Bicycle Trekking in Hokkaido, Japan – Vlog 1: Coasting into Shiraoi

In keeping with my goals for 2019, in addition to putting in time toward 500 hours of guitar practice in hopes of finally learning to play, I have just completed the second of five articles for magazine publication. The first article was a salmon-centric piece about life here in Chignik Lake. The second article was an introduction to our 65-day, 1,300 mile bicycle trek in Hokkaido, Japan last summer. While putting the article together I came across a few GoPro videos I’d nearly forgotten. One of those videos is below.

So what makes Japan’s northernmost island a nearly perfect bicycle trekking destination? Great food, clean inexpensive campgrounds, courteous motorists, abundant wildlife, rolling farmland, beautiful seascapes, terrific people, opportunities for hiking, fishing and even hot-air ballooning. The icing on the cake is bike rides like this! Leave a “like” and a comment or question. We’ll be posting additional video material from our Hokkaido Trek, so hit “follow” to make sure you don’t miss the next one!

 

 

xx

A Little Glitch & a Lotta Help: Welcome to Japan (and Murray is not your friend)

Just south of Sapporo, the beautiful city of Chitose was our entry point into Hokkaido.

Having lived in Japan both as a 7th Fleet sailor stationed in Yokosuka onboard USS Blue Ridge and as an English language teacher after that, I’m familiar with Japan – its ins and outs, the aspects of life here that make it fascinating and wonderful as well as – at times – puzzling and frustrating. In selling Barbra on the idea of doing our first bike tour in Hokkaido, I’d pretty much painted for her a picture of paradise. I described a land of exceptionally low crime, cleanliness, every modern convenience conceivable, incredibly kind people, great camping spots, and a culture different enough from our own to keep things interesting. There might even be some decent fishing, I offered. She already knew about the food – some of the best seafood, beef, pork and noodle dishes in the world. Given that Hokkaido is the least populated and least visited part of Japan, we probably wouldn’t even have to deal with the crowds that often plague other parts of the country. In fact, the only con I conceded was that Japan can be quite expensive; but even that deficit could be offset by the inexpensive (sometimes free) camping I anticipated.

However, as the trip got closer I began to have a tiny, nagging doubt. Maybe I’d oversold Japan. After all, it had been awhile since I’d lived there. In the interim, Japan had experienced a bubble economy collapse, a disastrous nuclear energy plant melt down, and the passing of time along with the challenges an ever changing world presents to all of us. And then there are the tricks our own memories play on us. What if it turned out to not be as good as I remembered it?

Anchorage to Seattle to San Francisco marked the first leg of our flight schedule, and it wasn’t until the final stop on that leg, San Francisco, that we realized we had not allowed enough time between landing at Haneda Airport, Tokyo and our connecting flight to Chitose, Hokkaido. An optimistic Japan Airlines ticketing agent in San Francisco assured us we’d make our connection – but I was fairly certain we’d made a mistake.

Upon arriving in Haneda we scurried to baggage claim where I had my first opportunity to dust off my never-was-very-good Japanese and explain our situation. Incredibly – and impressively – the baggage handler at the luggage carousel already knew about us and our bikes. He smiled and nodded in their direction as a baggage handler approached pushing a handtruck loaded with three boxes – our two bikes and our bike trailer. Almost simultaneously, our two “luggage” boxes with their brilliant orange duck tape emerged onto the carousel. Phew! Next…

A woman in a JAL uniform seemed to materialize out of thin air. While Yamamoto-San (Ms. Yamamoto) explained to us that we needed to get over to the domestic flights air terminal as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, two baggage handlers helped us load our luggage onto two smaller hand carts – which, by the way, are free in Japan. The race was on.

We followed Yamamoto-San to the baggage check-in counter where she consulted with other JAL agents, and then she made what appeared to be a “command decision” to circumvent normal baggage check-in procedures and get us and our luggage directly over to the boarding gate. With the perfectly quaffed, calm Yamamoto-San alternately leading the way and helping to load these huge boxes onto the elevator to the train shuttle platform, we were all perspiring a little. Arriving on the shuttle deck it looked like we just might make it. Yamamoto-San was on a radio, talking urgently and quickly enough that I could understand almost nothing…

…until she mentioned Murray. Murray… Murray… The word sounded so familiar and yet I couldn’t quite recall its meaning. And then, with what sounded like disappointment in her voice, she said the word again. Muri. 

Muri! As language sometimes does, the meaning suddenly came back to me. Muri means impossible. 

