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TIME Magazine: Why Nintendo president Satoru Iwata mattered…

TIME (by Matt Peckham):

Nintendo President and CEO Satoru Iwata has died at only 55 years old after battling cancer for over a year. His unexpected passing marks the end of a wildly inventive and broadly celebrated 13-year stretch helming the iconic Kyoto video games company.

Iwata, born in Sapporo, Japan in 1959, was only the fourth person to lead Nintendo since its inception as a playing card company in 1889, and the first president unrelated to the founding Yamauchi family. His ascent to the topmost Nintendo position in 2002 was unusual as it followed a career in software engineering, making him one of the industry’s only corporate luminaries with substantial hands-on game creation experience.

In an exclusive interview with TIME this spring — Iwata’s last with a Western media outlet — he talked about how personally involved he remained in helping drive and evaluate the company’s hallmark unorthodox inventions. He called Nintendo “a company of Kyoto craftsman” and joking “this is where my background in technology is quite helpful, because it means that the engineers can’t trick me.

At Tokyo-based Nintendo affiliate HAL Laboratory during the 1980s and 90s, Iwata helped develop some of Nintendo’s most memorable games. That list includes Super Smash Bros. for the Nintendo 64, the opening salvo in a critically lauded and financially lucrative fighting series starring Nintendo characters like Mario and Donkey Kong that’s since sold in the tens of millions for the company. After he was promoted to president of HAL Laboratory in 1993, he continued to work personally on the company’s products, including several titles in Nintendo’s wildly popular Pokémon series.

Iwata’s move to Nintendo came in 2000, when he assumed management of the company’s corporate planning division. Just two years later, then-Nintendo President Hiroshi Yamauchi, who had helmed the company since 1949, decided to retire, allowing Iwata to step in and steer Nintendo through its most inventive period yet.

It was under Iwata that Nintendo ushered in the Nintendo DS, a dual-screen gaming handheld that succeeded the popular Game Boy, eventually going on to challenge Sony for the title of “bestselling games platform of all time.” Nintendo’s wildly successful Wii, now arguably the most recognizable video game system in the industry’s history, arrived in 2006, another Iwata-led gamble that paid incredible dividends following the company’s lackluster GameCube, which launched in 2001. And while Iwata’s critics often accused the company of reacting too slowly to industry trends, Iwata wasn’t afraid to enact radical change: after years of financial downturns (exacerbated by the company’s poorly received Wii U game console), he unveiled plans this March to develop games for smartphones and tablets. The world will now remember Iwata as the Nintendo leader who tore down the wall between the company’s heavily guarded iconic IP and non-Nintendo platforms.

But it was Iwata’s playful, almost mischievous and refreshingly candid personal style that so endeared him to the company’s fans. In 2011, he helped launch a video series dubbed Nintendo Direct, personally emceeing the company’s biggest surprises, often with quirky framing twists, like an effects-laden mock kung-fu brawl with Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aimé for E3 2014. At Nintendo’s E3 2015 presentation last month, he appeared as a Muppet designed by The Jim Henson Company.

Iwata’s other significant public relations innovation was “Iwata Asks,” a remarkable series in which Iwata interviewed members of Nintendo’s many development teams, delving into the anecdotal history of some of the company’s best loved projects. It was a Nintendophile’s dream come true.

Above all, Iwata established and maintained a decorous tone often at odds with his competitors. In lieu of visually splashy, clamorous stage-led events at annual game shows, Iwata chose charmingly simple, almost dignified presentational vignettes. When fans responded negatively to a new Nintendo idea, Iwata’s reaction was often swift and direct: after an upcoming Nintendo DS game built on a hallowed Nintendo franchise was waved off by fans at E3 last month, Iwata tweeted his thanks to fans for their feedback and promised to meet their expectations.

Iwata’s health problems were first aired just before E3 in June 2014, when Iwata, who had been planning to attend the show (I was scheduled to meet with him), mysteriously backed out. At the time, Nintendo said Iwata’s doctors had warned him against travel, but didn’t say why. A few weeks later, the company disclosed Iwata was battling cancer, specifically a tumor in his bile duct. At that point he’d had surgery, and his prospects sounded hopeful because the doctors had apparently found the tumor early. When he resumed appearing in Nintendo Direct videos following E3, he was clearly thinner, but seemed otherwise unfazed. Though he again missed this year’s E3, he remained publicly active to the end, participating in Nintendo’s last shareholder meeting just a few weeks ago.

2015 best Japanese hotels, based on their breakfasts

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RocketNews 24:

Soft beds, nice views, good location; sure, these are all important factors when choosing a hotel, but what really makes a hotel, or even a trip, memorable is the food, more specifically, the breakfast.

Everyone needs a good breakfast to start their day, so why not eat the best of the best? Next time you’re in the area, you should probably check out one of the Japanese hotels with the most delicious breakfasts.

When you think back to the last hotel you stayed at, does your memory automatically cut to what you ate for breakfast there? Do soggy eggs or undercooked bacon ring a bell? Even if it was a pretty good meal that left you with fond memories, prepare yourself, because you may never look at hotel breakfasts again. You may also be finding yourself booking hotels just to try the breakfasts.

The TripAdvisor Japan website compiled the 2014 opinions and scores of hotels (and their breakfasts) posted on the site in order to create this 2015 ranking of “Hotels with Delicious Breakfasts.”

While many of the hotels have managed to hang on to their 2014 spots in the top 20, there are plenty of newcomers on the list too.

