The unique cuisine of Hokkaido Hokkaido cuisine: a unique blend of nature and history

Hokkaido's abundant nature has made it one of the best culinary hotspots in Japan, and the food Hokkaido exports has had a major influence on food culture throughout the nation. An essential component of Japanese cuisine today is dashi, a type of stock that can be made from a variety of seafood. Kombu dashi, also known as kelp stock, is made by simmering kelp and is thought to have become popular as a result of exports from Hokkaido. Its delicate umami flavor is something that people could not imagine Japanese cuisine without. Hokkaido's food culture is an example of what happens when you combine an abundance of seafood and mountain vegetables with the wisdom and ingenuity of locals. It took on a new dimension when Western farming techniques were adopted during the developments of the 19th century, leading to the flourishing produce and dairy industries that Hokkaido boasts today. This is all capped off with high-quality beer, whisky and wine, with Hokkaido's cool climate providing the perfect conditions for brewing and distilling.
kelp Kelps are large brown algae seaweeds that make up the order Laminariales.
Genghis Khan Genghis Khan is a popular mutton barbecue dish.You broil lamb or mutton with vegetables. There are roughly two ways to have Genghis Khan; either you broil the marinated meat or dip the broiled meat in sauce.

Hokkaido kelp and Japan's umami culture

Umami, or savory taste, plays such a central role in Japanese food culture that the Japanese term has been adopted by speakers of many other languages.

Umami accentuates the flavor of foods and gives Japanese cuisine its elegant palette. Unlike Western cuisine, where stocks are made from meat or vegetables, many Japanese dishes are made with seafood stock called dashi, which is often made using dried bonito flakes or kelp. Kelp stock is particularly common, used in udon, clear soups called sui-mono and simmered dishes called ni-mono. The majority of the kelp used in Japan comes from Hokkaido and Japan's food culture would be very different without Hokkaido's contribution. Hokkaido kelp comes from various areas including Rishiri Island, Hidaka and Rausu, and each type of kelp has its own distinct taste and use in Japanese stocks and dishes.

The establishment of westbound shipping routes in the mid-17th century saw an increase in kelp shipped from the Yezo and Matsumae regions of what is now Hokkaido to Osaka via Shimonoseki and the Hokuriku region, resulting in the widespread adoption of kelp in Japanese cuisine. Cookery books from this era contain instructions on how to boil the kelp to make stock, and this use of kelp is thought to have been widespread. By adding a delicate umami flavor to dishes such as kaiseki (a multi-course dinner), Hokkaido kelp has helped to make Japan's food culture what it is today.

The foreign experts behind Hokkaido's development

Wheat fields, Shari
Wheat fields, Shari
Hideo Kishimoto&Sapporo Commercial Photo Studio

Hokkaido has the largest produce industry by production volume in Japan. Its vast pastures have also fostered a flourishing dairy farming industry. Much of Hokkaido's success as a produce and dairy giant is the result of foreign advisors who were brought from parts of Europe and the United States that have a similar climate to Hokkaido to share their expertise.

As Japan began to modernize in the late 19th century, the national government appointed a Development Commissioner. In addition to overseeing development work such as aid for former warriors, defense of the northern territory and development of resources, the commissioner invited Horace Capron, the United States Commissioner of Agriculture, to act as an advisor for the promotion of new industries in Hokkaido. Capron assembled a team of top experts from the USA, who used their world-leading knowledge and technology to aid development in fields such as agriculture, industry, mining and medicine.

Public agricultural testing facilities and Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University) carried out a series of experiments on how to grow crops suited to cold climates in Hokkaido's soil. Many Hokkaido specialties, such as onions and corn, were developed under the tutelage by William Penn Brooks and other teachers at Sapporo Agricultural College. In addition to their work on improving the soil, teaching horse-plowing and building farms, the foreign experts introduced modern farm management concepts, all of which shaped Hokkaido's agricultural industry as we know it today.

Hokkaido cuisine: a culmination of abundant ingredients and local knowledge

Genghis Khan is a popular mutton barbecue dish.
Genghis Khan is a popular mutton barbecue dish.

Hokkaido has an abundance of delicious ingredients from the land and sea, allowing the local people to create many unique and wonderful dishes.

Traditional Ainu cuisine was created using local plants and animals, including mountain vegetables such as Siberian onions and giant butterbur, and salmon and other fish from the rivers and lakes,. The salmon that swim upstream to spawn in autumn were a particularly important source of food for the Ainu people, who used all parts of the fish – including the flesh, head and skin - and preserved some of their catches to prepare for the long, cold winters.

