps and is probably as famous among Asians for its ski resorts. Before Thai Airways International introduced a direct flight, it took an age and plenty of money to reach Hokkaido via Tokyo. Now it takes just seven hours to Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital city and a white winter wonderland.
Besides the ski resorts, Hokkaido is also worth visiting for its historical heritage, museums, historical townships, cuisine and malt culture.
Like many visitors, my alcohol intake on this trip has so far been limited to Sapporo beer. I have no idea that the northern island also contributes the finest whiskey to the spirit world until we pull in at Nikka Whisky Distilling in the small, coastal town of Yoichi.
Founded in 1934, Nikka Whisky Distilling produces fine single-malt whiskies and in 2008, its Nikka Yoichi 20 Year Old was voted the best single malt at the World Whisky Awards. That's all down to Masataka Taketsuru, who in 1918 travelled to Scotland to master whiskey distilling and returned to Japan with Jessie, his Scottish wife to set up his own distillery in Yoichi.
Part whisky museum and part tasting shop, we brave the falling snow to salute Masataka's spirit. The distillery is made up of European-styled chalets where visitors learn the history of Nikka Whisky through a video presentation. I quickly retire along with fellow traveller Mark, a Welshman, to the bar.
"There are so many of them. How do we know what we're going to taste or toss?" Mark asks, looking at the array of single malts.
"Sniff those samples," I suggest, directing him to the row of whiskey shots on the counter.
Mark shouldn't have listened to me. Two young Japanese, obviously serious whisky enthusiasts busy checking the whisky colours in a vertical testing, look shocked when Mark lifts up their shot and sniffs. A stiff-looking bartender lifts his hand, giving Mark a stern look.
"You can't," says the bartender. We look at the Japanese whisky buffs and offer an apologetic look for our mistake.
"You're lucky that Mark was a bit slow," I tell them. "I would have downed that shot before the bartender jumped in."
We finally manage to get our own whiskey - Nikka Yoichi 20 years old. With earthy smoke, hints of dried mushrooms and soft spices and 52 per cent alcohol, it can melt the snow and harden your liver. We ask for one more shot and regretfully take our leave.
A small harbour city about half an hour northwest of Sapporo by train, Otaru features a beautifully preserved canal area and interesting herring mansions.
From the early days of Hokkaido’s colonisation in the late 1800s, Otaru served as a major trade and fishing port and old warehouses and the former office buildings of shipping and trade companies give the city centre a character reminiscent of past decades. Today, the port town draws tourists for shopping, dining and walking along the historical canal. After the whiskey, eating is a priority.
"Otaru is famous for sushi," says Noriko Sakaki, a Japanese friend, leading the way to a small sushi restaurant. "People come from all over Japan for Otaru sushi."
We order sushi with different toppings - otoro, salmon, hamachi saikyo, gunkan and more - and jump out of our skins as a blind panel in our private dining room slides sideways, revealing the chef and his sushi set on the other side.
"Wow. Ninja chef!" Mark exclaims.
The sushi is fresh and original and for once my stomach doesn't complain about the onslaught of raw fish.
But Otaru has more than sushi to share with visitors. Chocolate maniacs can sample confectionery at the chocolatiers while shoppers will be in seventh heaven browsing among the fine glassware, music boxes, art and woodwork for which the town is famous.
The port town is also well known for its beer, and Otaru Beer, next to the canal, is a popular restaurant with a medieval theme.
From fresh sushi through stiff single malt whisky to malty Otaru beer, Hokkaido certainly has plenty to keep the visitor warm.
If you go
The winter in Hokkaido will last until early May in some places. Travel around Hokkaido is comfortable thanks to excellent rail links.