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Rethinking Hokkaido’s Role in Japanese Cuisine

Highly lauded overseas, Michelin-starred chef Yoshinori Ishii returns home to meet the grassroots players of Japan’s food culture.

Yoshinori Ishii is a man with a fascinating resume. He started off his career as a chef by refining his craft in Kyoto at Michelin 3-starred restaurant Kitcho Arashiyama, moved across the globe to become the chef-in-residence at the Japanese Embassy for the United Nations in Geneva and New York, and then went to work at world-renowned Morimoto in New York. This was all the prelude, however, for what was to come. Indeed, during his time in London working at UMU, he is credited for bringing real kaiseki cuisine to the UK – a feat that played no small part in landing him 2 Michelin stars for 5 straight years. This has made him arguably the most successful Japanese chef abroad. 

Like so many people, the ongoing COVID19-induced pandemic would become a chance for Ishii to reset and rethink. Returning home after more than 20 years living around the world, he came back to Japan in December of 2020. “This is a chance for me to start over, in the broadest sense of the word” he says. “I am going all across Japan by myself, meeting the farmers, fishermen and colleagues that form the core of Japanese cuisine.” Since June 2021, he has also been participating in a project focused on showcasing Japan’s treasures – culinary and otherwise – in an auberge-style setting in Tachikawa City in Tokyo. These activities brought him to Hokkaido in late summer of 2021, and we sat down with him to discuss his trip and how he views the role Japan’s most northern prefecture plays in Japan’s world-famous cuisine. 

“In Hokkaido, I felt free. I could visit the places I wanted, talk to the locals, and take a look at the prefecture from the perspective of a chef.” For Yoshinori Ishii, Hokkaido has not yet been commercialized. “For better or for worse, Hokkaido is not a global brand yet in culinary circles. I think there are still so many hidden treasures, so many ingredients that have not yet made it to the tables of New York, London, or even Tokyo.” He noticed this when searching the Internet for where to visit. “There is this gap between what comes up on Internet searches and who you meet when on the ground in Hokkaido. There are certain people, certain ingredients that have not made it onto the Internet yet. This made my trip a culinary adventure.” 

An avid angler himself, Ishii always makes it a point to meet local fishermen. “I have been that way since living in Europe. As a chef, I need to know where my ingredients come from, and I quickly came to view fishermen as an extension of my cooking. I started talking to them like family.” For Ishii, it is important to dive deep into their lives. “I try to become part of the team. Of course, with limited time this can be difficult. But when I am in a fishing region, I always take a couple of days to go out to sea with them, take part in their everyday lives.” In Hokkaido, he did just that, travelling to Eastern Hokkaido, where fishing remains the main industry for many locals.

Arriving in Eastern Hokkaido, the locals were eager to show him around. “We went to Shiretoko Peninsula National Park to see the nature and wildlife. Even though it was very windy that day, the local fishermen brought me to see the spectacular nature.” Seeing the land as it is another important aspect in understanding its ingredients. “Sometimes I like to just play tourist, and Shiretoko is a perfect place for that.”

However, it never takes long for Ishii to come back to food, and soon his journey would lead him to one of the most famous local ingredients – salmon. “I went to the local Shibetsu Salmon Science Museum to learn about the history of fishing in this region.” Here he met with Masaki Ichimura, who works as the head of the museum. Ishii sums up his visit: “It was fascinating to learn about the various research activities that are being undertaken to realize a more sustainable way to fish salmon, as well as the breadth of the locals’ activities. For instance, I was surprised about another project in which they are breeding native sturgeon in Hokkaido. This gave me another potential idea for Tachikawa in the future.” Of course, Ishii also had to taste some of the fruits of their labor, visiting a dried salmon company to sample an innovative take on the popular fish.

For Ishii, the highlight of the trip was to take to the sea himself. In the area, local fishermen have been starting to offer students and tourists the opportunity to come with them on their boat to experience fishing out on the open sea.  “The surrounding nature of the Shiretoko Peninsula makes fishing in this region a special experience.” Of course, the social aspect is also very important to Ishii. “It is important to talk with fishermen”, he says. “Around the Shiretoko region of Eastern Hokkaido, there are some truly inspiring local fishermen.” Another one of the people Yoshinori Ishii met with is Tsuyonori Hayashi, who heads a local organization of likeminded young fishermen called Hasshin-kai. “Hayashi has an attitude that is rare even in Europe. He sees fishing not as a business, but as something more holistic.” Indeed, Hasshin-kai is known in the region for challenging the ways of the past, for instance by focusing on fish that were not generally considered hot sellers to prevent the overfishing of salmon. “The organization is truly special, and I promised myself and Hayashi to help him from here on out.”

Indeed, it is through conversations with inspiring locals such as Hayashi Tsuyonori that Ishii sources new ingredients for his cooking. “I always try to collaborate with local fishermen or farmers, foregoing the middleman and trying to establish a direct connection.” For example, on this trip to Hokkaido, Ishii rediscovered sturgeon. ‘Similar to how the fishermen that I met are trying to innovate in their field, I try to transfer that mindset into my cooking.” 

At the “Rausu Michi no Eki”, a piping hot bowl of Ramen is served made from a base of Rausu Konbu, which is known as one of the best Konbu Japan has to offer. 

So, how does Yoshinori Ishii see Hokkaido, its ingredients, and its role in Japanese cuisine? “Well, traditionally most Japanese chefs would point to Kombu, which is of course essential to making Dashi and thus forms the base of most Japanese dishes.” Indeed, over 90% of Kombu comes from Hokkaido, and many people say that this means Hokkaido is at the core of Japanese cuisine. Ishii made it a point to taste the local Konbu at Rausu, which is known for a particular grade of the kelp that is known to be of the highest quality. “I just had to try the Konbu, which was so good I also indulged in some local Ramen made from it.” However, for Ishii focusing exclusively on Konbu when talking about Hokkaido is a view that is too narrow. “To me, a country’s food comes from the strength of its localities.”

He goes on to explain: “When I think about Japanese cooking, I don’t think about a certain frame. Such thinking only limits its potential.” Coming from a chef that is famous for making the most traditional food Japan has to offer, Kyoto’s kaiseki cuisine, this is somewhat of a curveball. “Going back into Japan’s many heartlands of primary industry, I reconnected to how these localities form the true core of our country’s cooking. Hokkaido is no exception. When you are here, you see what you have right in front of you, you try to utilize what the land gives you. This is the true meaning of local ingredients.” 

 “I believe that this is a very natural way of going about things, and one that I want to reflect in my cooking as well. For Hokkaido, this goes beyond Kombu. For example, on this trip I saw the potential of sturgeon. Also, lamb was another ingredient that I began to think about.” Indeed, while not a traditionally Japanese ingredient, lamb is unmistakably part of Hokkaido’s identity today. “For me, Japanese cuisine is constantly evolving, and needs to reflect the true currents of its land. In Hokkaido, that includes lamb. As a frontier land, Hokkaido seems to always be changing at a rapid pace. That is why it is important to visit, to understand how locals think about certain ingredients.” Yoshinori Ishii’s view thus reflects a more updated role for Hokkaido in Japanese cuisine. “This trip to Hokkaido taught me many things. Through indulging in the beautiful nature of Eastern Hokkaido, I gained a deeper appreciated of the land that produces these amazing ingredients, and I am looking forward to putting them to good use in my cooking.” We for one can’t wait to try what he comes up with.  

This article was provided by Hokkaido Tourism Organization.