What was your impression of this trip to Hokkaido?
This trip was very short, but with a lot packed into it. Therefore, it had a certain depth to it. A trip such as this one is easy for me, as I didn’t have to plan anything. I was just chauffeured to one wonderful place after the next. Sometimes it is nice to just follow somebody’s lead, and have the experiences kind of permeate into you naturally.
My biggest shock about Hokkaido was how big it is in scope. Over the three days I genuinely thought I had seen so many different things, but in fact that it is probably not even 5% of what Hokkaido has to offer. Thinking about it like that made me a little dizzy.
Also, I cannot talk enough about the wonderful people I met and all the things I learned.
What was your overall impression of the region?
There were many places that impressed me. I really think it depends on what angle you take when looking at things. From the perspective of a chef, I was both surprised and not surprised. As a Frenchman, every time I visit Hokkaido, I feel its “terroir”. This is a word that has no real translation into other languages, but for us it is said to be so important that it is almost an extension of our body. There is no place where you can feel the importance of terroir like Hokkaido. I felt it in the land, and I felt it in the people.
This is something amazing and it resonates so much with me personally. At the same time, for chefs this does not really come as a surprise. We know Hokkaido as “Japan’s garden”, and for me it has always been a terroir that represents Japan.
This answer might already be enough, but honestly, I could spend hours digging deeper and talking about Hokkaido.
That is what I saw on this trip to Hokkaido. Terroir is geography, biology, politics, history, etc. Hokkaido has it all and I saw it all on this trip. That is Hokkaido, from my perspective as a chef.
What was your view of Hokkaido as a traveler?
I’m not from a big city, I actually grew up in the countryside. That is why I don’t immediately have this sense of amazement that some big city people have when they come to a place like Hokkaido. As a traveler, I felt something similar to what I was just talking about with regards to terroir. Indeed, I felt that the terroir defines the people who live in Hokkaido. What I mean by that is that the geography and climate of Hokkaido make the people who live here.
From there, I think they realized that they belonged to the terroir, and that, in a sense, they themselves had become the terroir. These are people who have a certain depth to them. They are sincere and connected to the land that they are from.
As I wrote in my book (The Food of Esquisse), from November 15th to April 15th you cannot escape winter in Hokkaido. The growth of all living things simply stops. From babies to the elderly, the winter in Hokkaido is harsh and thus felt by everybody living here.
The video we shot for this project; it might have been interesting to shoot in winter as well. Because when winter dawns, the cycle of life ends. Everybody prepares for winter. People think: “I don’t have much time until winter comes.” And I think that everybody we met on this trip will change once it is winter. After November 15th, it will be very cold, and people enter in a kind of survival mode. Everything slowly grinds to a halt.
You can tell from their bodies. I feel like their hands, skins and even the way they look at you changes. They are ready to face for six months what we cannot face even for three days.
Indeed, I really think that none of the people we met on this trip will say that it is “cold” in the winter. It may sound stupid, but even if it reaches -20 degrees, they will just say: “it is what it is.”
That is why I think people in Hokkaido value time in a different way from us. They appreciate the seasons in a different way. For us, it gets a little hot, a little cold, but nothing fundamentally changes.
What was your impression of Sapporo?
I have been to Sapporo three times: once in winter, once in spring and now this time at the end of summer. First of all, I was impressed by the city. When I went in the middle of January, it felt like a big city, with all the infrastructure that that entails. The difference from your typical big city is that there is one meter of snow. This produces a profound energy. I even felt it in summer: this is a city that can withstand winter. Another undeniable truth about Sapporo is that you can drive in any direction for 15 to 20 minutes and arrive in the middle of the forest. That is pretty special.
My colleague Mr. Ishii, who joined us for a brief time in Sapporo, is an artist and an artisan. He has the qualities of both. And if you know what it means to be an artist and an artisan, you would know that these are the only words to describe him. He is a straight, creative, and talented person, but also one who worries a lot. If you meet someone like him, it’s hard not admire that. I think of myself to be an artist and an artisan as well, but only a little bit of each. He fulfills the criteria of each of these characteristics completely.