1st Place: Hotel Piena Kobe (Kobe City)

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Holding first place for three consecutive years is kind of a big deal, but after hearing about their buffet breakfast spread, you’ll understand how they’ve managed to pull it off.

To start off with, there is the sweets section filled with all-you-can-eat, freshly made pastries, like seasonal fruit tarts and strawberry shortcake. If you’re more of a fan of  savory breakfasts though, there is also a selection of traditional French-style breakfast items and, of course, traditional Japanese breakfast foods. All dishes are made from the freshest and highest quality ingredients you could ask for and being in Kobe, expect some breakfast steak too! To wash it all down, there is a drink bar of coffees and teas from a variety of specialty shops.

Usually, the breakfast itself costs 2,200 yen (US$18.50) per person, you can sometimes find deals for a room and breakfast for under 10,000 yen ($85).

2nd Place: La Vista Hakodate Bay Hotel (Hakodate, Hokkaido)

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Hotel Piena’s closest rival has held their spot at second for another year and they offer some stiff competition. Their breakfast spread offers fish and vegetables grilled before your eyes, a plethora of fresh Hokkaido seafood, and a healthy selection of well-prepared Western-style breakfast options.

3rd Place: Sapporo Grand Hotel (Sapporo, Hokkaido)

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These guys have their eyes on the prize, rising 9 spots since last year’s ranking. The Sapporo Grand Hotel offers three different breakfast venues for their morning diners. One location offers a Western-style breakfast with an on-sight bakery and cooked-to-order eggs. At another site, you can choose from three traditional Japanese-style set breakfasts, overflowing with delicious seasonal dishes. Finally, there is the buffet of grilled meat and veggies, as well as their famous creation, “ramen salad.”

4th: Hotel Keihan Sapporo (Sapporo, Hokkaido)
[2014: 3rd]

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5th: Hakodate Kokusai Hotel (Hakodate, Hokkaido)
[2014: 5th]

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6th: Century Royal Hotel (Sapporo, Hokkaido)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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7th: Hotel Shiroyama (Kagoshima City)
[2014: 9th]

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8th: Hotel Rocore Naha (Naha, Okinawa)
[2014: 16th]

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9th: Hotel Nikko Alivila (Yomitan, Okinawa)
[2014: 4th]

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10th: Asahikawa Grand Hotel (Asahikawa, Hokkaido)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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11th: Mitsui Garden Hotel Okayama (Okayama City)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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12th: Rihga Royal Hotel Osaka (Osaka)
[2014: 8th]

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13th: Richmond Hotel Yamagata Station (Yamagata City)
[2014: 20th]

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14th: Hotel Nikko Kanazawa (Kanazawa City)
[2014: 13th]

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15th: Sheraton Grand Tokyo Bay (Urayasu, Chiba)
[2014: 6th]

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16th: Hotel Okura Tokyo Bay (Urayasu, Chiba)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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17th: Daiwa Roynet Hotel Naha Kokusaidori (Naha, Okinawa)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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18th: JR Tower Hotel Sapporo (Sapporo, Hokkaido)
[2014: 11th]

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19th: Laguna Garden Hotel (Ginowan, Okinawa)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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20th: Dormy Inn Premium Otaru (Otaru, Hokkaido)
[2014: Not Ranked]

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Apparently, Hokkaido hotels are proving that they are not a force to be reckoned with, as they settled into nearly half of all spots in the top 20 and took six of the top ten spots! It must be all of that fresh seafood and dairy! On the other side of the country, Okinawa held its own this year too with four on the list. While it’s easy for us to give Honshu hotels a hard time, since they are few and far between in the rankings, we can’t forget that Hotel Piena Kobe has won three years in a row! That food must be out of this world!

Butter-flavored Kit Kats come to Japan as new specialty store opens in Hokkaido

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RocketNews 24:

In the year since it opened in Tokyo’s Ikebukuro, we’ve become big fans of the Kit Kat Chocolatory, the specialty store for the chocolate-covered wafers that’re especially popular in Japan. As a matter of fact, somewhere in the course of our multiple visits to procure the latest and greatest Kit Kat flavors, we’ve forgotten what life was like before the shop opened.

But while we’re living in the land of plenty with two different Chocolatory locations in Tokyo (the second is near Tokyo Station), not all of Japan is so fortunate. Until now, only residents of Tokyo, Kyoto, and Nagoya could claim their town had its own Kit Kat paradise.

That’s about to change, though, as a new Kit Kat Chocolatory is opening soon in Hokkaido, and bringing a new flavor with it: butter.

Part of the reason Kit Kats have rocketed to popularity in Japan is the way parent company Nestle has wholeheartedly embraced the Japanese practice of making limited-edition sweets that pay tribute to local culinary traditions. As one of the few regions of Japan with ample pasture space, Hokkaido is home to a large number of the country’s dairies. That’s why when the newest Chocolatory opens March 7 in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital city, shoppers will be able to purchase not only more orthodox chocolate Kit Kats, but also the Chocolatory Special Butter flavor.

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The flavor was picked as the winner in a contest organized by the Tsuji Group culinary school, likely beating out other foodstuffs associated with Hokkaido such as milk, cheese, and melon (the region is also famous for its salmon and sea urchin, but we’re assuming no one was quite adventurous enough to seriously propose them as Kit Kat flavors).

The Special Butter flavor will be available in packs of 12 (seen above) for 1,200 yen (US $10.20), or in four-piece boxes (pictured below) for 400 yen.

