Hokkaido, the northernmost island in the Japanese archipelago, is known for its blisteringly cold climate. The largest of the 47 prefectures of Japan, Hokkaido’s expansive landscape of green rolling hills and placid blue lakes transforms into a skiing and snowboarding playground in the winter months, when temperatures drop to 30 degrees below zero. During this season, about two million tourists flock to the capital city of Sapporo to marvel at the spectacular and dream-like display of ice sculptures and sparkling snow castles on the streets.
But Hokkaido is more than a winter wonderland. The island shines, not just with icicles, but with Michelin stars. It was in 2012 when the Michelin Guide first bestowed an astounding number of these much-coveted stars to restaurants in Hokkaido. Nukumi, Sushi Tanabe, Moliere (all in Sapporo, Hokkaido) and Michel Bras Toya Japan (Toyako, Hokkaido) glittered with three stars. Twelve other restaurants got two stars, and 50 more were awarded one.
Even before Michelin put Hokkaido on the world gastronomic map, the Japanese have long considered the island one of their top gourmet destinations. The reason is clear: the island’s natural produce is incomparable. The cool climate and vast grasslands, the largest in Japan, are perfect for agriculture and livestock breeding. Here, the black and white Holstein cows that produce the bulk of Japan’s dairy graze on healthy, abundant grass and drink unpolluted mountain water. The same goes for the Japanese black cows, known for yielding Wagyu, the marbled beef prized in Japan and the world. These cows are raised in the natural splendor of the island, in chilly conditions ideal for relaxing and fattened on a nutritious diet of soybean, corn, and grass. The cold waters that surround Hokkaido—the Sea of Japan, Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean—are the ideal habitat for some of the world’s best seafood.
Here, then, are seven reasons why Hokkaido should be on every gourmand’s bucket list.
1. King crab, Botan sweet shrimp, sea urchin, salmon roe
Seafood from Hokkaido is the most sought after in Japan—and with good reason. Eaten raw, with no marinating or seasoning, seafood is exceptionally sweet, meaty, and scrumptious.
The prime example is, of course, the unrivaled Hokkaido king crab. Its menacingly long legs may look like the stuff of nightmares, but the juicy, delicious meat packed within its shell is the stuff of foodie dreams. The Botan sweet shrimp is another mouthwatering delicacy. Best to bite into its sweet and succulent flesh—fresh and raw. The Hokkaido king crab, Botan shrimp, and other fresh catch from the sea are sold both live and frozen at Kaisen-Ichiba, Kitano Gourmet. This is the oldest wholesale market shop in Sapporo. While it may look very unassuming, the 65-year-old store houses what some consider the best seafood in the world.
More bucket list items in Japan:
- A peek into the world of artisanal sake
- A nostalgic shopping trip in Ginza
- Straining for enlightenment in Ryoanji
When you walk around the market, shopkeepers will ask you to try the uni (sea urchin). Do yourself a favor and say yes, as Hokkaido’s uni is known for its pure, creamy texture and briny taste. You will also be offered a sampling of ikura (salmon roe), which is rich in both color and taste. You will particularly enjoy the salty and sweet burst of flavor from these glassy orange pearls.
Meanwhile, just above the market is the shop restaurant, Kaisen-Shokudo Kitano Gourmet-tei. It will cook any of the live seafood sold in the market. For variety, order Hokkaido king crab and kaisen-don, a bowl of rice topped with an array of Hokkaido’s fresh catch.
2. Cheesecake, ice cream, and cheese tarts at the Takahashi Farm
Also dubbed “Milkland Hokkaido,” the island is known for the high quality of dairy it produces. For 25 years, Hokkaido has supplied most of Japan’s milk and cheese products.
Takahashi Farm at the foot of Mount Yotei lets you sample the glorious milky produce from the Brown Swiss and Holstein cows. Here, cows are stress-free; they feed on Hokkaido’s lush grass and drink clean and clear water from the nearby mountain.
Café e+s+t on Takahashi Farm serves light and fluffy yet deliciously creamy cheesecakes, ice cream from the morning’s milk, and cheese tarts that are crunchy on the outside and runny with cheesy goodness inside. Enjoy them on the Takahashi farm while savoring the magnificent view of Mount Yotei.
3. Wagyu beef
Aside from the Brown Swiss and Holstein cows, Hokkaido is also home to the black Shiraoi Wagyu cows. Don’t miss a trip to the Uemura Ranch, which serves melt-in-your-mouth beef. The ranch has been consistently awarded for producing the best beef around Hokkaido. They also sell frozen packs of Wagyu to take home.
4. Chocolate and cookies from Shiroi Koibito and Royce
Shiroi Koibito is famous for its chocolate and cookie products created from Hokkaido milk. At the theme park and chocolate factory, you can learn how to make their famous delights. Drop by the cafe offering chocolate and milk concoctions. Or, wander around the whimsical miniature village and garden. And try the famous Shiroi Koibito cookie, a delicious sandwich made of two thin butter cookies filled with yummy white chocolate. The cookies are popular take-home gifts and can be bought by the box.
5. Hokkaido butter
Hokkaido milk is also used for making another item the region is famous for—butter. Light, creamy, and with just the right amount of saltiness, Hokkaido butter doesn’t overwhelm. Use it with a little bit of soy sauce to top grilled Hokkaido scallops.
6. Fresh fruits in season at Hamada Marutome Fruits Garden
In Dreams, Akira Kurosawa’s film shot in Hokkaido, there is a peach orchard that’s loved not only for the fruit it produces, but for the loveliness of the trees. It’s a scene that could have been shot in Sobetsu, Hokkaido, where fruit trees have been in cultivation for more than a century. There are about 40 families known to farm the area. It is the leading producer of fruit in Hokkaido.
You may want to visit the Hamada Marutome Fruits Garden, one of the oldest farms in Hokkaido. Peaches and apples are abundant depending on the season. Hamada is said to have the oldest apple tree in Sōbetsu—believed to have been planted in 1890.
When I visited the farm during the fall, rows upon rows of apple trees were laden with fruit. The scene was charming, but the best part was that it wasn’t just for looking. For a fee, you can enter and roam the orchard and eat the fruit from any of the 20 apple tree varieties, with the sweetest one being the Toki variety.
7. Kaiseki experience at Moku No Sho
The hotel Moku No Sho wasn’t just a place to rest for the night, it was a destination in itself. Secluded at the foot of Mount Niseko, Moku No Sho is a mod-ernized ryokan or traditional Japanese inn. Surrounded by a lofty canopy of trees, it’s elegant and contemporary, with sleek, warm wood interiors and a col-lection of modern sculpture and ancient Ainu art.
In this tranquil hideaway, the only sounds you will hear are the rushing waters of Momiji Waterfall and the Niseko Anbetsu River.
During my stay, we were given our own yukata or traditional Japanese robes to wear within the ryokan, as if to say, “Welcome home.” The whole atmosphere of Moku No Sho, in fact, makes visitors want to rest and savour the stillness.
Meals are carefully prepared, kaiseki-style. Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal, consisting of a sequence of artistically prepared dishes. Each dish uses choice, local ingredients and are pleasingly arranged in indigenous Ainu earthenware. Every kaiseki meal allows you to taste and savor the rich and diverse natural bounty of Hokkaido.
Photographs by Cris Bilbao
This article originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 19 No 1 2015.