The day I spent with him was simply perfect. He took me to Agriscape, which is a self-sufficient permaculture farm that also has a restaurant. It was a wonderful place. Everything, from the vegetables, flowers, and herbs, is grown under the framework of permaculture. Mr. Ishii knew everything; where and how it is grown and how everything fits together. I was deeply impressed by Agriscape. I don’t have a place like this in my life, so I was overcome by feelings of jealousy.
Afterwards we headed into the forest of the nearby mountain. For a talented cook like him, it must be such a luxury having such a rich forest nearby. You can see where all the mushrooms and herbs come from, as it if were your own garden. This is the ultimate luxury for a chef.
To be able to drive for 5 minutes, before going to work in the restaurant, and be surrounded by such nature is something I cannot imagine. As a chef, it made me a little sad not have such a life.
The forest will tell you where you are in life and how to proceed. Everything will be solved, including your worries. To me, walking in a forest helps keep everything in balance. When you are surrounded by the power of nature, you will understand what is important and what is not. One can think clearly. If you find something important in the forest, everything else becomes secondary. Including your stress and worries. It is like meditation; you can find what you are looking for.
I live in Tokyo, and there is nothing here that will show you the way. You have to solve things yourself. Wherever you go, you might feel supported, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel safe. You have to stay conscious of your surroundings, keeping a sort of distance. The only markers you have are the tall buildings that stretch out around you.
What was your impression of Otaru?
Again, from the perspective of terroir, you will immediately feel that Otaru is a city with history. And cooking is intrinsically connected to history. The famous canal tells the story of the city’s past. I was fascinated to learn about the city’s history of herring fishing, for instance, and how it has shaped the locals.
In that sense, I was almost touched to see how Otaru’s commerce, social organizations and architecture has been shaped by its history as a fishing town.
There was also the “Kihinkan”, a place where many wonderful works of art are stored. It was a strange place to me, even violent in a way. Indeed, seeing so many works of arts stored together was violently shocking. I have never seen such a collection in such a small space of only 300 square meters. It was an unbelievable sight, all the woodworks, sculptures, paintings, lacquerware, all the art from different fields. Usually, if you want to see such a collection, you will need to arrange a car and go around to multiple places spanning a day or so; or go to a national museum that is 1000- or 2000 square meters in size. Here, everything is packed into a tiny space. I could not believe what I saw.
There is a certain feeling of euphoria you have when you see something wonderful. Each exhibit had something special, with the next seemingly always topping the last. Add to that the floor patterns, the walls, the stairs, everything you see around you. It was a euphoria that also came from being not in any museum but rather a traditionally Japanese house.
What was your impression of Yoichi?
I must resort again to speaking from the perspective of terroir. I remember what Mr. Takahiko said to me: “Before we were winemakers, we were farmers.” I thought that way of thinking was wonderful.
Indeed, it was the first time somebody had put it in that way to me. It definitely left an impression, and made me ponder many things.
On the other hand, what I thought was strange was how everybody, from farmers to winemakers, was aware of the land surrounding them. They seemed to be aware of what a blessing it is to have such a terroir, a climate that makes all fruits and vegetables into delicacies. People in Yoichi had this attitude of gratitude, thanking the land for all it gave them and taking only what they need. There was also communality, the sense that everybody is looking forward and wants to do something for the future of society. The night I spent talking with the locals was simply amazing.
I was deeply inspired.
I forget her name, but the women that runs the ecovillage in Yoichi left quite an impression on me. Ecovillages exist around the world these days but meeting her was touching – while also making me feel guilty. Why? Because she lives in her own ecovillage, she tries to avoid any excesses, take care of her surroundings, emit no carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. She only does positive things for our earth. From the perspective of the forest, she is useful. On the other hand, there is me coming from Tokyo, using cars all day, and emitting carbon to no end. It made me feel like the worst person. Seriously.
Her way of life was fascinating. When I came to visit, she was knee-deep in planning for the year ahead. Of course, she has to prepare preserved foods and the such to make it through the winter. Nature doesn’t provide for us during the winter. There is simply nothing to eat unless you dig down about 1 meter of soil. Compared to her efforts, mine felt so insignificant. To her, going to the convenience store is not an option. She has to prepare and store food that will last for six months. Meanwhile, when I’m hungry, I just go to the store. This left quite an impression on me.
