Hakodate is Japan’s earliest port city, located at the southern tip of Hokkaido and the 3rd largest city after Sapporo and Asahikawa. After being isolated from the rest of the world in the Edo era, it opened for international trade in 1845. Today, it remains as one of Japan’s most important ports.
That said, there are a lot of western influences seen in the city — from the bay and residential areas, administration buildings, the city’s own fort and its streets and slopes, giving the city a romantic air. Because it’s a port city even today, the city gets supplies of fresh seafood daily and is known for its variety of seafood. Hakodate is also known for its stunning city view from Mt. Hakodate, deservingly rated a 3-star Michelin.
Hakodate is pretty traveler friendly. It’s reachable by the JR Line — stop by the very modern and spacious Hakodate station. The attractions are nearby and there are plenty of directions to guide you from one attraction to another. If you’re not driving, you can travel by foot (if the attractions are nearby), tram or cab (the easiest).
Here’s what you can do in Hakodate within 1 1/2 day:
Hakodate Morning Market & Ekini Fish Market
Hakodate was once a fishing port known for its fresh seafood before turning into a full fledged international port. Well today, it’s still known as the port which supplies the freshest seafood in Japan (as claimed by the people of Hokkaido). Meters away from the Hakodate JR Station, the markets hold auctions in the wee hours and sells and serve fresh seafood until from 6AM to 12PM. It’s like Hakodate’s own Tsukiji, but without the crowd.
We visited both the Hakodate Morning Market (outdoor market) and the Ekini Fish Market (indoor market).
Explored the indoor and outdoor markets. Observations:
- The stalls are super clean, not what you usually expect of a pasar
- The people are too well groomed, not what you usually expect of a fishmonger
- There was a wide range of dried and fresh seafood on sale at good prices
- Seafood can be shipped to all over Japan
- Seafood can be ordered, cooked and served to you on the spot
Instead of having brunch at the market, we went to this famous restaurant near it, Suzuya, just opposite the open car park.
As soon as we sat down, they handed us an order sheet — the set comes with rice and 5 kinds of side dishes e.g. super fresh sashimi that we can choose from. Not only that, we get to eat as much salad and condiments as we wanted. Our kocha was bottomless.
My meal was so so so good. Each set costs about ¥1800 and considering the freshness of the seafood and the portion (that’s a large bowl if it’s not obvious in the picture). Please give it a try if you’re there!
When Hakodate turned into an international port, people from all over the world started coming and doing business in the city, establishing themselves there. This led to the growth of foreign population in motomachi, the old residential area in Hakodate and because of this, the area showcases influence from different cultures.
Because of the architecture, cobblestone roads and the lamp posts, the whole area looks so charming. Lovers say that it’s one of the most romantic places in Hokkaido.
We took a tram to reach the famous Motomachi, where Hakodate began — you can say it’s the old Hakodate.
I noticed that there weren’t a lot of people on the sidewalks or cars on the road, nothing like the larger cities in Tohoku i.e. Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto. It’s very serene, although I was told that this is only the case in winter.
As we were exploring the area, our tour guide, who grew up in Hakodate, explained that the government takes the preservation of the old buildings in Hakodate seriously — homeowners of the houses designated as important heritage buildings by the government (she pointed the homes to us everytime we pass by one and it seemed like a lot!) get a stipend for the maintenance of their homes.
Apart from old and preserved houses, here are the things that you need to check out at the motomachi:
1. The Old Public Hall
Hakodate’s Old Public Hall is one of the city’s restored historical architecture. This building was built in 1910 in response to a huge fire which wiped out half of the city and it became the hall for the public. Subsequently, it served as the Hakodate government office. Go here to learn more about the history of Hakodate as an international port and the people who traveled to the city. You’ll forget that you’re in Japan, because the building feels so European.
You can roam the halls and get a feel of the life of people back then. When you go up the majestic stairs, you’ll get to see rooms that were used by Japan’s Crown Prince during his visit to Hakodate during the days (you get to enter the rooms and see the wooden toilets!) and a concert hall that’s still being used today. For a fee, you can also play dress up in long coats and gowns like they did in the 1900s!
