Winter holiday: A journey through Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island

Your best holiday ever: Think beyond Tokyo and Kyoto, and pack your bags to discover a treasure-trove of experiences

IMG_1584 Sapporo comes alive in the winter

Genghis Khan may be one of the world’s best-known conquerors, but in Sapporo, this name acquires a different meaning, one that guarantees a stellar dining experience. 

The capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern-most island, Sapporo’s first big moment of international fame arrived in 1972. It became a cult skiing destination almost ever since the city hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972, the first time these games were held outside Europe or North America. 

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Tokyo and Kyoto might be the preferred tourist destinations for most international travellers, but Hokkaido has made its mark and made it to many international travel hot lists. With four clear seasons, stunning vistas and sparkling snow Hokkaido has emerged as a favourite with skiing enthusiasts but it’s the region’s food scene that is leading a whole new wave of evolved global gourmands all the way to Japan’s extreme north. 

hakodate in night A bird’s eye view of Hakodate by night 

The Okurayama Ski Jump (that was constructed for the 1972 Winter Olympics) is a shrine of sorts for skiing enthusiasts and almost as iconic as another popular city landmark — the Sapporo Clock Tower. It also provides a stunning backdrop for one of the city’s special dining venues, Genghis Khan. The name is slightly misleading, this is not a restaurant that serves Central Asian cuisine but offers a unique local dining experience. Genghis Khan might have overrun most of Asia but the tentacles of his empire certainly didn’t extend as far as Japan. That hasn't stopped one of the region’s famous grilled meat dishes to pay tribute. 

Locals call this ‘jingisukan’; 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 placing their helmets over open fire. You don’t have to deal with helmets at this restaurant. They’ve made way for convex metal skillets that are placed at the centre of each table. It’s almost a personal, DIY meal where you daub some meat fat on to the skillet and keep adding meats and vegetables. The views add an extra element of drama to this unique dining experience.

One of my favourite experiences was walking through the city centre with snowflakes gently falling on to my large cup of ice cream as the mercury dropped to -12 degrees centigrade. I wasn’t far away from the preparations for the Sapporo snow festival where ice sculptors from across the world converge every February in one of the biggest events of its kind anywhere. Even before global foodies started to make a beeline to Hokkaido, it was Japan’s picky gourmands who put Hokkaido on the culinary map for its fresh seafood. 

okurayama ski jump The Okurayama Ski jump is one of Sapporo’s most visited landmarks

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Aside from a wide range of Sushi bars in cities like Sapporo there’s the Izakaya experience. The first thing I did after I arrived in Sapporo was head to a popular Izakaya. In Japanese culture, most office workers are expected to keep their true feelings (or Honne in Japanese) hidden while displaying socially acceptable emotions that are often described as Tatemae. These Izakayas — a typical after-hours Japanese bar and restaurant — come alive at night. Co-workers bond over fine cuisine and sake or Sapporo’s legendary beer. It’s at these vibrant nightspots that you might see the rare outpourings of Honne and office gossip that is taboo at the workplace

My first stop was not Sapporo but Hakodate, located at Hokkaido’s southern tip. It’s also where I learnt that sweeping panoramas are a given in Hokkaido. Japan had isolated itself from the rest of the world for almost two centuries. That gradually changed only from the 1850s. Hakodate became one of the first to open for International trading. It’s why it’s also home to one of the first western-style fortresses — Fort Goryokaku. This fort was the power centre for the short-lived Republic of Ezo that lasted just six months in 1869. It was around this time that the country’s Northern most island came to be known as Hokkaido (that translates to ‘Northern Sea Region’) 

hokkaido Hokkaido is a magnet for winter sports aficionados

Fort Goryokaku is a star-shaped Western-style citadel that eventually transformed  from fort to a public park. I’d definitely recommend a trip up the 107-metre tall Goryokaku Tower that offers birds eye views of this fortress and of Hakodate town. Also make it a point to stop at Hakodate’s other popular landmark, a throwback to its maritime trading days. The city’s Red Brick Warehouses, have morphed into a chic shopping and dining destination. While this one’s a bigger draw with tourists, the Hakodate market is a hub for locals and visitors alike. It’s easy to get lost here with its heady mix of seafood stalls, restaurants and fresh local produce. 

Don’t leave Hakodate without trying their squid. It’s something the locals are mighty proud of. One of the most fun experiences from my trip was fishing for squid in a large tank at the market and watch it quickly transform into scrumptious Sashimi in front of my eyes. High quality sushi and sashimi are almost a given across the island. But that’s not the only reason I will be back in Hokkaido. 

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Rokkatei, an emblematic local establishment, is famous for their soft-serve ice-creams. The hype is justified, they are among the best ice-creams I’ve sampled anywhere in the world. A visit to Rokkatei is worth the one-hour drive from Sapporo. But that’s not the only reason why Otaru figures on traveller wish lists. It’s one of Japan’s most quaint coastal towns. A charming canal decorated with Victorian lamps is one of Otaru’s most ‘Instagrammed’ spots. I’m obsessed with Japanese whisky (just like many other whisky aficionados around the world), that’s the other reason that brought me to Otaru. 

Otaru is close to Yoichi, the home of one of Japan’s most accomplished whisky brands, Nikka. Taketsuru Masataka is often referred to as the father of Japanese whisky. He set up Nikka after he established Yamazaki Distillery near Kyoto. Nikka organises distillery visits and tasting sessions that are truly engaging. I’d strongly recommend making prior reservations for the Nikka distillery visit at Yoichi. Once you’re done at the distillery, do make a pit-stop at Otaru’s market for a choice of the region’s best-known whiskies. I didn’t just stop for whisky but sought winter comfort in a cup of warm mulled wine before I headed back to Sapporo in time for sunset views at Mount Moiwa. 

sapporo snow festival The Sapporo Snow festival is one of the biggest events in the local calendar

One of Hokkaido’s more contemporary culinary phenomena is the Sapporo soup curry. It’s likely to remind you of a laksa except there’s no coconut milk in this dish that gets its flavour from an overdose of Japanese curry powder. The yellow curry features an assortment of meats and vegetarian options that are served along with sticky rice. I tried this at Soup Curry King, a popular chain in Sapporo. 

In many ways, Hokkaido is a microcosm of the best Japanese food and lifestyle experiences. The tough part is picking the best time for your first visit. Would you choose the cherry blossom season (April-May) when the entire area is a carpet of cherry blossom trees or winter when skiing enthusiasts and Instagram fiends enjoy the island’s photogenic beauty? Sapporo can get bitingly cold in the winter and yet if I do make it here again, I will return in the winter.

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WHERE TO STAY

sapporo grand hotel

Sapporo: The 85-year-old Sapporo Grand hotel is one of Sapporo’s oldest luxury hotels and offers a host of culinary diversions including a popular beer hall and a Japanese specialty restaurant. 

Wallet: Rs20,000 onwards 

WEB: www.grand1934.com

bourou noguchi hakodate

Hakodate:  The Bourou NOGUCHI Hakodate offers a choice of themed rooms that take you back to the Hakodate of the late 19th century. Most guests gravitate towards the Waterside Café Yugen, their stylish tearoom that almost floats on water. 

Wallet: Rs25,000 onwards

WEB: www.bourou-hakodate.com 

ginrinsou

Otaru:  Ginrinsou was once a private residence that dates to 1873. It stands atop Cape Hiraiso overlooking Ishikaro Bay, one of Otaru’s most picturesque locations with beautiful ocean views and views of the entire port town of Otaru. 

Wallet: Rs30,000 onwards 

WEB: www.ginrinsou.com

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