The Obihiro “Butadon”

Obihiro butadon close-up

If you live in New York, London, Paris, Chipping Sodbury or countless other places scattered over the earth’s surface then Obihiro is probably at best, a place, in a country. If you live in Japan it’s a place, up north and if you live in Hokkaido then it’s normally, but not always, a place, out east with slow horses and great fireworks. You’d be about right as well. There’re no real landmarks of renown either man made or natural. In tourism terms it is overshadowed by the more photogenic Tokachi plain and Daisetsusan national park. The nearest ski resort worthy of the name is Sahoro and that’s a bit, well, we’ll save that for another time. But there are some great little bits to the city, many of them culinary. There’re a few streets that have these tiny one room restaurants which are always packed but look fantastic from the cheap seats. There’s fresh produce a plenty owing to the almost embarrassingly fertile and productive farmland in the area. But, if there’s one food which is synonymous with Obihiro it would have to be 豚丼 – butadon.

For those who don’t know, butadon is Obihiro’s fish and chips, pies and mash, poutine and beer, coffee and doughnuts. It’s a bowl of rice with some sliced pork which was cooked in a sauce of varying degrees of sweetness layered very neatly over the top. Sounds simple you say; it is, all great things are, well fire and the wheel were. So, I have made it my mission to A: pretend I know loads about food, B: pretend I know where all the best butadon places in the city are and C: eat loads of it in some odd, half arsed homage to that film that bloke made about eating McDonalds every day. Here we go.

#1 Kakashi

obihiro butadon "Kakashi" obihiro butadon "Kakashi"

The first restaurant I visited was a small place called かかし (Kakashi). The restaurant is in the main entertainment district at Nishi 2 Jo Minami, 10 Chome-20-7. It is run by a group of very sweet ladies and as such you could carry out an impromptu Mary Poppins style dust check in any nook, cranny or crevice and the silk glove would come back even whiter than when it went a searching. This place is clean. Being run by a group of women of a slightly advanced age means that certain items are guaranteed. Plastic floral arrangements, odd bits of paraphernalia which no-one seems to know about and chopstick holders with little messages welcoming you to the shop on them are all to be found in tasteful scarcity. I’m just saying, you don’t get these things at a truckers’ café, so, onto the butadon.

I opted for the meal set which came with yellow daikon (big radish) and tonjiru (pork soup) soup. The sauce had a very heavy caramelised onion flavour to it and the meat was well done, nice and tender. The sauce gladly wasn’t too heavy on the salt. The rice was all light and fluffy and it went down rather well. The tonjiru on its own would have been fantastic enough, so get the set.

#2 Nameless

nameless butadon place in Obihiro nameless butadon place in Obihiro

I went to the second place on a cold Friday afternoon for a late lunch. It didn’t seem to have a name, just loads of signs for butadon and ramen (noodle soup) outside. It is just down the road from the station with the alluring address of Nishi 2 Jominami, 10 Chome-20. This place can be described in one word: bloke! Manly, masculine or any other some such gender specific word wouldn’t even come close. This place, by Japanese standards goes beyond such petty descriptions. It has got bloke pouring out of its sweaty little pores. It’s as close as I’ve been to a greasy spoon in Japan.
First thing first, the pub is next door. Next thing next, even though it was quiet when I went all the ashtrays managed to have been used. There were bags of food on the bar, the chap that owns it didn’t seem best pleased about having to serve someone. All in all it’s a bit raggedy. None of these things are criticisms I’m a huge fan of spit and sawdust. The price is decent, with the rice bowl and some stock which is classed as soup for 800 yen. It’s quick too, worryingly quick. I walked in, ordered, jotted down some initial observations and bam! bowl of rice and some pig on my table. It doesn’t do fancy crockery and frilly bits neither.

Taste wise, well, the stock tastes like stock with a bit of leek chopped in it, so that’s fine. The main attraction isn’t great though. The sauce tastes of bottle, the colour of the bottle I can’t be sure of but it definitely had that processed flavour about it. The meat was very fatty and not in a good way it also had ominous shades of pink in it. The rice tasted like the stuff that comes out of my rice cooker when I can’t be bothered to wash it first, which is frequently. So all in all, apart from the price and the pub being next door it didn’t have a lot going for it, but that could just be me being a snob.

