Hokkaidō is a fantastic place to eat, serving up specialities different from what you might find elsewhere in Japan – thanks to its bountiful land, ample coast and a climate that favours belly-warming dishes. Sapporo has the liveliest dining scene, while Niseko, with its star rising ever higher, is becoming more than just a ski spot, it's got some decent restaurants year-round. In coastal areas, the fresh, seasonal seafood – particularly the shellfish – is tops.
Feature: What to Eat in Hokkaidō & Where
Want to make the most of your meals in Hokkaidō? Keep an eye out for the following regional delicacies. To this list we'd add anything from Seico Mart, the only-in-Hokkaidō convenience store chain; if you're driving, good local food can be found at Michi-no-eki road stops.
For many Japanese travellers, Hokkaidō is synonymous with crab. Winter is the season for tarabagani (タラバガニ; king crab), zuwaigani (ズワイガニ; snow crab) and kegani (毛蟹; horse hair crab) from the frigid waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. Restaurants in Sapporo and resort areas like Niseko do lavish crab feasts. But you don't have to spend heaps: kani-jiru (かに汁) – miso soup made with crab – is a decadent treat that many shokudō will serve.
Summer, meanwhile, is uni (うに; sea urchin) season. The islands of Rebun-tō and Rishiri-tō are particularly famous for it. So is Shakotan, which means you can get good uni in season in southern and central Hokkaidō, too. Fish markets, sushi restaurants and shokudō serve uni-don (うに丼), a bowl of rice topped with a mountain of fresh roe; you can also get it with other toppings on a kaisen-don (海鮮丼; mixed seafood on rice). Summer is also the season for the blooming red hanasakigani (花咲ガニ; spiny king crab), found only around Nemuro. In autumn you can get fresh ikura (salmon roe).
Spring is the start of squid season, which moves slowly north through autumn. Hakodate, which peaks in June, is particularly known for squid (it even has a squid festival!). Try ika-sōmen (イカそうめん), raw squid sliced thin like noodles.
Hokkaidō has no fewer than three ramen cities, each specialising in a different style. In Sapporo the signature style is hearty miso-ramen (味噌ラーメン); in Asahikawa it's shōyu ramen (醤油ラーメン; soy-sauce-seasoned ramen); and in Hakodate, shio ramen (塩ラーメン), a light, salt-seasoned broth. In a nod to two of the prefecture's staple products, butter and corn, you'll often have the option to top off your ramen with either (or both!).
This dish of charcoal-grilled mutton is the unofficial symbol of Hokkaidō, a legacy of the island's short-lived 19th-century sheep-rearing program. Its name – a Japanese rendering of Genghis Khan – comes from the unique shape of the cast-iron hotplate used to grill the meat, thought to resemble the warlord's helmet. The meat is grilled on the peak of the hotplate, allowing the juices to run down the sides to the onions and leeks sizzling on the brim. Jingisukan (ジンギスカン) is served all over the island, though especially in the heartland, and is best accompanied by copious amounts of beer.
From a gourmand's perspective, it is something of a tragedy that little remains of Hokkaidō's indigenous cuisine. From 19th-century anthropological reports and travellers' diaries, we know that it made use of ingredients such as wild-caught salmon and deer, shoots and roots foraged from forests, seaweed, millet, bear fat and fish oil.
There are a handful of restaurants in Akan National Park that serve the few Ainu dishes that have survived, including ruibe (ルイベ), salmon that has been left out in the Hokkaidō midwinter freeze, sliced up sashimi style, and then served with soy sauce and water peppers; pocche (ポッチェ), traditional dumplings made from fermented potato mash; and ohaw (オハウ), a soup of salmon or venison and wild vegetables.
Country roads are dotted with Michi-no-eki (道の駅; road stations), like highway service areas, but for smaller, toll-free byways. In addition to toilets, tourist information and coffee, Michi-no-eki sell fresh produce, food products and crafts – all locally sourced. There is usually a cafeteria, too. In most cases, the staff and cooks are farmers' wives – which means these can be great places to sample local cooking. They're well signposted and when you've gone miles without seeing anything, they appear like beacons of promise.