We were not going to make our connecting flight. Despite our assurances that we weren’t really bothered by this turn of events, Yamamoto-San seemed truly disappointed. Back at the baggage check-in counter, she offered to book us into a hotel. I explained that the glitch was really our fault for not allowing sufficient time between flights, but she insisted that, no, it was her airline’s responsibility. In all of my glowing descriptions to Barbra regarding Japan, I had probably not payed sufficient homage to the legendary customer service the Japanese people are known for. 

In the end, we declined the hotel, reasoning it would be simpler to spend the night stretched out on the comfortable seats in the waiting area, grab a cup of coffee in the morning and board a flight that would get us into Chitose at a time coinciding with check-in at our hotel. Our hotel in Chitose, by the way, did not charge us for the cancelled reservation.

Udon & Iced Coffee – our first breakfast in Japan!

And so, rather than arriving in Chitose on the night of May 29 as planned, we spent the night in Haneda Airport, sleeping relatively soundly in the seating area. The floors were so clean they gleamed. The restrooms were spotless. The coffee and bowl of udon we had for breakfast were excellent. And when we finally arrived at our modestly-priced hotel in Chitose, our room, though perhaps a bit small by American standards, was utterly immaculate, appointed with an excellent bathroom (including a nice, deep tub and more features on the toilet than either one of us is likely to ever use), a comfortable bed and truly plush bathrobes. 

Welcome to Japan.

Zaru Soba: Chilled Buckwheat Noodles with Seared Scallops and Ikura

Buckwheat soba w seared scallops & ikura_n

Chilled buckwheat noodles topped with whatever imagination and taste comes up with and served with tsuyu dipping sauce combines the terms “gourmet” with “healthful.” Recipes follow.

A favorite food memory from the days I spent in Japan is the combination of sultry summer afternoons and lunches of refreshingly chilled buckwheat noodles. The first time I was served zaru soba in a Japanese restaurant, I knew I’d begun a life-long love affair.

Soba refers to thin noodles made from buckwheat, which in Japan is mainly grown in Hokkaido. Zaru refers to a seive-like bambo tray the soba is often served on, although these days it is popular to drain the soba in a colander and to then place the noodles on a tray or dish. Often served plain or with thin strips of nori and perhaps toasted sesame seeds, the noodles are almost always served with tsuyu, dashi, mirin and sweetened soy sauce mixture. The mixture is typically refrigerated or chilled with ice, and just prior to serving wasabi and scallions can be mixed in. Chopsticks are used to gather up a portion of soba which is then dipped into the tsuyu and, at least in Japan, the noodles are eaten with loud, appreciative slurps.

Buckwheat soba w seared scallops & ikura close_n

In addition to being tasty and very simple to make, soba is an especially healthful food. Easy to digest and packed with energy, soba contains all eight essential amino acids as well as antioxidants and important nutrients such as thiamine.

Soba and tsuyu are available at Asian grocers and in the Asian sections of many grocery stores. Tsuyu can be fairly easily made from scratch, provided you have on hand the necessary kombu, katsuo (bonito) flakes, mirin and soy sauce. Cooking up a serving or two of zaru soba – or several – for lunch or a light dinner is a breeze.

Zaru Soba with Seared Scallops and Ikura (for 2 servings)

Soba Ingredients:

  1. Two serving’s worth of soba (It generally comes packages with ribbons used to tie off serving-sized bundles.)
  2. Water to boil the soba
  3. Salt

Prepare according to package instructions much as you would pasta. Drain cooked soba in a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water, using your hand or tongs to toss. Place rinsed, drained soba on plates, top with seared scallops, ikura and strips of nori and serve.

Seared Scallop Medallions

Directions:

  1. Select 4 large sea scallops. Cut them into medallions (approximately 1/8 inch (o.3 cm) thick.
  2. Dust medallions with seasonings of your choice. (We like a mixture of sesame seeds, chili pepper, powdered garlic, cinnamon and nutmeg. Commercially prepared Thai seasoning blends work very well.)
  3. In a frying pan, heat a tablespoon or two of olive oil over medium heat till a drop of water placed in the pan sizzles. Sear medallions on each side for just a few seconds. Use tongs or chopsticks to flip.
  4. Immediately remove medallions to a cool plate. Cover and refrigerate if they are to be used later.

ikura cured salmon eggs_nTo create sushi grade ikura in your own kitchen, see our article Ikura: Curing Salmon Eggs

