Hey guys! I’m back in Singapore after my Japan trip and it feels weird to have only one layer of clothes on compared to the previous Michelin man/burrito/kueh lapis (google it if you’re not local) layers that the sub-zero temperature demanded. And man, although I love my first real brush with snow, it’s good to be back! It was a shocker this morning to wake up and see green on the trees compared to the endless white of snow. There’s really no place like home.
This post is a visual-heavy one and rather long, so do bear with me–this is for the people who want to know how my trip went! I hope you like the photos though–I love photography so much and here are some of my snapshots, taken with my iPhone. I’ll talk a little about Sapporo and share a lovely spiced hot chocolate porridge recipe at the bottom as a thank-you for bearing with my rambling and excessive picture spam, so here goes.
Japan smells like hoarse cigarette smoke, umami dashi stock, and well-worn coats. The houses are squat and square, linear and sternly sharp. Everything is sharp and uniform and neat, stuck into its own little boxed space. In Sapporo, there is just about zero animal life except for the massive black ravens that perch in city and country alike, the size of a small dog with thick jet feathers. The birds have wicked onyx beaks and a loud, screaming caw that rips in a ragged screech that can go from a crying child to metal against metal.
The people in Japan are something else–customer service is kind and friendly and beyond helpful; they put up with our mouthing and wild gesticulating and guess as hard as they can to what our foreign English language can mean, and go out of their way to ensure that we’re alright, which is so very nice of them–and they do it with a smile to boot. Commuters on the other hand in the train stations walk at a brisk, fast clip, all dressed in pretty much monochromatic coats and boots, scarves tightly knotted around their necks and straight fringes and neat haircuts. Everyone in Sapporo seems to not experience the static-hair disaster I did–dry and brittle from the cold air, my hair pretty much turned into an untamable frizz-halo of static rife, knotted panic for the whole trip, yet the ladies that walked past had hair falling in smooth sheets around their chins, neatly styled, straight and calm like the surface of a pond.
As The Brother has learnt Japanese as his third language, it was quite funny to see the whole family turn to him in desperation whenever we faced a communication barrier. It was quite impressive actually to see him rattle out the sharp short syllables that roll out in a long stream of clipping Japanese with surprising ease for someone trying to interact through Japanese with proper Japanese people in Japan for the first time. Whenever a waitress or a staff looked confused at the foreigners talking in silly English we would ask him to translate, and the relief on their faces at seeing someone who had somewhat grasped their language was so cute.
The food in Sapporo is something else. I don’t know how they grow their rice but man, their paddy fields must be padded in lush plant-happy vibes because their rice is absolutely amazing. And yes, there is a difference! You could eat their rice forever. You can feel each individual grain, pearly and smooth, with just the right amount of bite and softness without going into uncooked or mushy territory, and it had a subtle sweetness and nuttiness that was simply astounding. And their noodles–I brought my family to a place specialising in 100% buckwheat soba noodles in Otaru, and that was mindblowing. The noodles were full of the kernel-dark gritty almost earthy buckwheat flavor, toasty and brown, and you could tell it was handmade by the feel of it. And yes, they had tons of cute food too–like the Hello Kitty onigiri above and the animal doughnuts before that. They even had fishcakes in the shape of faces and pandas and pigs and all matter of cutesy stuff, and they are absolutely marvelous at making food into art.
That’s another thing about Japan–there, food is an art. They have such a rich, beautiful culture and food is a huge part of it–they have fantastic locally grown produce, Sapporo is known for its dairy products like cheese and cheesecake and milk, and they have so much history in their sushi and noodles and traditional dishes. It’s so humbling to see such a beautiful country and the things the people produce from it. When walking in department stores or through streets I got used to seeing the glass display cases with the plastic miniatures of the dishes the restaurant/cafe serves in scarily realistic replication within, the red banners with Japanese hiragana that I cannot understand swaying in the bitterly cold wind, the yellow paper lanterns, the loud screaming advertisements in the windows, the unique shopfronts. We were frequently warmed with the glow of green or oolong tea when coming into a restaurant to eat after walking in the chilly winter. These were little things about Sapporo, but so important little things.
The best thing I ate in Sapporo, however, was not an elaborate plate of sushi or a bowl of steaming, umami-rich noodle broth. It was actually local produce in the form of cabbage, a wedge of kabocha pumpkin, a small disc of sweet potato and two chestnuts. The cabbage when I first tasted it–steamed over a hot grill with a fire beneath it–was so incredibly fresh and sweet. Not sugary confection sweet, but the natural beautiful sweetness of a healthy, strong plant, the sweetness of nature and Earth. I had to stop eating for a while and whilst it seems incredibly ridiculous to be so astounded by a piece of cabbage no less, it was just an incredible experience. And the kabocha pumpkin–I love pumpkin, and that small precious wedge in a stew was unbelievably creamy, melting in a smooth wave of rich pumpkin butteriness, gentle and silky and absolutely phenomenal. The sweet potato too came in only a small disc but was equally earthshaking in terms of its deliciousness–caramelly, soft, sweet. Last but not least, the chestnut was in chestnut rice–a glutinous, starchy rice–and within it two golden chestnuts were nestled like well, gold nuggets. I can’t even do the chestnut justice, that’s how good it was. Words fail me, and I’m quite a rambly person. It was creamy sunshine in your mouth.
