Most of the time, when I tell Japanese people what state I’m from, they look at me with a cocked head or a confused squint. To explain, I usually say that Wisconsin is like the Hokkaido of America: just about as north as the country gets, aggressively cold in the winter, full of relatively unspoiled natural scenery, mostly rural, and famous for snow, corn, dairy products, and beer.
The comparison may only work on a superficial level, but it makes an effective springboard to discuss Hokkaido food. Befitting its cold climate, its history as a northern frontier, and its (surprising) German influence, the cuisine of Japan’s old “barbarian island” 蝦夷が島 is remarkably hearty, heartier than one might expect of Japanese food – and believe me, Japanese food can be very, very hearty.
But while homey fare like tonkotsu ramen, hamburger steaks, Japanese curry, and okonomiyaki are popular throughout the country, for some reason I find Hokkaido’s meibutsu particularly warming and stalwart: straight-from-the-farm or straight-from-the-sea things like sweet corn, potatoes, butter, crab, sea urchin, salmon (and their eggs), cheese, lamb, sausages, and of course, miso ramen, all to be washed down with stein after stein of delicious local beer (or glass after glass of decent local wine, if that’s your thing). The food I ate in Hokkaido tasted so very fresh, and so profoundly simple that it seemed to hum happily with nutritious-and-deliciousness, each meal a holistically satisfying experience. It’s all very natural, whatever that means.
The first place we ate after arriving in Sapporo was Keyaki けやき, a legendary miso ramen shop in Susukino, Sapporo’s most popular dining and nightlife district. Keyaki, along with Komurasaki こむらさき in Kumamoto and Ippūdō 一風堂 in Fukuoka, was one of my own personal ramen meccas that I was determined to visit this year after eating at their Kantō-region outposts two years ago. Finding Keyaki took some searching, but it was well worth it. Their garlic ramen was even better than I remembered it from the Ramen Museum, warm and thick like a foggy grove, with a nutty, umami miso base amplified by slippery fat. The broth is punctuated by toasted sesame seeds and a generous tangle of chopped leeks, mushrooms, cabbage, ground pork, fried garlic, and of course, bouncy curls of golden noodles. Keyaki’s ramen is everything ramen should be: alive with complexity yet dense and compact, an implosion of rich, salty flavor on the palate.
We finished our ramen lunch at almost four o’clock, so when dinnertime rolled around we were in the mood for something light. Something fresh. Something hairy. Something with claws. The concierge recommended Kani Honke かに本家 (“Original Crab”), a national chain specializing in gigantic, scarily lifelike animatronic crabs that loom over each restaurant’s entrance. Kani Honke always seemed like something of a tourist trap to me; initially I wasn’t convinced by the suggestion, but the concierge assured us that it would be tasty, and besides, it was only a block away. So off we went, passing under the monstrous, hairy crab that shifted uneasily above the entrance, into a restaurant that would have seemed very traditional if not for carpeting the color of a putting green.
But upon tasting the crab, all my doubts about Kani Honke vanished. The crunchy-creamy crab croquettes and doughy crab shumai 焼売 were nice, but the real revelation came with the crab tasting set, a platter of neatly-sliced legs from three different species of crab (plus the delightfully pâté-like innards of the hairy one). The pure, crabby flavor of each hunk of meat was eye-wideningly strong, like crab that had somehow been marinated in crab. As we were about to leave, I realized why: them crabs is fresh. Hundreds of healthy, live crabs are all kept in roomy pools and tanks inside the restaurant, a fact that was brought to our attention by the maitre d’ when he nonchalantly plucked an enormous, spiky specimen out of the pool in the lobby and set it down at our feet. Nonplussed, the crab slowly crept away. Cooool.
The next day, we headed up to a restaurant called Sky-J on the thirty-fifth floor of the Hotel Nikko, where we had the best… brunch… ever. The sprawling view of Sapporo and the green mountains that surround it was utterly invigorating, not to mention the equally sprawling buffet. I won’t describe the food because it didn’t have much to do with Hokkaido itself, and because it would take far too long, but here are some pictures of a very fine dining experience indeed:
After a relaxing afternoon that lazily swept away my hangover from the night before, I was ready to enjoy myself, along with copious amounts of food and drink. I was ready for the Sapporo Beer Garten and everything that entails: all-you-can-drink Sapporo Beer and all-you-can-eat Genghis Khan. This is a meal so epicurean that the waitstaff hand out full-body bibs to customers when they sit down.
Genghis Khan ジンギスカン is one of Hokkaido’s most celebrated specialties. In fact, it’s so closely associated with Hokkaido that at many Genghis Khan restaurants, most famously the Beer Garten, the skillets on which you cook it are cast in the shape of the island. I have no idea why Genghis Khan is called Genghis Khan, but even though it doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with the legendary warlord nor the Mongol Empire in general, somehow the name is fitting. It’s simple food, yet extremely protein-rich and fortifying, nothing but lamb and vegetables heaped onto a dome-shaped skillet greased up with lard, sizzled to your liking and dipped in a basic soy-based sauce. And you are encouraged to eat a lot of it. All you can, in fact! Doesn’t that just seem like exactly the kind of meal a brutal warlord would enjoy?*
By now, you’re probably starting to think that my comparison of Hokkaido to Wisconsin is really rather specious. (Miso ramen in Racine? Maybe someday…) But let me finish with two important local specialties that they do have in common: cheese and sausage. Or more generally, dairy products and sausage. Dairy does not have a very long-standing history in Japan, but in Hokkaido, it’s just as much a part of the culture as snow.
Of course, befitting mainstream Japanese tastes, Hokkaido’s dairy products are mild and sweet, yet ripe with milky flavor. Consider the cute little bottle of milk pudding I bought in Otaru, which tasted like the quintessence of milk – tangy, pure, and lightly sweet. As for cheese, Cambembert is one of the strongest varieties commonly produced in Hokkaido, and even this is typically buttery and mannered, with a very subdued mold presence. Some may see this as an egregious affront to the name Camembert, but the cheese is good – not authentic, perhaps, but winsome in its sweet simplicity. At the airport, I picked up some Hokkaido-made Provolone, Caciocavallo, and onion Cheddar – all quite mild – and enjoyed them all immensely. And the sausage, well… let’s just say that the brawny venison sausage that I had atop Mt. Moiwa and the rugged pork sausage wrapped around rib bones that I brought home filled a serious void in my shokuseikatsu.
And I’ll end there, as the memory of all this delicious food is beginning to make me feel a bit homesick for the Wisconsin of Japan. Until next time!
*I was right! (Sort of.) According to the Japanese Wikipedia article, it was widely thought in prewar Japan that lamb was the preferred foodstuff of Mongolian soldiers back in the day. Moreover, the convex surface of the Genghis Khan skillet was meant to represent Mongolian warriors’ helmets, on which they purportedly grilled their meat over open flames. It is also interesting to note that the English Wikipedia article on Mongolian barbecue says that the popular stir-fry dish is “neither Mongolian nor barbecue,” but is so called because “soldiers of the Mongol Empire were said to gather large quantities of meats and prepare them with their swords and cook them on their overturned shields over a large fire.” Huh.