Hokkaido's local cuisine that developed hand in hand with modernization

Hokkaido boasts a vast area of 83,424 square kilometers, constituting about 22% of the land in Japan. Mountains occupy half the area of Hokkaido, which is surrounded by the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Japan, and the Sea of Okhotsk. Bordering on the northern limits of a temperate climate and the southern limits of a subarctic climate, Hokkaido is characterized by a cool climate with low humidity and is covered in snow for many months until it finally begins to melt in spring. Each of the four distinct seasons nurtures a rich harvest of foods with regional characteristics.

Video provided in part by: “SHUN GATE,” a website for the transmission of information on Japanese food culture
Store interviewed: Koen Gakuen Ecole de Cuisine Patisserie

Hokkaido experiences fast-paced modernization after the Meiji Restoration

Hokkaido was inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people when the land was called Ezochi. During the Kamakura period, the “wajin” (Japanese mainlanders) from Honshu migrated to Hokkaido and began to trade with the Ainu. In the mid-16th century, the southern part of Hokkaido was designated as a “wajinchi” – a settlement for the wajin people. In the early Edo period, the Matsumae Domain was set up by the shogunate. Parts of the food cultures introduced by the Ainu and immigrants from Honshu have had an enormous impact on the local cuisine to this day.

History took a sharp turn in the Meiji period. The Meiji government engaged in full-scale development of the area, renaming Ezochi “Hokkaido,” and gathering immigrants from all over the country to promote its modernization. The Sapporo Clock Tower, built during this period, is a historical legacy that conveys the atmosphere of the bygone days.

Hokkaido has developed into the largest food supplying region in Japan through strenuous efforts to overcome its cool weather conditions including soil improvement and the active introduction of modern agricultural technology from Europe and the United States. Today, Hokkaido is one of the nation’s top producers of azuki beans, potatoes, wheat, and other crops. Many of the local dishes, such as Jingisukan , Ishikari Nabe and Zangi, are well known throughout Japan

Visitors can look forward to an even greater variety of local flavors in each of the central, northern, southern, and eastern regions of Hokkaido.

Do-o region (central Hokkaido)
Pink-colored sekihan (rice cooked with beans) that spread from Sapporo to other areas

Central Hokkaido is a primary rice cultivation area that developed in central Hokkaido around the Ishikari Plain along the Ishikari River system, which flows from the central part of Hokkaido into the Sea of Japan. The agriculture and livestock industry in Hokkaido capitalizes on regional characteristics to produce vegetables grown in the suburbs of Sapporo and the southern part of Sorachi, which are mainly shipped to areas outside of Hokkaido, keishuba racing horses in Hidaka and beef cattle in Iburi.

“Sekihan” is an essential rice dish for ceremonial occasions in this region. This ceremonial food, made traditionally by cooking glutinous rice with azuki beans outside Hokkaido, has taken a unique evolutionary path here. Azuki beans are replaced with amanatto, a ready-made snack made from beans and sugar. However, “sekihan” cooked without azuki beans would not have its red color, which is believed to ward off evil, so the red food coloring was added to produce the tint. The Hokkaido version of sekihan is then garnished with red pickled ginger.

This “sekihan” recipe that contains amanatto was devised by the late Akiko Nambu who founded the Koen Gakuen Ecole de Cuisine Patisserie in Sapporo City.

“I’ve heard that Ms. Nambu made the change so “sekihan” would be more accessible to people cooking the dish at home because the authentic “sekihan” recipe uses azuki beans, which require a lot of time and effort to prepare. The founding president hit on the idea of replacing azuki beans with amanatto, an ingredient that’s already cooked,” says Mr. Toru Tayasu who lectures at the school.

Ms. Nambu introduced the “sekihan” recipe that uses amanatto at cooking classes held at various locations from 1945 to 1955. The recipe spread quickly among the locals, so much so that the amanatto-based “sekihan” became the norm among Hokkaido residents. The somewhat sweet taste of the new “sekihan” proved to be a hit among children as well. There are stories of amanatto disappearing from local shops after the recipe was introduced in the media.

Mr. Tayasu says, “This sekihan is a bit different, but many of the local dishes in Hokkaido let you savor the taste of the ingredient directly.”

One local dish that “lets you savor the taste of the ingredient directly,” as Mr. Tayasu puts it, is imomochi. This is a local dish made from potatoes, which are grown in some 70% of the crop areas in Japan. The recipe is simple. Steam and mash the potatoes, shape the dough into round shapes and pan-fry. Take a big bite to enjoy the soft and crumbly taste and blessings of the earth. There is nothing fancy here, but the simple taste is immensely popular among people of all ages.

Dohoku region (northern Hokkaido)
Teppo-jiru, a miso-based crab soup handed down in the No. 1 horsehair crab town in Japan

The Dohoku region is located at the northern tip of the prefecture and is sandwiched between the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. Asahikawa and Furano in this region are famous tourist destinations for many domestic and international visitors. At Cape Soya in Wakkanai City, where the Monument of the Northernmost Point of Japan stands, Sakhalin Island in Russia can be seen in the distance on a clear day.

