One of the primary pleasures of any visit to Hokkaido is the food. The wide open lowlands are ideal for agriculture and livestock ranching, while hunters find the unspoiled mountainous hinterlands a rich source of game — wild boar, deer and migrating fowl — along with the wild mushrooms and herbs that find their way into so many Japanese dishes.
Grills and Genghis Khan barbecues of locally reared beef or pork feature prominently on the menus of tourist restaurants, supplemented with plenty of the sweet corn, potatoes and other vegetables synonymous with Hokkaido’s outdoors image. But for most visitors, the biggest attraction is the superb variety of seafood that is available.
The icy waters off Hokkaido, especially near the southern Kuriles, are among the most fertile in the world. There are numerous species of crustaceans and shellfish, especially the Ezogaki oysters farmed along the pristine northern coast, and the sea urchin (uni) here is second to none. Fishermen bring in huge catches of Pacific saury (sanma), herring (nishin) and Atka mackerel (hokke), a local specialty that is gutted, split and hung to dry on racks along the windblown shoreline.
To examine this bounty of the ocean, stroll round Nijo Ichiba, the central seafood market in Sapporo. Behind those impressive indigo awnings you will find rows of stalls selling shrimp and prawn by the bucketload — plus a huge variety of fish, from massive bluefin down to tiny sardines the size of your little finger.
And then there are the crabs — scores and scores of them. Most are already cooked and ready to be eaten, packed on ice with their legs bound tightly against their bright orange bodies. Many merchants also keep large tanks filled with live crabs: these are reserved for the top restaurants that only serve the freshest seafood.
Three main varieties are on display: long-legged snow crabs, known locally as matsubagani; horsehair crabs (kegani), prized not just for their tender meat but also the rich flavor of their liver and other internal organs; and the massive, spiny king crabs, known in Japanese as tarabagani (literally, “cod place” crab, since their prime habitat is below the fishing grounds where the cod are caught).
Although winter is the peak season, specialist restaurants serve full-course banquets year-round, featuring crabs in a variety of styles from sashimi through to substantial pots of shabu-shabu. Most of these crabs are brought in (legally or otherwise) from Russian waters. Given the profusion of crab restaurants, not just in Sapporo but throughout the country, and the huge volume of crabs consumed in recent years, there are grave concerns about the future of the fishing grounds from which they are being taken, and even of species themselves.
Thankfully this is not the case with the fish that, above all others, is indelibly associated with Hokkaido — salmon. Long before the arrival of settlers from the main islands in the latter years of the 19th century, salmon was an essential survival food for the indigenous Ainu. Today, too, it remains a key ingredient in the local diet.
The orange-red meat is served fresh or salted, cooked in soups or grilled over charcoal. The plump, rich, translucent-red roe (ikura) extracted from the females is one of the premium ingredients at any sushi shop. But the classic preparation, developed by generations of Hokkaido fishermen, is the warming wintertime casserole known as ishikari nabe.
There is no hard and fast rule for the exact composition of this hearty hotpot. Tofu and vegetables are usually included, and whatever mushrooms are to hand. But the key ingredient is salmon — hefty wedges of the orange-red meat; a sprinkling of ikura roe; and, because fishermen do not like to waste any part of their catch, the salmon head is placed in the middle. Flavored with savory miso paste, this is the signature dish of Hokkaido restaurants.
The first stop for most visitors to Sapporo is Kani Shogun, a landmark identifiable by the huge mechanical crab waving its legs and pincers on the outside of the building (an idea stolen from the famous Kani-Doraku restaurant in Osaka). The interior is equally kitsch: faux-rustic decor and a concrete waterfall viewed through a wide picture window. Koto music plinks out of the sound system and waitresses wear colorful kimono. Crab kaiseki courses start from 5,000 yen; shabu-shabu is even less.
Kani Shogun: 14-6 South 4 West 2, Chuo-ku, Sapporo; tel: (011) 222-2588
The best place for sushi in Sapporo is Sushizen, offering premium seafood without undue damage to the bank balance. Put yourself in their hands and ask for whatever is in season — their king salmon is first-class, as is the ikura. Call in advance and they will lay on a full banquet — including crab — for 5,000 yen and up.
Susukino Sushizen: North 7 West 27, Chuo-ku, Sapporo; tel: (011) 612-0068
The best-known crab restaurant chain in the country is Kani-Doraku. Although it originated in Osaka, the concept is no less popular in Tokyo (there are almost 20 branches in the metropolitan region). Kani-suki hotpot courses start from 4,600 yen; kaiseki from 5,000 yen.