47. Sorry, Kushiro…

One of the main attractions of Kushiro is listed as a road bridge over the river. Our hopes were not high.

Kushiro was our first stop in Hokkaido, we had picked if for a couple of reasons, neither including Nusamai Bridge (despite its local fame and status as one of the ‘top three bridges in Hokkaido’). We had picked it mainly for the nearby airport and the proximity to areas with local wildlife and National Parks. We wanted to see something other than cities in Japan; while exciting and bustling, it is nice to see something totally different, and something of the nature with which the Japanese hold so much affinity.

We picked up the hire car at the airport, and drove to our Ryokan guest house. The owner was there to meet us (and painstakingly watch our every move as we removed our shoes and put on our ‘indoor slippers’ – we were constantly worried we’d be in the wrong footwear in the wrong place: bathroom slippers, indoor slippers in the hall, but not in the lounge etc! So many potential faux pas to make, and that’s just with our shoes!). We decided to venture out for food and exploration; we drove into town. Almost nothing was open, perhaps due to it being a weekend, but we went to Fisherman’s Wharf – we’d seen it advertised in the airport and knew it had food. This was our priority; our ANA flight – although very comfy – had served no snack, just a hot drink, and we had been ill-prepared for that situation.

We drove through the streets of what we assumed was the centre, but it felt deserted; nobody walked, there were few cars. Yes it was cold, but it wasn’t that cold, and these were hardy northerners… where were they all? We arrived at the wharf (the stalls were thankfully indoors), but we were almost the only people there bar the stall holders, and most of them were sitting, just waiting for a customer. We wandered upstairs, but that was even weirder; empty areas, then suddenly some kind of radio interview happening (broadcast over loudspeakers to the rest of the floor), a small art exhibition, more empty space… we returned to the ground floor.

 It felt surreal as we wandered between the stalls of fish, sweets, crab (a local speciality, and just coming into season) as well as some cured products – mostly fish in origin. Most stalls had crab in some form and trust me… there are a lot of forms; cured crab, tinned crab, curried crab, frozen crab, crab roe, steamed crab, crab innards, and – possibly the weirdest thing we’ve seen – a crab arcade game where you can catch your own crab with the ‘claw’ (intentional pun??)… if you’re successful they will even cook your catch for you at a nearby stall. Not our thing, but whatever ticks your box I guess…

Most of the restaurants were closed, but we found a smokehouse (with on-site smoker), and some much-needed lunch. We tried the crab, which was every bit as good as expected, as well as some katsu curry and smoked sausages. Then we spied some sushi…on a grill…! Wait. On a grill? Sushi’s cold and raw, right?! Not in Kushiro (Hokkaido)… here, they’ve got their own style: Sanmanma. It uses an entire Pacific saury fish (caught just off the coast here), de-boned and marinated in soy sauce, wrapped with a mix of glutinous rice and normal sushi rice, with a green siso (Japanese basil) leaf, then barbecued over hot coals. It was amazing – probably the most interesting thing I’ve eaten on the trip so far! We followed this up with ice cream – cream and melon flavours (Hokkaido is dairy farm land and famous for its dairy produce) – it was, as expected, deliciously creamy! Then we stumbled upon a bakery we couldn’t ignore and bought some treats to take back. By this time, the other restaurants gave the feeling that they may be opening for dinner, but we had had our fill…  

It seemed like a strange little place, but very, very cool – it’s a far cry from the bright lights of Tokyo here, but unusual little places like this really make it worth getting out of the landmark cities and exploring some of the smaller places. We would definitely recommend visiting while you’re in Japan.

The second day, we decided to drive to Japan’s easternmost point accessible to the public (according to Wikipedia) and get cold and windswept…. Which you can read about in our post: 46. Journey to the Edge of the World…

After a bit of a search (and some help from TripAdvisor), some more local food was on offer – this time in the form of ramen noodles. Everywhere in Japan seems to boast that it specialises in ramen noodles, and Hokkaido and Kushiro is no exception. We tried two types: shio (salt) broth and miso broth – both delicious, but the heartier miso broth ticking our box after being so cold all day. We went for a side of pork and rice too, and I almost went for another bowl of ramen as the crinkly egg noodles were so good.

Another must-do Kushiro activity is visiting the cranes – we had seen some in the wild on our way to Nosappu, but there are also a couple of options to see them in captivity: we chose the Akan Crane Centre. In 1952, there were just 33 Tancho cranes [Grus japonesis] left in the world. In. The. World. Ridiculous. So, luckily for us (and, not least, the cranes), the local population set about starting a conservation, winter feeding, and breeding programme to protect this breed of crane (the only one of the three found in Japan that is resident all year round) from becoming extinct. The local people literally stopped the extinction of an entire species. Think about it.

Anyway, the Crane Centre is one of the main places it happened. And they’re still working on further-increasing the population of the Tancho (red crested crane). They breed, nurture, run winter feeding programmes, run wetland conservation programmes, reintroduce the cranes to the wild, educate the public, and collect crane-based data…. And now, nearly 70 years on, there are now around 1500 Tancho cranes in Japan!

The final day we were here, we drove through the city area trying to find a ‘centre’, and eventually happened upon a few blocks square of small streets absolutely packed with shops and restaurants – most were unfortunately closed (too late in the afternoon, too early in the evening… Kushiro, it seemed, has an ‘in between time’) but it looked good; it looked like it could be lively when it was open. There was a vast selection of restaurants and bars, ramen places, sushi places, bars and cafes. We realised that we had not seen Kushiro at her best; we had let her down by not staying longer and experiencing everything she has to offer. Next time, Kushiro, next time, we promise!

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