Fall is feast time for fish lovers in Hokkaido, with special tastes and unique experiences that will refresh your taste senses, from the sweetness of shrimps, the rich oiliness of a salmon egg or the delicate hints of seaweed and ocean ready to be released from the shell of a horsehair crab.
It’s a special time for the bounty of the sea, celebrated by locals and visitors alike. Most of the fish can be bought at all prices ranges, depending on the quality. Fish markets and fall festivals make excellent places to sample, and when you’ve identified what you like, head to a restaurant to order a full meal of your favorites.
Even reasonably priced chain restaurants in big cities like Sapporo and Asahikawa will have fall specials of fish, and chefs at Hokkaido hotels make sure to include seasonal delights on their menus.
But why? Hokkaido is famous for seafood all year, what is it about fall that makes the creatures of the sea taste even better than usual?
The answer is two-fold: the movement of the seas and the life cycles of the fish.
Off the eastern coast of Hokkaido, as air temperatures fall, the difference between the warm, southerly Kuroshio current and the cold, northerly Oyashio current becomes more marked. Tiny phytoplankton growing in the sea become more concentrated where the currents collide. Fish, feeding to fatten for spawning and migration, feast on the plankton and grow in muscle tone and fat. Hokkaido fishing fleets are busy.
Are you ready for the feast? Here’s our guide to help you identify and choose the fish which make fall in Hokkaido such a dining delight. We’ve included the Japanese names too, to help you when ordering.
Let’s go eat!
First we should talk salmon/shake: Hokkaido’s signature fish. In autumn they feed up in the oceans and head to their birth rivers to spawn, so their flesh and in particular eggs are delicious.
In this season to try salmon roe egg sacs/sujiko, darker red and sweeter than the mature, orange eggs of the more common ikura. Best on rice, topped with a little grated radish/daikon for the optimum experience.
Fatty, fall salmon is of course delicious, raw as sashimi or sushi, or lightly grilled with a dash of soy sauce or lemon. On colder nights try the Ishikari Hotpot/nabe - a bubbling pot of fish bones and pieces, vegetables and tofu in a miso-based soup.
Another favorite autumn fish even has the kanji for the season in its name: Pacific Saury or Mackerel Pike/sanma - the three Chinese characters of its name mean “Autumn/aki”, “Sword/katana” and “Fish/sakana”. This long, silver fish is usually eaten grilled, but in Hokkaido sushi restaurants you can find it raw too.
Meanwhile, glance across any pub/izakiya in Hokkaido during autumn and you’ll see locals feasting on an oval-shaped, whole, fish which is opened up flat and then grilled, served with grated radish and soy sauce - it’s Okhotsk Atka Mackerel/hokke - a rich, fatty fish full of Omega 3 (fatty acids which are said to be good for the heart).
What else is good? How could we forget Hokkaido’s famed, fall shellfish?
An hour south of Sapporo is the port city of Tomakomai, Japan's largest producer of sweet, juicy Sakhalin surf clams/hokki, which appear on sushi menus at this time of year. Look out too for huge Whelks/tsubu, from the kelp-rich seas off Hidaka, and plump, white Scallops/hotate from the Sea of Okhotsk.
Shrimp lovers are in for a seasonal treat in Hokkaido, because the Alaskan Pink Shrimp/amai ebi from the Japan Sea and Pacific are larger than usual, and the plumper Botan Shrimp/botan ebi are full of eggs and can be eaten whole, or added to miso soup for extra flavor.
And then of course, there is Crab/kani. The stars of any Hokkaido banquet, and favored by Hokkaido people who are sending it as seasonal gifts to relatives and business connections in other parts of Japan.
Horsehair crab/keigani, from Uchiura Bay (between Noboribetsu and Onuma) or the Nemuro coast, are sweetly rich on their seaweed diet, while the giant Red King Crabs/tarabagani from the Sea of Okhotsk are firmer and less-fiddly to eat.
Afficinadoes also hunt out the Hanasaki Crab, caught off the port of the same name near Nemuro. Smaller than the King Crab, it turns deep red when boiled. It’s prized for sweetness and in autumn the females are heavy with roe.
How do you like your crab? Autumn in Hokkaido is a chance to seek out crab sashimi, carefully prepared by skilled chefs who know precisely how to cut the flesh to bring out its taste - here is maybe the best place in the world to experience this delicacy. Or, do you prefer your crab boiled, steamed or grilled? In soup? Tempura, or flavorful hotpot?
Finally, a few Hokkaido unique fall fish experiences - which even Japanese people may not have tasted.
Pink skinned Channel Rockfish/tsurikinki is a delicate tasting white-flesh fish caught off Abashiri under a very limited catch license system; Sailfin Poacher/hakkaku from the Sea of Japan is a scaly fish which has surprisingly sweet, white flesh - perfect when served as sashimi.
Finally, there is Smelt/shishomo, a small fish that is usually dried and then served grilled or fried. But from mid-October thru November, off the south Pacific coast, the fish are heading to rivers for spawning and the fishing is allowed. Mukawa town is a great place to enjoy the larger, oily males as sushi, or the female fish full of roe. Sapporo people drive south to enjoy this fresh delicacy, which can only be savored for a few weeks.
Hungry? We hope so! As you can see, autumn is a special time for seafood in Hokkaido - when fish are richer in flavor and offer travelers incredible tastes. Come dine with us!
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