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While the Special Butter Kit Kats will initially be sold only at the Sapporo Chocolatory, located in the Daimaru department store, they’re expected to make their way to other branches in due time. On the other hand, the Sapporo location will remain the only place where you can buy the 1,350-yen Kit Kat Chocolatory Special Sapporo Assortment, a 12-piece collection of four flavors, including Special Butter.

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Also, to celebrate the new store’s grand opening, all Chocolatory branches in Japan will once again be selling Chocolatory Special Sakura Green Tea Kit Kats, made with Uji matcha green tea, white chocolate, and edible cherry blossom leaves.

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The Sapporo Chocolatory is expected to, as always, draw large crowds, especially on opening day. If you’re hoping to get your hands on some of the buttery goodness the store is offering, we recommend getting to the Sapporo Daimaru no later than 10 a.m., when the doors open, and preferably sooner.

 

Shop information:
Kit Kat Chocolatory Daimaru Sappor Branch / キットカット ショコラトリー大丸札幌店
Address: Sapporo-shi, Chuo-ku, Kita 5-jo, Nishi 4-chome, 7 Banchi Daimary Sapporo basement level 1 (inside Hoppe Town section)
札幌市中央区北5条西4丁目7番地大丸札幌店B1 ほっぺタウン内
Open 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
Website

“Nakanosawagawa Tree House” by Japanese architect Ryo Yamada

The 2015 Sapporo Snow Festival

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RocketNews 24:

Every February in Hokkaido brings another amazing display of artful snow and ice carvings, and RocketNews24 brings a firsthand account of the 66th annual Sapporo Snow Festival.

This year has already brought a couple of exciting stories from the festival. Whether it was soulless snow sculptures or an imposing Sith Lord, the Sapporo Snow Festival always gives you something to talk about.

The Yubari Melon Mascot! The only terrifying mascot in Japan.

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Although the city of Sapporo is very large, the sites for the festival are not that far apart. Especially the two sites that feature most of the incredible snow and ice artwork are within minutes of each other, making a lot of the festival easily accessible.

Susukino Ice World 2015, was where the ice sculpture competition pieces were shown. With plenty of amazing entries this year, it’s a wonder how the judges were able to pick just four sculptures as winners.

Overall winner of the ice sculpture contest!

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Odori Park was home to all the major installation snow works, including the international snow carving competition. Representatives from many countries were working very hard to complete their sculpture within the three days allowed.

Indonesia

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United States (Oregon)

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New Zealand

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Darth Vader and his imperial Storm Troopers might be out to steal the show, but there were plenty of other really incredible sculptures on display in Odori Park.

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For the smaller sculptures, a quick glance at them revealed a few pretty obvious themes.

Yokai Watch

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Frozen

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Studio Ghibli

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Parasyte

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The third site of the snow festival, the Sapporo Community Dome, had its share of snow art as well, but people came here to play in and with the snow, rather than admire it. The standout winner was definitely the Nissin sponsored “tube sliding” with lengthy lines right up until closing.

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Travel between the sites was really easy, with a shuttle bus running to the sites that was cheaper than taking the subway.

Night time provided a unique opportunity to show off for the crowd, performances graced the stages in front of the huge snow sculptures until the closing of each day.  The Star Wars stage had its own light show which repeated every 15 minutes.

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The real winner of the night was the projection mapping upon the Kasuga Grand Shrine sculpture, though.

If you haven’t gotten enough of the snow festival yet, here are a few more pictures to make you wish you were able to be there yourself. Enjoy!

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The dark side of The Force featured at the Sapporo Snow Festival with gigantic Star Wars sculpture

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RocketNews 24:

Last week, we took a sneak peek at the upcoming Sapporo Snow Festival by checking out an icy rendering of an idol trio from hit anime Love Live! Freaked out as we were by their unfinished yet crazed expressions, it turns out Umi, Honoka, and Kotori aren’t the most intimidating characters showing up at this year’s event.

That title goes to the massive snow sculpture of fallen Jedi Darth Vader, who rolled into the largest city in Hokkaido with the sort of backup that’d you’d expect from the Supreme Commander of the Empire’s space fleet.

The installation is being exhibited in Sapporo’s Odori Park, and thanks to its huge size and outdoor venue, photos of the work-in-progress had been trickling in from local residents over the past few days.

Those aren’t rebel resistance fighters staging an attack on the giant-sized storm troopers, though. Seen in the pictures above is the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force’s 11th Brigade’s 1st Snow Sculpture Squad.

▼ This shot of the scaffolding they assembled gives a good impression of just how tall the sculpture is.

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The amount of care and detail that went into the project makes us think that at least a few of the squad’s members have seen the classic science fiction films. That’s not to say this is just a case of large-scale, high-grade fan art, though. The sculpture is officially endorsed by Star Wars production company Lucasfilm, as part of the festivities surrounding the 2015 release of the seventh film in the franchise. What’s more, the design itself was carried out under the supervision of parent company and distributor Disney.

 

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Vader isn’t just a dangerous opponent in single combat, though. His lofty position in the Imperial hierarchy means he also has hordes of minions at his beck and call. As such, he’s joined in the sculpture by three storm troopers, a TIE fighter, and even the Death Star.

 

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At 15 meters (49.2 feet) tall and 22.6 meters (74.1 feet) wide, the Star Wars snow sculpture is one of the largest ever to be exhibited in the park, and required a month’s worth of effort from a team of 2,000 working with 700 truckloads of snow. Not only was it a sight to see once finished, the 500-some attendees who braved the -3-degrres Celsius (26-degree Fahrenheit) weather of the nighttime opening ceremony were graced by an appearance from Vader and the three storm troopers themselves.