#3 Butaichi

Obihoro butadon "Butaichi" Obihoro butadon "Butaichi"

The next place on the list was called ぶたいち (Butaichi). It’s out on route 151 on the same side and just after Bikkuri Donkey as you are going out of town. It has got a yellowy franchise feel to it from the outside. This was confirmed when I went in to be faced with one of those ticket machines which dispense your lunch voucher. I panicked and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The choice was too much. My kanji (Chinese character) brain, which isn’t great at the best of times collapsed and I just pressed the first thing I saw with the butadon kanji on it. It was all a bit of a farce, there were coins falling out of my wallet and being chased around by the young lady who stood next to the machine, ready to pointlessly take my ticket and shout its contents to the man who was behind the counter. If I had taken a bit of time I might have found some unique dish special to the restaurant but as it was I ended up with the standard set of butadon, soup and pickled yellow things. If you are a better human than me, stand at the machine and take a moment, I’m sure there’ll be something for you. Anyway, all the things at the seating counter have sticky labels on them, like when you were at primary school so you know what to do with what. There are a few piccys hanging up but apart from that it’s all Nitori (Japanese Ikea) dining sets and sanitisation. It feels new, even smells a bit new, like it needs a group of drunken people in there to dirty it up a little. There is also an eerie sense of Germanic efficiency. I get ticket, give girl ticket, girl shouts ticket contents, man shouts order, chef makes order, chef gives to man, man gives to girl, girl gives to me, no jokes, no slip ups just smooth as like start to finish. Price and size are decent. The machine starts at about 700 yen and ends up somewhere around the 1,500 yen mark for something with all the trimmings.

The rice was good and tasted like it had been cooked over a flame as opposed to coming from a cooker, which I sincerely approve of. The meat was well cooked, no blood this time. The sauce had a nice peppery taste but again was overwhelmed slightly by the salty taste of packet. I got caught taking notes by the man that runs it and couldn’t even use the idiot foreigner excuse as he spoke perfect English, I panicked again, gochisosamadeshita’d and ran away. All things considered, it was rather good (gochisosamadeshita is something said after a delicious meal).

#4 Men

Obihiro butadon restaurant "Men"

The penultimate stop on this culinary tour was at a restaurant called めん (men). It’s on route 38 which is the main thoroughfare for Obihiro, on junction 22 west. It’s on the left as you are going out of town and make sure you are going out of town if you decide to stop there as if you are coming into town it’s a misery to get to.
First impression, well, my first impression was that it smelled of cats. If you like cats and/or are an old widow who knits of an afternoon then it’s a good thing, otherwise not so much. This cat theme was cemented by the heavy presence of feline paintings decorating the walls. It’s got a touch of the 80’s about it as well. There was an oval breakfast bar style counter encircling the kitchen. It is apparently just for decoration though as my friend and I went to sit there and we were very quickly ushered away to an apparently more appropriate location. It’s quite tough to describe as a place. It feels as if it may have been designed and upholstered over a period spanning generations, much like a cathedral or catacombs. There is an old school family restaurant at the back, the aforementioned breakfast bar in the middle and present day consideration given over to stuff to keep the kids amused with a little toddlers play area at the far end.

Obihiro restaurant "Men" Obihiro restaurant "Men"

Food was ordered at a respectable 820 yen and came with the addition of a little bowl of salad containing a slightly suspicious looking dressing. The meat was fine. The sauce had clearly been made in house as you could taste a lot of fresh herbs in it but it is possible that the chef’s mate jogged the chef’s elbow when pouring in the soy sauce as it was quite strong in that department. Rice was light and the soup, of the miso variety whilst not being standout was good enough for an accompanying side dish. The menu has all sorts of fun little combos. You can have a mini butadon with ramen or a mini ramen with butadon or a mini this and large that with a midi other. But my lingering memory of the place is mainly just cats.

#5 Matsunaga

Obihiro butadon and Ramen "Matsunaga"

And so, to the last place on my odyssey of pork in a bowl. This restaurant is to the east of Odori at south 15 – east 6 which is normally a no go area for me. It’s a bit like living in London and not crossing the river. Anyway, there is a large shopping complex nearby, ignore that and on the same side of the road just past it there’s a small shop called まつなが (Matsunaga).
From the outside it looks like a right old fashioned affair so I conjured up images of tatamis and low tables before entering. Turns out this café was stolen from some place in Devon that normally sells cream teas to family holiday groups. It has even got floral patterned plastic table cloths in case the kids spill their fizzy pop. It is clearly a family run place as mum seems to be doing the cooking whilst the now adult children run the place. It looks like they don’t get out much though as all the framed pictures hanging off the walls are of menu items.

