Hokkaido Foodie Hotspots
Where to Eat in Hokkaido: Sapporo (Susukino bar and restaurant area, Nijo market, Jyogai Central Wholesale Market), Hakodate, Asahikawa, Kushiro, Obihiro, Otaru; the Shakotan Peninsula, Biei, Wakkannai, Monbetsu, Abashiri; around the Sapporo Snow Festival; New Chitose Airport.
Gourmet Hokkaido Must-try Dishes include:
Ishikari Nabe hotpot; Ruibe frozen sashimi; Jingisukan lamb hotpot; Trout, salmon, shishamo smelt; Great ramen in Sapporo, Asahikawa and Hakodate (and beyond); Trappist Butter and locally-produced artisanal cheese; Sapporo and local craft beers; Rishiri and Rausu konbu kelp; sake;
Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost and second-largest island, has long been Japan's breadbasket, and serious foodies will make the long trip North to sample its fabulous cuisine. In reality you never need leave Sapporo, the cosmopolitan, restaurant and izakaya-filled 'capital', but Hokkaido's wide-open spaces, its gorgeous nature, and its freshest fish, vegetables, lamb, beef and venison make a trip into the wilds a serious gourmet Hokkaido draw.
The islands great rivers, the Ishikarigawa, the Teshiogawa and Tokachigawa provide water alluvial plains and fertile basins for agriculture. Its cuisine springs from the confluence of salmon-filled mountain streams and the rich, cold-water ocean that surrounds the island.
Foodies Go Hokkaido
Hokkaido’s best-loved dish is the nabemono hotpot dish, Ishikari-nabe. It's a wonderful hotpot, named for the small settlement near Sapporo that was once so dependent on salmon that it had its own ‘Department of Salmon’ in the town hall. It found in just about every Hokkaido izakaya, and features jagaimo potatoes, hakusai Chinese cabbage, tofu, daikon giant white radish, carrots, konnyaku devil’s tongue, konbu kelp, mushrooms, and all those good Hokkaido local ingredients.
The island’s fresh seafood is legendary and, generally speaking excellent value. Topping the list of Hokkaido foodie must eats is shake salmon. Find it sumibiyaki charcoal-grilled, steamed in sake, added to zosui rice soup, or in sushi and raw as sashimi.
In the indiginous Ainu dish ruibe, it is frozen to a temperature of -20 degrees Celsius or less, for more than 12 hours, then sliced very thinly, and eaten dipped in the best shoyu. Simple and sublime. Top Hokkaido chefs refuse to cut ruibe with a knife, for fear of tainting the salmon with a metallic taste. Rather they slice it using the sharp edge of an abalone shell.
Kani crab is the iother gourmet Hokkaido superstar. The great kegani horsehair crabs of Wakkanai in the far north and Nemuro and Kushiro in the east are especially prized, and are in season from December to April. Look out too for hanasakigani spiny king crab in Nemuro. Crab specialists across the island serve them in myriad ways, with kaninabe hotpot the favorite.
Kushiro is also the shishamo smelt capital of Hokkaido. The season begins with Japanese railway-timetable precision on 10th October, but for the best fish, arrive in Kushiro a month later, when the fish are heavy with roe. Eat them grilled over charcoal.
Wakkanai also specializes in tako-shabu octopus shabu-shabu. It is here that you'll also find the most remote ramen shop in the land, serving excellent, but rather pricey crab ramen.
Sapporo is where much of Hokkaido’s specialty products end up, either in the fabulous Nijo Ichiba market, with its myriad, inexpensive quality eateries, or in the countless izakaya of Tanuki-koji ‘badger alley’ and the Susukino entertainment district. The nearby Lake Shikotsu-ko provides great fish, especially freshwater trout.
Sapporoites are deeply proud of their miso-based Sapporo Ramen. Aji no Sanpei, foundeded by Morito Omiya, a former employee of the South Manchuria Railway Company, who started his ramen yatai street stall in the city in the 1950s, claims to be the its creator. Great ramen lovers in a rush should check out the many assembled varieties at Gansou Ramen Street, Ramen Yokocho, and Ramen Republic, but for local wisdom, see the 'Ramen Professor Recommends', below.
Did someone say "Free beer?". Beer lovers won't want to miss the Sapporo Beer Museum with its Kuro label and Yebisu and limited edition craft specials, and yes, free tastings. Admission too is free.
No culinary account of Sapporo, and Hokkaido at large, without its meat dishes. Much beloved is the dish jingisukan, ie, Ghengis Khan, cooked mutton. Generally the Japanese are not fond of lamb and mutton, but in Hokkaido it is universally popular. Out in the Tsugisappu Jingisukan Club in rural Toyohira ward dates back to 1953 and is a popular day out spot for jingisukan. In the city, Yozora no Jingisukan in Susukino is a local favorite. Tokachi beef is an especially prized wagyu from the Douhoku area of North Hokkaido.
Hakodate is famed for its butter made by nuns at the city’s Trappist monastery, and for the lovely ika somen – squid sliced so thinly that they resemble somen noodles. It is also proud of its ramen rivalry with Sapporo and Asahikawa, claiming its salt-based Hakodate ramen to be superior.
Asahikawa boasts more ramen shops per capita than anywhere else in Japan. Its signature Asahikawa ramen is most often based on a W-soup ('double soup') of fish, pork, and chicken with a shoyu soy tare flavor-base. The noodles are thin, wavy, and slightly hard. Invariably it also contains lard, adding a thin layer of oil to the surface of the broth.
The Ramen Mura 'ramen village' is a collection of eight local specialists. Miso ramen and tonkotsu pork broth varieties are also very popular. The successful Santoka chain began here in 1988, for example, on a pork broth base.
Asahikawa is also a major sake producing center.
The Hokkaido Budget Gourmet
Obihiro gyudon pork on rice; Otaru nigirizushi; unidon, ikuradon and unimeshidon rice bowls, Hokkaido soup curry, Zangi 'Kushiro-style' fried chicken, and Kita Agari jumbo potato with butter are among the B-kyu gurume favorites.
The Ramen Professor Recommends
Hokkaido is to ramen what France is to wine. The permutations and possibilities are endless. Look at our articles on great places to eat ramen in Sapporo. Most famous are the three great ramen 'S'-es of Sumire, Saimi and Shingen for old school skills, though permutations are endless with the city purportedly boasting more than 3000 stores. In Asahikawa near the station, Santoka Honten, Baikohken and Tenkin all good, though in deep midwinter, I like Hachiya.
For Hakodate, Jiyouken (since 1947) without a doubt. Seiryuken (with its Michelin approval) and local favorite Kamome also good. If you travel along the Northern coast from Wakkanai to Abashiri, check out the fish and shellfish 'muddy style' doro ramen. Tastes far better than it looks. Darumaya in Abashiri is good.
Off The Beaten Track
Not a huge secret in itself, but the quality of food on offer, an d the prices at the Kitano Gourmet food hall near to Sapporo's Jyogai Central Wholesale Market make it a foodie must-visit. A genuine hideaway is to be found in the town of Monbetsu up in the north, where local crab and seafood merchant Marutomi runs its Izakaya-shokudo, Yotteke Marutomi, right next door to the fish dealership. Unbelievable quality and value.
FGL Favorite Tipple
Head down to the Chitosetsuru Sake Museum in the heart of Sapporo, or the Takasago Brewery Museum and Otokoyama Brewery museum in Asahikawa for tastings.