The displays are lit until 10 p.m. Odori Park is open around the clock, though, meaning that visitors can see all of its sculptures, including the Star Wars one, at any time between now and 10 o’clock on February 11, assuming of course that some cocky kid doesn’t stick a light saber into it and melt it before then.

 

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Melon topped with ice cream: two great Hokkaido tastes in one crazily delicious package

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RocketNews 24:

Japan sure loves its parfaits, and while they all come with tasty toppings, the most highly regarded come crowned with fruit. But what if you turned the concept on its head, and instead took a piece of premium produce, then added a cone’s worth of ice cream on top?

You’d have our newest dessert infatuation: the fresh melon soft serve.

Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido is known for a number of local delicacies, including salmon and sea urchin. It’s also where you’ll find some of Japan’s biggest dairies, plus its most highly regarded growing region for melons.

The bright minds with sweet teeth at confectioner Sapporo Yaokyu decided to combine the powers of those last two when they created the fresh melon soft serve. Thankfully, we didn’t have to go all the way to Hokkaido to try it. Instead, we waited for the dessert to come to us, or at least to Tokyo, where the Furusato Matsuri is being held until January 18.

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The event’s name translates as the Hometown Festival, but really it’s one of Tokyo’s biggest food fairs. Representatives coming from across Japan gather inside Tokyo Dome to serve meals and snacks to hungry visitors, and right in the middle of the floor space you’ll find the Hokkaishokudo, a cluster of restaurants from Hokkaido. They all looked delicious, but we passed by the local takes on ramen, seafood, and beer. Instead, we went straight to the Sapporo Yaokyu booth, where there was already a short line of people waiting to place their order.

▼ We’re not sure why Funasshi, the anthropomorphic pear from Chiba Prefecture, shows up on Sapporo Yaokyu’s signage.

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As we waited for our turn, we noticed that the fresh melon soft serve is available in three sizes, small, medium, and large, priced at 1,000 yen (US$8.33), 1,300 yen ($11), and 1,500 yen ($12.78), respectively. With all of the tasty food offered at the event, we weren’t surprised that most people were asking for the small, but even though we were feeling pretty stuffed ourselves, we decided to buck the trend and get ourselves a large.

▼ Because even before we took a single bite, we knew we were going to want to eat as much of this as possible.

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They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but we don’t think that applies to desserts. After all, they don’t have covers in the first place. Sometimes you can tell you’re in for a taste treat just by looking at one, and that was clearly the message the striking contrast of orange-hued melon and pure white ice cream was sending us.

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Really, the whole thing is so enticing we were tempted to just bury our face in it and start gnawing away. Just before we could do that, though, we remembered that we were in public, and, more importantly, that we had a spoon.

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So how does it taste? Amazing, obviously! The refreshing sweetness of the melon and the richness of the ice cream hit your taste buds at the same time. The effect is incredible, and we’re not ashamed to say that for a moment, we found ourselves calling on some higher power to stop time so we could linger longer over the bliss the fresh melon soft serve was enveloping our consciousness with.

Sadly, time continued unabated, and before long we found ourselves running out of both melon and ice cream.

▼ Although as consolation, when the juices of the fruit mix with the melting cream it tastes fantastic.

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The Furusato Matsuri runs until January 18, with the doors opening at 10 a.m. each day. Popular items like the fresh melon soft serve tend to sell out before the day is done, though, so just to be on the safe side, you might want to make the Sapporo Yaokyu booth your first stop.

▼ After all, a little fruit to start your day sounds like a sensible breakfast, doesn’t it?

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A guide to the regional ramen of Japan

Photographs courtesy of Nate Shockey, Mark Roberts, and the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum

 Lucky Peach:
A bowl of ramen consists of four basic elements: the broth, the tare, the noodles, and the toppings. The broth is generally a mix of pork, chicken, seafood, and vegetables, with each shop crafting their own blend. Most mix various parts of pig and fowl, some add more complex elements, and some never reveal their secrets. Though most diners categorize ramen into shoyu, miso, shio, and tonkotsutypes, many shops specialize in just one style, referred to simply as “ramen” on their menu. This guide details the basic characteristics of a number of established regional styles; it only scratches the surface of the myriad varieties of ramen being served every day across Japan.

Tare タレ: Also known as kaeshi, tare is the strong, salty flavored essence placed at the bottom of each bowl. Shoyu tare, based on a reduction of soy sauce and other elements, is the most common. The tare—shoyu, miso, shio, or otherwise—roughly determines the ramen’s “type.”

Shoyu 醤油: Soy sauce but so much more. Strictly speaking, most ramen is built upon a shoyu base, but the amount of variation in taste and style within the category is immense.

Miso 味噌: Fermented bean paste. Coming in many shades of brown, miso makes up another common ramen category. Though only a few regions specialize in this style, many shops offer their own home-blended miso-based bowls.

Shio 塩: Literally, “salt.” Typically lacking shoyu in the base, light-colored shio ramen is built upon a reduction made from dried seafood, seaweeds, and other salty ingredients with lots of umami. Many shops offer shio ramen, but only the city of Hakodate selects it for local pride.

Tonkotsu 豚骨: Pork bones and the ramen made therefrom. Unlike the varieties listed above, tonkotsu’s name and taste are derived primarily from the broth rather than the tare.