Snow, I learned over the course of the trip, is blindingly white. Pure snow, not the melted slush grey from dirt frozen into crunchy grooves and rifts of the tyre tracks cars create. Pure snow floats from the sky lazily, tossed about in a spiral of blizzarding cold breath–delicate snowflakes, light and thin, with spidery spiked filaments. It can be a soft powder like dry, sifted icing-sugar sand beneath your feet; or it can be hard cakes of compacted snow that crumbles easily into icy chunks in your hand. It can also be round, icy hail pebbles that actually make a sound like clattering mini-mouse-marbles as they bounce off your hood. I was so amazed by snow–being snowed on, seeing it line roofs and sidewalks in voluptuous, marshmallowy slabs, walking through thick drifts of gently rounded dunes where the soft snowflakes gather and pile up gently–and it was like a whole new part of the world was opened. A twist of a key, the push of a door–and there’s something silently magical in your soul about seeing a new part of nature. I don’t quite know how to explain it myself. It’s all fine to see photos of snowy forests and hills, but to see it for yourself, to touch it, to feel, to have it surround you and see your breath hiss through your lips in plumes of white smoke is a whole other thing.
The landscape of a Japan in winter is a desolate one, of white hills furred with thin brown trees malnourished by winter, lithe hairs of naked twigs like brittle bone fanning out against the white sky. That’s another thing about winter–the sky is white. No blue, no visible clouds–just an endless expanse of white like someone soaped it with bleach with only the occasional searing hot light that symbolises the sun peering through. When we went to Niseko it was just like that–Niseko is a popular skiing area rife with hills coated with beautiful icing snow for eager skiers to plough their way through in glee. And because our family has this type of luck when it comes to holidays, while we were there Hokkaido had a snow storm so severe it had the government officials holding press conferences and meetings about it, several casualties, and us being snowed in for majority of the day for two out of the four that we were there. It was a fun experience though, and sloughing through thigh-high snow is a magical, toe-freezing experience.
And yes–we did build a snowman. We built him hastily with scarcely more than half an hour to go before leaving for a train station, and my Animal Crossing dreams were fulfilled (you can actually ROLL A SNOWBALL! WOW!). It was exhilarating and I laughed so much and I actually sweated in my burrito layers of clothing rolling the massive snowball that even me and the surprisingly strong brother couldn’t move after quite a few rolls. Snow got into my sleeves and melted into slush that burnt my skin in its freezing chill, and I tore a massive hole in my gloves, and hair got into my face, but it was so much fun. And because I’m innovative (just kidding) I got my sister to reserve the persimmon top from the persimmon she was eating so we could use it on the snowman. We discovered that snowballs aren’t actually round–they’re jagged with chunks of gritty ice, and as uneven as a rock boulder–but the Brother discovered that sanding the snowball with a handful of powdery ice made it smooth as a baby’s bottom. We learnt so much about snow whilst building that snowman, and after laboriously attaching his mouth (snow is NOT a good adhesive, y’all) and adding the finishing touch of a persimmon-top nose, I was pretty pleased as punch with our snowman. I say he’s much cuter than the Olaf fellow. We had to leave him immediately after unfortunately (which was heartbreaking as I had grown quite attached to his chilly visage), but I hope the people left him there and he’s still there standing.
One more thing–on the plane ride back, I saw beautiful clouds. They were exceptionally gorgeous and looked more like icebergs in one case and went from wispy cotton to thick marshmallow and mist and smoke. I’ve only posted two in this post but you can see some more of the many seas of clouds I saw on my tumblr here. So many layers of clouds against the first blue sky I saw in a long while, pierced through with soft yet strong shafts of sunlight–this trip summed up in a word would probably be nature. In Sapporo, I saw a bitterly beautiful side of nature, and I now feel even more inclined to take steps towards saving it and ensuring that it flourishes and grows instead of destructs in the hands of our generation.
Alright, after all that, you get your recipe! Today is the first day back and, revelling in the safety and comfort of home once more, I made something chocolaty and warm for breakfast because chocolate is the ultimate comfort. I started the day off walking to the nearby supermarket to buy bananas and it was amazing to see greenery again and to feel sunlight on my skin and the lightness of a cotton shirt instead of three layers of thick clothing and a winter coat on top to boot. And I’ve done some Christmas baking which you should hopefully see very, very soon. It has been a good day and I’ve done the best I can and I’m happy and grateful and blessed.
This spiced hot chocolate porridge makes me think of warm fireplaces in Sapporo winter and thick hot chocolate, with the warm spice of cinnamon and nutmeg and cloves. It’s truly hot chocolate in a porridge, lovely and rich, full of fluffy oats inundated with velvety chocolate darkness and the creaminess of plant based milk and the bright, warm sizzle of spice. It made me hopeful for the Christmas week ahead, and perhaps even slightly optimistic about the next week with the new year and school re-opening. It tasted like home, and comfort, and the golden light that one associates with Christmas.
spiced hot chocolate porridge
You will need (for 1 serving):
-1 cup plant based milk (replace 1/4 cup with coconut cream for extra richness)
-1/2 tsp cinnamon
-1/4 tsp nutmeg
-1/8 tsp allspice
-1 tbs coconut sugar/maple syrup
-1/2 tsp vanilla bean paste or 1 tsp vanilla extract
-1/2 cup rolled oats
-1 large banana, mashed
-1 heaped tbs cacao/cocoa/carob+2 tbs water
-1/2 tbs maca powder (I use OrganicBurst–optional, but highly recommended)
-1/2 tsp cornstarch
-1-2 squares dark chocolate of your choice and chopped
Whisk together the milk, spices, vanilla and coconut sugar to combine and heat over low heat in a small saucepan until small bubbles appear around the edges. Add the oats, mix and cook, stirring every now and then, till almost done to desired consistency and just a little too liquid for your liking.
Meanwhile, mix together the mashed banana, cacao/cocoa/carob and water, optional maca and cornstarch till homogenous. Pour that into the nearly-done oatmeal and stir to combine before cooking till desired consistency–it can be as thick as you wish. Once done, turn off heat immediately and stir in your dark chocolate, letting it melt and mix into the hot porridge. Serve warm.