One of the best ways to immerse yourself in a culture is to sample its diverse cuisine. Traveling in Japan these days, you will find many Western chain restaurants as well as Western-style eateries to choose from. Rather than settling for the familiar, select a traditional restaurant off the beaten path and sample some of Japan’s regional cooking. After all, your travels should be an adventure where you actively engage in the traditions and offerings of a country rather than just observing as a bystander.
Japanese cuisine has a vast array of local specialties known as kyodo ryori (郷土料理). These dishes are typically prepared using local ingredients and traditional recipes. Although many “local” ingredients are available nationwide these days and it is not uncommon to find regional dishes throughout Japan, you can still find true kyodo ryori to fulfill your adventures in gastronomy.
To whet your appetite, let’s begin with Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island and the northernmost of Japan’s 47 prefectures. The region is known for its relatively cool summers and snowy winters. Snowfall varies widely from as much as 400 inches in the mountainous areas adjacent to the Sea of Japan down to around 71 inches along the Pacific coast. Hokkaido is also home to the Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan. They have a cultural and racial background somewhat different from that of the ethnic Japanese and have thus influenced some of the regional cuisine of Hokkaido.
The regional dishes which characterize Hokkaido Prefecture include: Genghis Khan (barbecued lamb and vegetables), Ishinari Nabe (a stewed dish consisting of salmon and vegetables in a miso based broth), Ruibe (an Ainu dish of frozen, sliced, raw salmon), Sanpei Jiru (a winter miso soup made with salmon, daikon, carrots, potatoes and onions), Chanchan Yaki (a miso grilled salmon with beansprouts and other vegetables that is a specialty in the various fishing villages), Hokkaido Ramen (especially Sapporo Ramen) and Ika Somen (squid sliced into very thin noodle-like strips and eaten with dipping sauce.)
Of course, these are the more common regional dishes associated with Hokkaido. Hokkaido prefecture is one of eight prefectures in Japan to have sub-prefectures (支庁/ shicho) and as a result you can probably delve deeper into the region’s specific cuisine by visiting the specific shicho.