Asahikawa Ramen (旭川ラーメン)

1-asahikawa-withlineLocated at the base of the mountains smack in the middle of Japan’s northernmost island, Asahikawa is Hokkaido’s second-largest city, and is best known for its zoo and a rich ramen tradition. Uniquely Asahikawa-style ramen emerged in 1947, at the shops Hachiya (which began its life as an ice cream parlor) and Aoba. Asahikawa ramen is a blend of pork and chicken stocks and a seafood broth, making for a rich and complex soup with a shoyu base. The bowl is topped off with an insulating layer of lip-scalding melted lard to prevent the soup from losing heat in the frigid winter months. The current nationwide trend of blended “double” soup traces its roots to the Asahikawa ramen tradition, which is celebrated with an annual summer ramen festival.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, lard.
Famous shops: Aoba (青葉), Hachiya (蜂屋).


Sapporo Ramen (札幌ラーメン)

2-sapporo-withlineThe northern city of Sapporo is one of Japan’s most famous ramen destinations, best known as the birthplace of miso ramen. Although Sapporo had its share of noodle shops before World War II, it cemented its place in ramen lore in 1955, when a customer at the noodle house Aji no Sanpei asked the chef to dump some noodles in his miso and pork soup. A new classic was born, and Sapporo ramen has since evolved into a rich and fatty soup accented with minced pork, ginger, and garlic. (Traditionally the miso base, broth, and vegetables are cooked together in a larded wok before being transferred to the bowl.) Sapporo miso ramen was the first regional style to take off nationally in the 1960s, and the city remains a ramen mecca, boasting a “Ramen Alley” with over a dozen shops.

Style/tare: Miso.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, minced pork, ginger, garlic, butter, corn.
Famous shops: Aji no Sanpei (味の三平), Sumire (すみれ), Shirakaba Sanso (白樺山荘).


Hakodate Ramen (函館ラーメン)

hakodate-forwebRamen came to Hakodate the same way it came to the rest of Japan—via the slow boat from China. For reasons lost to history, the standard soup served by the Chinese community in Hakodate had a thinner and lighter broth than the soy-based soup that took hold in Yokohama and Tokyo. As a result, this bustling maritime town is home to a mild, yellow chicken-and-pork broth boiled long and slow. Hakodate is the only city in Japan to claim shio ramen as its own creation, and the style is dominant within the town’s precincts. Toppings tend toward the standards, and noodles are cooked to be quite soft—comfort food on a cold winter day.

Style/tare: Shio.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo, nori, spinach, fish cake (naruto).
Famous shops: Miss Jun (ミス潤), Seiryuken (星龍軒).


Akayu Ramen (赤湯ラーメン)

akayu-forwebOne day in 1960, Sato Kazumi, the founder of ramen shop Ryushanhai, dropped a dollop of miso paste into the leftover soup and noodles he had taken home to eat with his family. After a bit of tweaking, Sato developed one of Japan’s most unusual ramen styles—sweet and mild ramen topped with an angry red ball of blended miso, chili, and garlic that slowly dissolves into the soup. Pop it in your mouth all at once and you’ll breathe fire like the Dragon of Shanghai that gives his shop its name. Thick, wavy, and chewy noodles topped with a dusting of powdered aonori seaweed swim below.

Style/tare: Miso.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake, miso-chili-garlic paste, powdered laver (aonori).
Famous shops: Ryushanhai (龍上海).


Kitakata Ramen (喜多方ラーメン)

kitakata-forwebThe small town of Kitakata boasts the highest ramen-to-resident ratio in the country, clocking in at roughly one shop for every 300 inhabitants. Kitakatans are known to eat their light, clean, shoyu-based soup for breakfast, and they’ve even developed a ramen burger made of pork sandwiched between griddled noodle patties. Order soba here and you’ll probably be served ramen instead. In the bowl, Kitakata keeps it simple, with a no-frills soup and minimal toppings. Noodles are hand-cut to be flat, wide, and curly; high water content makes them toothsome and chewy. Let’s hope the town escapes the ill effects of the nuclear meltdown at the not-far-enough-away Fukushima reactor.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots.
Famous shop: Genraiken (源来軒).


Shirakawa Ramen (白河ラーメン)

shirakawa-forwebAs in most cities in Japan, ramen in Shirakawa dates back to the prewar period, when it was served in Chinese restaurants and street-side stalls. Takei Toraji learned to sling noodles at those stalls before opening up his own shop, Tora Shokudo, where Shirakawa ramen proper took shape. Despite idolizing the bumbling postwar comedic folk hero Tora-san to the point of cooking with a bottle in one hand, Takei managed to develop a refined ramen characterized by light, simple soup and hand-kneaded noodles. Like most local styles across northeastern Japan, Shirakawa ramen features an unadorned shoyu broth that draws its taste from an abundance of local mineral ­water, which also makes for springy noodles with lots of give in the chew.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake, nori, wontons, spinach.
Famous shops: Tora Shokudo (とら食堂), Kafutei (火風鼎), Suzuki Shokudo (すずき食堂).


Tsubame-Sanjo Ramen (燕三条ラーメン)

tsubame-forwebWhat’s the cure for living in a part of the country known mostly for freezing temperatures and silverware factories? Lard, lard, and more lard. The twin cities of Tsubame and Sanjo lay claim to one of the most unusual and unhealthy ramen variants anywhere in ­Japan—an already rich broth made of pork bones, chicken, and sardines is topped with an almost obscene amount of suspended pork fat. There’s enough lard and raw white onion shaken on top that it’s almost impossible to make out the extra-thick, linguine-like noodles hidden below. They say that the salt and calories go a long way to replenishing the body after a day’s work making forks and spoons.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, bamboo shoots, chopped white onions, lard.
Famous shops: Fukuraiten (福来店), Ryûkaitei (龍華亭), Ramen Jun (らーめん潤).


