Four culinary experiences to try in Hokkaido

Tradition often has a seat at the table in Japan’s northernmost island. This, combined with a bevy of local, seasonal ingredients, means most any meal will be a winner.

The cuisine of Hokkaido is characterised by simple flavours, placing the spotlight on fresh, local ingredients. 

Photograph by Shiretoko Nemuro Tourisum Federation
By Chris Tharp
Published 29 Mar 2023, 10:00 BST

With more than 2,800 miles of coastline and 1,500 rivers, it’s no wonder that Hokkaido is a seafood paradise. The urchin and roe served across the island alone would be worth the trip, but a visit here quickly reveals a cuisine that goes much further than the ocean’s bounty. We round up four traditional culinary experiences travellers should be sure to tick off. 

1. Discover Indigenous Ainu cuisine

The Ainu are Indigenous people from the Japanese archipelago's northern region, particularly Hokkaido, and to experience their food is to connect to both the land and history of the island. Their original diet — like much of their culture — is distinct from that of other parts of Japan: the Ainu still mainly source ingredients by hunting, fishing and foraging, and the fresh ingredients on their table reflect their spiritual respect for nature. Today, Ainu cuisine is consumed mainly in private homes, but a small number of restaurants and cooking schools have started celebrating Indigenous fare — part of a wider cultural revival. The town of Shiraoi in the island’s southwest is home to both the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, opened in 2020, and Minapa Cise, a charming, intimate cafe serving traditional Ainu ingredients: salmon, venison, millet rice and a vegetable mash called potsu-potsu

Left: Top:

The Ainu have traditionally preserved fish by drying it.

Photograph by Getty Images
Right: Bottom:

Salmon is synonymous with Hokkaido's cuisine, and it's prepared in a variety of ways. One of them is saketoba, Japanese salmon jerky — a centuries-old local recipe.

Photograph by Alamy

2. Try the glory of kombu seaweed

Ainu cuisine may not be known internationally, but its influence punches well above its weight. This is thanks to kombu, a large edible kelp that’s both a traditional Ainu ingredient and cornerstone of Japanese cuisine — as well as a precursor to the country’s signature umami flavour. The ‘fifth flavour’, now associated with soy, miso and other fermented foods, finds its roots in this seaweed’s rich, slightly briny taste, which can be detected everywhere in Japanese food. While it’s prepared and eaten in a variety of ways, kombu’s prime role is in the making of dashi, a broth used as the base for many soups. Hokkaido’s shores are a centre of cultivation; in the town of Rausu, on the eastern side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, the kelp is still harvested and prepared using largely traditional methods. You can witness first-hand the multi-step process that brings kombu from the sea to the table and sample the local product at one of many restaurants in town.

3. Have a meal of salmon, one of the island’s signature ingredients 

Hokkaido’s location in the northern Pacific puts it squarely in the zone of salmon runs, making this fish synonymous with the island’s cuisine. Hokkaido is home to pink, chum, sockeye and cherry salmon, as well as many other salmon and trout species, which enter the rivers at different times of the year. Thanks to preservation methods that have been established through generations, you’ll find fresh salmon whatever the season, prepared in a variety of ways. For an introduction to the speciality, head to Takeda restaurant in the town of Shibetsu, on the island’s eastern edge, where chef Keiko-san has been serving salmon meals — sashimi, grilled, even shabu-shabu (hot pot) — for 28 years. Every part of the fish is utilised, including the nose, kidneys, stomach and roe. 

Originating from Hokkaido, robatayaki — the Japanese take on barbecue — grills fresh meat on charcoal ...

Originating from Hokkaido, robatayaki — the Japanese take on barbecue — grills fresh meat on charcoal to perfection.

Photograph by Getty Images

4. Experience robatayaki, Hokkaido’s unique take on barbecue

Literally meaning ‘fireside grill’, robatayaki originated in Hokkaido, where fishermen would gather around a collective hearth used for both heating and cooking. While this form of barbecue can be found across Japan, it’s Hokkaido's fishing town that still deliver it in its purest incarnation, and one of the best places to experience it is Robata in the city of Kushiro. Here, the proprietor works a massive bed of coals, grilling each piece of seafood, meat, vegetable or mushroom to perfection. The bar-style seating is cosy, creating an intimate atmosphere that mirrors the warmth coming from the glowing coals, and the restaurant has a terrific selection of sake, too, generously poured by kimono-clad servers. All this has garnered Robata a nationwide fan base; be prepared to having to wait for your spot at the bar.

For more information about Hokkaido, visit

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