January 27, 2023
Italian restaurant in Hokkaido wine capital Yoichi
Destination Restaurants 2022
Yoichi, home to this issue’s featured restaurant, is a small town of 18,000 in northwestern Hokkaido, past Otaru from Sapporo. The drive from New Chitose Airport takes an hour and a half, or two hours with snow on the ground. The town’s name has roots in the language of Hokkaido’s Indigenous Ainu people, and according to various theories may mean either “place with a hot spring,” after the springs in the upper reaches of the Yoichi River, or “place with snakes.” From the middle of the Edo Period through the 1950s, the port town had a thriving herring fishery, but today the boats bring in mainly shrimp, squid and flounder. The town is known for its apples, cherries, pears and other fruits, and for being one of Japan’s few centers of production for Western-style alcohol; its first whisky distillery was established in the 1930s and its first winery in the 1970s. Today Yoichi boasts the highest wine production in all of Hokkaido.
Located beside a field of wine grapes, Yoichi Sagra is an Italian-style inn with three guestrooms, costing ¥38,500 ($290) for one night and two meals. Chef-owner Hiroto Murai shapes his cuisine around wines from Yoichi and other parts of Hokkaido. The prix fixe dinner (¥15,000) includes about 10 innovative courses, many of which make use of the region’s traditional food-preserving techniques.
“Although this area is blessed with abundant nature and foodstuffs, the climate is harsh. In winter, when the sea is rough, there are times when fishing boats can only go out twice a month, so we focus on vegetables and preserved foods as well,” Murai said.
For instance, the appetizer one December day was saba (mackerel) rui-be, a dish of fish frozen to preserve it and distribute the fat more evenly, which improves flavor. The rui-be was served sliced with vinegar-pickled grapes and kosaba no shiokara, young mackerel fermented in salt. It paired perfectly with a local cider. Cannelloni stuffed with hatahata (Japanese sandfish) and wrapped in a dough made with mukago, the propagules of wild root vegetables, was served with salty, umami-rich shirogai mollusks fermented in salt and paired with wine made from aromatic Kerner white wine grapes.
Guests can dine at the restaurant without staying at the inn, but an overnight stay with a breakfast of rice, miso soup and homemade tofu, nattō (fermented soybeans) and nori is highly recommended. The plentiful simmered and grilled side dishes are prepared with a creative flair that holds its own against the dinner menu. Murai brings his talent to bear on dessert, as well. On the night of the interview for this article, dessert was ice cream made from milk from a nearby dairy and served with baked sweet potato. The vibrant, strong flavors packed quite a punch.
“In the future we’ll be offering a monthly multinight package deal that includes special activities, targeted at repeat guests. Through events such as river kayaking to pick gyōja ninniku (Alpine leeks) or watching salmon swim upriver, I hope to share more widely what makes this place wonderful,” Murai said.
He also plans to begin making take-home sweets using surplus fruit that local farmers currently struggle to sell. It seems there is still much he can contribute as a chef rooted in this community.
Born in 1976 in Sapporo, Hokkaido, Murai grew up in a family that ran a Japanese restaurant, and he wanted to be a chef from a young age. After working at Italian restaurants in Sapporo, he moved to Italy when he was 27, working for a year at restaurants around the country. After returning to Japan, he opened Sapporo Sagra in 2006. In 2017 he moved to Yoichi in northwestern Hokkaido and opened Yoichi Sagra. The restaurant and inn features wine and food produced in Hokkaido.
Sponsored by ANA
Masataka Taketsuru is known as the father of Japanese whisky. Almost 90 years ago, in 1934, he established a production facility in Yoichi, Hokkaido. Taketsuru’s aim was to make what he considered the ideal whisky using production methods he had brought back to Japan from Scotland — and in Yoichi he found his ideal location.
Thus was born the Nikka Whisky distillery, which is now Yoichi’s leading tourist attraction. The 10 buildings dotting the distillery grounds have even been designated an Important Cultural Property. The guided distillery tour (which includes whisky tasting) is reservation-only, but well worth booking in advance. A visit is highly recommended.