Chimikepp: Modern French cuisine finds a home in Hokkaido


Lake Chimikepp lies deep in the forested mountains of northeastern Hokkaido, well inland from the rugged coastline of the Sea of Okhotsk. Even among residents of Japan’s northernmost island, this remote enclave remains little known. But year-round it draws a steady trickle of visitors willing to brave the winding, unpaved and at times treacherous road leading to its shores.

For some, the lure is the region’s bracing winter snowscapes or outdoor summer activities. For others, it is simply to camp out under the stars and breathe in the pristine air. But in the last few years, a growing number have been making the trip because they know they will dine remarkably well.

Chimikepp Hotel is the sole building on the lakeside. For more than 30 years it has stood on its small promontory, looking out over the placid water. Erected at the peak of Japan’s bubble economy in the late 1980s, it is a modest, low-slung structure, faced in timber and stone, that has become a local landmark.

Chef Masaki Watanabe was drawn to Lake Chimikepp for its pristine environment, bounty of local game and produce, and remoteness from the urban rat race. | NAOH INC.

The old-school, wood-clad interior evokes a north European ambiance, especially in winter when the perfume of wood smoke wafts through the building’s communal areas. With just seven compact guest rooms, it has the charm of a back-country auberge. What sets it apart is the spacious dining room — and chef Masaki Watanabe’s menu of creative French cuisine.

A native of Shizuoka Prefecture in central Japan, Watanabe only settled in Hokkaido by happenstance. Some nine years ago, during a short period in between jobs, he was invited up to Chimikepp to lend a hand in the kitchen during the busy winter season.

Up to that point, he had led the typically busy life of an itinerant chef. Early on he gained work experience in France, at Auberge de L’ile in Lyon. Next, he found himself in California, working under chef Thomas Keller as chef de partie at three-Michelin-star The French Laundry. From there, he joined up with chef Corey Lee, becoming sous chef at Benu in San Francisco (now also with three stars, but at the time a hot newcomer).

Watanabe says that when he was asked to take over the hotel kitchen he jumped at the opportunity. Drawn by the calm, the unpolluted darkness at night, the high-pitched calls of the Ezo shika deer in the surrounding forests and, above all, the sense of being far removed from the urban rat race, it was an easy choice for him to make.

A tartare of finely chopped horse meat mixed with cubed beetroot is given extra punch with shavings of yama-wasabi (horseradish) | NAOH INC.
A tartare of finely chopped horse meat mixed with cubed beetroot is given extra punch with shavings of yama-wasabi (horseradish) | NAOH INC.

The first thing he did was to revamp the menu. Out went the tired, predictable Continental cuisine. In came seasonal produce, sourced as much as possible from within Hokkaido, preferably from the immediate vicinity.

Watanabe soon found ranchers close at hand who raise premium Ezobuta pork and Ryuhyogyu (“Drift Ice Wagyu”), both local brands that are rarely, if ever, found outside of Hokkaido. He sources prime seafood from the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, an hour’s drive away, and also cultivated deep connections with local, small-scale produce growers.

Each season brings its bounty of wild foods. From September until the first snows arrive in November, local foragers drop by offering an array of forest fungi. Closer to his kitchen, Watanabe only has to step outside to find cep mushrooms carpeting the lawn behind the hotel.

Meanwhile, local hunters bring in pheasant and other game birds, as well as venison, boar and even bear meat from the wilds of the Shiretoko Peninsula, due east from Chimikepp. For Watanabe, these are essential supplies that he freezes to see him through the long months of winter. Since taking over at Chimikepp, he has also begun preparing his own charcuterie and other preserves. His prosciutto and salami form an essential part of his multicourse menus, along with cheeses from around the prefecture.

He offers three different menus: The Light option comprises five courses, including a couple of starters, plus fish, meat and dessert. Standard adds one more course, maybe a local specialty such as Memanbetsu asparagus. For the top-of-the-line Luxury menu, there will be an extra dessert, as well as the aforementioned selection of cheese and cold cuts.

