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September 05, 2018

Smitten by Hokkaido

Text by Ashwin Rajagopalan. Illustration by Tanuja Ramani

A lesser known choice for travellers, Japan’s northernmost island has glorious vistas, ski slopes and culinary credentials to match

Ask any traveller who’s been to Japan to name the country’s most photogenic spot and you’re most likely to hear Kyoto. As someone who was bowled over by the charms and traditions of Japan’s most historic city, I, for one, couldn’t agree more. But there’s another part of Japan that equals my fascination for Kyoto. A few months ago, I spent a weekend in the country’s northernmost main island — Hokkaido — and it was enough for me to be smitten.

It was the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics that firmly put Hokkaido under the global spotlight. This was the first time that the winter edition of the Olympics had been held outside Europe or North America. Almost ever since, Hokkaido has been a cult favourite with skiing enthusiasts. But it wasn’t until the 2010s that Hokkaido slowly made it to global travel hotlists. It was about time, too. The region’s rare combination of stunning vistas that can rival Alpine destinations and culinary credentials are its big draw.

Spring and winter are the best times to be in Hokkaido. I chose the freezing temperatures of winter for my short trip. You will, today, still hear about the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Hokkaido’s biggest city. The Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium still occupies pride of place on the eastern slope of Mount Okura. The area around this stadium features the Sapporo Winter Sports Museum and an observation platform that guarantees breathtaking views. These 360-degree vistas are almost a given in Sapporo and Hakodate, Hokkaido’s second city. I didn’t just come all the way to Mount Okura for the views. I was here to check out one of Sapporo’s most discerning culinary trends.

Genghis Khan is one of the city’s most popular dinner venues. For one, it guarantees great views of the city below and also of the legendary Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium that is illuminated each night. There’s no way that Genghis Khan’s conquering army crossed the ocean to reach Hokkaido’s shores. That hasn’t stopped one of the region’s famous grilled meat dishes from paying tribute. Locals call this jingisukan, and believe the origins of this name date back to a time when Mongolian soldiers used to cook their meat by placing it atop their helmets and then putting their helmets over an open fire. The helmets have made way for convex metal skillets positioned at the centre of each table. It’s almost like your personal do-it-yourself meal where you dab some meat fat onto the skillet and keep adding meats and vegetables.

Genghis Khan wasn’t my first dining experience in Hokkaido. That was the night before, almost as soon as I touched down at Sapporo. I headed straight to a popular izakaya; the izakaya — a typical after-hours Japanese bar and restaurant — comes alive at night, with co-workers bonding over fine cuisine, sake and office gossip that is clearly off limits at the workplace. Sushi is in the mix at many of these izakayas. Many Japanese travel all the way to Hokkaido for its sushi. The cold ocean waters around Hokkaido’s coastline are a treasure trove for some of the world’s finest salmon. Hokkaido is almost a microcosm of the best Japanese food and lifestyle experiences; local produce is the island’s biggest trump card. But it’s not just seafood — the island’s dairy products are among the best in the world, especially its soft-serve ice cream.

I undertook a day trip from Sapporo to another very charming coastal town — Otaru. Though a picturesque canal adorned with Victorian lamps is one of Otaru’s most striking architectural landmarks, it’s the town’s market that caught my fancy. I made a stop at Rokkatei, a local establishment iconic for its famous soft-serve ice cream; probably the best I’ve sampled anywhere in Asia. Otaru is also a pit stop for whisky connoisseurs. It’s a short drive to Yoichi, the home of one of Japan’s finest whisky brands, Nikka, which is leading a global obsession with Japanese whisky. Nikka organises distillery visits and tasting sessions, and you can purchase some of the distillery’s finest whiskies at Otaru’s market. I chose a cup of warm mulled wine instead, the ultimate antidote for a cold winter’s day.

In 1950, a bunch of high school students built a few snow statues in Odori Park in the heart of Sapporo. Little did they realise that this would pave the way for the Sapporo Snow Festival that attracts more than two million visitors each year. I walked through Odori Park and watched as the first ice sculptures were getting built for the event. I was on my way to Soup Curry King to check out another contemporary addition to Japanese cuisine. Sapporo’s soup curry is reminiscent of a laksa, except that there’s a generous sprinkling of Japanese curry powder and no coconut milk. The yellow curry features an assortment of meats and vegetarian options that are served along with sticky rice. I washed it all down with a Japanese version of lassi (spelled ‘lassie’ here) with flavours like matcha and yuzu. My last memory of Hokkaido was another panoramic view from Mount Moiwa in Sapporo. I never tired of the different viewing decks there, nor of the many outstanding culinary experiences. Hokkaido is truly an experience for all senses.

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