Salmon remains a familiar part of Hokkaidoites' lives today, and is used in a variety of local cuisine. Ishikari hotpot, a dish in which filleted salmon and the remaining bones are simmered with vegetables in a miso broth, is said to have been created during the Meiji era so that people would have fish to eat between fishing seasons. Today, fresh local ingredients can be enjoyed at a variety of Hokkaido restaurants. There are even cookery classes available, where some of Hokkaido's friendly locals will introduce you to their area's delicious specialties.

Although lamb is not traditionally part of Japanese cuisine, another Hokkaido classic is a grilled lamb dish called Genghis Khan. This new way of preparing lamb came about during the age of modernization and the development of the domestic wool industry. People in Hokkaido began to study ways to eat the meat of the sheep they were raising for their wool. Marinating the meat in a unique sauce packed with Hokkaido onions and apples was found to effectively counter its distinctive odor. The dish gradually gained in popularity under the name Genghis Khan after the end of the Second World War. Genghis Khan is now a firm favorite for social occasions among families and friends alike.

Brewing and distilling: a new culinary frontier

蒸溜作業
Direct coal-fired distillation is rarely seen in modern whisky production. Highly-skilled craftsmen are required to maintain the correct temperature.
Photo courtesy of Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery

Hokkaido's cool climate is ideal for producing alcoholic beverages such as beer and whisky. Many breweries and distilleries have sprung up in recent years, adding a new dimension to Hokkaido's food culture.

Although they are now well-established Japan, these industries only took root amidst modernization during the Meiji era, and the development of Hokkaido played a large role in their history. During this period, those tasked with the development of Hokkaido began to turn an eye toward making processed goods from Hokkaido's abundant resources and exporting them to other parts of Japan and overseas. Over 40 government-operated factories were opened and a beer brewery and winery were established in Sapporo in 1876.

Following the first successful beer production, local brands have developed taking advantage of Hokkaido’s abundant water, barley and hops. Today, many high-quality beers are available, from major brands to craft beer from a variety of companies around Hokkaido.

Hokkaido's whisky industry began with the establishment of Nikka Whisky in 1934, after the founder, Masataka Taketsuru, visited Yoichi and noticed that Hokkaido's climate was similar to Scotland's. He opened Japan Juice Co., Ltd. and began producing whisky along with apple juice.

Although winemaking had not been prioritized during the modernization of Hokkaido’s agriculture, great advances have been made in recent years. Efforts began in Ikeda, Furano and Sapporo before spreading throughout Hokkaido. With the hard work of many wineries, techniques were developed to successfully grow European wine grapes in Hokkaido's climate, which led to the production of a variety of wines.

In 2018, a new whisky was completed. Akkeshi Distillery makes use of the commonalities between Akkeshi and the island of Islay in Scotland - a cool, wet climate and peat marshes with clear water - to create whisky that follows traditional Scottish methods but has a unique aroma and taste that reflects Akkeshi's culture.

Each winery and brewery in Hokkaido has its own story - its own climate, its own history, its own taste. Enjoying these drinks with delicious local cuisine is a whole new travel experience.

Stories

Things To Do

Start your culinary journey by learning about Hokkaido's unique nature, culture and history, so that you can fully understand the context of the amazing dishes and drinks you'll try along the way. If you can, try a cookery class - making the food yourself while getting to know the friendly locals will make your visit extra special. Also, don't forget to check out Hokkaido's wineries and distilleries, where you can enjoy samples and even take a bottle or two home to remind you of your trip.

Learn to cook local cuisine with the "Sailors' Mothers"

Learn how to cook freshly caught fish the way local families do from the women's section of a local fishery cooperative, known as the Hama no Kasan or "Sailors' Mothers". Get to know these friendly local women as you cook and eat a homestyle meal together.

Recommended Tours

Photo courtesy of Shikabe Hot Springs Tourism Association

Shikabe Hot Springs Tourism Association

JA

Try making a Shikabe-style family meal with fresh seafood caught in Shikabe. The women's section of the Shikabe Fishery Cooperative (Hama no Kasan or Sailors' Mothers) will give you a fascinating lesson starting with cutting the fish. When you're done, you can sit down together and enjoy a meal you can't find in a restaurant. Don't miss this chance to get to know the locals! (Reservation required at least 1 week in advance.)

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Visit a winery or sake brewery and discover your new favorite drink

Hokkaido has just the right environment for wineries, breweries and whisky distilleries, a number of which offer samples and tours. Make sure you visit at least one during your trip - it will give you a unique opportunity to learn about the climate in which these beverages are made and the history behind them, so that you can understand just why your favorite drink tastes so good.

Recommended Tours

NIPPONSEISHU Co.,Ltd.

