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Short on big? Stretch out in Hokkaido

by Amy Chavez

Everything is big in Hokkaido. Big streets, big stores, big parking lots. Hokkaido doesn’t give you that quaint, traditional, slightly claustrophobic feeling you get in Honshu and throughout the rest of Japan. Big gaijin would like Hokkaido.

Hokkaido is responsible for 10 percent of all the food output in Japan. Before I visited Hokkaido, most of the pictures I had seen of it were the side panels of milk cartons. They always featured happy cows grazing in large grassy pastures. One of the most famous dairy brands in Hokkaido is “Milkland Hokkaido.” You’ve got to love a company whose motto is, “every day, every day, for tomorrow.”

Cheese and butter in Japan were first produced in Hokkaido, so cows have a long history here. Dairy farms are everywhere, and cows abound, especially souvenir versions. One farm I saw the other day had a sign outside informing their stock was “Happy Live Holsteins.” Indeed, cows must like Hokkaido because they can stroll around in pastures, something Honshu cows cannot do.

The food in Hokkaido is big too, and I’m not talking about cows now. Although they do eat beef here, Hokkaido is more famous for its own style of BBQ called Genghis Khan: mutton and vegetables grilled on a special round BBQ. I’m not sure why it is called Genghis Khan, maybe because after eating these hefty portions, you’ll surely feel like a conqueror — of sheep anyway.

Potatoes are big in Hokkaido and can be found in all forms, even animated. Cartoon potatoes grace manhole covers and garbage trucks.

Hokkaido is indeed at the forefront in the field of potato research. Not only have they produced animated potatoes, but they have even developed a potato cream croquette that doesn’t require cream. Hmmm, wouldn’t it be easier to just change the name to “potato croquette” and leave out the cream entirely?

I haven’t seen any animated corn yet, nor researched into developing earless corn, but corn is an ingredient in practically every Hokkaido dish.

Ramen is big in Hokkaido. Sapporo, the birthplace of miso-flavored ramen, serves ramen in giant ceramic bowls so large they look like Olympic size swimming pools for mice. Noodles are piled high with ingredients such as vegetables, fish, and of course, corn. Hokkaido is known for its crab ramen and its “miso butter corn ramen.” The real test is finishing off the remaining broth on a full stomach. With as much ramen as Hokkaido people eat, it’s a wonder they don’t have ramen bellies, like beer bellies.

With over 1,000 ramen restaurants in Sapporo alone, you can imagine the swimming contests the mice must have at the end of every day in the leftover broth.

Eating piping hot nabe is a tactic to endure the big, long Hokkaido winters. Ishikari-nabe, named for that area of Hokkaido, is a hot pot full of salmon, vegetables (including, you guessed it, potato and corn) and miso. But if you have the image of a whole family huddled around a large nabe pot to keep warm, think again. That only happens in Honshu. These days, Hokkaido has central heating. My feeling is that you really have to suffer around a nabe pot to enjoy it properly.

Hokkaido is truly a place where you can have Sea World on a plate. Sea urchins, crabs, squid and combinations thereof, abound. The brave can try sea lion meat, and for those who have been dying to know what a combination of sea urchin eggs and jellyfish tastes like, try the uni-kurage. There is also ika-shiokara which is squid and fish guts pickled in salt. Dried salmon, called toba is also a specialty, but I haven’t tried it myself. I don’t really get what dried salmon is: salmon in a bath towel?

So the next time some foreigner complains about how small, cramped and crowded Japan is, you can tell them quite frankly where to go — to Hokkaido.