Hokkaido food culture has evolved quite differently from that of mainland Honshu. From ancient Ainu recipes to fresh farm produce, there are countless influences that have made Hokkaido's cuisine unique within Japan. Hokkaido is also Japan's biggest prefecture, meaning that while many recipes are common to the region, they are often interpreted in different ways. This has resulted in several dishes that you won't find anywhere else in Japan.
So, what food is Hokkaido famous for? Join us as we explore Hokkaido's top foods!
Top 10 Hokkaido Foods
- Ainu Cuisine
- Hokkaido Ramen
- "Jingisukan" Mutton BBQ
- Soup Curry
- Salmon & Salmon Roe
- Lavender Ice Cream
- Pork Bowl
1. Ainu Cuisine
As the region's indigenous people, the Ainu have been cooking in Hokkaido since long before Japanese colonists arrived.
A traditional Ainu meal is "ohaw", a warming soup, based on meat or fish broth. Modern ohaw is usually a venison or salmon broth. The broth traditionally contains seasonal mountain vegetables, but these days, spinach and carrots are also common.
Millet was once the carbohydrate of choice for the Ainu, but in modern times, boiled rice has become the standard.
There are only a handful of places where you can try Ainu cuisine and most can be found around Lake Akan in east Hokkaido.
2. Hokkaido Ramen
This is a rather broad term, as there are in fact many varieties of ramen in Hokkaido! Each region puts its own spin on this classic, resulting in different broths and noodles wherever you go. For example, the ramen found in Sapporo tends to favor a miso and pork bone-based broth with firm, yellow noodles, while the city of Asahikawa opts for a soy-based broth with thinner, wavy noodles.
The only way for you to experience the sheer variety of Hokkaido's ramen culture is for you to explore every ramen shop you find on your journey! Here's a list of a few of the best miso ramen restaurants in Sapporo.
3. "Jingisukan" Mutton BBQ
This curiously-named dish is a staple in Sapporo cuisine and a popular food during Hokkaido's winter and summer festivals.
"Jingisukan" is a Japanization of "Genghis Khan", alluding to Mongolian mutton BBQ. Diners cook juicy mutton themselves, either marinated or with a dash of salt, on a grill. Once cooked, the meat is dipped in soy-based sauces, chili oil, or grated garlic. Accompanied with fragrant vegetables like bean sprouts and onions, this is an absolute must-try, especially during the Hokkaido festival seasons. Try it for yourself at these jingisukan restaurants in Sapporo.
4. Soup Curry
Soup curry is Hokkaido's take on Japan's gourmet kingdom comfort food, curry rice. But rather than being a viscous stew served over rice, the curry is a thin, soup-like substance served separately. The vegetables and meats served with soup curry are also markedly different from curry rice. Rather than being cooked into the roux itself, they are slowly cooked separately to fall off-the-fork perfection. The soup is then poured over the ingredients.
Soup curry is found across the region and each shop has its own unique recipe. Piping hot and with a kick, this is the dish to warm you during Hokkaido's chilly winter days!
5. Salmon & Salmon Roe
Salmon has been fished for centuries in Hokkaido by the Ainu. The best time and place to enjoy Hokkaido's salmon has to be the Shiretoko Peninsula during the autumn months when spawning salmon can be seen across the peninsula making their desperate journey upstream.
Most recommended is "salmon oyakodon", a rice bowl topped with salmon sashimi and marinated salmon roe. You really must try Hokkaido's salmon raw to fully appreciate how sweet fresh salmon and its roe taste during the right season.
6. Lavender Ice Cream
Japan is no stranger to quirky ice creams and in Hokkaido, most residents will direct you to Farm Tomita's lavender ice cream as the soft serve of choice. The delicate, floral notes of lavender pair beautifully with the creamy Hokkaido milk.
Rumour has it that this recipe once went through a period of trial and error, with visitors to Farm Tomita in decades past lamenting that the lavender flavor was either too weak or overpowering. It would seem that these criticisms were taken on board, however, today Farm Tomita has found the perfect balance that keeps the queue for this treat long.
