Last February I ventured north to Hokkaido for the famed Yuki Matsuri. Admittedly the sculptures were very impressive, the snow slides worth their two hour queues and the atmosphere buzzing. But even though I am a snow-junkie, the festival is not something I feel the need to visit again. The local food, however, demands a return visit (or three).
Hokkaido’s extensive countryside, a vast contrast to the urban sprawl and impregnable mountains of Honshu, enables its huge dairy industry to thrive. About half Japan’s milk comes from Hokkaido, 60% of which is sold for drinking, and the rest used to produce delectable products like butter, cheese, ice cream, and yoghurt.
Dairy is not a big part of Japanese cooking, but is often craved by those with a western palate. Sapporo’s New Chitose airport is therefore the perfect place to stock up on all things milk based before returning south. Omiyage of note includes plastic wrapped balls of sweet cream cheese for your favourite colleagues, and the smoked camembert is a real treat. It goes without saying that the gift wrapping includes cooler packs when needed.
Thanks to the dairy industry Hokkaido is also home to Royce’, producer of delicious chocolate goodies. Founded in Sapporo in 1983 Royce has gone from local delicacy to an international force in the confectionary market, opening branches in Hong Kong, Russia, New York and more. Try the chocolate coated crisps (potato chips) for a delicious sweet-salty combo.
Although loved the country over, ramen is often thought of as a Hokkaido specialty. Sapporo is known for miso broths, Asahikawa soy, and Hakodate salt.
My ramen experience in Sapporo was a pivotal point in my Japanese culinary adventure. In Susukino, a Yuki Matsuri host district, the conveniently located Yokocho (known as ramen alley) made a steaming bowl of noodles the obvious choice to defrost after a few hours admiring ice in the biting cold. The key Hokkaidan difference is that you can have your ramen topped with a knob of local butter. For me this unassuming melting addition transformed a hearty bowl of glorified soup into pure ambrosia, nectar of the gods, consommé of kings…I saw my senses, came to the light, mixed my metaphors, drained the dregs and left, delirious on cholesterol, reborn as a ramen lover.
The cold waters surrounding Japan’s northern island are renowned for their high quality, fresh seafood. Highlights include sea urchin, salmon roe, squid and scallops, but no trip would be complete without sampling some Hokkaido crab.
For a crustacean feast book in at Kani-Honke where in the entrance you will walk past pools filled with the different crabs for you to choose your supper from. I recommend the seven course dinner set which includes crab risotto, crab gratin, tofu in crab broth and crab legs which come with tools to scrape out the flesh: DIY sashimi!
No, not the founder of the Mongol empire, but his helmet… Yet another delicacy of Hokkaido is lamb, and you wouldn’t want to cook it just any old way now would you? In Sapporo, instead of the boring old yakiniku grill you sear slivers of lamb on a table-top cooker in the shape of the famed Hun’s helmet. Why? Who cares!
Take yourself to the Sapporo beer factory museum where, after passing the informative displays [all in Japanese so feel no guilt for whizzing through], indulge in a sampler set of their finest libations. Then, thirst quenched move onto the next cavernous hall for the main event. Order a selection of lamb platters, some sides if you must, and cook to your preference. Make sure you use the plastic bags supplied upon entrance to the restaurant; they will prevent your coat absorbed the smell of grilled meat – although the scent proves pleasantly nostalgic for some. My meal here was conducted in concentrated silence, apt for my first taste of lamb in seven months.
A final foodie stop from Sapporo comes in the form of Indian curry. Not perhaps what you expect to find in the northern realms of Nippon, but Hoheikyo Onsen and its Indian restaurant deserve a visit. An 80 minute bus ride out of downtown Sapporo and through the countryside to nearby mountains will bring you to Trip Advisor’s number one onsen in Japan. Here you can relax your muscles in one of Japan’s largest onsen whilst enjoying panoramic views of the snow-filled valley. Follow bathing up with a delicious curry and huge naan in the onsen’s Indian restaurant; the perfect way to defrost from all the snow festival shenanigans.