Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island and historic home of the native Ainu people, offers visitors a whole host of foods and dishes unique to the mountainous island. From Hokkaido’s own take on ramen to the island’s specialty ice cream, here are 10 foods that must be tried when exploring the island.
Home to Sapporo, the birthplace of miso ramen, Hokkaido is undoubtedly the place to grab this classic bowl of Japanese noodle soup. Hokkaido-style ramen features tonkotsu broth, though unlike the Hakata style of ramen in Fukuoka, here they season it with soy sauce (shoyu), salt (shio), or miso-based sauce topped with char siu. You'll find lots of options in Hokkaido, but two of the best places to try it are the Sapporo Ramen Yokocho at Susukino or the Asahikawa Ramen Village.
Genghis Khan (Jingisukan)
Lamb dishes are especially prominent in Hokkaido, and one of the most famous is Mongolian Barbecue, or the "Genghis Kahn" (which has little to do with the infamous warlord, apart from his penchant for lamb and the helmet-shaped skillet that the thin slices of lamb and vegetables are cooked on). The meat is dipped in a citrus sauce before or after being sizzled for a refreshing kick. Itadakimasu is a quality restaurant in Sapporo that only serves Japan bred mutton, plus the menus are in English.
Japanese curry is a staple throughout the country, and in Sapporo, you’ll find a unique take it. With extra water and ingredients added, the dish is more of a cross between a ramen and curry dish. You’ll typically find a soft boiled egg, a choice of meat, and an array of seasonal vegetables in the bowl. This can usually be customized with several levels of spice options; some places, like the famous Soup Curry GARAKU, offer 40 spice levels to choose from.
Uni Ikura Donburi
As Hokkaido is known for its fresh fish, seafood lovers can’t miss out on this special rice bowl featuring sea urchin lavishly topped with salmon roe. Some of the best places to try the iconic dish include Umihe Tokeidaimae Branch, which is near the famous Sapporo Clock Tower and serves several options of Uni Ikura Donburi in a traditional izakaya gastropub. If you’re in Hakodate, then try out Ajidokoro Kikuyo for your donburi; make sure to order their charcoal steamed rice with mussels in addition to urchin and salmon roe.
Japanese karaage or fried chicken is truly special and often described as soul food. Light and crispy, this simple chicken dish is immediately satisfying and addictive. Hokkaido's famous fried chicken, zangi, takes this concept and amplifies it to its most delectable. It's made with bigger chunks of meat (like a whole chicken leg), and unlike karaage, is typically marinated before being battered and fried. Sometimes it comes with dipping sauce. Most izakayas will have zangi available, but a good starting point is the original zangi restaurant Torimatsu, open since 1958.
Hokkaido provides for the seafood lovers once again. This time it’s the crab fans who are spoiled for choice with options such as the umami-rich horsehair crab, the treasured snow crab, and the hearty king and hanasaki queen crabs. A typical way to eat the shellfish is hotpot style, with the crab simply boiled with vinegar or grilled, simmering in broth with seasonal veggies, or served alongside rice porridge. There are many places around Hokkaido to delve into this delicacy, but a popular spot is Futagoyama Shoji, a spacious restaurant where the crabs are caught onsite and cooked in a variety of exciting ways.
A popular and satisfying snack, these potato rice cakes are baked and shaped into dumplings. Seasoned with soy, butter, and sugar, they're served on a stick for a mess-free treat. A few different variations are available, including pumpkin and cheese-filled (a popular favorite). You'll be able to find imomochi at most convenience stores, cafés, and service stations.
You’ll most likely have tried gyu don—beef rice bowls that are popular all over Japan—but make sure to try Hokkaido's own hearty option topped with pork. It’s thought to have originated in Obihiro city, and has different variations right around the prefecture. Many restaurants put their own spin on the sticky soy dish, such as grilling the pork over charcoal for a smoky taste; combining the pork with slices of chashu (pork belly); or adding toppings such as kimchi, egg, or mayo. This is another dish that’s easy to find, and you’ll usually find a restaurant serving it in or around most train stations. But if you want to try it at the original buta don restaurant, head to Butadon PANCHO, founded in 1933 and located right in front of Obihiro Station.
Made up of creamy soup flavored with white miso, this hotpot contains seasonal local vegetables and fresh fish (typically salmon, but options can include crab or mussels). Simple, delicious, and perfectly suited to the cold climate, this is one of the most satisfying of Hokkaido’s special foods. If you’d like to combine your hotpot with expertly chosen sake, then consider dining at Kuramoto Chokuei Chitosetsuru, which is directly connected to the Chitosetsuru sake brewery.
Hokkaido Ice Cream
Japan is admired the world over for its vast and varied scope of sweet flavors when it comes to chocolate and sweets, and the same goes for its ice cream. Hokkaido specializes in soft-serve ice cream—even in spite of the island’s freezing winters—and many of the flavors are unique to specific areas of the island. In Otaru, for example, local Yamanaka Dairy Farm offers soft-serve ice cream made with fresh milk from grass-fed free-range cattle. This might be the purest ice cream anywhere in the world.