Hakodate is the third largest city in Hokkaido, and is located on the southern tip of Hokkaido, just across the Tsugaru Strait from the main Japanese island of Honshu. Hakodate City sits just behind Mt. Hakodate, which occupies the eastern tip of Hakodate Bay.
A couple of blocks from Hakodate Station and the bay, a sign proclaims in bold letters, “This is the real Morning Market!” It left me in no doubt that I had found one of the two most touted attractions in the city.
Hakodate Morning Market
The Morning Market (Asa-ichi) opens at six a.m. and is divided into dozens of vendors’ lots. I entered in time to see vegetables, new from the earth, being trimmed and bunched for sale, mounds of fruit so fresh it gleamed, and a cornucopia of seafood in all states of preservation. The volume and variety were nearly heady, but as a passing tourist, there was nothing in that great big room for me to buy, and the sign outside kept begging the question: What is the competition?
At six-thirty I found myself in the building next door, staring intently into a salt water tank where all but transparent squid were swimming around and around. I was holding a makeshift fishing pole, and deftly hooked one out on my first try. (There is a technique. The proprietor has visual aids.) The squid gave a final squirt attempting to jet away. Too late.
The proprietor gestured toward my camera and snapped me holding up my catch. Moments later it had become sashimi. I’m generally not a fan of squid, raw or cooked, but this was such a fresh and tender treat, tasting of the sea, it was a superb way to start the day.
The block surrounding the “real Morning Market” is packed with little shops with displays of seafood on ice and often in tanks, as well, that spill into the street. One sports an old rowboat converted into a display case, and keeps crab legs grilling on a charcoal brassiere just off the stern.
In contrast to the subdued atmosphere inside, here hawkers call out the virtues of their goods to anyone passing by under the early morning sun. Some shops have signs in Japanese and English saying, “You can eat here!” Virtually all have one or more tables in the back where you can dig into a seafood donburi (a bowl of white rice covered with one or more kind of seafood).
The server at the place where I stopped made sure I understood that I could customize the dish to my liking, choosing among crab, salmon roe, sea urchin, octopus, any of the numerous creatures on sale. It was every bit as rewarding as my squid appetizer had been.
Hakodate is designed for tourism, and a day is not nearly long enough to experience all that even the city center has to offer. Strolling the streets – much wider than those in more densely populated areas of Japan – lends a feeling of ease.
It would take an effort not to run across one the sightseeing spots that pepper the streets such as temples both modest and grand, museums as small as that chronicling Hakodate’s history of photography or large enough to introduce the cultures of the world’s Northern Peoples, curiosities like Japan’s oldest concrete telephone pole, and parks dedicated to historic figures like Commodore Matthew Perry who opened Hakodate in 1854 as the first port in Japan for trade with the west.
Many of these locations are housed in old western-style buildings, constructed around that time, when foreigners took up residence and did business in the city.
Several architecturally noteworthy churches from foreign denominations can be found in the downtown Motomachi area; the grandest, and most well known is the Russian Orthodox Church which was established in 1859 to accompany Hakodate’s Russian Consulate.
Russian Orthodox Church, Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan.
Russian Orthodox Church, Motomachi, Hakodate, Hokkaido
A Roman Catholic and an Anglican church are in the same area. The Old British Consulate looked after British affairs from 1859 until 1934 and now has a small museum, an English-style tea room and a gift shop. For those interested in the early history of Hakodate as a treaty port, the Foreigner’s Cemetery has the graves of British, Russian and French ex-pats who died in Hakodate.
With an upbeat atmosphere, the old brick warehouses area of town has something for just about everyone. The buildings there date back to Hakodate’s time as a center of foreign trade. From the outside they are clearly – well – old, brick warehouses.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan.
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan
Inside they glow, they sparkle, and they dazzle with up-to-date emporia ranging from a music box “museum” to a teddy bear shop, jewelry stores to eccentric souvenir shops. There are eateries from a variety of cultures and this is a reliable place to sample some of Hokkaido’s signature cuisine such as soup curry and the limited brew Sapporo beers available only within the prefecture. The warehouses, of course, face the sea, and provide boarding points for bay cruises. There is even a wedding chapel, should that be on your itinerary.