And then there were the winemakers. Each of them was so different, with various philosophies that I took time to attempt to understand. I think they each respect a different aspect of Yoichi’s terroir. One example of this is depth. Even before he became famous, Mr. Takahiko had been specializing in Pinot Noir. He was digging deeper and deeper, and looking for all the different things you can do with one simple ingredient – similar to a Japanese cook. He is a profoundly interesting person.
But what impressed me the most was Mongaku Valley. The guy who runs it: here is somebody that pursues permaculture to the limit. It is hard to put into words, but I was simply touched by him. I felt intellect, kindness, and goodness in him and around him. And I believe this was reflected in his wine as well.
Finally, we went to Domaine Mont. The visit was amazing. I must say that this wine had my favorite taste. His idea is more grounded than the previous two. For him winemaking is, first and foremost, brewing. “We have to convert grapes into wine” is what he told me. That’s his way of thinking and this simplicity is what he relies on, I think.
He spends a lot of time doing maceration. Almost 50 days. The result is a wine like no other.
Seriously, when I started drinking it, I could not stop. By 2 in the afternoon, half the bottle was gone already. Simply incredible.
What did you think of winemaking in Yoichi?
I have heard that there are over 40 wineries in Yoichi, and I am afraid I cannot talk about all. I did have a few wines from here before this visit, however. I think I understand now the potential of Yoichi as a premier winemaking region. What I realized from this visit was that there are people here that truly fit perfectly to the land, the terroir. Having a great terroir is important, but to make good wine, you need the right people.
What was even more profound was seeing how appreciative they were to their terroir, and this feeling of wanting to give back what the land had given them. Through their wine, the makers are trying to give back. That is a great attitude.
What about the prunes in Yoichi?
I have already ordered about 70 kilos.
They are simply delicious.
That should tell you everything you need to know, no?
The second I got back to Tokyo, I ordered 70 kilos.
It is a taste that reminds of France. To me, it reminded me of my home.
To French people, prunes have a taste that they simply love. It is really a fruit of France.
That is what I remembered while I was eating the prunes in Yoichi.
Prunes balance taste and texture. This is what makes them elegant, but they also have a certain wildness about them. It is this combination that makes delicious to me.
It is difficult to outline big discoveries, or big surprises, one by one. It is a journey after all. To borrow Nicolas Bouvier’s words: “We think we are going on a journey, but in reality, it is the journey that makes us.” I enjoy being drawn into such a journey, slowly and gently.
To me, this makes it hard to single out certain moments, making this a difficult question to answer.
When a whale eats a plankton, it simply opens its mouth and waits for it to come in. When I travel, I like to feel like a whale eating a plankton, taking in what comes to me.
I like to go slowly, observing things around me, living the journey. Slowly. Instead of waiting for something explosive to happen, I hope for slow and gentle sensations to gradually shape me while on my journey. This trip to Hokkaido was exactly like this. Going from Sapporo to Otaru, returning to Sapporo, and then heading to Yoichi. I felt like I was in the middle of a wonderful terroir, and that feeling moved me.
I was impressed here, and there, and throughout.
I had a feeling that everything is connected. An incredibly strong connection. All the places, the geography, everybody we met. Every place we met was connected, while all simultaneously having their own identities. In the end, this connected group of individual identities are now a part of me, inspiring me. And now, when the times comes, I hope to channel this inspiration into my cooking.
That’s what I am left with after this trip. There is no point to me in talking about only one point in time, one place or one person we met. Because a journey is made up of all its moments. The places I visited or people we met don’t exist on their own, they exist as part of this journey.
For example, when we went to see the sunrise, that scene of the majestic morning sun would have been just that if I had not experienced what came before and after it. I have seen a lot of sunrises in my life. It is easy to see, especially in Japan, the land of the rising sun. But I was not anywhere, this was not any sunrise. This was in Hokkaido.
That sunrise was wonderful. But what made it wonderful was the day before, the people I was able to meet that day, being in Hokkaido in September, this wonderful terroir that had welcomed me, and the chilly air that morning. These are the elements that connected individual moments to form a journey.