Readers might also be interested in:

Alaskan Shrimp Harumaki with Lime-Infused Ponzu Dipping Sauce

Arctic Anpan Two Ways: Sweet Azuki and Caribou Cha Sui

Arctic Anpan 2 Ways: Azuki and Caribou Cha Sui (Sweetened Red Bean and Marinated Caribou)

Anpan with Sweet Azuki Paste_n

Delicious steamed buns filled with sweetened red bean paste were the finishing touch to an Asian-inspired meal. All that was lacking was a cold Sapporo Beer… The beer will have to wait until summer.*

Wintertime fishing, birding or just bike riding with my daughter Maia in Japan is indelibly linked with one of my happiest food memories: stopping by a local bakery and purchasing piping hot steamed buns filled with sweetened bean filling (anpan) or marinated pork (nikuman). The filling was so hot we’d have to be careful not to burn our tongues. Those steamed buns were the perfect on-the-go snack on chilly days.

Anpan ready for the steamer_n

Filled with bean paste or marinated meat and ready for the steamer…

Known as bao or baozi in China, steamed buns were on our list of items to try making this year. With Maia in Point Hope visiting over winter break from Berkeley, the anpan and nikuman Barbra created turned out just like the ones we’d enjoyed back in Japan. After devouring anpan with sweet red bean filling, we all could imagine the buns stuffed with a variety of other fillings: vegetable mixtures, curry, barbequed caribou, fruit, or even chocolate!

Anpan freshly steamed_n

Light, freshly steamed, piping hot and ready to be lifted out of our fish poacher, anpan definitely fit the category “comfort food.”  The ones we made were about the size of tangerines.

Because we rely on our Zojirushi bread machine to regulate the temperature for consistently rising dough, the following recipe has been created for the dough cycle of a bread machine. As an alternative to steaming, the dough can be given an egg wash and baked at 350 degrees F for 15 minutes. A recipe for Caribou Cha Sui follows the anpan recipe below. Click here to see a recipe for sweetened red bean filling.

Anpan

Ingredients

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tbsp extra light olive oil
  • 1  3/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1  1/2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp dry yeast
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tbsp white vinegar

Directions

  1. Place first 6 ingredients into pan of bread machine in the order recommended by the manufacturer.
  2. Set machine to dough cycle. Start.
  3. After cycle is complete, punch down dough on a lightly floured surface.
  4. Sprinkle baking powder evenly over surface of dough.
  5. Knead dough for 5 minutes.
  6. Divide dough in half. Place half of dough in a covered bowl.
  7. Cut the remaining dough into 12 equal pieces.
  8. Roll dough pieces into balls and then flatten. Make sure that edges are thinner than the center.
  9. Fill dough with 1 teaspoon of desired filling. Bring edge of circle up to pinch closed so that none of the filling is showing.
  10. Place filled dough on a small piece of waxed or parchment paper. Continue with remaining dough balls.
  11. Repeat process with dough that has been covered in the bowl.
  12. Let all filled dough balls stand covered for another 30 minutes.
  13. Steaming process could be done in a steamer basket or a wok. I have a fish poacher with a raised grate and used this to steam the buns.
  14. Bring water and 1 tbsp vinegar to a boil in steamer.
  15. Place as many buns as will fit in steamer, allowing for about an inch between buns so that they don’t stick together as they cook.
  16. Cover with lid. Steam over boiling water for 15 minutes.

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Caribou Cha Sui (Works well with venison, moose, elk, lean beef or similar meat)

The first step is to create a marinade and let the tenderized caribou absorb the flavors overnight in the refrigerator. The next day, make a filling with the marinated caribou and stuff the anpan. The filling will make enough for 6 steamed buns (nikuman). This recipe is best started a day in advance to ensure the meat is properly marinated.

