北海道 Hokkaido

I’ve never been to Hokkaido. I guess most Japanese people haven’t been there either, unless maybe they went on a road trip when they were in their twenties or something like that. It’s far away, or at least it feels far away. Far away in the north, a sparsely populated, semi-mythical land of wide-open spaces, wildlife and (in winter) lots and lots of snow, that occupies a special place in the Japanese imagination. A kind of opposite of Tokyo or Osaka, an ideal of escape from noise and traffic and overcrowded trains.

Well, in reality it’s not that far north (although it does get lots and lots of snow – Sapporo is claimed to be the snowiest city in the world, with 6 metres/20 feet of snow a year, and has a major snow festival every February, where snow and ice are carved into astonishing shapes). The northern tip of Hokkaido (and of all Japan) is, at 45.5°N, at about the same latitude as Milan. It’s not all that sparsely populated either; the island is the same size as Ireland and has about the same population. (It is a bit like Ireland in some other ways too – it is known for sheep and dairy farming and potatoes).

But it is genuinely far away. To travel by train from here to Sapporo (including Shinkansen all the way to Hachinoe and express train thereafter) would take about 14 hours. You could fly there in about 2 hours.

Today we received a leaflet from our local Hankyu department store, advertising a Hokkaido food fair, from 16th to 22nd May.

It includes such delicacies as “double fromage” cheesecake (12 cm) for Y1575, “birch” donuts (8 for Y501) and Hokkaido melon jelly (18 for Y1050. Hokkaido as a brand has very positive associations when it comes to food.

One place you will very often see a map of Hokkaido is on the packets of milk and butter.

The big writing on the milk carton says 北海道牛乳 hokkaidou gyuu-nyuu—Hokkaido milk. You can also see the outline map of Hokkaido in blue. The area marked in orange on the map is presumably where the happy cows in the picture are grazing (at least until it starts snowing).

The word Hokkaido and the outline map also appear on the butter packet. It’s yotsuba (4-leaf clover) brand, which I chose because it was the cheapest. Although when it comes to groceries in Japan, the word “cheap” exists only in a relative sense – it’s still more than 8 euro per pound/454g.

“Hokkaido 3.7 milk”. The 3.7 refers to the fat content – the higher (and creamier) the better.

Note on the word of the day:

北海道 Hokkaido is written with characters that mean “North Sea Road”. Japanese people didn’t start to settle in Hokkaido until the Meiji era, and Sapporo, now Japan’s fourth-largest city, only came into existence in 1868. Before that, the Ainu people lived there, and it was known (in Japanese) as Ezo. Because it was settled so recently by people from the main island of Japan, Hokkaido doesn’t have its own distinct regional dialect.

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