Tokyo Ramen

tokyoramen-forwebToday, Tokyo is home to an almost unimaginable variety of ramen styles and trends, but buried amid the thousands of shops, there is such a thing as traditional Tokyo ramen. Drawing from the soy-based broth brought to Japan by Chinese immigrants more than 100 years ago, Tokyo’s shoyu ramen is made from pork, chicken, veggies, kombu seaweed, shaved bonito flakes (katsuobushi), and other dried fish. The standard bowl contains scallions, nori, roast pork, and bamboo shoots set atop curly noodles, and nowhere in the metropolis is very far from a neighborhood shop or late-night pushcart slinging this nostalgic standard. This simple-seeming yet subtly complex style is probably the most recognizable image of ramen for millions of hungry slurpers around the world.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake, nori, spinach.
Famous shops: Chuka Soba Manpuku (中華そば萬福), Harukiya (春木屋), Sakaeya Milk Hall (栄屋ミルクホール).


Tokyo Tsukemen (つけ麺)

tsukemen-forwebRamen’s popularity has grown by leaps and bounds over the last decade, and one of the most notable trends has been the rise of tsukemen. As much a different concept of ramen as a regional style, undressed tsukemen noodles are dipped into an accompanying bowl of fishy, barely diluted broth before slurping. Though tsukemen has taken the ramen world by storm of late, it traces its history to the early postwar era, when the now-legendary “God of ­Ramen,” Kazuo Yamagishi of ­Tokyo’s Taishoken, ­decided to offer his customers soup and noodles separately. The sweet, spicy, vinegary broth clinging to extra-fat noodles has spawned literally thousands of imitators—tsukemen has staked its claim in the noodle ­pantheon.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo, fish cake.
Famous shops: Taishoken (大勝軒), Tetsu (哲), Rokurinsha (六厘舎).


Tokyo Abura Soba (油そば)

tokyoaburasoba-forwebLiterally meaning “oily noodles,” abura soba is ramen sans soup. Instead of sitting in broth, freshly boiled noodles are placed atop a thin layer of concentrated flavor essence (tare) and mixed by diners, who add vinegar, chili oil, and other toppings before stirring and slurping. This seemingly postmodern snack actually dates back to the mid-’50s, when a series of shops located in the suburbs west of Tokyo began serving soupless bowls. More recently, places like Junk Garage and Bubuka have upped the ante, adding a mess of toppings like raw eggs, mayo, hot peppers, chopped garlic, fried noodles, and, of course, lard to create a beast somewhere between noodle nachos and a heart attack in a bowl.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo, vinegar, chili oil, mayo, raw egg, garlic, lard.
Famous shops: Chinchintei (珍珍亭), Bubuka (ぶぶか).


Yokohama Ie-kei Ramen (横浜家系ラーメン)

yokohama-forwebMost ramen histories trace the introduction of ramen to Japan to Yokohama, where it arrived with Chinese traders in the late nineteenth century. These days, Yokohama is better known for ie-kei ramen, a viscous, salty, and fatty tonkotsu-shoyu style pioneered at Yoshimuraya in 1974. The shop’s many imitators add the character ie(家, meaning “home”) to their names in tribute to the founder of this open-source ramen. When ordering, diners can calibrate the firmness of the noodles, the amount of suspended fat, and the saltiness of the soup to the delight of their tongue and the detriment of their arteries. Yokohama is also home to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, a must-visit for any noodle aficionado.

Style/tare: Tonkotsu-shoyu.
Toppings: Three sheets of nori, stewed spinach, garlic, ginger, spicy bean paste.
Famous shops: Yoshimuraya (吉村家), Rokkakuya (六角家), Budoka (武道家).


Nagoya “Taiwan” Ramen (台湾ラーメン)

taiwanramen-forwebDon’t show up in Nagoya looking for “Nagoya ramen,” or you’ll go home hungry. The city’s best-known noodle dish is kishimen, the flatter and curlier cousin of udon, but Nagoya also has its own ramen legacy. “Taiwan ramen” is Nagoya’s claim to slurp fame—the name originates from the Taiwanese-born chef who ran the ramen shop Misen back in the ’70s. Wanting to give the locals a taste of home, he whipped up a reimagined version of Taiwanese danzimian, piling on ground pork, Chinese chives, green onions, and hot peppers. Taiwan ramen enjoyed a moment of fame in the ’80s, when a capsaicin-based diet craze swept Japan, and locals still love it. Apparently it’s a regular menu item in the corporate cafeteria at the Toyota headquarters in Nagoya.
Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Ground pork, Chinese chives, hot peppers, scallions, garlic.
Famous shops: Misen (味仙).


Kyoto Ramen (京都ラーメン)

kyoto-ramen-forwebGiven Kyoto’s cultural reputation, you might expect its ramen to be a rarefied and refined reworking of the humble noodle soup. But the old capital is home to two distinct types of down-home ramen: the thinner assari-kei shoyu ramen, and a thick, gritty chicken-soup kotteri-kei ramen, both of which are referred to as “Kyoto ramen.” The former is a blend of pork and chicken broth, with a dark soy base; the latter is a rich porridge-like soup culled mostly from chicken, topped with spicy bean paste, chives, garlic, and pungent local kujnoegi onions—it’s quite popular with the town’s large student population.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Assari-kei: roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, nori; some shops offer pats of butter. Kotteri-kei: roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, spicy chives, minced garlic, chili bean paste, white pepper.
Famous shops: Assari-kei: Shinpuku Saikan (新福菜館). Kotteri-kei: Tenka Ippin (天下一品), Tentenyu (天天有).


