To cap off my visit to Japan, I visited Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido and Nagano, host of the 1998 Winter Olympics, in October.
My blood had thinned after more than four months in Southeast Asia, so I was freezing in the 50-degree weather in Sapporo. Armed with a new sweater from Uniqlo, I visited Odori Park, which had views of the Sapporo TV Tower.
A TV crew was requesting interviews from passersby in the park, but I had to decline since I didn’t speak Japanese. I guess I missed out on my 15 minutes of fame.
I visited the Sapporo Beer Museum, which normally offers tastings. Unfortunately, the tasting room was closed when I visited, and I couldn’t figure out why. I still enjoyed my visit since I learned about the history of beer making in Japan and Sapporo’s founding.
Because I’m a huge dork, I walked around Hokkaido University’s campus and admired the fall foliage. Seeing students on their way to classes made me so homesick for Cornell.
I also visited Moerenuma Park, which was about a 25-minute bus ride from the center of Sapporo. A landfill occupied the space until it was reconstructed as a park in the early 2000s. I rented a cute little bike to get around the park.
The park had a pyramid theme, which was evident from the peak of one of the hills.
Even though it was cold and rainy, I took my time biking around the park.
The park had a glass pyramid, which provided a respite from the drizzle.
Sapporo is famous for its ramen, which was perfect for me as a noodle enthusiast. Yoshiyama Shouten, tucked away on the tenth floor of the Esta shopping mall, was my first stop for ramen in Sapporo. A bowl of spicy miso ramen was just what I needed after being out in the cold. The broth wasn’t overly salty, and I was a big fan of the wavy noodles.
On the advice of fellow travelers, I visited Ramen Shingen for another bowl of spicy miso ramen. While there’s often a line to get in, I was seated immediately when I arrived at around 3:30 PM. At first, I was intimidated by the size of the bowl, which was larger than my head…and I have a big head. The bowl largely consisted of broth though, so I had no problem finishing the noodles.
Sapporo is also known for its dairy products. Kinotoya Bake has a couple of locations in Sapporo, including one at the JR Rail station. I was starving when I ordered a cheese tart and hustled to a bench to wolf it down. It was love at first bite.
The tart was cold, but it was still so good. The fluffy filling had a detectable cheesy tang; there was no doubt the tart contained real cheese. The crust was crispy and buttery. After devouring my tart, I immediately wanted another one. I can only imagine how heavenly a tart straight out of the oven must taste.
A couple of hours later, I returned to Kinotoya for another cheese tart and a milk soft serve. Holy jeez, this soft serve was phenomenal.
The ice cream was velvety smooth and not overly sweet. Although the soft serve was supposed to be milk-flavored, it tasted more like custard. It wasn’t too eggy though, and it was unbelievably creamy. The Kinotoya soft serve alone made my trip to Sapporo worthwhile. I’d fly back to Sapporo just for this ice cream. I’m not kidding.
I’m a figure skating nerd and watch competitions on TV and YouTube. I started skating in 1996 when I was eight, and the 1998 Olympics in Nagano were the first Winter Games I remember watching. Tara Lipinski capturing the gold in ladies’ (ahem, women’s) figure skating was a defining moment in my youth. (I later became a loyal Michelle Kwan fan, but that’s a subject for another time.)
Olympics nostalgia was a big reason why I decided to go to Nagano. I was happy to see a family of Olympic fans gathered around a commemorative monument near the city center, and I didn’t feel quite as dorky taking a photo.
In addition to soaking up Olympic vibes, I visited Togakushi, a group of three shrines about an hour from the center of Nagano. It was overcast and drizzling on the day I visited, but the beautiful scenery made me forget about the bad weather. Fall foliage was nearing its peak.
Bears live in the forest around Togakushi, so some visitors wear bells to ward them off. I didn’t have a bell, so I stuck to a tuneless whistle as I walked through the forest.
Cedars flanked the path to the upper shrine.
Kagami-ike, or “Mirror Pond,” was about a 20-minute walk from the shrines. Clouds blocked the views of the surrounding mountains, but the water was still enough to see the mirror effect in the pond.
I spent so much time walking through the forest that I almost missed lunch. Togakushi is well known for its soba, which is one of my favorite dishes. I literally sprinted to Uzuraya to get there before closing – this was the only time I ran during my travels. I don’t joke around when it comes to soba.
Even though I was a sweaty, wet mess, I was welcomed into the restaurant. I arrived just half an hour before closing, but a staff member told me I could take my time. I ordered cold soba with tempura and was given fresh wasabi to grate.
Everything, from the noodles to the apple juice to the soba tea, was lovely. The wonderful staff made my visit even more special. I was so thankful to have made it to Uzuraya.
My visit to Nagano was short but charming. It was a pleasure to relive some of my figure skating glory days and see marvelous fall scenery.