“I hate Tokyo.” S’s face was perfectly serious. “Sapporo is so much better -- less people, nice weather, great seafood, lots of snow… and Tokyo sucks during the summer.”
I’ll never hate Tokyo but you can’t argue with a Sapporo boy on that last point. Hokkaido is one of the best places to be during summer, when most cities in Japan turn into sweltering furnaces that roast you slowly to a well-done death. At the end of July I took a solo trip up north to escape the Tokyo heat -- and eat my way through Hokkaido’s sea urchin population.
That plan never quite made it to fruition since I couldn’t rent a car (and buses run very infrequently), so I never made it to Shakotan as I’d hoped after reading this NYT article. But I did spend several happy days wandering around the city in search of food and friends. I tend to forget what a concrete jungle most of Tokyo is until I leave it. Sapporo has plenty of concrete buildings of course, and disconcertingly wide roads (for all the snow); but it also has lots of beautiful green spaces. Running through the heart of the city is a long park punctuated by fountains, and while I was there, filled with people and beer gardens. I don’t drink (...much), but I do recommend having a lie-down on the grass and watching the clouds pass by.
Somewhere near Sapporo's famous clock tower (which I didn’t bother going to), there is a park next to a red-brick building. If you can, go there during a summer shower -- which will be wonderfully cool -- stand under the trees and watch it rain on the lilypads. A rainy Sapporo is almost as gorgeous as when it’s balmy and sunny.
As beautiful as the parks are though, there are few sights more beautiful in Sapporo than that bowl of soup curry I had with my friend Amanda.
Amanda is bubbly and a great conversationalist. She also likes food as much as I do, which meant that I instantly liked her a lot upon meeting her. Since she’s been living in Sapporo for the last 20 years, I thought it best that she decide where we would eat for our first meeting -- as you do when meeting a local stranger. She picked me up in her car at Minami-Hiraigishi Station, and a minute later we were in front of Soup Curry King.
For a place with a name like that, Soup Curry King is an incredibly nondescript looking place from the outside, so much so that I forgot I even wanted a photo of it. It’s surrounded by even more nondescript suburban housing. Don’t let that fool you, though. People will come from faraway kingdoms to queue, and they’ll queue early.
Soup curry is one of those local Hokkaido specialties that apparently started as a bit of a gimmick about a decade ago -- and initially, it was at best bland and watery. But now with dozens of shops in town, you get some fucking fantastic bowls around. According to the back of Soup Curry King’s business card, their soup base is a chicken-and-vegetable broth simmered for two days, and then blended with a umami-ful special “W” soup with lots of kelp, niboshi (dried sardines) and katsuobushi (dried bonito). For good measure, they season it with yuzu and black vinegar. That’s a pretty spectacular soup base. Then, that base basically gets pepped up with more spices, meat and vegetables, and then served with a mound of rice. You get to choose your spice level, too. For around 900 to 1250 yen, I think that’s a pretty sweet deal in Japan. It is generally quite challenging to fulfill your daily vegetable intake when you’re eating out in Japan (unless you like salad a lot) but soup curry makes it much easier.
A bowl of soup curry is more beautiful and captivating than Helen of Troy ever was. I have decided that my afterlife’s ambition is to be reincarnated as this bowl with lamb and vegetables, so I can bask in the glory of being such a gorgeous and delicious plate of food. Failing that, to earn enough money to buy a plane ticket back to Sapporo so I can have several more bowls. Soup Curry King’s soup curry is deeply rich but eminently drinkable, and drenches the accompanying rice beautifully. (A habit I’ve had since I was young is to dump all my rice into my bowl of whatever soup was for dinner that day. This isn’t so acceptable when it comes to miso soup, apparently, since I’ve been gently told off a few times. But this is absolutely acceptable for soup curry.) Floating in the bowl are grilled mushrooms and broccoli, a quail egg, carrots, cabbage slices, baby corn, aubergine, lotus root and more. Underneath the vegetable cap sits several hunks of tender, luscious lamb that have been simmered in that soup.
I liked it so much I couldn’t stop thinking about it the entire afternoon, so I drew a diagram of it.
There was a lot I loved about Hokkaido, but this bowl of soup curry was definitely one of the high points. For a week after eating it, and after I left Sapporo for Hakodate and Aomori, I couldn’t shut up about it to everyone else I met. And now I’m telling you about it.
If you’re in Hokkaido, eat soup curry. Please. Eat sea urchins, crabs, melon and miso ramen. But put this at the top of your list.
SOUP CURRY KING
16 Chome 1-1 Hiragishi 3-Jo
Sapporo, Hokkaido 062-0933
T: +81 11-821-0044
Soup Curry King has irregular days off so it’s best to call before going. They close when they sell out, so go early.