Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, is blessed with spacious land, abundant nature and a cooler climate that distinguishes it from the rest of Japan. Akin to Japan's “northern Europe”, Hokkaido’s thriving agriculture and fishing industry has resulted in its treasure trove of regional food.
"Northern Country" - the largest prefecture in Japan
Hokkaido, which is similar in size to Austria, is Japan’s largest prefecture and accounts for one-fifth of Japan's total land. Located in the northern tip of Japan, it offers cool summers and long, snow-covered winters.
An abundance of food from land to sea
Hokkaido accounts for one-fourth of Japan's cultivated land which contributes to the country’s output in agriculture. Disease and pests are less of a concern given Hokkaido's cooler climate, making it ideal for agriculture to thrive.
Hokkaido's agricultural regions are divided into four areas: Douou (Central Hokkaido), Dounan (South Hokkaido), Douhoku (North Hokkaido), and Doutou (East Hokkaido). Its rice yield is the second highest in Japan, after Niigata prefecture, and is grown in the Douou and Dounan areas given their warmer climate and access to clean water. These areas are also popular for growing vegetables and fruits, as they have the least amount of snowfall within the prefecture.
Hokkaido is also home to most of Japan’s dairy farms, generally found in Douhoku and Doutou, where crops are replaced by vast grazing land as the temperature drops. More than half of Japan’s dairy shares are in Hokkaido, producing milk, yogurt, cheese, and butter. Doutou is also known for its farmlands, where crops such as potatoes, corn, onions, kabocha pumpkins, sugar beets, and azuki beans are harvested.
Hokkaido has the most fishery hauls in Japan, covering about one-fourth of the national production. The bodies of water surrounding Hokkaido (the Japan Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Pacific Ocean) offer a vast array of fresh seafood and marine products. Salmon, trout, pacific saury, and cod are found in abundance thanks to the two currents from the Pacific and Okhotsk that carry nutritious plankton for fish to thrive on, while squid are found in the south of Hokkaido as a destination from the long journey from the south of Japan. These squid are often muscular and have a mature texture and fresh flavor. Long winters are also ideal for plump, juicy scallops to store the most nutrients, while the prefecture’s six different types of kombu kelp account for 90% of the national production.
Famous Hokkaido's local specialties
Given its access to abundant, fresh ingredients, Hokkaido is renowned for its unique local dishes.
Grilled, barbecued lamb with vegetables is the heart of Hokkaido's regional food. It is prepared in a dome-shaped skillet by laying meat on the top and vegetables around the sides, allowing for the savory juice to be absorbed as it trickles down from the meat. The meat and vegetables are then dipped into a sweet barbecue flavored soy sauce and paired with rice and side dishes.
A miso-based hot pot cooked with vegetables, tofu, and chopped salmon, ishikari nabe is named after Ishikari city, which has been famous for its salmon since the Edo period. Once a celebratory dish used to honor successful fisheries, it is now a home-cooked meal for families to embrace Hokkaido's harsh winter, bringing warmth and unity to the household.
Squid simmered in soy sauce and stuffed with sticky rice, this dish is native to southern Hokkaido. It is said that the official introduction of ika meshi was during WWII at Mori station, located in south Hokkaido, when abundant squid was filled with small portions of rice as a solution to satisfy one's appetite during periods of rice shortages. Through word of mouth, this local dish became widely known in Japan and can often be found paired with sake.
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.