Rice Cakes and Coffee: The Rise of Niseko Restaurants

yoteiviewsUp our way they say “ki ni mochi ga naru” — rice cakes grow on trees. Why, because residents of this Hokkaido region can’t believe their luck as the number and quality of local “rice trees” increase in response to the demand of a cosmopolitan clientele. Visitors with an eye for the gourmet are delighted by some creative chefs, while the regular winter traffic — hordes of powder-hungry skiers looking for hearty meals and a local beer — are easily appeased.

Returning for the winter to Hanazono, I was surprised and delighted to discover a new cafe that not even Trip Advisor has a record of. It is down a back road of potato farms on the corner of the Hanazono road and Route 343 and is part of the White Rock Bakery — I understand the chef is the grandson of the original baker. Whatever his provenance, he cooks a mean confit of chicken and the pasta lunch set is an exceptional bargain by the standards of Tokyo, Hong Kong and Sydney visitors.

In our small community, we have responded to this bounty with the formation of the North Hills Bishoku Dining Club to explore what is on offer, and an early venture was to go a little further along Route 343 where a new Italian place l’Ocanda has a fuel stove and a view of night skiing on the nearby slopes. Our first reconnoitre involved a fish of the day with its skin baked in coconut as a mouth-watering opening to be followed by slow-cooked pork belly, then homemade ice cream and a catalan. Altogether a rich and satisfying meal washed down by a well-priced Chianti. On a later Bishoku visit, the chef prepared among other dishes a pasta with fresh crab and smoked capsicum. It was a gem and worthy of a review in itself.

As I said, in many cases these little eateries seem remarkably well hidden. One such on the Makkari side is Tout le Monde, which the Bishoku diners, under the leadership of our chairman, visited one evening in a blizzard. We found it buried in the back lanes behind a two-metre snowbank, a delightful little eatery with two women producing simple French fare from local ingredients. The wine list was a little limited but then again that may have added to the ease of the return drive.

JFK is credited with the expression “the rising tide lifts all the boats”, and he applied it to the US economy. Here the economy has boomed thanks to the increasing number of international skiers and the gourmet tide is rising with it. Two upmarket restaurants, Kamimura and the earlier established icon, Maccarina, were each recently awarded a Michelin star. Both are open year-round with high end, set course meals. Several others, including two soba noodle restaurants, were given special mention by Michelin. So too was my favourite local pizza place, del Sol, which imports its own buffalo mozzarella (although I can’t quite work out what days it opens and closes). The Barn, another local favourite, found its gifted chef in downtown Kutchan where he was struggling with a hole in the wall café. His beef cheeks alone are worth a visit.

Ezo Seafood is a local star, although it’s now so popular with visitors from Hong Kong and KL that you need to make an early booking — and pay for the privilege. But James, the laconic proprietor, does source wonderful local fish, crabs and oysters, and if it is “kung hee fat choy” then it is time for serious indulgence. Kamimura has moved down the street and his old location has been taken over by a new Yama Dining with a similar high quality degustation approach and similar price. The food is faultless and there is an upmarket wine list to go with it. Then there is Lupicia and Steak Rosso Rosso and many others.

In nearby Kutchan there is a maze of back streets off Ekimae dori which come to life only in the evening. Jazz bars, Yakitoris, Chinese and Italian restaurants seem to spring out of the snow piled along the streets. Nihon Bashi is a long established sushi restaurant that is worth a visit anytime. Boroya is a small bar which can accommodate only 10 patrons, but if you find an empty place at the counter then there is a leg of Iberian jamon on display from which the owner — a local all-weather surfer — carves slices to accompany the beer. His delicious cods roe and cream pasta is produced on a minute cooker behind the bar itself. Around the corner is Shunsai, where a local fly fisherman routinely produces the very best deal in the area with his Y1000 lunches — seafood meuniere the pick unless he has recently butchered a Makkari pig. Indeed so many of these establishments draw on high quality local ingredients that therein lies a story in itself.

The rising tide applies also to coffee! Ten years ago it was bring your own stove-top espresso maker or survive on tea. Some credit for the change must go to the now departed Shukin, a Zen monk and kendo master of American origin who pioneered the real coffee scene with his café in Ekimae. It became a refuge for emigres and locals alike who wanted to chill out in a blizzard (and his successor still does a good pizza). Just down the road is Sprout, which now has a similar role for the exhausted skier.

If you really want to go coffee exploring then try and find Seed in Niseko town near the Cultural Centre. If you do succeed (no pun intended) then you will be rewarded not only with a coffee but also delicious homemade bagels.

There are a number of options in Hirafu, although sadly Sekka café and deli which was an all year diner has disappeared and to my view there is as yet nowhere to match it on that side of the mountain. To get the best coffee in the environs of Mt Annupuri you need to ski first and then find the little wooden hut at the base of Hana 1. Every morning the unlikely barista, Mike, drives up from Iwanai to make my 10am fix. Thank you Mike!

I began this homily with a bakery reference and perhaps I should finish with one. The area’s outstanding bakery is Boulangerie Jin, in a country road outside Makkari (but you will need to use your GPS to find it). It took me about five years! And don’t drive too fast either or you will go straight past. His breads and pastries are seriously high quality in the best French style. Rumour has it that the major hotels in the area have tried hard to have him make bread for their restaurants but he has steadfastly resisted and prefers making small quantities in his own way — long may it remain so.

Near the modest entrance, Jin has a little brass relief with a baker holding his shovel. Perhaps a tree with rice cakes would have done just as well.


Editor’s note: Yotei Views is an occasional feature highlighting a behind-the-scenes look at life in the Niseko area. To submit your own Yotei Views column, contact us with your proposal.  The picture of Mt. Yotei used as a thumbnail feature image for this column was taken by Motohiro Sunouchi, adapted here from Flickr under a creative commons license.


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Geoffrey Leach

Geoffrey Leach is a long-term winter resident of Hanzono and in other parts of the year, you may find him in Canberra or surfing in Byron Bay. In his past lives he has been a diplomat, public servant, ministerial advisor and lobbyist. He continues to work occasionally as a policy advisor to government and large corporations.