Surrounded by Hokkaido’s green fields and boundless seas, the kitchens of Sapporo are stocked with world-class seafood, Japan’s best dairy, mouthwatering meat and farm-fresh fruit and vegetables. And those local ingredients are what makes these restaurants must-visits.
Steaming bowls of barbecued crab. Sizzling skillets of juicy mutton. Smooth-as-silk ice cream. It’s all on the menu in Sapporo, the birthplace of beloved soup curry, some of the country’s best beer and chocolate, and rich miso ramen tailor-made for frosty winters. Whether pulling up a horigotatsu table for a high-end kaiseki ryori degustation or grabbing a stool at a tiny Susukino hole in the wall, chew on the 10 best restaurants in Sapporo, Japan.
Feast on Hokkaido’s famous seafood at Kaisen-Ichiba Kitano Gourmet
Kaisen-Ichiba Kitano Gourmet has been part of the Sapporo Central Wholesale Market for more than 70 years, selling seafood so fresh it could almost swim back into the ocean. The restaurant in the back serves the seafood sitting in the shop out front, either raw, grilled or any other method on request. The kaisendon bowl is the first thing on the menu – crab, sea urchin, salmon roe and whatever else is in season on top of fluffy rice. Barbecue-charred king crab, botan shrimp and fatty slices of tuna are other favourite dishes.
Sapporo is the birthplace of soup curry, a spicy dish with Indian and Chinese influences that evolved here in the 1960s and ’70s. While Sapporo’s famous soul food is different at every restaurant, it’s generally a meaty broth brimming with chunky vegetables, seasoned with spices and topped with a protein, such as chicken or pork. One block from Susukino station in the thick of Sapporo’s after-dark hotspot, Suage has been doing a delicious version since 2007. Choose from four soups (original, shrimp, squid ink and coconut), six levels of spiciness and many meat and vegetable toppings – Suage’s suggestions are crispy shiretoko chicken, braised lavender pork belly, maitake mushrooms and sweet inka no mezame potatoes.
The waters off Hokkaido are crawling with four main varieties of crab: the furry horsehair crab, the long-legged snow crab, the spiky red king crab and the even spikier hanasaki queen crab. Chew through all of them at Kani Honke, the century-old shellfish empire that spans 14 locations across Japan, including two in Sapporo: one at the central train station and the other in nightlife hub Susukino. A huge red crab hangs over the front door, but the timber interior is much more refined – a traditional backdrop to enjoy the kaiseki ryori experience, which presents a series of sophisticated seafood dishes degustation-style.
Grill your own Genghis Khan at Jingisukan Daruma Sapporo Main Shop
Restaurant, Japanese, $$$
As well as being a feared Mongol emperor, Genghis Khan (or jingisukan in Japanese) is a plate of grilled mutton and vegetables that’s unique to Hokkaido. Legend has it that Mongolian warriors would grill their meat using their helmets as a hot plate. These days, domed skillets are a much more modern way of preparing this meal, which is cooked by diners at their table, similar to a Korean barbecue. Jingisukan Daruma has delivered this dish across Japan since 1954, including at its main Sapporo branch in the heart of Susukino. The venue only really offers its one speciality: these thinly sliced strips of mutton sizzling on top of a bed of regional vegetables, just like the soldiers used to make.
Gorge on bottomless beer and meat at Sapporo Beer Garden
Restaurant, Japanese, $$$
An even more atmospheric place to eat jingisukan is also the historic home of Sapporo’s most exported culinary creation: beer. Occupying a mini-city of red-brick buildings, the Sapporo Beer Garden contains a museum dedicated to the amber liquid as well as five different beer halls to sample the product. The favourite for foodies is Kessel Hall, a bierkeller that wouldn’t look out of place in Bavaria thanks to its soaring ceilings, original brick-and-timber fit-out and shiny copper kettle used to brew the beer that ends up in your glass. This restaurant offers all-you-can-eat jingisukan and all-you-can-drink beer for ¥4,100 (£31) – a bargain for those with the appetite of a famished Mongolian warrior.
Susukino is also home to Ramen Yokocho (Ramen Alley) – a narrow row of cosy shops scooping up generous bowls of Sapporo’s trademark miso ramen. And Sapporo Ramen Republic recreates that bustling atmosphere on the 10th floor of the ESTA shopping mall above Sapporo station. This place is a theme park dedicated to the Japanese classic, bringing together eight of the city’s top ramen restaurants under the one roof. Shirakaba Sanso, Misono, Yoshiyama Shoten and Sora are the four stores that specialise in local miso ramen – a rich variety that’s perfect for Hokkaido’s brutal winters.
On the eastern tip of Hokkaido, 430 kilometres (267 miles) west of Sapporo, the port of Nemuro is renowned for its fisheries. That’s where Hanamaru opened its first sushi store before expanding all across the island, including this one on the sixth floor of the Stellar Place shopping mall above Sapporo station. Nemuro Hanamaru is a kaiten-sushi restaurant, meaning dishes whizz along the benches on a conveyor belt while diners grab whatever they fancy. Plates are colour-coded to indicate price, and the seafood is particularly affordable given the quality. Try the fatty tuna for a taste of Nemuro’s seas, as well as the savoury egg custard.
A tsubo is a Japanese unit of measurement worth about three square metres (32 square feet), or two tatami mats. The name of this oyster bar is Gotsubo, meaning five tsubo – and you don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that makes this oyster bar very, very small. And the small size is a big part of its charm. Only a handful of stools and even fewer tiny tables fit inside, while the takeaway hatch serves Susukino’s party animals until 2am, seven nights a week. Gotsubo sources plump, juicy oysters from Akkeshi – another port just down the road from Nemuro – that it then boils, grills or serves fresh with a slice of lemon.
The Ishiya Chocolate Factory isn’t a restaurant per se, but it’s impossible to talk about food in Sapporo without mentioning the city’s favourite edible souvenir. Shiroi Koibito – a slice of white chocolate sandwiched between two crispy langue de chat biscuits – are produced in the foothills of the Sapporo Teine ski resort on the northwestern outskirts of town. The timber-framed building that houses the factory could have been torn from the pages of a German fairytale, churning out sweet treats to match. The gift shop is loaded with Ishiya chocolates, which are also showcased in dozens of desserts in the factory’s opulent tea room.
Taste Japan’s best ice cream at Hokkaido’s farmers’ market
Farmers' Market, Ice Cream
Hokkaido produces the vast majority of Japan’s dairy, but they keep plenty of milk on the island to satisfy their ice-cream addiction. Residents lick soft serve 12 months a year – even during Sapporo’s brutal winters – from parlours pumping out inventive flavours such as lavender, cherry blossom and melon. A few kilometres south, though, the Hokkaido Agricultural Technical College Farmers’ Market is only open from April to November, swirling cones of additive-free ice cream made from milk from cows who only eat organic feed. The market is next door to Hakko Gakuen, a flower garden that blooms with 100,000 iris blossoms over summer.