Welcome to Hokkaido, the wild side of Japan. The northernmost island in the Japanese archipelago is a place where trees outnumber skyscrapers, and you’re more likely to run into a bear than get stuck in a traffic jam. But the island is probably most famous for its delicious Hokkaido seafood, and the many fish markets where you can taste the local catch at its freshest and finest. Here’s a look at some of the major attractions Hokkaido has to offer.
Nature and Wilderness in Hokkaido
Hokkaido is truly a nature lover’s paradise. The island is still wild, unspoiled, and sparsely populated, considered a kind of “wild frontier” by Japanese people who live further south. Hokkaido’s central region is covered in mountains and active volcanoes, experiencing heavy snowfall in winter. So if you’re into backcountry skiing or snowboarding, this is the place for you!
Nature photographers take note: wildlife outnumbers humans on Hokkaido. There are forests here where bears roam free, plenty of rivers teem with salmon and trout, and a diverse avian population makes the island a birdwatcher’s delight.
Tradition and modernity seem to coexist peacefully on Hokkaido. The capital city, Sapporo, is kind of like a mini-Tokyo (but without the steroids). It’s home to almost half of the island’s population.
Around the island you’ll find quaint coastal towns and villages where fishing remains a way of life, and the seafood is out of this world. There are also Ainu settlements, where the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido still maintain their ancient traditions.
The History of Hokkaido
The island of Hokkaido wasn’t formally settled by the Japanese until the second half of the 19th century. Prior to that, the island had been the home of the Ainu, a population of hunter-gatherers who followed an animistic religion. The first contact between the Ainu and the Japanese happened sometime in the 13th century, and trade continued between them for centuries.
The Ainu were known in Japanese as ezo, meaning foreigner. In fact, the first name of Hokkaido was Ezochi, or “land of the Ezo.” The island’s current name, which means “North Sea Province,” was given during Japanese settlement in 1869 as a way to contrast Russian expansion in the Far East.
From that time onwards, the Ainu culture slowly started to disappear as the majority of the Ainu people were assimilated into Japanese society. Today, only a few isolated Ainu villages survive in northern Hokkaido, which are home to about 25,000 people.
Delicious Hokkaido Seafood
The Japanese have known Hokkaido for its abundance of seafood for centuries. From the middle ages onwards, rice from southern Japan was exchanged for fish from Hokkaido.
The cold sea surrounding Hokkaido is full of nutritious plankton, which attracts fish and other seafood of excellent quality. Hokkaido is known for its excellent crabs, such as the expensive tarabagani (or King crab) and the tasty zuwaigani (snow crab).
The Shakotan peninsula in Western Hokkaido is the sea urchin capital of Japan, famous for having the best quality uni in the country. Other seafood specialties that Hokkaido is famous for include squid and scallops, while the rushing rivers in the island’s interior are teeming with trout and fat salmon. That is, provided you get there before the bears do!
Visiting the asaichi (morning) markets is a quintessential Hokkaido experience. You’ll marvel at the glistening catch-of-the-day laid out on beds of crushed ice before picking your breakfast. The zen atmosphere of Hokkaido’s fish markets is light years away from the catch-me-if-you-can frenzy of Tsukiji in Tokyo, with screams all around and forklifts zipping through at lightning speed. At Hokkaido’s fish markets, you never have to worry about being pushed aside as you wait for your hotote (scallops) to be grilled.
Sapporo & Beyond: Fish Markets in Hokkaido
The easiest and most popular fish markets in Hokkaido to visit are located in Sapporo. The largest one is the Central Wholesale Market, which is also known as Curb Market. The market is located away from the city’s tourist center, and caters to locals and tourists alike. People come here to pick the tastiest kegani (hairy crab), which is served boiled and bursting with juicy roe.
You’ll also see locals queuing up for kaisendon, a hearty seafood bowl that is a popular breakfast item. Besides fish, the stalls of Curb Market are lined with fresh fruits and vegetables. The melons are especially delicious, and all fruit and veggies coming from Hokkaido are known to be of excellent quality.
A popular alternative for visitors spending a short time in Hokkaido is Nijo Market, which is situated much closer to the city center. It’s a lot smaller and easier to navigate, but it also sees far more tourists. The market is lined with stalls offering raw and grilled seafood items for breakfast. Why not try some sea urchin or oyster, fresh from the shell?
But foodies in the know will skip Sapporo and head straight to Otaru, Hokkaido’s seafood capital, which boasts a whopping nine fish markets! Opening at 4am, Rinyuu Asaichi is perfect for early birds, and its location right next to the port ensures that the seafood is always as fresh as it comes. Sankaku Market is located right next to the station and is very popular with tourists. Temiya Market is the oldest in town; it’s a popular choice for locals when they want to enjoy a fresh seafood breakfast.
Exploring the Seafood of Hokkaido with Zegrahm
Zegrahm’s 16-day Hokkaido expedition includes tours of two offbeat seafood markets, in Hakodate and Abashiri.
Hakodate is known as “Squid City” throughout Japan, and you’ll notice that the city is full of squid mascots and souvenirs. Naturally, tasting Hakodate squid is a must when visiting the market there. Two quirky ways to enjoy this delicacy are “catch your own” squid stalls (where they’ll slice it into sashimi immediately) and “dancing squid” bowls (where soy sauce is poured directly onto uber-fresh squid tentacles, making them wiggle).
The Abashiri Morning Market is only open for a few hours each morning, when the catch of the day is offloaded from the fishing boats. It’s a small and intimate market, located away from the most common Hokkaido tourist circuits, so you’re likely to be among the few visitors sitting on the market’s plastic chairs, nibbling on sashimi or chargrilled scallops.
In addition to Hokkaido seafood, the island’s delicious produce has lent it the nickname, “Kingdom of Food.” You may opt to taste uni, salmon, juicy melons, or all of the above. But whatever you choose to eat there, you’ll notice that the food of Hokkaido is all fresh and chemical-free, bursting with the flavor of the island’s wide skies and clean air.
Margherita Ragg is a freelance writer from Milan, Italy. She is passionate about wildlife, ecotourism, and outdoor adventure activities. She runs the popular nature and adventure travel blog The Crowded Planet with her husband Nick Burns, an Australian travel and wildlife photographer.