How I ate my way through Japan’s northern-most island.
Blessed with fertile hinterland and bitterly cold, crystal clear waters, Hokkaido is a food-lover’s paradise with fresh succulent seafood, abundant produce and some of the world’s sweetest and creamiest dairy products. I came to Hokkaido in search of a taste of nature’s bounty and to experience the laid-back hospitality the island is famed for.
Not surprisingly, these gastronomical delights can be easily found in capital city Sapporo, as well as hotspots including Niseko and Otaru. If you venture further afield, just ask the locals for their food recommendations and you won’t go wrong. When it comes to food in Hokkaido, here are some Hokkaido specialities you must try when you visit the region.
World-famous King Crab prepared fresh. Credit: Japan National Tourism Organization
Hokkaido’s ultra-fresh, succulent, sweet seafood is deservedly world famous, with a mind-boggling array of excellent shellfish, crustaceans and fish on offer from the surrounding waters to fill your belly. However, the pinnacle of seafood dining here has to be the crab, with four main species of this delectable crustacean to sample, including hanasaki, hairy, snow and king crab.
King crab, in particular, is considered one of the most exquisite delicacies known to mankind and if you are looking for a treat, enjoy this at Sapporo establishment Kani-Honke. Otherwise, mingle with the locals and tuck into a freshly prepped bowl of crab or an assortment of delicious offerings from the ocean at a seafood market, such as Nijo Market in Sapporo (Minami 3 Higashi 2, Chuo-ku), or the Sankaku Market in Otaru (3 Chome-10-16 Inaho).
Also worth an honourable mention is the uni (sea urchin), which is in abundant supply during winter and is typically served in generous portions over a bed of rice and washed down with lots of sake.
Credit: Japan National Tourism Organization
When it comes to staying warm in Hokkaido (summer temperatures average 20˚C to 23˚C, which is still brisk by tropical standards), there’s nothing like a piping hot bowl of freshly cooked ramen. In Hokkaido, miso ramen takes centrestage. Here, they add a slice of butter to add depth to your miso soup and perhaps to provide local denizens with an extra layer of insulation against the cold weather.
I made a beeline for the historic Ramen Yokocho alley in downtown Sapporo, where miso ramen is said to have originated. With around 17 tiny ramen shops crammed into a very narrow alleyway, I picked a shop at random and walked in. As luck would have it, I ended up ordering the perfect bowl of noodles. With springy noodles and a buttery yet umami miso soup, flavoured with generous toppings of sweet Hokkaido corn and perfectly broiled chashu pork slices, I think I attained noodle nirvana that day.
Ramen Yokocho. Credit: Japan National Tourism Organization
One of the best finds of my trip has to be this unassuming sounding dish, which was invented in Sapporo but has since gained popularity throughout Japan. As the name implies, this is a curry-flavoured soup – but the sum of its parts certainly adds up to more than its whole. The curry soup broth is given a rich depth of flavour with the addition of a cornucopia of fresh Japanese vegetables, such as daikon, lotus root, pumpkin and mushrooms. Typically, you can pick your choice of protein to add to the dish, such as seafood, pork or chicken. Served with Japanese rice, this is comfort food at its best.
Since soup curry joints also allow you to customise the spice level of your soup, the Asian spice addict in me picked the spiciest levels available. I got hopelessly addicted to the fiery burn on my tongue and the warmth in my belly, but if chilli does not suit your palate, start with a milder variation. You can get soup curry throughout Hokkaido, but popular choices include Nishitondendori in Sapporo and Tsubara Tsubara in Niseko.
Sweets and Desserts
Credit: Japan National Tourism Organization
There must be something in the water in Hokkaido because the region’s cows produce some of the creamiest milk I’ve ever tasted. Not surprisingly, foodies flock here for its wide array of dairy products, from ice-cream to cheese and butter, as well as all sorts of Japanese confectioneries.
In Niseko, a must-try is Milk Kobo (888-1 Aza Soga, Niseko-cho, Abuta-gun), which offers homemade ice-cream and cream puffs filled with frothy custard made fresh daily. If you think it can’t get better than that, well, you’re wrong. This little cafe offers diners a magnificent view of the majestic Mount Yotei, making this a sweet treat you won’t forget anytime soon.
To stock up on the prerequisite food gifts for friends and family back home, I headed to the charming town of Otaru, which is home to a number of one-of-a-kind confectionery and pastry shops that are hard to find elsewhere in Japan. The main street, Sakaimachi, is where most of these shops are located. Look out for LeTAO (4-19 Sakaimachi) and get the double fromage cheesecake, which somehow manages to be densely packed with flavour while still maintaining the light texture Japanese-style cakes are known for. Take your time browsing through the other small pastry and dessert stores and don’t forget to bring along an empty tote bag to store your spoils.
Best Time to Visit Hokkaido
Where to Stay
In Niseko, prices for hotel rooms tend to shoot up during the winter months. You may be able to get good deals for highly rated resorts, such as Hilton Niseko Village and Ki Niseko, in the summertime so you can enjoy warm weather activities like cycling and mountain climbing.
Image Credits: Karen Tee