The culture of Hokkaido is synonymous with its environment. The Northern climate, its small population and vast size, the waters surrounding Hokkaido – all contribute to a natural environment unique to Japan, perhaps the world, and one that has had a profound impact on its people. It has not only led to booming agriculture and fishery industries, but also to a growing number of local chefs that are leveraging their surroundings to create incredible cuisine as well as artists that draw inspiration from Hokkaido’s spectacular scenes. The deep connection between Hokkaido’s people and its environment has also birthed a grassroots environmental movement. Occurring almost completely naturally, the region has become a forerunner for Japan’s environmental movement on the backs of local entrepreneurs, farmers, chefs, winemakers and fishers. These are people that see the effects climate change has on their jobs and communities while they go about their daily life, and as such have a unique determination to do something about it. This makes Hokkaido an incredible place to travel, and we want to introduce a few of the people that are making a difference – starting in the quaint town of Yoichi.
The grape harvest comes later this year than usual. It is late October, and volunteers from around Japan have gathered in Yoichi, the heartland of Japanese wine, to assist with the harvest. The hot summer has pushed back the numerous wine-makers’ schedule again and again, and it is through talking with the people directly affected that the effects of climate change feel real. One of the many personalities that give Yoichi its unique personality is Shigeaki Kihara, who runs Mongaku Winery together with his family. Unbeknownst to most, Yoichi has established itself as hub for natural wine, albeit with a unique approach that can described as artisanal. “I don’t follow a certain definition of what natural wine is, I simply respond to what my vineyard asks of me.”, says Kihara. It is a refreshing approach and differs from the rigid laws and standards that most EU winemakers follow. Depending on the year, he might use products that would disqualify his wine as “natural” by certain standards, but this does not bog him down. “Being on the field almost every day during the warm months, there are times I see myself as more of a farmer.” This way of thinking is like the man that arguably started the natural wine boom in Yoichi – Takahiko Saga of Domaine Takahiko. A humble man with a strong philosophy, he likes to say that “a wine is made on the vineyard, not in a factory”. Indeed, there is a strong community of natural winemakers now in the town, starting with Takahiko and including newer makers such as Kihara. In some ways, this approach – in tune with both the community and the environment – might the most natural after all.
This philosophy has crept itself through the entire island, and even to its capital. Indeed, on the outskirts of Sapporo, an idyllic concave far removed from the bustling city plays home to Fujino Winery, which is run by sisters Iyobe Yoshie and Tomoko Saito. Sitting down with Iyobe, a backstory that is difficult to do justice in written word is revealed. “It was my brothers dying wish to create a wine that uses as few chemicals as possible.” This was ten years ago, and the sisters have made fulfilling this wish their purpose ever since. Her story is another example of the various backstories that all lead to a more environmental-conscious approach to wine-making that has carved out more than just a niche in a market not traditionally known for wine.
Of course, this approach is not exclusive to winemakers. As we go back to Yoichi, we find that the town boasts Japan’s first “eco-village”, in the Hokkaido Eco-Village Promotion Project (HEPP). Founder Junka Sakamoto, who travelled extensively through similar projects in Europe, aims to promote a sustainable and communal lifestyle through inviting people to the village to participate in farming, cooking, and participating in community events. “When I started this project more than ten years ago, I felt a severe lack of environmental consciousness in Japan, especially in urban areas”, says Sakamoto. She continues: “This always seemed paradoxical to me, considering how nature affects us Japanese, from the currents surrounding our islands to extreme weather such as typhoons and earthquakes”. While Sakamoto says this consciousness has improved over the years, for instance when considering the new interest of Japanese companies to send their employees to the village as part of their training, she believes Japan still lacks behind in this consciousness – giving her reason to continue the project
After having been stimulated by the fascinating work the locals here have been undertaking, it is time to indulge into the fruits of their labor, all the while keeping in tune with the theme of sustainability. In Yoichi, seasonal local ingredients that are arranged in a classical Japanese manner can be found at Tokushimaya, located just outside the train station.
Next, we head to neighboring Otaru. The town is noted for being a major international trading hub in years past, and its downtown is still lined with old bank buildings. Having seen the vineyards up close, tasting some of the regions natural wine can be done at Rakuten. At first glance a small run-of-the-mill Izakaya, it impresses not only due to the aforementioned excellent collection of wine, but also its selection of Oden (Japanese one-pot dishes) that pair better than expected. If you are in the mood to extend the night, head to Tsuki no Wa for a understated but homely interior where you can continue your tasting tour. Another option is Ishi to Tetsu, a boutique style facility that includes a hostel but also a sleek-looking café & bar.
Back in Sapporo, we can find one of Japan’s few vegan offerings at Veggy Way. Having traditional Japanese meat & egg dishes recreated in their vegan counterparts is definitely a new experience, and if you are lucky enough to be in town during their once-a-month vegan Ramen night – it will not disappoint. If you are in the mood for something sweet to snack on, Poisson d’avril will not disappoint. Finally, for something extraordinary, head to TAKAO, ostensibly an Italian restaurant. Talking with Chef Tomoyuki Takao however, reveals an interesting back story. He realized one key commonality between his home of Hokkaido and the Italian way of cooking: the closeness people feel between where their food originates and how they prepared. Distilling food into this simple connection is what Chef Takao aims for, and to that end he has taken local sourcing to a whole other level. Upon his return to Sapporo from Europe, he began forming connections with the Ainu, Hokkaido’s native inhabitants. He was soon allowed to join in their excursions to source local ingredients, and this introduced an entire new spice palette for him to experiment with. All of this adds up to a truly unique experience, where Takao recreates the rustic simplicity of classic Italian with a strong influence of Hokkaido’s ancestral inhabitants.
Ishi to Tetsu
From the natural wineries, an eco-village, countless restaurants wanting to showcase their region, to the ultimate local sourcer in Chef Takao – following this itinerary will bring you closer to Hokkaido’s nature than you will have ever imagined, and give you a new outlook on a grassroots level approach to conserving the environment. While Hokkaido’s vastness makes it an intimidating land for the first-time traveler, but the increase in interest towards the capital Sapporo and the surrounding area has bolstered infrastructure and made experiencing the easier than ever before.