A typical dinner at Chimikepp Hotel might open with a series of appetizers, such as a savory flan topped with Abashiri hairy crab meat and iwanori seaweed from the nearby coast. | NAOH INC.
A typical dinner at Chimikepp Hotel might open with a series of appetizers, such as a savory flan topped with Abashiri hairy crab meat and iwanori seaweed from the nearby coast. | NAOH INC.

A typical dinner might open with a couple of chilled appetizers — perhaps a light, refreshing onion panna cotta accented with a scattering of grated karasumi (bottarga roe prepared in-house) alongside a pumpkin mousse concealing slivers of local wagyu, covered with a thick, clear consomme gelee. And to follow up, maybe a rich, warm flan (egg custard) topped with Abashiri hairy crab meat and iwanori seaweed from Lake Saroma, a nearby coastal saltwater lagoon.

Horse tartare and horseradish? Why not, especially if the finely chopped meat is first mixed with cubes of beetroot and given some extra punch with shavings of pungent yama-wasabi (horseradish). On the side there will be home-baked bread and unsalted local butter, plus a cruet of Okhotsk sea salt.

Given Hokkaido’s lengthy winters, game season can last almost half a year. One consistent feature is Watanabe’s signature pate en croute, which is likely to include a thick band of creamy, pure white fat — the telltale sign it is made with bear meat, often in combination with pork and chicken.

He adds a swoosh of black truffle sauce, as well as a dot of syrup prepared from the zest of kinkan (kumquat) that accompanies a small slice of foie gras. No matter how well balanced and delicately plated, this dish is a double punch of meaty, satisfying goodness.

For the dessert course, chef Masaki Watanabe brings to bear his training in French cuisine. For example, with a chocolate and caramel mousse and a sorbet of Tsubetsu blueberries. | NAOH INC.
For the dessert course, chef Masaki Watanabe brings to bear his training in French cuisine. For example, with a chocolate and caramel mousse and a sorbet of Tsubetsu blueberries. | NAOH INC.

One of Watanabe’s most striking additions to the hotel dinner menu during this early winter season is his dish of Ezo brown bear meat judiciously braised in red wine until it is beautifully tender. Or, depending on availability, he may swap in roast Akabira duck meat (farmed, but free-range) paired with a red port sauce.

By late December, the lake will be frozen over, its surface turned to white as snow accumulates. As soon as it is firm enough, small tents will appear, used by the locals who fish through the ice for wakasagi (smelt). Watanabe says this is one of his favorite times of year, when snow muffles all sound and the crystal-clear night sky glitters with stars like diamonds. But he equally welcomes the arrival of spring in late April for sansai, wild edible plants with their sharp, bitter flavors that herald the return of life in the mountains.

In spring, the forests surrounding Lake Chimikepp offer an array of sansai (wild edible plants) that chef Masaki Watanabe likes to pair with local seafood. | NAOH INC.
In spring, the forests surrounding Lake Chimikepp offer an array of sansai (wild edible plants) that chef Masaki Watanabe likes to pair with local seafood. | NAOH INC.

Watanabe’s eclectic influences shine throughout his cooking. Based on solid French training and technique, he works with a light hand and a keen eye, ensuring that flavors are clear and plating is uncluttered. While this is by no means cutting-edge or innovative cuisine, it remains assured and satisfying, and well worth the star it gained when Michelin issued its most recent guide to Hokkaido in 2017. With no WiFi and only a limited mobile phone connection, there are few better places to digitally detox while making sure you remain very well fed.

The Japan Times Cube’s annual Destination Restaurants selection showcases the abundant food culture on offer outside of Japan’s major cities.

Numasawa 204, Tsubetsucho, Abashiri-gun, Hokkaido 092-0358; 0152-77-2121; chimikepphotel.com; open daily 6-8 p.m. (lunch by prior reservation), cafe time 11 a.m.-3 p.m., dinner is included in hotel stay package and priced according to menu and room type; takeout not available; nearest station Kitami; nonsmoking; major cards accepted; some English spoken

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