If you had to explain this trip in one word, what kind of trip was it?
It is so difficult to sum up in one word. I would really need to practice for that.
If I must put the trip into one word, it would be virtue. That does kind of say it all.
In I had a few more words, I would say virtuous, dreamlike, and deeply moving.
A dream is a realm where everything exists between reality and fantasy. It may not be poetic, but it is both creative and realistic.
Will you channel the inspirations gathered from this trip into your cooking?
Yes, the time I spent in Hokkaido is like fuel to my fire. All the ingredients, the wine, everything. These aren’t things that can be disassembled into individual parts, they are now inside of me. And they will come out once more in my cooking in due time. It still might be too early for that now, though.
Of course, it is easy to draw inspiration from such a great journey, and there are various forms of inspiration. The ingredients are only part of it. Indeed, the people you meet also influence you greatly. All the words I have heard on this trip may have inspired me more than everything that I have tasted.
When you do make food inspired by this journey, do you think you will see the faces of all the people you met?
Of course. Take the prunes, for example. There is no way I will not imagine my encounter at the ecovillage in Yoichi, when the inspiring lady in charge mentioned that she had to dry and preserve them for the winter. At that moment, everything seemed so logical to me. So, when I thought to cook the prunes in Tokyo, I heard her voice: “you only need to dry them.” That conversation had crept into my mind and influenced my cooking. The way she salted and dried them, this simple and natural way of doing things changed how I prepared prunes.
Where the inspiration to my food comes is never clear to me at the beginning. It is not even clear to me what I want to make. Actually, it is quite the opposite. Inspirations and unconscious factors often shape my cooking. Sometimes things like the prune story come to me months after a journey somewhere. I don’t really think of a dish and say, “I went to Hokkaido, found this ingredient, liked it and am now using it.” For me, I feel like I am almost like a puppet, being controlled and inspired by various conversations, memories, and the like.
That may be the difference between me and Mr. Ishii. He is stricter and more consistent than me. He knows exactly what kind of dish he wants to make from the beginning. I am the exact opposite. Indeed, to me it is harder to realize a dish if I already know what I am going to make.
Of course, I am also strict when it comes to the technique of cooking and preparing food. But Mr. Ishii is the type of guy who wants to be always in control. On the other hand, I want my mind to be controlled, and oftentimes leave that control up to my body.
Did this trip lead you to realize anything? What did you learn in Hokkaido?
This journey has become part of me. This is easy to say, but actually something profound. Being able to have so many sources of inspiration throughout only three days will always be a part of me and guide me. I am sure I will be doing something inspired by this trip soon. Whether it is something I saw, a conversation I had, the morning sun, all of these experiences are now a part of me.
And they will come out again at some point. Whatever way it may be, I will express them. Of course, using prunes or serving Yoichi wine at my restaurant are real, material things, but at the same time, I also think something more profound, something invisible that has shaped me has come out of this trip.
Is there a certain complexity to Hokkaido?
Definitely. Maybe I am just not aware of its full scope yet. I think I did not realize the depth, the strength, and delicacy of the terroir of Hokkaido, even when I was exposed to it on the ground. But that is what makes it wonderful.
Do you think this complexity is inside you now, will come out soon?
Yes, I am sure it will appear in some form soon.
What about the complexity of Yoichi’s wine?
Actually, I don’t think the winemakers there were necessarily trying to bring out a complexity. That is not what I felt when I was there. I think it was simpler: they want to respect the terroir and are only taking from it what the terroir gives them. So, while that may result in complex tastes, this is not done on purpose.
Something you can’t describe in one word.
The delicate paleness that exists when light and shadow meet.
Profound flavors that reflects the history of the terroir.
A wine with a flavor of katsuobushi dashi.
A mushroom that condenses the flavor of the nearby forest.
The local cooks and producers who continue on in their craft.
All of these things are beautiful because they are complicated.
And taking all of these complexities and making them into one dish is Lionel Beccat.
Through this tale of travel featuring Lionel Beccat, get enchanted by Hokkaido’s unique nature, climate, seasons, and see how it all connects to sustainably to nature.