Ingredients (Makes 6 nikuman)

Filling:

Ingredients

  • 1/4 lb caribou, pounded/tenderized till 1/2 inch thick or thinner
  • cha sui marinade (see below)
  • 1/4 cup finely diced onions
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1/4 cup beef stock (we use Better than Bouillon)
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • extra light olive oil

Directions:

  1. Place tenderized caribou in a glass bowl or container and completely cover with marinade.
  2. Cover glass container and place in refrigerator overnight.
  3. The following day…
    1. In a medium-sized frying pan, heat 1/2 tbsp oil over medium-high heat until a drop of water sizzles in pan.
    2. Sear caribou on each side to seal in the juices.
    3. Reduce heat to medium and cover pan. Continue cooking for 3 minutes on each side. Meat should be cooked to “medium.”
    4. Remove pan from heat and place cooked meat on a cutting board to rest a few minutes.
    5. Dice cooked caribou into 1/4 inch cubes and set aside.
    6. In a small bowl, mix cornstarch and beef stock and set aside
    7. Wipe out the pan used to cook the caribou. Heat 1/2 tbsp oil over medium heat.
    8. Add diced caribou and onion to pan. Cook for about 1 minute, stirring occasionally.
    9. Add soy sauce, honey and sesame oil to pan. Stir fry for another minute.
    10. Add cornstarch and stock mixture to pan and continue cooking until sauce thickens, about 2 minutes.
    11. Place caribou in bowl to cool prior to filling anpan rolls.
    12. See above directions for anpan to complete recipe.

Cha Sui Marinade:

Combine the following ingredients in a glass bowl:

  • 4 large cloves garlic, minced or chopped fine
  • 1/2 tsp dried ginger
  • 1 tbsp honey
  • 2 tbsp soy sauce
  • 1/4 tsp white pepper
  • 1/4 tsp dry fennel
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil
  • pinch salt

*Point Hope, like many bush villages in Alaska, is dry. Every now and again a certain meal calls for a special adult beverage. At these times we miss being able to enjoy an alcoholic beverage. Most of the time we are content to wait until summer, which we spend in the “wet” town of Seward, Alaska or traveling.

Sweet, Smooth, Delicious Azuki Bean Paste

Azuki paste and azuki beans_n

Popular in Japan, sweetened azuki beans are a key ingredient in sumptuous desserts and baked goods. (The above photo marks the debut of our new Nikon D800.)

Many years ago, I lived in San Francisco. Walking along shopping streets lined with boutiques, a waft of warm vanilla  drew me into a tiny shop with just two tables. Behind the counter was very large crepe pan and a chalkboard menu filled with tempting daily specials. I was drawn to the vanilla crepe stuffed with red bean paste and topped with green tea ice cream. The textures, sweetness and interplay of flavors made for a satisfying dessert for a die-hard sweet tooth.

Many years later, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, supplied with dried azuki beans from a speciality shop in Anchorage, I was ready to try my hand at homemade azuki bean paste. It came out perfect and was featured in anpan (Japanese-style steamed rolls) to rave reviews. We can’t wait to try this paste in our own crepes.

Azuki Bean Paste

Ingredients

  • 1 cup dried adzuki beans
  • 5 cups water
  • 1  1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • pinch salt

Directions

  1. Soak dried beans overnight. Make sure beans are generously covered in several inches of water, as the water will be absorbed.
  2. The following morning, pour beans into a colander and rinse thoroughly with cold water.
  3. Place beans in a large pot along with 5 cups of water.
  4. Bring water to a boil over high heat.
  5. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 1  1/2 hours. Beans should be soft.
  6. Put a wire strainer over a bowl.
  7. Pour beans and liquid into strainer. Strainer should be low enough that beans are partially immersed in water.
  8. Using a wooden spoon, smash beans through strainer into water. Skins should remain in the strainer.
  9. Line a bowl with cheesecloth and pour strained beans and liquid into cheesecloth.
  10. Draw up edges of cheesecloth and squeeze out excess liquid.
  11. Put squeezed out bean paste back into pot.
  12. Add sugar and salt to the beans and stir mixture over low heat. Continue stirring until mixture is glossy and has the consistency of mashed potatoes.
  13. Store in refrigerator.

See also: Arctic Anpan 2 Ways: Sweet Azuki Paste and Caribou Cha Sui

More lacquering

“Tsuribito” means “angler” in Japanese, but Adam’s blog The Complete Tsuribito delves into much more than fishing. This is a terrific idea for a greener (and more aesthetically pleasing) New Year: beautifully crafted, two-piece chopsticks to go anywhere you go. Jack & Barbra

the Compleat Tsuribito

This time culinary rather than angling: “collapsible” screw-in chopsticks.  These I bought with the screw fittings already set in the raw wood and the whole cut down to the right size; I just sanded the wood smooth, shaped the chopsticks a little and then lacquered them.  This time I used a technique called “Rubbed Urushi” which looks a little different to the kind of finish you get on bamboo fishing rods.

