There's always something happening around beer.
This delicious golden elixir that brings people together. A rest stop for the weary traveler to replenish. Of course, people grab a pint in a pub or restaurant all the time when they're out and about. I'm talking about a different way to enjoy some good spirits ;)
Queue flashback harp music.
Back in February of this year, I planned a trip to Hokkaido Japan to check out the winter ice and snow festivals. The displays at the festival consisted of rows and rows of meticulously detailed snow sculptures and ice castles that were adorned with a rainbow of spotlights. Walking around taking it all in and watching the light shows on these displays was definitely a feast for my eyes. BUT!! There's only so many ice sculpture shows and "Oh my God I'm gonna slip on this ice!" I could handle before wanting a change of scenery. A scenery that involves a higher mercury level and being able to feel my face. I was in Sapporo and had seen some recommendations to go to the Sapporo brewery and museum. Sounded interesting and it seemed like a good way to wind down the day.
I followed the google map directions to the location (thank God for Google-friendly Japan!!!), and wandered around. The brewery had some giant spruces decorated in white twinkle lights that had recently been capped with some freshly fallen snow. As the sun was setting the lights shining through made a really picturesque scene.
After a self-guided tour through the museum and brewery, I stopped in a pub-like cafeteria where I was able to get some long awaited beer. Being in Japan, there's a vending machine for that! I chose which beer I wanted, paid the machine, took the ticket it spat out, and handed it to the attendants behind the counter who then gave me my beers.
One thing I love about going to these types of places is that I get to try stuff that isn't available to the general market. The regular Sapporo beer is fine in itself, but there was one that was super yummy called Kaitakushi-Beer (pictured on the left). It was my favorite, but sadly not sold in stores. :(
After thawing out and warming my insides with some hoppy goodness, I went back to the place I was Couchsurfing for a good night sleep to head out to Otaru the next day.
Otaru is a nice little town that used to be a big trading harbor back in the late 1800s. Hokkaido, in general, didn't really start development, in a big way, until 1866 after the end of the Edo period and after Japan opened its trading relations with the rest of the world. Hokkaido became an important trading location and was developed as such. The most noticeable trait of this rapid development is in the architecture. Most of the buildings are in western style, reminds me of a Chicago Style-esque of architecture. And through the town is a canal, where this trading occurred, and now where the snow light path festival is celebrated.
I arrived in Otaru pretty early in the morning because I wanted to do all I could and wasn't familiar with what there was to do. I walked a bit and came upon this sake (Japanese rice wine) shop.
Bingo! Nothing like hot sake on a cold winter day. Sadly no sake was available to drink, but plenty to buy! To be fair, I did get to sample the one I bought.
I didn't realize how small Otaru was because I was hoping to pass whole day doing things until night time when the festival could really be appreciated. I was pretty satisfied with my exploration and it wasn't even twelve yet. After a quick search on my phone for places of interest, I saw there was a whiskey distillery two stops over in a town called Yoichi. Maybe 30 minutes by train.
By the time I got there I figured it would be past the socially acceptable day drinking time. That's all it took to convince me of my excursion, and off I went. The train wasn't too difficult to maneuver, but no English translations for anything were available. Luckily I speak enough Japanese to have figured it out. After boarding the train, a thought passed through my head. "Wait! Where exactly in Yoichi is this place?" I go to my phone to search once again, but much to my chagrin no cell reception. I know there's wifi at the train station and go to connect. Whilst going through all the verification popups the train departs and so does my hope of internet connection. The whole train ride I'm thinking of ways to find this place. "I'll go to the visitors center." "What if they don't have a visitors center?" "I'll ask a local!" "What if my Japanese isn't good enough?" "Surely there'll be wifi at the station, I'll just check then!" "What if there's no wifi at the station?"
This went on for the whole 30 minutes! A little anxious at this point, the train finally pulls up to Yoichi and I depart with an indecisive plan at best. The station was equivalent to a bus stop. There was no inside area, no ticket kiosk, and nobody to help. Just a cement platform with a free-standing roof. The visitors center was out of the question... Nobody else was at the station and the departing passengers consisted of just me. Nobody to ask.... And of course, no wifi... "Ah man, I'm in the middle of nowhere and have no idea where this place is!" Mini internal freakout ensues. "Guess I'll just walk around and hope I can find this place."
Luckily I was greeted by this guy. Which succeed in getting my spirits up.
I see people off in the distance and started to walk towards them. As soon as I get to the end of the train station property, I get a clearer look where the people are.
I walk closer and LO AND BEHOLD!
Guess what's right across the street from the train station?
"Eureka! I found it!" Then I proceeded to laugh at myself for a moment for all that unnecessary worrying. Then I headed inside to check out the distillery.
The founder was a guy by the name of Masataka Taketsuru. Basically, he traveled to Scotland to go to school to study chemistry because his family produced sake and he wanted to carry on the family business. In the process, he learned about distilling whiskey, met a Scottish woman named Rita, whom he married, and eventually, they moved back to Japan to establish what is now Nikka Whisky. This is the abridged version of course, but it's a really interesting story worth looking into.
The distillery is almost like a campus. It's comprised of all the buildings for production and storage of whiskey along with the personal houses for Masataka and Rita. Today, their residences have been transformed into a museum and some buildings were converted into a restaurant, gift shop, and tasting room. The tasting room was really nice. The western-style walls comprised of dark wood with dimmed lighting and an array of whiskeys to sample made for a soothing ambiance. The samples weren't free, but reasonably affordable. I was able to sample their 2015 award-winning 17-year-old Nikka Tsuru whiskey (about ¥500/$5), a 20-year-old single malt whiskey (about ¥700/$7), and one of their more unconventional flavors for about 300 to 500 yen (about $3-$5) a pop. Feeling nice and toasty, I finished touring the rest of the buildings and bought a bottle to share with my Couchsurfing host upon my return.
The sun was beginning to set and the time for the light path festival in Otaru was going to be in full swing. I made the "strenuous" walk back to the train station and returned to Otaru. After stopping for a quick bite, I headed back to the heart of the festival on the edge of the canal. The walk to the canal was bordered with a trail of snow and ice sculptures infused with candles. Glowing structures adorned every open space available from the sides of buildings to the protruding surface of a window sill. So beautiful and completely worth the wait. The whole town was a glowing amber.
Usually, I go somewhere with a plan and a list of things to do, but some things didn't work out and I just adapted. It was completely unintentional, but my Hokkaido trip turned into somewhat of an alcohol tour. Would absolutely do it again in a heartbeat! No regrets there. More importantly, though, is that it also opened my eyes towards looking up other distilleries and breweries to visit when traveling. Whether it's beer, whiskey, or another spirit of choice; thanks to this trip, I always look for a local brewery, micro-pub, winery, or distillery when I travel. And since then, I have visited some pretty awesome breweries I might not have looked at otherwise.
Thanks Hokkaido for your beautiful spirit(s)! Will definitely be back!