Yoichi Wine

JA

Wines from Yoichi Town mainly feature Kerner, Zweigeltrebe and Müller-Thurgau grapes. All of these are German species, and are well suited to cold climates. Yoichi Winery is located inside Yoichi's vineyard, and the nature-rich spot provides an experience where food and art meet. In addition to tours of the winery, there's a gallery, art studio, store and restaurant.

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Tokachi Wine

JA

The people at this laboratory know that making good wine begins with growing good grapes. Tokachi Wine develops new species of grapes and turns northern Japan's unique, tart grapes into great wine, particularly well-aged wines. In addition to sampling delicious wines, you can tour the laboratory.

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Iwamizawa Tourism Association

Takizawa Winery

JA

This winery can make up to 25,000 bottles of wine at a time. The store on the second floor offers a stunning view of the entire vineyard. Along with classics like Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, the winery has new additions such as Kerner, Müller and Delaware, as well as sparkling wine and cider. When you visit you can enjoy samples and even full glasses of their specialty wines.

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Housui Winery

JA

With an intimate knowledge of Iwamizawa’s terroir, this winery produces strong yields and grapes with a flavor unique to the area. Grapes are cultivated in the vast fields that surround the winery and wine is produced and sold on-site. The winemaking facilities can also be viewed from the second floor of the winery building.

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Occi Gabi Winery

JA

The owner of this winery studied winemaking in Germany before moving to Yoichi. The grapes are cultivated in the winery's own vineyard and turned into well-aged wine in a strategically placed underground cellar. The winery also includes a restaurant with a view of the whole vineyard, a sample counter with a view of the Sapporo and Otaru mountains, a big Western-style garden surrounding the winery building and vast vineyards all around. Your meal at the restaurant can be complemented with samples of Occi Gabi's wines.

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Photo courtesy of Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery

Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery

JA

This distillery was born when Masataka Taketsuru, the founder of Nikka Whisky and the father of Japanese whisky, decided to make authentic Scottish whisky in Yoichi. A museum has been opened inside the vast grounds, where you can learn about the history of whisky and the chain of events that made Nikka what it is today. In the distillery, you can learn how whisky is made, tour parts of the facility and sample Nikka's range of whisky.

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AKKESHI CONCHIGLIE.

Akkeshi Conchiglie

JA

The most popular whisky comes from Islay in Scotland, an area that is similar to Akkeshi in climate and other natural conditions. Akkeshi Conchiglie strives to emulate Islay whisky while putting Akkeshi's unique stamp on every bottle. Tours of Conchiglie's Akkeshi distillery are available with an advance reservation, and are followed by a whisky tasting accompanied by a local oyster dish.

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Photo courtesy of Sapporo Beer Museum

Sapporo Beer Museum

JA

Converted from an old brick building that Sapporo Beer used as a malt house from 1903 to 1965. This museum teaches you all about Sapporo Beer's story, including its introduction by Hokkaido's Development Commissioner in the 19th century as part of efforts to build the foundations of modern Japan, the early days in which it drove Japan's modern beer industry under its former name of Dai-Nippon Beer, and the success Sapporo Beer enjoys today. You can also try Sapporo Beer's most famous products, including some that are only sold in Hokkaido, before heading to the adjoining Sapporo Beer Garden for beer and Genghis Khan.

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TANAKA SAKE BREWING Co., LTD

Tanaka Shuzo

JA

Tanaka Shuzo is one of the only companies in Japan to brew sake all year round, making use of Hokkaido's cool climate. Its historic flagship store is a two-story wooden building constructed in 1927, where you can sample over 10 types of sake including Tanaka Shuzo's famous Takaragawa. The sake is made from 100% Hokkaido-grown rice in stone warehouses built in 1905. As Tanaka Shuzo is a year-round producer, the brewing process can be observed every day, no matter when you visit.

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NIPPONSEISHU Co.,Ltd.

Chitosetsuru Sake Museum

JA

Established during the development era as Hokkaido's first sake brewery, Nippon Seishu grew along with Sapporo to become one of Hokkaido's most famous sake brands. Its sake is made using Gimpu rice grown by contracted local farmers and water that flows from the greenery-rich mountains the south of Sapporo to the Toyohira River. With every bottle, Nippon Seishu's brewers strive to get the most out of the natural qualities of the rice. The Nippon Seishu Museum offers samples of most of the company's products and exhibits equipment from the brewery's early days.

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Kunimare Sake Brewery

JA

Japan's northernmost brewery, Kunimare Sake Brewery uses the abundant, clear groundwater of the Shokanbetsu-dake Mountains to brew sake by the Nambu-Toji method. The rich-flavored sake is sold in a store opened in the 19th century, where you can sample 16 types of sake including new varieties and limited-edition products that are only available locally.

