Something Fishy in Hakodate

Hakodate has been on the top of my Hokkaido travel list since I’ve arrived. The southern tip of Hokkaido, Hakodate is a historic port, one of the first that Japan opened to the world in the 1800s. The city wears influences from Europe, and today it’s a gateway to Hokkaido from Honshu thanks to the one year old shinkansen from Aomori. The train ride from Sapporo is long, but my friends and I set out on Friday night and enjoyed the ride Japanese style, that is with beer and bentos.

We arrived late at night and checked into our hotel, the Hakodate Guest House. We shared a Japanese style room and only paid 5,500 yen per person for both nights. The guesthouse was simple but homey, filled with art, knick-knacks, and creaky hallways and stairs.

On Saturday morning, we visited Jiyuchiba Market, a recommendation from a teacher who grew up in Hakodate. For breakfast we had rice bowls and we got to choose which fish we wanted and the owner went into the market area to buy it for us. The salmon and tuna were really fresh, and after we walked through the market to see what was for sale. Hakodate is famous for its fresh seafood, particularly squid, but that morning they didn’t have any squid as the pouring rain had prevented them from getting anything good.

We also stopped at the bigger and more touristy Morning Market. The rain was heavy, so we ducked inside for coffee. Once it let up, we went out to try the squid ink soft cream at a Hokkaido Farm shop nearby. It tasted like a buttery, slightly salty vanilla, and was much less offensive than I’d imagined.

From there, we took the streetcar to visit the red warehouses. Hakodate is connected by a streetcar system, and for 600 yen we got a one-day pass for unlimited use, which pays for itself after three rides. The warehouses were nostalgic, and reminded me a lot of rainy days in Boston, Portland, or Newport. But they were filled with souvenir shops typical to Hokkaido, selling glass and random Hokkaido goods.

We went inside the Sakamoto Ryoma museum when the rain came back again. Sakamoto was an important figure in catalyzing the Meiji Restoration, and he dreamed of a peaceful Japan that could look to other countries to learn and progress.

After visiting the museum, we walked uphill to Motomachi, a neighborhood full of historic buildings, but it started to pour and we ducked inside a cafe to have a light lunch and wait out the storm. When the sun suddenly came out, we hurried outside to explore the neighborhood. We first visited the Catholic church, which was the first I visited in Japan, and I was surprised by how subdued the decor was and that the stations of the cross ran in the opposite direction. Plus it was interesting to take off your shoes inside a church.

We also visited the Russian Orthodox church, the oldest of its kind in Japan. Inside were beautiful paintings, and the outside is equally impressive. It’s famous for its bells that play beautiful music. While in the area, we also visited a shrine where I got a good luck charm that should help me pass my Japanese exam in July, and  we enjoyed the quiet streets brimming with unique, historic buildings. Hakodate looks completely different from everywhere else I’ve been in Japan, and it quickly became a favorite spot in Hokkaido for me.

We hopped back on the streetcar to visit Goryokaku, a star-shaped fortress that was built in the event of foreign invasion. Today, it’s a pleasant park for a walk and one of the most famous places for cherry blossom viewing in Hokkaido. We visited the Hakodate Magistrate’s building. Though beautiful inside with tatami rooms to host different ranks of samurai, the building is a reconstruction.

We were feeling peckish after our walk, so we visited Lucky Pierrot, a famous Hakodate burger shop with locations throughout the city.  Each location has a different theme, this one was full of angels, and we split their Chinese chicken burger and fries drenched in sauce and cheese like poutine.

We took the streetcar back to the Mt. Hakodate Ropeway where we went up to see the city’s famous night view, rated one of the top three in the world alongside those in Naples and Hong Kong. We went up before sunset and watched as the light softened over the city and its bays. The viewing platform wasn’t too crowded at first, but after the sun had set people poured off tour buses and shoved their way up to the front. After the view reached its best at 7:40, they rushed back down onto tour buses at the base of the mountain. It was frustrating that the view which had been so pleasant earlier in the night was spoiled by people with selfie-sticks only looking to capture the view and then move on without appreciating it.

We took the ropeway down and took the streetcar to the Yachigashira Onsen, which had surprisingly orange and hot water. The rotenburo there was star-shaped, like Goryokaku, and we enjoyed welcome quiet after the crowds at Mt. Hakodate. To finish our night, we had Hakodate style salt ramen at Yumin.

The next morning we had more fish and squid for breakfast and then grabbed yakitori bentos from the Hasegawa store and cheesecake from Snaffles for our train ride back. Though far from Sapporo, Hakodate is full of charms that can’t be found elsewhere in Hokkaido, and it now ranks among my favorite places in Japan.

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