Most restaurants here in Japan will be happy for you to bring your own chopsticks as it saves them the expense of a pair of wooden ones, which are  thrown away after use.  If you eat out just one meal out of 21 in a week, in a year that is a saving of more than 50 pairs.  Some restaurants these days in fact try to cut down on their use of wood chopsticks and have changed to…

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi: A Philosophy of Life and Sushi

Yanagiba (sushi knife), ohashi (chopsticks) properly resting on an ivory spotted seal hashioki, and David Gelb’s documentary of world-renowned sushi chef Jiro Ono. Let the feast begin.

The shots of sushi will wow you. Segments depicting 85-year-old Jiro Ono magically transforming rice and fish into pieces of art that are at once too beautiful to be eaten and yet must be eaten will mesmerize you. The manner in which he and his 51-year-old son run Sukiayabashi Jiro, a 10-seat sushi restaurant in the underground subway system in Tokyo’s ritzy Ginza District will, perhaps, prompt you to make subtle (or not so subtle) changes in the way you run your own kitchen. At the very least, you are likely to come away from the film with a heightened appreciation of tamagoyaki – the grilled egg dish frequently served on nigiri sushi menus. Sukiabashi Jiro is the only sushi restaurant in the world to earn Michelin’s top rating – the coveted three stars. The simple definition of a three-star restaurant is this: a restaurant that by itself makes a trip to that country worthwhile.

As a self-taught chef, as a father, as a person who is seeking to perfect my own path in life, and as one who lived in Japan for nine years and came to deeply appreciate the Japanese sensibility toward life, this film profoundly moved me. Jiro Ono embodies the characteristics of the shokunin – a master craftsman or artisan who, while possessing superb technical skills in his field, is also aware of his responsibility to model an honorable life and to look out for the welfare of others. In the film, Masahiro Yamamoto, one of Japan’s leading food critics,  identifies the five attributes of a great chef. These attributes are no doubt valued by all shokunin.

1. A serious attitude toward one’s work

2. Aspiration to improve – to strive for perfection

3. Cleanliness (which includes a proper order in one’s life and work)

4. Lead rather than collaborate

5. Bring passion to one’s work, (and through that passion to discover moments of ecstasy)

I’m going to add a sixth element to Yamamoto’s list. If Jiro’s life is about striving for perfection, the question is begged, “Perfection to what end?” To what purpose are the above five attributes?

It is this: They are all aimed toward providing others with an ultimate experience. Jiro dreams of sushi, yes. But what he really dreams of is providing his customers with a perfect dining experience. That is the sixth attribute: The desire to provide others with a penultimate experience.

Some of these attributes are, perhaps, antithetical to current western thinking. Therein lies the core of the criticisms of this film. Aren’t we supposed to value collaboration? Is the emphasis on cleanliness really so important? Is Jiro truly interested in others, or is he merely a shallow, self-inflated ego with no meaningful connection to other human beings – including his wife and his two sons? Doesn’t taking one’s work too seriously lead to imbalance in life?

I think this much is fair to observe: The path Jiro Ono has chosen in life is not a path that would suit everyone. But it is a path I admire. In the director’s cut, it is mentioned that a regret is that Jiro’s wife was unable to be in the film. This seems to be owing to the health of a woman in her 80’s, not about a failed partnership. His sons are both key players in the film, and speak of their father with honor, respect and love. They have both chosen to follow in his line of work, to embrace his teaching and have become highly respected sushi chefs in their own right. In turn, Jiro speaks with pride and admiration of both of his sons. As a father, I can very much relate to Jiro’s philosophy regarding child-rearing. You spend your life teaching and guiding, and in the end you hope a good bit of it takes root. In both of Jiro’s sons, his teaching did stick, his guidance payed off, and because his sons worked for many years in his restaurant, he ultimately spent more time with them than most fathers ever spend with their children.

As to taking one’s work too seriously and carving out one’s own path rather than collaborating, I grew up in a family wherein, not just in my nuclear family but in all the uncles and aunts in my extended family, the life philosophy most frequently espoused was an admonition to not take work (or anything else) too seriously. It was a philosophy that did not work for me, and ultimately inspired an opposing philosophy.

At the age of 4o, I began the long, sometimes arduous, deeply satisfying process of remaking my life. Part of the remaking has been rooted in a newfound freedom – a self-given permission to pursue life with renewed passion, dedication and a commitment to honor and excellence.  As I move forward with this life as a sailor, chef, writer, photographer, father and husband, this film that so eloquently captures the life and spirt of a true shokunin resonates.