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Photo courtesy of Takasago Shuzo

Takasago Shuzo

JA

Located in a prime rice-growing region with temperatures as low as -20℃, Takasago Meiji Shuzo has all the right conditions for brewing sake. The historic brewery has an antenna shop where you can enjoy samples and offers tours that provide a glimpse into the brewing process (advance reservation required).

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Photo courtesy of Kiyosato Shochu

Kiyosato Shochu

JA

Shochu is a Japanese spirit that is usually made by distilling sweet potatoes, wheat, rice or buckwheat. Kiyosato Shochu was the first distillery in Japan to make shochu from potatoes, and the local potatoes produce a soft, sweet flavor that sets Kiyosato's shochu apart. Hokkaido Kiyosato Taru shochu is made by aging potato shochu in white oak casks, giving it an amber color and a refined, almost whisky-like flavor that combines the sweetness of the potatoes with the fragrance of the oak wood.

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Tracing Hokkaido's history through food culture

Understanding Hokkaido's unique natural environment and historical background is key to appreciating the significance of its cuisine, the development of its industries and the influence its foods have had on culinary culture throughout Japan. Historic sites chronicling the Kitamaebune ship's history and Hokkaido's development will give you insights into Hokkaido's unique story.

Recommended Tours

The Secret of Hokkaido's Unique Identity Together with Abundant Nature
Photo courtesy of Hokkaido Museum

Hokkaido Museum

EN

Find out all about the nature, history and culture of Hokkaido at this general museum. Exhibits tell you the story of the indigenous Ainu culture, how settlers from the mainland lived during the development era and the connection between Hokkaido's people and its nature, giving you a multifaceted understanding of the area's unique environment and culture.

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Historical Village of Hokkaido

EN

The Historical Village of Hokkaido is an open-air museum that has collected, restored and recreated 19th-century and early 20th-century buildings from around Hokkaido in a 54.2ha area. The Village is divided into a downtown area, fishing village, farming village and mountain village, allowing you to step back in time and experience how people in various parts of Hokkaido lived during the development era. ※English commentary and guidance available (book at least 1 week in advance)

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Photo courtesy of Hakodate City Board of Education

Hakodate Magistrate's Office (Goryokaku Park)

JA

The Hakodate Magistrate's Office was an outpost of the Edo Shogunate that was used to guard Japan's northern territory. The foundation was built from Shakudani stone thought to have been imported on the Kitamaebune. The Battle of Hakodate took place here in 1868 and the building was dismantled in 1871, two years after the Shogunate's army retreated and surrendered. In 2010, the building was restored to 1/3 of its original size, using as many of the original materials and techniques as possible. Today the building tells the story of the tension-filled era spanning the fall of the Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration.

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Discovering The unique cuisine of Hokkaido

May
Hideo Kishimoto&Sapporo Commercial Photo Studio
Autumn
SHIRETOKO RAUSU LINCLE
Winter
Photo courtesy of Kunimare Sake Brewery

Most Hokkaido foodie experiences can be enjoyed all year round, but ingredients may vary depending on the season, so it's a good idea to find out more about which ingredients are in season before you choose a time to visit. Companies such as sake breweries may also have seasonal products.

Best Season To See

Most of the experiences here can be enjoyed all year round, but the food you'll make in cookery classes depends on the season since fresh seasonal ingredients will be used. If you visit in winter, you can enjoy freshly brewed sake, as many breweries begin making their yearly supply of sake around November, when the coldest weather begins.

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Tracing Hokkaido's history through food culture
Learn to cook local cuisine with the "Sailors' Mothers"
Visit a winery
Visit sake brewery
: Best : Good : Possible

Getting Here

No matter which part of Hokkaido you visit, you won't be far from spots where you can learn more about Hokkaido's food culture, get to know the locals and visit local breweries.

1
Hokkaido Museum
2
Historical Village of Hokkaido
3
Hakodate Magistrate's Office
4
Shikabe Hot Springs Tourism Association
5
Yoichi Wine
6
Tokachi Wine
7
Takizawa Winery
8
Housui Winery
9
Occi Gabi Winery
10
Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery
11
Akkeshi Conchiglie
12
Sapporo Beer Museum
13
Tanaka Shuzo
14
Chitosetsuru Sake Museum
15
Kunimare Sake Brewery
16
Takasago Meiji Shuzo
17
Kiyosato Shochu

Dos & Don'ts

  • The legal age for drinking or purchasing alcohol in Japan is 20.
  • The legal alcohol limit when driving in Japan is zero. If you drive to a winery or brewery, you will not be able to sample their drinks.