I ordered the standard set of soup, and yellow bits for 800 yen. In truth I wasn’t expecting too much; shows what I know. It leaves all the others apart from Kakashi in its tasty wake. The butadon comes in something ceramic and substantial which is a good start. Secondly there is attention to detail, the pork is presented as a very ornate and meaty spiral staircase, think lady gaga does interior design. Finally, whilst the meat is cooked, very decently too I might add in your standard butadon sauce there is a little side pot of the sauce so you can flavour your meal to taste, it’s the little touches isn’t it. To my eternal shame I took a picture of the outside to be greeted by a dead battery notification straight after and so was not able to record just how pretty the butadon was. Go there, but be careful not to go into the large chain one which is about two doors down in the shopping centre.

And so, there we have it, five places to get you started should you ever wish to dine solely on butadon for a few days. In truth there are a whole plethora of butadon restaurants in Obihiro. I have no idea if the ones I picked were already famous, already infamous or on some health and safety watchdog list. They were just the places that I went to, all have their qualities and their drawbacks which is as far as I can make out is half the charm of going to small unknown entities. Bon appetit.

Sapporo’s Beermuda Triangle

Image of beer bottles

The site of Japan’s first national brewery and the country’s most popular export brew, Sapporo is synonymous with beer, all of which you can read about here. Partnered as a sister city to Munich, Sapporo hosts an annual beer garden where revelers down hundreds of thousands of liters of light pilsner style lagers. In onsen lobbies, convenience stores and practically any restaurant menu in town, you will undoubtedly be offered the option of having a beer.

Being a beer lover’s city, there are several bars worth knowing that are specialists in purveying the good stuff. I’m talking about proper brown and red ales, pitch-black stouts and porters, and hop heavy IPAs strong enough to have you buzzing by the bottom of your pint. Looking at a map you can find they make an easy to follow inverted isosceles triangle, what I like to call Sapporo’s Beermuda Triangle.

First and foremost is North Island Beer, a local craft beer restaurant a few minutes walk east of the Odori TV Tower. Brewed in the nearby city of Ebetsu, a selection of 5-7 freshly made beers is available on tap, with a guest brew often featured as well. The menu is simple but well-executed pub fare. Swing by for a pint and a bite and talk to the guys who actually make the beer. Tis the time for seasonal beers and here’s hoping their absolutely delicious cinnamon ale is available this year, too.

Head southwest on foot from here and within 10 minutes you’ll spot Higurashi, the second point of the craft/ foreign beer polygon. Upstairs you’ll find a cozy, wooden-floored bar to imbibe a variety of domestic and import brews. Depending on where you are in your evening, it’s easy enough to have one and go, or kick back and become a fixture for the night. The staff are friendly and happy to talk beer, or whatever discourse that flows from your now lubricated mind.

Assuming you’re game for another, it’s time to find Tanuki Koji (狸小路) and continue west to block seven where you’ll find Kalahana, the third point of the Beermuda Triangle. Cram inside and try to find a seat, or stand around the bar and choose from their extensive tap and bottle selection. The atmosphere is perpetually jolly here, and you’ll find it very easy to stay until closing. Outdoor seating is available when the temps permit, but it’s more fun to be chummy inside.

Craft beer is an ever-growing phenomenon in Japan. Unfortunately, for younger enthusiasts the prices tend to be prohibitive as many feel 1,000 yen is better spent on a cheap nomihoudai than a single bottle of import beer. Still, there comes a time when yellow beer won’t cut it. In such a case, head to any one of these fine establishments and find what you need. Just don’t become a casualty! Disorientation, bewilderment and bankruptcy aren’t unheard of in the triangle.

Establishments mentioned in this article:

North Island Beer
Motomachi 11-5, Ebetsu-shi, Hokkaido (Google map)

Shako Kaikan 3F, Minami 5 Jō, Nishi 2 Chome, Chūō-ku, Sapporo-shi (Google map)

Minami 2 Jo, Nishi 7 Chome, Chūō-ku, Sapporo-shi (Google map)

The Many Tables of Woodpiece

Meer Lounge in Sapporo

Spend any significant amount of time in Sapporo and it is probable that you will come upon, or more likely be taken to, a Woodpiece restaurant. What does this mean? Well, in this writer’s experience, it means you’re in for a good time. Woodpiece is the culinary brand of North Graphic, a Sapporo-based production company also invested in web design, auto-sales, and clothing. All North Graphic products have a signature hipness to them, which is most readily apparent in their restaurants.