Rumoi City, which adjoins the Sea of Japan, was once a prosperous herring fishing area between the end of the Edo period and the mid-Showa period. Some of the harvested herring were processed into “migaki nishin” after the fish were gutted and sun-dried and shipped to Echizen Province (present-day Fukui Prefecture) on a route along the Sea of Japan. The processed fish were then transported further inland to areas where it was difficult to procure seafood. The influences of migaki nishin can be observed in various local dishes such as “nishin soba” (buckwheat noodle topped with migaki nishin) in Kyoto and “daikon zushi” (fermented sushi made with daikon radish and migaki nishin) in Ishikawa. Although herring fishing ended in 1957 due to a sharp decline in catches, shrimp, octopus, and flounder have since become established as the region’s specialty products.

Esashi Town along the Sea of Okhotsk is a major producer of horsehair crabs, and claims to be the “No. 1 horsehair crab town in Japan.” A popular dish in the Dohoku region, including Esashi Town, is “Teppo-jiru,” or miso soup with crabs. “Teppo” means “gun” in Japanese; the dish got its name because the manner in which the diner gets the meat out of the crab legs with their chopstick is said to resemble the action of loading a gun. Full of chopped crabs, the tasty soup is unique to this area that has many fishing towns.

Donan region (southern Hokkaido)
Delicacies that originated in Matsumae that flourished as a port of call for the Kitamae merchant ships

The Donan region enjoys a notably early start of agricultural production each year for Hokkaido due to its relatively small amount of snowfall in winter. A diverse range of crops are cultivated in the region that stretches wide from north to south. The region produces high yields of vegetables such as spring onions, garlic chives and asparagus, agricultural crops such as potatoes and beans as well as a special variety of quality rice named “Fukkurinko.

Video presented by: Hokkaido Government Oshima General Subprefectural Bureau

In 1604, the Matsumae Domain was set up in this area, which led to the establishment of the northern-most castle town in Japan, and the only one in Hokkaido, in the area around the present Matsumae town. During the Edo period, Matsumae was one of the few ports of call for “Kitamae-bune” or merchant ships that transported goods from Hokkaido to Osaka. The town’s “Fukuyama Wharf,” comprising two docks, used to accommodate vessels of different sizes including Japanese ships and steamboats. Portions of the wharf are still intact and recognized by the Agency for Cultural Affairs as a “Japan Heritage” site.

In 1859, Hakodate Port opened on the southern tip of the Oshima Peninsula. Along with Yokohama and Nagasaki, Hakodate became the first foreign trade port in Japan as the Donan region prospered greatly as Hokkaido’s gateway to the sea. Since the opening of the Seikan Tunnel that connects Honshu and Hokkaido, Hakodate has also served as a gateway on land as well.

Video presented by: Asami Shokai

“Matsumae-zuke” is a pickled preserved food that originated in Matsumae Town and was passed on in the Donan region. It is made by marinating locally caught squid with dried kelp in soy sauce. The recipe during the feudal era included herring roe, which was used instead of soy sauce for pickling. The current method of preparation has become established for many years. This delicacy, featuring an exquisite harmony of the flavors of kelp and squid, goes well with rice and as a side dish on drinking occasions. Matsumae-zuke has long been an essential dish on the dining table in local fishing towns.

Doto Region (Eastern Hokkaido)
Pork-based food culture that supported the lives of pioneers in Tokachi

The Doto region in eastern Hokkaido comprises the urban areas of Kushiro, Obihiro and Kitami cities scattered over a vast area. This is an area where visitors can immerse themselves in the grandeur of nature in Hokkaido, which include “Shiretoko,” registered as a world natural heritage site, Kushiroshitsugen National Park that contains the nation’s largest marsh, and Akan-Mashu National Park that covers Lake Mashu, Lake Akan, and Lake Kussharo.

Video provided in part by: “SHUN GATE,” a website for the transmission of information on Japanese food culture

The Tokachi region, which consists of one city, 16 towns and 2 villages with Obihiro City at the center, is a large-scale agriculture and dairy farming region with an area of about 250,000 hectares under cultivation. This is equivalent to about 20% of the arable land in Hokkaido. Its food self-sufficiency rate is a whopping 1,240%. In terms of population, the region feeds about 4.18 million people.

A specialty of Tokachi is “butadon,” which consists of a rice bowl topped with grilled pork. The dish has a long history dating back to the era of north-sea cultivation. At the time, a pioneering group named “Banseisha,” headed by Benzo Yoda, began raising pigs for food when they were clearing land in Tokachi. Pig farming that started with just four pigs gradually grew in scale as dishes that use pork became more popular. Pork dishes began to gain popularity even though the average person in the Taisho era did not have much chance to eat pork.

The butadon dish made its appearance in the early Showa era. When a popular restaurant in Obihiro City came up with the idea of butadon as a way to create a dish unique to Tokachi, it became an instant hit, eventually earning its place as the region’s specialty. The Tokachi style is to glaze pork in sauce, grill it well and serve on top of donburi rice. Take a big bite of butadon – this might be a good time to let your imagination run wild about life in the pioneering era.

Thanks to its historical background, Hokkaido has developed a culinary culture where dishes that have a long history in the locality, such as “Matsumae-zuke,” flourish side by side with “sekihan,” “butadon,” and other specialties that were developed in line with modernization. More than 150 years have passed since Ezochi became Hokkaido, but the local cuisine of Hokkaido still has a huge potential to evolve even further.

Hokkaido's main local cuisine