Wakayama Ramen (和歌山ラーメン)

wakayama-forwebWhereas eastern Japan is dominated by thinner shoyu ramen, western Japan is the kingdom of rich, porky tonkotsu soup—and Wakayama is the happy medium where the twain meet. Known by locals aschuka soba (“Chinese noodles”), Wakayama ramen is based on a strong soy sauce tare and a heap of long-simmered pork bones. The noodles resemble the long, thin, firm threads of Hakata ramen, but you won’t fail to find a pink-and-white fish cake of the kind that pop up often in Tokyo. Most shops also offer hayazushi—traditional western-Japanese-style vinegared-mackerel sushi pressed onto rice and wrapped in an edible leaf.

Style/tare: Tonkotsu-shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, fish cake.
Famous shops: Ide Shoten (井出商店), Marusan (丸三), Marutaka (丸高).


Tokushima Ramen

tokushima-forwebThe smallest of Japan’s four main islands, Shikoku is not known as a ramen hot spot. Udon is the ruling noodle in these parts, but Tokushima prefecture garners ramen ­respect for serving up a satisfying and complex shoyu soup. As the story goes, resourceful Tokushimans made broth out of the leftover pork bones from the many ham factories located nearby, and mixed in some extra-strong aged soy sauce to craft a tasty bowl not far removed from its cross-strait kissin’ cousin, Wakayama ramen. Add a few strips of thinly sliced pork belly, then break a raw egg on top of it all, and you’ve got a delicious dish. Tokushima ramen is sometimes divided into “black,” “yellow,” and “white” styles, in descending order of the strength of the soup served at a given shop.

Style/tare: Tonkotsu-shoyu.
Toppings: Scallions, pork belly, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, raw egg.
Famous shops: Inotani (いのたに), Shunyoken (春陽軒).


Onomichi Ramen (尾道ラーメン)

Onomichi ramen emerged as a distinct style in the years after World War II. It’s a relatively straightforward formula: take a lot of chicken, a little bit of pork, and add some local seafood—but it isn’t Onomichi ramen without a big helping of cooked lard and suspended pork fat on top. A shoyu base and homemade flat-wavy-chewy noodles round out the bowl. Onomichi got its own stop on the bullet train in 1988, and passengers have been known to get off the train just to grab a bowl. The city’s most famous shop, Shukaen, was founded in 1947, and most tourists don’t leave town without making a pilgrimage.

Style/tare: Shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bamboo shoots, lard.
Famous shops: Shukaen (朱華園).


Hakata Ramen (博多ラーメン)

hakata-forwebAny devotee of Hakata ramen knows that the best way to find a bowl is by following your nose. Broken pork bones are cooked over a high flame for days at a time here until the marrow seeps out, giving off a rancid odor that belies the smooth and creamy broth. While eating at street-side stalls along Fukuoka’s Nakasu River, drunken diners can order unlimited extra servings (kaedama) of the thin, unrisen noodles to dump in their soup; a true Hakata ramen fan will have his noodles dipped in boiling water for barely a second before slurping them almost raw. The final component of Hakata ramen (which is also known as Nagahama ramen) are the tableside toppings, including sesame seeds, garlic, pink pickled ginger, spicy mustard greens, and soy base to strengthen the soup.

Style/tare: Tonkotsu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, nori, pickled ginger, garlic, spicy mustard greens (takana), garlic.
Famous shops: Ganso Nagahamaya (元祖長浜屋), Ichiryu (一竜), Ippudo (一風堂).


Kurume Ramen (久留米ラーメン)

kurume-forwebFew towns have exerted as great an influence on ramen history as Kurume. In 1937, Miyamoto Tokio’s street-side stand Nankin Senryo started serving porky tonkotsu ramen; ten years later, a pot of bones left simmering too hot for too long at the nearby shop Sankyu proved to be a happy accident when the chef found the stinky and milky-white marrow-infused soup to be highly delicious. The broth with the beastly stench quickly earned devotees, and Kurume ramen spread across Kyushu, giving the southern island its distinctive style. Bits of fried lard, lots of melted marrow, and tableside offerings of sesame, pickled ginger, and garlic give Kurume ramen a pungent punch.

Style/tare: Tonkotsu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, nori, pickled ginger, sesame, spicy mustard greens, garlic.
Famous shops: Taiho (大砲), Tairyu (大龍).


Kumamoto Ramen (熊本ラーメン)

kumamote-forwebTonkotsu ramen spread from its birthplace in Kurume to take root in Kumamoto prefecture, where locals started cutting it with a little chicken broth. Like all Kyushu prefectures, Kumamoto serves straight noodles, though they’re a bit thicker and softer than those to the north. In addition to the standard toppings, most bowls of Kumamoto also feature pickled mustard greens, sliced wood-ear mushrooms (kikurage), bean sprouts, and cabbage. What sets Kumamoto ramen apart, and keeps its fans devoted, is a heavy hand with the garlic, laid on as both fried garlic chips and the black liquid known as mayu, made from garlic burned in sesame oil. If you’ve ever eaten at the worldwide chain Ajisen, you’ve probably tasted a bastardized version of Kumamoto ramen.