For nearly a decade “Meer Lounge” has been a cozy, intimate space for innumerable dates, parties and late night revelry. As with all Woodpiece stores, the dishes are tasty and reasonably priced, with Lowenbrau on tap and available in a dangerously cheap all-you-can-drink (nomihoudai/ 飲み放題) course.

Following the victory with Meer Lounge, Woodpiece created “World Japanese Foodin EN” and “VALS” next, each distinct yet clearly products of the same recipe. The former features world foods with a Japanese interpretation, while the latter delivers western favorites like pasta and fish and chips with customary attention to detail. Both are lively spaces, chock full of modish guys and girls pretty much any night of the week.

With the confirmation that it was on to something, Woodpiece shifted into overdrive, delivering three more shops in rapid succession. “Peace” occupies prime Susukino real state right on the main east-west strip of Route 36. Small and rustic, its décor and menu of smoked dishes are evocative of the Wild West. “Lu Ran” brings us back east with a range of contemporary Chinese dishes. Reserve the 3rd floor VIP room for parties and enjoy having a private bar and bathroom at your disposal. “Barenwald” is Woodpiece’s German beer hall and they do a fine job of creating an authentic ambiance with heavy wooden furniture, long bars and impressive selection of taps. Beer is the focus here, with over thirty labels available between tap and bottle. Smoky and loud, it’s the closest you’ll get to Munich without having to board a jet.

Newest to the Woodpiece family is “FAM”, a yakiniku (grilled meat) joint guaranteed to be a hit. With three restaurants under that name up and running, it’s not a stretch to say it already is. Not just for carnivores, FAM’s menu caters to veggie and fish lovers without compromising flavor for variety.

Woodpiece’s consecutive triumphs can be attributed to a simple company ethos: make a cool place for cool people to eat cool (scrumptious) food. Boom! You’ve got yourself a success story. All of the restaurants named are in walking distance of one another, within the glowing downtown jewel that is Susukino. Swing into any one of them for a meal and leave satisfied, with plenty of money left over for your next destination.

Restaurants mentioned in this article:

Meer Lounge
Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 2, Sato Building B1 (Google map)

World Japanese Foodin EN
Chuo Ward, Minami 2, Nishi 6, Toi Building 1F (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 4, Tsubokawa Building 2F (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 4, Nishi 1-4-2 (Google map)

Lu Ran
Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 6 (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 1, Nishi 9, Hokkai Building 1F (Google map)

Chuo Ward, Minami 3, Nishi 2 (Google map)

Photo Source:

Sapporo “Ice Cream Bars”

Milk Mura (Sapporo Ice Cream Bar)

“Ice Cream Bars” – a slightly different approach to enjoying the nightlife of Sapporo.
Japan is home to many coffee shops or cafes that open till late hours of the night, however bars that offer ice cream and dessert along with alcoholic beverages may be something new to those not from Japan, or even Sapporo.

There are several late night opening cafes or bars in central Sapporo that offer ice cream parfaits or sundaes, and here are three favorites.

1. ‘Milk Mura’ (Milk Village)

Perhaps the most well known of the three, which is becoming increasingly popular with tourists, even out of the country.
There are only 3 options to their menu, but it is enough to keep the customers coming, therefore it is recommended to book a table beforehand on Friday evenings and weekends.

With a European and almost fairytale-like mix of cluttered objects, it is preciously unique.

'Milk Mura' Entrance ‘Milk Mura’ (Milk Village) inside ‘Milk Mura’ (Milk Village) Liquors

Their main dish is only soft serve milk vanilla ice cream, which gives this cafe/bar its singularity. The bar has over a hundred varieties of alcohol and spirits that you can choose from; the number you choose depending on the menu option you go for. You delicately pour your chosen liquors over a spoonful of ice cream, like with ice cream sauce. The fun thing being that, it is not only the sweet or fruity spirits that go well with the ice cream, as they also have expensive and well-known whiskies, rum and even tequila. You can even have free seconds of the ice cream.
If it is your first time and you are overwhelmed by the choices of liquors, not to worry. The bar waiters will be happy to recommend you a few, and will ask if it is your first time so that they can explain their special way of how to eat the ice cream with the “alcoholic sauces”.
The ice cream itself is delicious, which you can also buy as a take out in a cone.
The three options on the menu, A, B, and C, differ in that you can either have ice cream with 2 liquor choices but with crepe, sprinkles and other ice cream toppings, only 3 liquor choices, or half a cup of ice cream and a bag of freshly-baked-at-the-shop cookies to take home. All options (though unsure about option C) come with a small cup of hot coffee and a freshly baked little animal biscuit.

