Hokkaido Day 2: Nikka Distillery, Shakotan Peninsula, & Otaru
We were sad to leave our Lake Toya hotel, but we had a busy day ahead of us! As we were leaving Lake Toya, it began to pour (after being incredibly sunny when I was in the open-air onsen earlier in the morning). There was supposed to be a cosplay parade down the main street at 11 AM… (Hopefully the rain stopped before then!)
Alex and I love Scotch. A lot. We collect a bottle here and there at the Duty Free in airports. We did a two week tour of Scotland (and Ireland) a few years back, and we still lament about what a waste it was, visiting all those distilleries without having a full appreciation for what we were tasting. (This happened: we walked into a famous whisky shoppe — hehe, I had to add the extra “pe” — and the guy asked what sort of whisky we were looking for. “Uhhh… umm… what do you recommend?” The guy rolled his eyes at us! If our present selves could go back in time, we would answer, confidently, “rich and smoky.”)
Anyway, we were excited to visit the Nikka distillery in Yoichi and sample some Japanese whisky. Masataka Taketsuru was the founder of Nikka Whisky. He traveled to Scotland in 1918 to study chemistry and learn about the Scotch making process. A few years later, he returned to Japan with his Scottish wife (imagine the ‘scandal’ back in 1920!) and founded Nikka distillery in Yoichi in 1934. Masataka thought that the climate and topography of northwestern Hokkaido was very similar to the Scottish Highlands (I agree!). According to the official pamphlet, “The sea breeze gives a briny hint to the whisky during the maturation.” I couldn’t tell. (I said I enjoy whisky, not that I’m a connoisseur!)
Tours are given only in Japanese, so we opted to walk around on our own. Since Alex was our driver, our first priority was to taste some whisky. At the end of the tour, there is a large tasting room that offers free samples of whisky (two types) and an apple wine (one type) — one sample per type per person. I can’t remember (it’s only been two weeks…) but I believe both of them were low-end blended malts. However, you can pay to sample some of their single malt, more aged whisky at the smaller tasting room off of the museum. Prices ranged from 350 yen to 700 yen for a decent-sized pour (15 cc). We tried the “sherry & sweet” single malt (not a fan), the “peaty & salty” single malt (yummy!), and the 20-year Yoichi single malt (also very delicious). Our next stop was the free tasting room.
After that, we had a nice, relaxing lunch at the restaurant next to the gift shop (the gift shop doesn’t carry many of their more high-end whisky… it’s probably better to buy from Duty Free at the airport) and walked leisurely around the grounds. Don’t worry — we made sure that Alex was completely sober before we drove to Shakotan Peninsula. (Don’t drink and drive! Or drink and bike. In fact, Nikka offers stickers to designated drivers/cyclists/pregnant women/nursing women so that they aren’t served alcohol.)
We drove along Rt 229 (which goes along the coast) to Shakotan Peninsula. Shakotan reminded us of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland — incredibly green, with cliffs that just fall right into the ocean. Rt 229 is supposedly a scenic byway, but there were so many tunnels (I know they are necessary) that we spent the majority of the time without a view of the sea. We parked near Cape Kamui and walked along the trail up to the tip. It’s not a difficult hike (although some steps can be a little slippery) — it took us about an hour roundtrip. Cape Kamui in one word: breathtaking. The lush green hilly ridges kind of looked like a dragon’s back (“What is it with Chinese people and dragons?” Alex asked).
By the time we got back to the parking lot, I was ready to eat the famous blue (mint flavored) Shakotan soft serve. Unfortunately, the gift shop selling the ice cream closes at 5 PM and they had already shut off their soft serve machine at 4:55… I was a little pissed. But, on the way out of the parking lot, we saw a couple of foxes grooming each other. I think after this Hokkaido trip, foxes are my new favorite animal! So, I guess that sort of made up for missing ice cream…
We stopped for dinner (really good salmon donburi – salmon sashimi and roe over rice) on our way to Otaru. Our hotel in Otaru was the cheapest of our trip… the room was so tiny we could barely wedge the pack and play in between Mom’s bed and the door (we had to step on her bed to leave the room)! Alex and I walked along the canal (if you google Otaru, it will be one of the first images to pop up) in the rain, before stumbling upon an interesting German style pub (complete with Bavarian flags). Turns out, it was a microbrewery serving Otaru beer! (See more on the microbrewery in “tips” below.) We were stuffed from dinner, but we each enjoyed a glass of beer (Alex had the dunkel and I had the weizen — pretty tasty). It was divine to have an hour-long date!!
Breakfast the next morning was actually really decent — each person was served a hot breakfast plate (egg, bacon, sausage) and there was unlimited toast and coffee. We packed up, and hit the road to Daisetsuzan National Park.
Summary of our Hokkaido self drive: Whirlwind Tour around Hokkaido
Nikka distillery in Yoichi: http://www.nikka.com/eng/distilleries/yoichi/
MapCode: 164 665 193*
Open 9 AM to 5 PM, tours only in Japanese, but you can get an audio guide (English, Chinese, Korean) at the entrance.
Cape Kamui MapCode: 932 583 007*
The parking lot has clean bathrooms, and the gift shop closes at 5 PM (so go early for your ice cream!) — I’m not sure what winter hours are. Also, not sure you’d want to do this hike in the winter!
Otaru hotel: Smile Hotel, run-down budget hotel with good breakfast, parking is 600 yen.
Address: 5-4 Minatomachi, Otaru, Hokkaido Prefecture 047-0007, Japan
It’s located along the Otaru Canal — they have outdoor seating along the water (in nice weather).