2. The churches
Traveling Russian priest came to Hakodate some time in the 1860 and propagated the Russian Orthodox Church for the first time in Japan. Hence, a church with Russian architecture.
We also went to the Catholic Church. It looked like a small church on the outside, but the inside was so intricate and lavish! Beautiful church with gothic architecture, it reminds me of the lower floor of Saint Chapelle in Paris. Sadly, they don’t allow visitors to take a picture of the interior of the church.
3. The scenic view from the slopes
Visiting Motomachi means going up and down the cobblestone slopes. From the top you’ll get a good view of the bay area. Gorgeous view.
Be careful though, it can be slippery in winter.
4. The famous soft serve ice-cream
I happened to pass by a small shop selling soft serve ice-cream while walking at the motomachi. After going in, I realized that this was no ordinary shop — there were pictures of celebrities eating the ice-creams at the shop covering the walls of the shop and on the pictures, were their signatures, signs of a famous shop.
The shop sells several different types of flavors, each made from Hokkaido milk (there will be another post on how amazing the fresh milk in Hokkaido is). I ordered the milk ice-cream and enjoyed how light yet tasteful it is. There are probably thousands of shops selling soft serve ice-creams in Japan, but it is said to be Hokkaido’s specialty.
The ice-creams cost around ¥300. Give them a try!
Skyline of the city at Mt. Hakodate
The sun was setting. From the motomachi, we walked for about 15 minutes towards the Hakodate Ropeway (ropeway is like cable car). The Hakodate Ropeway transports you to the summit of Mt. Hakodate, which gives a spectacular view of the city. Among the attractions in Hokkaido, the Michelin Green Guide Japan rated this panorama 3 stars (the highest rating to be given), a must-see.
Only about 100 people can get into the ropeway a time, so we waited for out turn and when it finally came, I was very impressed by how modern and spacious the ropeway is! The ride took us 3 minutes and upon reaching the summit, we went to the top observation deck to get this view:
That’s the night view of Hakodate for you and your trip to the city is not complete without it.
Return tickets: ¥1200
Read more about the Hakodate Ropeway.
After that, we took a cab to the bay area of Hakodate to get dinner. The bay area has lots and lots of historical red-brick warehouses, reminding me so much of the Aka Renga. Inside these warehouses are now markets, shops and restaurants.
Despite it being commercialized, you can still get a piece of history from the area, like the old US Mail post boxes from the Hakodate post office. Walking here is so therapeutic, it takes you back in time.
The Goryokaku is a fort built somewhere in the middle of Hakodate, 150 years ago during the last years of the Edo period to protect the shogunate from Western threats. The star-shaped design of the fort was inspired by Western citadels (oh the irony). The shogunate was brought down during the civil war, after the Meiji Government stormed and took over the fort (oh the irony).
Since then, the fort was no longer important and was turned into a public park. The Groyokaku has more than 1600 cherry blossom trees, practically turning it into the it cherry blossom viewing spot in spring.
We didn’t go to the Goryokaku, but observed the park (plus, the city skyline) from the adjoining Goryokaku Observatory Tower. At the observatory, you’ll get to learn more about the history of Hakodate and Goryokaku and appreciate them. Good learning experience! They even had miniatures and comics to explain the story, which was really cool.
From here too, you’ll get a better view of Hakodate. We were so thrilled to see how big it is, that we thought, no wonder we don’t see that many people on the streets, the density here is so low! (Fact later confirmed by Wikipedia.) Such a good way to end our visit at Hakodate.
Read more about the attractions at the Goryokaku.
Well, that wraps up my 1 1/2 day trip at the charming Hakodate. If you’re planning to visit, don’t forget to see this super helpful Hakodate City Walking Map to guide you. If there’s anything else you’d like to know or if you feel like I’ve left something out, leave a comment!