Gristle Meatballs, Horsemeat Sashimi and Ogre Killer – Treading Tentatively in Toyako

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Gazing across placid Lake Toya, brilliant blue in the summer sunshine, it was hard to imagine the volcanic violence that created it.

In the far southwest of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, Lake Toya is an almost circular caldera lake 10km across and rising out of the middle of its clear waters are three densely forested lava domes, all part of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

Toyako Onsen village lies on the western shore of the lake, one of Japan’s remotest and most popular hot springs resorts with a row of hotels along the shoreline and the Japanese style room on level six of the Toya Kohan Tei Hotel was my home for one night.

Outside in the village there were souvenir shops, a small supermarket, a hot spring footbath in the main street and a few restaurants, all closed. I noticed a large building up a side street with the interesting sign Club Je t’Aime (Club I Love You), oddly French, but possibly with a bar. It was closed.

In another side street I found two little open restaurants and opted for Yakitori no Ippei. I was the only customer and at the counter table I browsed the menu, fortunately with English translations, as some of the offerings seemed challenging.

Grilled skewers included beef diaphragm, intestines, chicken, pork and gristle meatball with cheese. I went for the chicken and the intestines. The chicken was meltingly tender with skin still on and served with hot mustard. The intestines? Different.

Next up were two sashimis, raw slices of liver and horsemeat. Not bad, but nowhere near as tasty as the grilled sea snail and giblet hotpot that followed. I ordered a bottle of sake, the Kunimare Hokkai Onigoroshi, North Sea Ogre Killer.

By then I was best friends with the chef who gave me a plate of superbly fresh grilled fish for nothing and, together, we polished off the Ogre Killer. Bloated, I staggered back to the hotel and collapsed on the futon.

There was a knock on the door. A bloke thrusted a tray full of food into my hands, bowed and retreated. I’d forgotten that the tourism people had arranged a meal for me that night.

In gratitude, I somehow found room for the superb local seafood and collapsed on the futon. There was a knock on the door. A different bloke thrusted another tray full of food into my hands, bowed and retreated.

“No more,” I pleaded, “arigato, no more.” I almost finished free dinner mark two and collapsed on the futon. I was drifting into a sated stupor when a barrage of explosions went off outside the window.

Lake Toya is apparently notorious for its cacophonous nightly floating fireworks displays between April and October and this one was no exception. Sleep was impossible so I decided to check out the free onsen public bath on the ninth floor where there was one each for men and women.

I stripped, donned the traditional robe and sash provided, grabbed a towel and slipped into the Japanese slippers that were about five sizes too small for my western feet.

I hobbled into a lift full of elderly women dressed in similar garb who looked at my feet, looked at each other and cracked up laughing. I felt like a dork and said something like, “it’s alright ladies, I’ll be gone in the morning.” They bowed pleasantly, still chortling.

Stark naked in the steamy onsen I became a subject of polite curiosity and mimicked the rituals the Japanese blokes were observing, sitting on plastic stools, washing bodies thoroughly with soap and rinsing off with plastic buckets of warm spring water before entering 46°C (115°F) baths.

Easing into the hot water surrounded by steam and staring out through the plate glass windows at the pyrotechnics erupting on Lake Toya was a truly surreal experience.

Next day I boarded a large passenger boat and headed out across Lake Toya for a half hour cruise in what had developed into a pea soup foggy morning. Also aboard were battalions of school kids, elderly couples and Japanese tourists and I realised I hadn’t seen another western face since I’d been in Toyako Onsen.

A gaggle of schoolgirls called out “good morning” in faltering English then fell about in a fit of giggles before they all disembarked on Nakajima Island in the centre of the lake, part of the national park. In better weather this would have been a beautiful place spend a few hours.

Instead I returned to the cruise terminal and took a taxi to the Usuzan Ropeway (cableway) and soared up to the rim of Mount Usu crater which last erupted in 2000 opening up more than 60 new craters. Today you can see them from several walking trails.

It was a bit of a climb but worth it just to stare into the steaming, smoking lungs of an angry volcano, one of several in the area responsible for the birth of Lake Toya and the hot springs that make Toyako Onsen such a pleasant place.

The writer was a guest of the Japan National Tourism Organisation (jnto.go.jp).

More:

jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/hokkaido/touyako.html/

japan-guide.com/e/e6725.html/

Story and Images (unless otherwise noted) ©Copyright David May 2015.

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