Glowing sunsets and sizzling noodles: Savour the evenings in Hokkaido

Glowing sunsets and sizzling noodles: Savour the evenings in Hokkaido

KUSHIRO, Hokkaido - Ah yes, this is the colour I remember. The yellow-green of the soba made and served at the Chikuroen soba restaurant on the shore of Lake Harutori in Kushiro, Hokkaido, is as beautiful as ever.

The noodles at this restaurant, founded 140 years ago in the early Meiji era (1868-1912), look quite different from ordinary soba, which is either whitish, brownish or blackish.

It's a very familiar colour to me, though, as I lived in Kushiro until the sixth grade of primary school. About 30 affiliated soba restaurants in the city also serve soba of a similar colour.

"We mix powdered chlorella [green algae] with ichibanko [flour from the core of buckwheat] when making soba. We started doing it around 1960," said restaurant owner Junji Ito. According to Ito, 40 grams of chlorella is added to a 30-kilogram mixture of buckwheat flour and wheat flour.

I wondered why they bothered to do it, as they say chlorella doesn't change the flavor of their soba.

According to Ito, there are three styles of soba restaurant that have existed since the Edo period (1603-1867) - yabu, sarashina and sunaba. Yabu-style restaurants used to make a habit of colouring their soba, mainly with mugwort but also with other materials.

After the Meiji restoration in 1868, they began using artificial pigments, but as authorities began tightening regulations on the use of artificial pigments in food in the 1960s, many yabu-style soba restaurants gave up colouring their soba.

"We thought we might be able to keep the soba's colour by using natural pigments," said Ito. As a result, the time-honoured tradition has been maintained by these soba restaurants in northern Japan, while it was surrendered in the capital. I was impressed by the depth of the food culture here.

Speaking of food culture, I should also mention the meat sauce spaghetti at Izumiya Honten, a restaurant that opened near the Nusamaibashi bridge in 1959. When the dish was brought to me, a large serving of thick spaghetti with rich sauce was sizzling on a very hot iron plate. I immediately began eating the dish even as the lavishly applied oil continued to bubble.

Soon after I began eating it, I began sweating. By the time I'd finished, dripping with sweat, I could feel the deep association between the local dish and Kushiro's severe winters.

Shino Sakuragi, a local native and winner of the Naoki Prize for popular literature, describes nostalgia for this restaurant in her novel "Loveless." I was happy to see that it still attracts as many customers as before.

After leaving the restaurant, however, I was confronted by the city's run-down central area. I had expected it, but it did make me sad.

For many years, this city boasted the largest fish hauls in the nation. It also prospered through coal mining and paper manufacturing, but it was difficult to imagine the city's glory days as I stood on its main street lined with shuttered, vacant shops.

I also went to see Zuriyama, a pile of rocks removed as waste from coal mines, which towers at the seaside. It looked lonely in the sunset twilight.

However, concerned locals are making efforts to promote the city's sunset as a tourist attraction. Dubbing it "one of the three greatest sunsets," along with those on the island of Bali and Manila Bay, people who support the project have installed cameras at various spots to post images of the setting sun online, and introduced good spots for photography.

I went to Nusamaibashi bridge around sunset and saw many people carrying cameras there.

"I wish this many people were always here. I really hope there will be each time I come here, you know?" said Michiaki Takahashi, 68, a resident nearby who has been pursuing photography for the last eight years. He grumbled but looked a bit happy.

Later that evening I went to Robata, a Japanese-style barbeque restaurant that was established a little more than 60 years ago. The restaurant, which cooks its food in front of customers, is the oldest of its kind in the city.

Its interior has the atmosphere of a banya, a traditional facility for fishermen's work and lodging near their fishing grounds. Having absorbed lampblack over the years, its darkened pillars and ceilings shine smoothly.

Restaurant employee Shizuko Nakajima, 78, was grilling a large Pacific saury, a fish also known as saury, in a square fireplace, surrounded by diners. Fat dripped from the fish onto the smoldering charcoals, causing them to flare up intermittently.

Travel tips

Kushiro Airport is about a 100-minute flight from Haneda Airport in Tokyo. The central area of Kushiro is about a 50 minutes' bus ride from the airport.

For more information, please call Kushiro city's tourism promotion office at (0154) 31-4549.

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