A Visit to the Land of a Million Shokunins

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Soba Master, Tatsuru Rai, preparing the noodles before the guests. 

I was in Hokkaido recently. This is our first visit to Japan to celebrate our 25th Wedding Anniversary.

There is much I can say about lovely Hokkaido but this being a cooking/food blog, I will reflect from this angle.

There is an abundance of Japanese restaurants in Singapore today. We should be familiar with the factors that make Japanese cuisine unique: obsession with details, emphasis on "eating with your eyes", technical discipline in food preparation etc.

But a chief factor that makes their cuisine unique is specialization. Small eateries sells one thing and do it really well. It is akin to our hawker stalls. Individuals have dedicated their entire lives to grilling yakitori sticks, preparing their ramen broths, cooking and fanning their vinegared rice and perfecting their tamago. One should add that this can also be found in other cuisines. But in Japan, it is widespread.

The concept of shokunin, involving artisanal microdisciplines with a singular devotion to perfectionism is pervasive not just in their cuisine, but every area of life. Like me, you would have watched the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, featuring Japan's most famous shokinin, Jiro Ono.

Tashio Odate explained in his book on wood craftsmanship:

"The shokunin has a social obligation to work his/her best for the general welfare of the people. This obligation is both spiritual and material, in that no matter what it is, the shokunin's responsibility is to fulfil this requirement."

A land of a million shokunins - this was what we came to Japan to experience. 

Apart from being in a place where thousands of shokunins are competing and influencing each other, the produce from Japan is another reason why her food is best enjoyed there.

Hokkaido has extensive areas for farming and producing dairy products like milk, cream and butter. Their white onions and brinjal are sweet and flavourful. The white corn are sweet and creamy. The tomatoes are flavourful and sweet. The fish from their cold waters are fresher. The experience of eating in Japan is always a few notches better than doing it elsewhere.

Cherry tomato picking during a farm visit
White Corn and Green pepper from Hokkaido
I will share some of our memorable dining experiences during this trip.

Yakitori is best when cooked in a charcoal grill and you will find many joints which do this very well. It is a late night dinner thing and expect a lot of smoke: both from the charcoal grill and the chatty diners. It is not the kind of place for a quiet and smoke-free evening meal. While yakitori means "grilled chicken", a lot more is offered at this joints.

Torimatsu is a family-owned restaurant with the owner, Akihiro Matsuo, working the grill while his wife and children serve the guests. This place was recommended by our brother-in-law. When we stepped in, we realise that many famous diners have eaten here, such as the late Anthony Bourdain. This is one joint where you will definitely need to book beforehand. 

The Yakitori master at work
In Singapore, our fast-food Yakitori joints like Tori-Q come with sticks of meat glazed with a thick teriyaki sauce. At Torimatsu, you will find hardly any sauce as the sweetness and smokiness of the  meats should not be masked. The pork was succulent and the chicken wings were perfectly grilled.  Like a good yakitori joint, it seems like he was putting every part of the chicken on stick. Jennifer wasn't keen on anything else other than meat but I imagine these will be superb too. 

The brinjal, grilled, skinned and then garnished with dancing bonito flakes was outstanding. It's luscious texture and sweet flavour can be attributed to the marriage of good produce and cooking technique. Without doubt, the vegetables sticks really stood out for us, showcasing again the quality of produce in Hokkaido. The flying squid, common in Japan waters was gelatinous with a toothy bite. Sounding cliche, but I have never stated squid this good. 

Perfectly grilled, lightly salted and spiced
Possibly the best eggplant we have ever tasted
Possibly, the best squid we have ever...
We also visited other Yakitori joints during our trip and they were delicious too. It does look like a joint using a charcoal grill and serving Hokkaido produce will churn out sticks which will make you happy. You may wonder why they don't do Yakitori like that here. Firstly, NEA need to relax rules about charcoal grills (I should add, they should just be more relax!). Secondly, you must be prepared to pay more for the use of better produce. 

A visit to Japan is not complete without an Omakase experience. It is generally better and cheaper compared to Omakase meals in SG. 

Rakuichi Soba at Niseko Village cames with strong recommendation and the booking for the Omakase Dinner was made months before we arrived. While you can eat these dishes in various eateries, it is the combined experience of a well-served course by course meal which makes an Omakase experience different. A lot of attention was paid to the friendly and warm service, with cutlery changes for each course.

Helmed by Tatsuru Rai (lead photo) and his lovely wife, Midori, the place is a small twelve-seater bar where you can watch Tatsuru prepare every strand of soba noodle from water and grain. It was a joy watching Rakuichi work, as he kneaded the buckwheat flour and turned it from a floury mess to uniformly sliced soba noodles.

Then service was warm and friendly and while Midori may be busy setting the table for every course, she would happily obliged some conversations. It was a memorable meal as we celebrated our 25th Wedding Anniversary. We are grateful to God for this opportunity to enjoy such a special evening.

The menu
Smoked Scallop
Attention to details at Rakuichi Soba
Soba is best eaten cold so that the texture is not lost in a bowl of hot dashi

With the nearby fame of Rakuichi Soba, we were not surprised to discover another wonderful Soba joint at Ichimura Soba. The duck soup and the al dente cold soba noodles were delicious and inexpensive. We also love the setting of the restaurant. 

You can hardly come across a bad bowl of ramen in Japan.
The ubiquitous Ramen is good almost anywhere in Japan. This is at least what I have been told. Ramen garnish with potato cream is a specialty at Niseko/Kutchan-cho area.

I should make special mention of Ramen Shodai at Utaru, which locals frequent. We were driving by Otaru and wanted to go find something less touristy. We used google to get there of course. Their version of Char Shu Ramen was excellent. The Char Su was beautifully marbled and the broth was light.

My wife is not enamoured by fresh seafood and so, an occasional Ramen break was good for her.

Ramen Shodai at Otaru 
Chinese-influenced Char Su Ramen at Ramen Shodai, Otaru 
Soy Ramen at Ramen Shodai with the usual pork and pickled bamboo
Seafood Donburi: Apparently some of the best seafood comes from Hokkaido.
I should add that while I was in Kitchen Cho, I popped into a sushi bar hole randomly and was rewarded with a very fresh seafood rice bowl. Unfortunately, I forgot to note down the name of this hole in the wall. A good sushi bar should be a common experience almost anywhere in Japan. 

To visit these eateries, you can easily google or find them at Trip Advisor. 

Yakitori Torimatsu:〒044-0053 Hokkaido, Abuta District, Kutchan, 北3条西1丁目4−3
Rakuichi Soba: 〒048-1511 Hokkaido, Abuta District, Niseko, 字ニセコ431
Teuchi-Soba Ichimura:68-4 Yamada, Kutchan, Abuta District, Hokkaido 044-0081, Japan
Ramen Shodai: 14-8 住吉町 Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0015, Japan

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