7. Pork Bowl
Pork bowl, or "butadon" as it is known locally, is a popular Hokkaido comfort food. It consists of salt or glazed slices of grilled pork served atop a mountain of white rice, sometimes topped with edamame or other green garnish.
While it can be found anywhere in Hokkaido, it is a specialty in the Tokachi region surrounding Obihiro city. We recommend looking for anywhere serving "waton-mochibuta" pork. This is a premium pork brand, prized for its pleasantly springy texture and rich flavor and is not to be missed.
Hokkaido, with its numerous dairy pastures, is a major producer of chocolate in Japan.
A popular Hokkaido-based brand is ROYCE', famous for their creamy "nama-choco", ganache-like squares of gooey goodness. Nama-choco makes a great souvenir and can be picked up at most stations and airports across Hokkaido as well as a few ROYCE' specialty stores in Sapporo.
Sapporo is also the home of Shiroi Koibito, another popular Hokkaido souvenir. Shiroi Koibito is a layer of sweet white chocolate sandwiched between two langues de chat biscuits. Its name means "white lovers" and this, along with the white chocolate filling, is designed to emulate Hokkaido's snowy winter scenery (though a milk chocolate variety is also available if white chocolate is not to your taste).
If you're keen to learn more about chocolate in Hokkaido, head to Shiroi Koibito Park in Sapporo. There, you can learn all about its history, watch the production line and even have a go at making a unique Shiroi Koibito biscuit.
Did you know that Hokkaido boasts the oldest beer in Japan?
Sapporo Beer has been a staple in Japanese bars, izakaya and restaurants since its founding in 1876. The brand is now so successful that it has breweries across the globe. It has a refreshing, crisp taste that pairs well with just about anything. It's one of the must-try Japanese beer brands!
You can learn more about Sapporo Beer and sample its flagship brews and some limited edition ones at the Sapporo Beer Museum.
Hokkaido's low humidity makes its climate similar to wine-growing regions in Europe. With vineyards established in the 70s and 80s now going strong, Hokkaido wines are making a splash globally. In recent years, some have even won international awards.
One great region to keep an eye on is Yoichi, just outside of Sapporo. There are a huge number of small, independent wineries here, all putting out fantastic bottles that can be enjoyed at restaurants in Sapporo and across Hokkaido. If you want to see how the magic happens, then take a look at our visit to Domaine Takahiko.
A Seasonal Hokkaido Speciality
Aside from all the above, Hokkaido boasts a variety of seasonal fruits and vegetables that are worth a try if your visit should coincide with their peak.
My favorite is asparagus, usually in season from late May through to mid-late June. Hokkaido's asparagus is known for its pleasing sweetness and satisfying crunch. There is an abundance of it at this time of year and restaurants in Hokkaido get quite creative when incorporating it into their recipes so do try it if you have the opportunity.
And One Strange Hokkaido Speciality!
So hungry you could eat a bear? Well, a visit to Hokkaido might just give you that chance...
Hokkaido is home to Japan's largest land animal, the Ussuri Brown Bear. As well as being sacred to the Ainu and beloved (from a healthy distance) by Hokkaido residents, they are, occasionally, a food source.
Bears are muscular animals, and their meat is best enjoyed slow-cooked. This makes it a good choice for curries and stews. Occasionally, you may come across cans of bear curry in souvenir shops. If your curiosity gets the better of you, don't hesitate to pick some up!
More Food Adventures Await in Hokkaido
Hokkaido Japanese food combines the best of the classics with farm-to-fork goodness. The freshness of Hokkaido's ingredients is apparent from the first bite, so it is no surprise that visitors, both domestic and international, flag food as one of the region's highlights. There is much more to discover than this list alone, so should you find yourself in Japan's northern land, try anything that interests you. You may find, as this author did, that food in Hokkaido keeps you coming back for more.
Heading to Hokkaido soon? Don't miss these foods in Sapporo!