Style/tare: Tonkotsu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, nori, wood-ear mushrooms, cabbage, garlic chips, burnt garlic oil.
Famous shops: Kodaiko (こだいこ), Kokutei (黒亭), Keika (桂花), Komurasaki (こむらさき).


Kagoshima Ramen (鹿児島ラーメン)

kagoshima-forwebKnown for its strong liquor, incomprehensible dialect, rebellious spirit, and mutton-chopped elders, Kagoshima is Japan’s Deep South. Kagoshima played a key role in ending the feudal shogunate and establishing modern Japan in the nineteenth century, and, as it turns out, their ramen is ahead of its time too. Kagoshima ramen cooks have been using their local brand of black pig (known stateside as Berkshire pork) since way before it was cool. The only ramen in Kyushu that doesn’t trace its origins back to Kurume, Kagoshima ramen features a surprisingly mild broth of pork, chicken, and veggie stock finished with burnt onions. Noodles are cooked quite a bit past al dente, and can be either quite thin or quite thick, reflecting influences from both Okinawa and Taiwan.

Style/tare: Tonkotsu-shoyu.
Toppings: Roast pork, scallions, bean sprouts, wood-ear mushrooms.
Famous shops: Noboruya (のぼる屋), Komurasaki (こむらさき), Wadaya (和田屋).

Photos of people lining up outside of the Sapporo Apple Store make us feel positively frozen

Sapporo

We thought people were dedicated when they lined up in droves to wait for the release of the iPhone 6 earlier this year, but that’s nothing compared to what these people had to endure while waiting for New Year’s lucky bags outside of the Apple Store in Sapporo, Japan!

Would you wait outside in the freezing cold for over a day and risk catching pneumonia in order to score some spiffy Apple products?

Seriously, just looking at these photos is enough to make me throw on five extra layers and crank up the heat. I certainly wouldn’t be willing to wait around all night in freezing temperatures just to get some cool electronics, but kudos to those of you who are. Oh, and can I offer you some steaming hot tea?

Let’s take a look at some of those brave/crazy souls through the eyes of Japanese Twitter users:

“It’s snowing hard in front of the Sapporo Apple Store [around 3:20 am].”

View image on Twitter

“It’s 5am now–is everyone still alive? Don’t die! Hang in there just a little bit longer!”

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“January 2, 5:10 am, in front of the Sapporo Apple Store. About five officers came by to make sure that the people who weren’t moving are still alive!”

View image on Twitter

One Twitter user, @misor_cross, lined up with four others for over 42 hours and painstakingly documented the whole ordeal. Here are some of her posts:

 ▼“12/31, 4:45 pm–outside of the Sapporo Apple Store.”

View image on Twitter

“Happy New Year! I welcomed the New Year outside of the Sapporo Apple Store. The temperature on 1/1 at 5:05 am is -4.5ºC [23.9ºF], but there are already 11 people lining up.”  

View image on Twitter

“1/1 at 12 pm at the Sapporo Apple Store. 2o hours left until the store opens for the first business of the year! The line has grown to 32 people. I’m a bit worried about the weather–I hope it doesn’t snow…”

View image on Twitter

“1/1 at 4:25 pm at the Sapporo Apple Store. There are 77 people lined up now! The line looks like it will wrap around the corner at Mitsukoshi [a department store]. There are plenty of Apple lovers this year as well!” 

View image on Twitter

“1/2 at 6 am at the Sapporo Apple Store. The long, long wait is almost over! Only two hours left! By the way, there are now 130 people in line.”

View image on Twitter

 

Here are some comments by other Japanese net users who saw the tweets:

“They’re gonna freeze to death!”

“What part of that is ‘lucky‘?”

“I hope they return alive…”

“Are the bags worth enough to almost die and have to go to the hospital?”

“It’s like a modern-day version of Mount Hakkoda [a 1997 Japanese film based on historical events from the winter of 1902 in which 199 out of 210 Japanese Imperial Army soldiers died during a blizzard as they were crossing Aomori Prefecture’s Mt. Hakkoda].”

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to make some hot chocolate and crawl under my blankets to hibernate for a bit.

Darth Vader to be featured in large-scale Star Wars snow sculpture at 2015 Sapporo Snow Festival

 

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RocketNews 24:

The annual Sapporo Snow Festival held in Japan’s northernmost prefecture has been delighting tourists and locals for over six decades. Each year, artists from around the world are invited to show off their talents constructing enormous structures out of ice and snow.

To commemorate the release of the seventh installment of the Star Wars series, The Walt Disney Company has collaborated with festival officials to design what looks to be the most epic large-scale snow sculpture yet, featuring enormous snow versions of Darth Vader, three Storm Troopers, a TIE fighter, and the Death Star.

Sapporo Snow Festival officials recently announced the collaboration, marking the first large-scale snow sculpture licensed by Lucasfilm. The design will be made a reality in time for the 66th anniversary of the festival, scheduled to take place from February 5 to February 11, 2015.

Darth Vader, lightsaber in hand, stands at the forefront of the design, beside him are three Stormtroopers, blaster rifles at the ready. In the background, a TIE fighter and the Death Star are seen in legendary detail. And just in case the iconic characters weren’t enough of a hint, the words “Star Wars” will be carved out on the lower corner.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens will open in theaters December 18, 2015; we’re sure glad we have this snow sculpture of epic proportions to tide us over until then!