By Kate Crockett
If Hokkaido is the 'food bowl of Japan', Niseko is its deliciously tasty centre says Kate Crockett, who selects some of the local gourmet hotspots
People come to Niseko for the powder and stay for the food. Two and a half hours from Sapporo, the resort towns that make up Niseko-Kutchan – centred around Mt Annupuri, and in the shadow of Mt Yotei, known as ‘Ezo Fuji’ (Hokkaido’s Fuji) – are a gourmet paradise. Blanketed white with snow during winter, the area is transformed into a carpet of rich alpine meadows and verdant peaks, punctuated by fields of sunflowers, in summer. Here too are scores of passionate food producers and pioneers from around the globe, drawn here to make the most of Hokkaido’s rich natural resources.
On the fertile slopes between Mt Yotei and the skiing peak of Mt Annupuri, farm manager Dennis – who arrived by bicycle from Holland in 1999 and never left – grows a staggering variety of organic fruit and vegetables on a 14-hectare property called Niseko Green Farm. He has a particular passion for heirloom varieties that no one else is interested in – everything from black turnips (tondonero) to shallots, micro greens and red okra. His produce makes its way onto the menus of to many local restaurants as well as others in Sapporo and even Tokyo.
Stylish and contemporary J-Sekka café in Hirafu town is one place that proudly stocks Niseko Green Farm fruit and veg and uses them in their own dishes. Chef Kim Wejendorp is passionate about sourcing great local ingredients (80% of what he uses is sourced from Hokkaido), and he goes out of his way to forge new relationships with local artisan producers. He’s recently found a supplier of rare air-dried salmon, who hauls the fish straight out of the nearby ocean (some of Japan’s finest fishing waters) and dries them on traditional wooden frames by the shore for six months. Stop in for lunch – it’s the coolest place in town.
Niseko’s alpine landscape lends itself perfectly to dairy farming and Kim has sourced one great local blue cheese and is on the hunt for more. Other milk products he stocks include the confections of Milk Kobo, a farm based close to Niseko Village. Follow the sweet smell into the bakery to see their signature cream puffs being baked and filled as you slurp on a bottle of deliciously creamy ‘drinking yoghurt’.
In the resort of Annupuri, Niseko’s finest soba noodles are made fresh daily by the husband and wife team at Rakuichi Soba. Using 100% buckwheat flour and spring water straight from the mountains, they serve diners at their busy counter-top with steaming bowls of noodles (rolled, cut and cooked to order right there and then) until the last of the dough has run out. Although officially open from 11am until 3pm, they are often sold out by 1.30pm.
The clear mountain water is also vital to the deliciously beany local tofu made in a traditional shop beside a spring just outside town, and a key ingredient in the kitchen of Hokkaido-born Yuichi Kamimura’s eponymous fine-dining restaurant in Hirafu town. A former chef at Tetsuya’s restaurant in Sydney, Kamimura serves the very best of the local seasonal vegetables, meat and seafood in a small, atmospheric dining room that only accepts reservations.
Vying with Kamimura for the position of ‘best restaurant’ is Maccarina in the next-door town of Makari. An auberge-style restaurant run by a chef who trained in Lyon, Maccarina is set in an old wooden Japanese-style house surrounded by idyllic manicured gardens. Its claim to fame is that it hosted the wives of the world leaders during the 2009 G8 summit in Hokkaido. What Maccarina lacks in atmosphere is more than makes up for with the outstanding French-inspired menu. Don’t leave without asking chef to show you his air-dried game hanging in the basement – he hunts it himself in Hokkaido’s abundant forests and pastures.