Having a Bite in Hokkaido

From sea urchin and salmon roe to top-notch train car dining, explore the cuisine of Japan's wild north.

By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Photo By: Rachel Tepper Paley

Day 1

Japan’s train food is truly a revelation. On a previous stateside misadventure on Amtrak, I reluctantly choked down the saddest, soggiest BLT in all of existence. But on the bullet-train journey from Tokyo to Hakodate, the gateway city to Japan’s wild north? It’s a magnificent platter of fresh raw fish and generously-sized veggie sushi. Japan Rail: 1. Amtrak: 0.

Day 1

Hakodate is one of the main cities in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. It’s famous for seafood, which dominates my diet for the next week. Upon arrival, I swing by Uni Murakami, a petite eatery specializing in briny delicacies, for an early lunch. I can’t say no to a glistening bowlful of briny ikura, or salmon roe, nestled atop a bed of sushi rice. How gorgeous is that color? Afterward, I wander the city’s small-but-bustling fish market, conveniently located next door.

Day 1

Hokkaido is also famous for the sweetest, ripest cantaloupe you’ve ever set eyes on. But they’re not cheap — this sliver sets me back $3.50 USD. For melon! But any skepticism I have quickly melts away after the first bite: It is mind-alteringly sweet, and its abundant juice streams down my arms faster than I can sop it up.

Day 2

My next stop is the small city of Otaru, where I’m staying at a luxurious Japanese inn called Ginrinsou Ryokan, the 19th-century former home of a herring fishing baron. This is the dining room of our private quarters, which is not to be confused with the Japanese-style bedroom, the Western-style bedroom, the sitting room, the second sitting room, or the personal in-room hot spring pool. It overlooks Ishikari Bay, which today still teems with herring.

Day 2

A night’s stay at a ryokan customarily includes dinner, and tonight’s meal is nothing short of decadent. There are many memorable courses, but my favorite includes creamy uni, or sea urchin, slivers of the freshest sashimi, and delicate woven baskets brimming with raw sweet shrimp.

Day 3

Also included in a traditional ryokan stay? Breakfast! At Ginrinsou, it’s a doozy, with almost more dishes than I can count. Everything is meticulously styled and presented, not to mention expertly seasoned. It’s perfection.

Day 3

Dinner that night is at Isezushi Otaru, the city’s lone Michelin-starred restaurant. I order a flight of nigiri, which includes the silkiest, most complexly flavored uni of the trip yet. I may never go home.

Day 4

For breakfast — yes, breakfast — I swing by Otaru’s Sankaku Fish Market. King crab, raw scallops, raw salmon, uni, and ikura. Can a girl start her day better?

Day 4

Afterward, I head to the Nikka Whisky Distillery and Museum, which is located about 40 minutes away from Otaru in the neighboring town of Yoichi. It’s a fabulous place to learn about Japan’s whisky obsession, not to mention knock back a free sample or three.

Day 5

Today I’m in Sapporo, the northern city that’s famously home to Japan’s oldest homegrown brewery. In the winter, Sapporo is bitterly cold (and hosts an epic ice festival), but in the summer, the weather is wonderfully balmy. After a tour of the old Sapporo brewery, I visit the onsite beer garden, which in addition to the brewery’s signature lagers, specializes in a dish called Jingisukan, or “Ghengis Khan.” Slivers of raw mutton are grilled on a heavy metal skillet, which is heated table side. The dish is thought to be inspired by the eating habits of Mongolian soldiers, whose ruler Genghis Khan famously attempted an invasion of the Japanese mainland twice unsuccessfully.

Day 5

For dinner, I stumble across a tiny local ramen shop, which is clearly popular: The line of would-be patrons tumbles out into the street, which is Always a good sign. After a 15-minute wait, I tuck into a hearty bowl of tsukemen, a form of dry ramen in which noodles are dipped in a rich broth. It’s umami perfection.

Day 6

Another day in Sapporo, and it’s hot. The only reasonable thing to do is cool down with some matcha soft-serve. Hokkaido is famous for high-quality dairy, and I’m not left disappointed.

Day 6

How much ramen is too much ramen? I haven’t reached my limit yet. It’s on the menu again tonight and I regret nothing.

Day 7

Today is all about exploring Furano, a city noted for its rolling fields of lavender and other flowers. The view is gorgeous, but only if you manage to crop out all the tourists! The smell is incredible, though, especially when a light breeze rolls across the color blocked fields. tomorrow I head to Kyoto, but I won’t forget this place anytime soon.

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