Option A with the ice cream toppings is my personal recommendation, and I also recommend going with a number of friends so that you can choose more liquors to share between you.
All options are priced at 1,390 yen (aside from the take out ice cream).

Although this bar is open till late it opens at lunchtime, meaning that it may be a good choice for families with children (who can have option C with no alcohol and cookies) as well.

Location: Sapporo-shi, Chūō-ku, Minami 4 Jōnishi, 3 Chome−8−1 New Hokusei Building, 6th Floor
Opening Times: 13:00 ~ 24:00, Wednesday 17:00 ~ 24:00 (Last orders at 23:00)
Closed: Mondays

2. ‘Café Heart Drops’

Although it includes a bar counter, this place has much more of a café, homely feel compared to the other two. Perhaps slightly shabby compared to the others, but still cute with a warm, friendly atmosphere. You can literally kick your shoes off and relax, as you have to take them off before entering.
The menu is much more diverse, as it serves food such as pasta and rice dishes, and a variety of teas and coffees, but also cocktails and beer. The café itself advertises its ice cream parfaits as its most popular, where you can choose from 3 types, or you can customize your own. For a custom ice cream parfait, you can choose from around 5 different gelato ice creams, and 3 different toppings from a handful of choices. Priced at 850 yen each, they also offer a drink set where you can pick from some teas or coffees for 1,200 yen. The parfait is also beautifully presented. I would recommend going with a friend for a quiet, long chat, as in the early evenings it doesn’t seem to be that busy, or even with family and children.

Location: Sapporo-shi, Chūō-ku, Minami 4 Jōnishi, 5 Chome−10−1 Tsumugi Building, 6th Floor

Opening Times: 17:00 ~ 25:00, Saturday lunch hours 11:30 ~ 15:00, Sunday 17:00 ~ 24:00 (Last orders at 23:00)
Closed: Thursdays, weekday public holidays (closes at 24:00 on weekend public holidays)

3. ‘Sweets Bar Melty’

My personal favourite of the three, which I would refer to as a bar, rather than a café. With an underlying theme of ‘Alice in Wonderland’, this bar represents a fantasy world but with a slightly mature taste due to the bar layout and dark base colours. It is also said to have more male customers.

As a bar, it has a large list of alcoholic beverages to choose from, as well as soft drinks and different hot teas and coffees. Their main dish being an ice cream sundae, they also offer freshly baked doughnuts with ice cream as well. The best part about this bar’s parfait and doughnut dish system is that it is completely customizable. You basically choose what you would like in each layer of your parfait, or what toppings you would like for your doughnuts, from a list which includes jelly, cream, fruits, sprinkles and your preferred ice cream gelato flavour. Once you fill out your order and pass it onto the barmaid or workers, they work their magic hands for a few minutes and present to you an absolutely adorable work of dessert art.

3_melty_otoushi2 3_melty_parfait 3_melty_specialminiparfait

You can choose an alcoholic, or non-alcoholic liquor to pour over the parfait as well. Ice cream parfaits are at 1,080 yen plus 500 yen seat charge which includes otoshi little snacks (a common system with bars in Japan), making a total of 1,580 yen. As with the other cafes, it offers a set of a drink of your choice with the ice cream sundae at 1,500 yen, plus 500 yen seat charge making a total of 2,000 yen.
Recommended to go with one or a few friends, as seating spaces in the bar itself is limited, and it can get rather busy between 9 and 12 pm on the weekends. Although the food and bar is very cute, as it is a bar with later opening hours it is probably best for adults only, also as smoking is allowed.

Location: Sapporo-shi, Chūō-ku, Minami 4 Jōnishi, 5 Chome−8 F-45 Building, 9th floor

Opening Times: Monday to Thursday 6:00pm ~ 2:00am (Last order at 1:30am), Friday to Saturday and public holidays 7:00pm ~ 3:00am (Last order at 2:30am), Sunday 6:00pm ~ 12:00pm (Last order at 11:30pm)
Closed: Open all year round