Picture credit: Kittie Helmick

Sweet magic in Hokkaido

Sushi for breakfast, crisps for dessert and delicious chocolate

Artillery Row

Picture Willy Wonka’s domain with less of the theatrical and more of the authentic. A tour of the Royce Cacao and Chocolate Town commences with its South American rainforest reconstruction. Rainbow-hued cacao pods dangle from the lush undergrowth; a true-to-life drying rack mock-up coaches guests on shuttling the precious beans between sunny perfection and shelter from the rain.

The Royce factory imports this edible gold from the Amazon to its island home not in England, but Hokkaido, Japan. Sponsored by JFOODO, a division of the national export ministry, my tour group ventured into the fantastical world after our 5 am escort to the Sapporo Central Market via a cavalcade of taxis. We had passed the day in a haze of glory: whisky distillery, Michelin star sushi, and now the chocolate town.

Virtual costumes decked us out in the hygienic garb of the chocolatiers, before we braved the airlock that sanitises every suited entrant by blasting away dust and debris. Beyond, galleries of windows overlooked the shining, serpentine workings of the chocolate machines themselves. A wrap-around theatre planted us in the front seat of the assembly line — a wilder ride than you might expect, especially when the screen split to reveal an arcade of chocolate-themed games and puzzles. We regretfully dashed past these and down a long corridor of vintage packaging and candy boxes to reach the crown jewel: a chocolate-making workshop.

Once we were masked and hair-netted, a lady in pristine blue conducted us from selecting milk or white to work tables stocked with gourmet toppings: whole nuts, strawberry puffs, and every colour of sprinkle. I decked my molten slab with stripes of everything but the kitchen sink. A super cooler conveyor belt transformed the liquid gold into edible art in minutes. The exquisite creaminess of freshly-poured chocolate defies description — there was no question of leaving it for dessert. Likewise, the souvenir shop with its tables of treasure boxes and soft serve cones preclude all worries of spoiling dinner.

I settled for a helping of Royce’s signature goody: chocolate-coated potato chips.

The marvels did not cease when we departed Hokkaido for Sendai, a region north of Tokyo. At a souvenir shop near Ishinomaki Bay, we poured over a chest of ice cream flavours both classic and eccentric, exactly the mix you wouldn’t expect to find anywhere but Japan. Pursuing my policy of ordering the most unusual dish on offer, I picked a cup of cricket ice cream and another marked “くじら” — whale.

On the bus ride back I dug into my stash, appreciating the bug-shaped dark chocolate bites decorating the cricket scoop. (Cricket, as an ice cream parlour owner along for the trip had warned, in fact tastes of nothing much. It features in dishes mainly for its protein powders.)

The whale flavour baffled my tongue. Strips of what must have been, well, whale meat threaded through the cream, creating a savoury-sweet mix surprisingly appealing. I licked the last drop thoughtfully, comparing the wonderful weirdness of it with the pristine vanilla served to us at Koiwai Farm. We had personally thanked the purveyors of this fine cream at their own lodgings, the ladies’ silken heads leaning inquiringly over their stall doors as they regarded us with limpid eyes.

Picture credit: Kittie Helmick

The wintry chill of February did nothing to deter us from scarfing our cones. Likewise in Tokyo, I queued at Parfaiteria beL without a scruple. A simple idea, executed with pizzazz, this late-night cafe serves not sundaes but masterpieces: crafting artful arrays of gelato, jelly, candies, fruits, meringue, cookies, and everything unimaginable into intricate sculptures of sweet fantasy. I ordered the sakura special in honour of the cherry blossom season — not due until April, but with a mania sweeping the capital as far in advance as ever Christmas merchandise has stormed the shops. Airy pink petals drifted across menus, restaurant windows, and into the macarons crowning my parfait. 

A lattice of charcoaled bamboo framed the piece; pistachio gelato nestled at its heart. Equally tempting, the menu offered a wintry citrus mix, wheeled with mandarins; and a Princess Belle edition, her demure profile rendered in dark chocolate atop a ballgown of bitter orange. On a weeknight well past ten in the evening, we waited over half an hour for seats, so reservations would be much recommended.  

I visited the Parfaiteria on the doorstep of Shinagawa Station, a scene brilliant with urban nightlife. Japan’s youth sashay in miniskirts and chunky-soled platform boots, preferring the monochrome, or contrasting black on white, and dressed in sets: a trio of friends or a courting couple in matching shades. 

They make chic of simple (slouchy sweaters, wide-legged trousers) or everyday of the spectacular (chains and shocking eye make-up, verging on gothic), and their food might be said to accomplish the same. Whereas the fusion sushi in the West generally confines itself to evermore ambitiously layered rolls, crisscrossed with sauces and creams, the mega-sushi of Japan’s conveyor-belt variety sustains the two piece nigiri classic … with a twist. 

At the nationally acclaimed Sushiro, I tasted their caprese edition: basil and mozzarella, atop the twin beds of rice. On another occasion, a shaving of roast beef, sealed to its rice not with wasabi but a buttery smear of mashed potatoes, demolished my purist objections to Western ingredients with the undeniable perfection of its meal-in-a-bite delivery. 

Sushi for breakfast, crisps for dessert — perhaps Japan excels precisely for its embrace of the unexpected, the wacky but wonderful concoctions that fascinate the imagination and delight the senses. You think it couldn’t be done, but they believe it can.

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