Outside Hakodate Downtown Area
Outside the downtown area, there are more attractions. Our Lady of the Angels Abbey is a Trappist monastery in the northeast. It can be reached by car or bus. Access is limited; you may only enter the forecourt, the chapel and the souvenir shop. The latter offers Trappist butter, jam, and butter cookies at the lowest prices on the archipelago.
To the north, Goryokaku, a pentagonal walled, western-style fort, is accessible by bus or streetcar. (There is no parking.) The Goryokaku was built between 1857 and 1864 by the Tokugawa Shogunate, and served briefly as the region’s governmental, diplomatic, and defensive center.
The beginning of the restoration of Japan to imperial governance was marked by the final battle between Tokugawa-loyal and Meiji forces at this site in 1869. The restored fortress is now a park filled with cherry trees. At its entrance a 107 meter viewing tower houses historical exhibits, a small cafe, and a gift shop. The tower provides panoramic views of the city, watched over by its eponymous mountain from the south.
Sunset occasions the other most famed experience of the city. Travel to the peak of Mount Hakodate via hiking trails, car, or ropeway and you will find an observatory. From the roof, Tsugaru Strait and Hakodate Bay seems to be an hourglass filled with twinkling lights.
You can also take in the view from the second floor restaurant accompanied by a Japanese or Western-style dinner. If visibility is poor, don’t despair. The gift shop is filled with trinkets splashed with the night view and there is 5.1 channel surround theater with a program of views and history of Hakodate.
Further afield is the Onuma Quasi National Park with its beautiful lakes for canoeing, fishing and hiking.
Getting Around Hakodate
Hakodate’s tram service consists of two lines numbered #2 and #5. Both lines run between the onsen spa town of Yunokawa and Jujigai in Motomachi and then split with the #2 tram going to Yachigashira to the east of Hakodate-yama and the #5 to Hakodate Dokku-mae stop. One day and two day passes can be purchased for the trams and city buses or a one-day tram pass for 600 yen.
There are buses from Hakodate Station to the summit of Mt. Hakodate (30 minutes) or you can take the ropeway, a short walk from Jujigai tram stop. The hiking route is open May to late October.
Tourist Information Center
Hakodate’s Tourist Information Center is at Hakodate Station and has brochures and maps in English and other languages.
Hakodate Tourist Office (Tel: 0138 23 5440).
Hakodate’s big two festivals are the Hakodate Goryokaku Matsuri held on the third weekend in May with costumed participants celebrating the final battle of the Boshin War in 1868 and the Hakodate Minato Matsuri in early August with happi-clad revelers enacting a wave-like squid dance through the city streets.
Accommodation in Hakodate
Hakodate has some excellent hotels, ryokan and minshuku to stay. Western style hotels in Hakodate include the Hakodate Kokusai Hotel, the four-star La Vista Hakodate Bay, the budget Toyoko Inn Hokkaido Hakodate Ekimae Asaichi convenient for both the station and the morning market and the Chisun Grand Hakodate. See here for a full listing of hotels in Hakodate.
Access – Getting To Hakodate
Hakodate is easily reached from Sapporo, 260km to the north west. There are roughly hourly Hokuto and Super Hokuto trains from Sapporo Station to Hakodate Station, taking 3 hours and 20 minutes. Trains to the ferry port of Tomakomai for ferries to Nagoya and Sendai take 3 hours.
There are trains to Aomori, Morioka and on to Tokyo through the Seikan Tunnel.
The Hokkaido Shinkansen from Shin-Aomori Station runs to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. From Shin-Aomori Station the Tohoku Shinkansen connects to Tokyo. Total journey take from Tokyo Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto is 4 hours, 2 minutes. From Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto to Hakodate Station is about 20 minutes on the Hakodate Liner or Super Hokoto Limited Express.
There is also a night train Hokutosei service from Sapporo to Tokyo’s Ueno Station via Hakodate.
There are trains from Hakodate to Onuma-koen Station (40 minutes) to visit Onuma Quasi National Park.
If you are traveling from Hakodate to Asahikawa, change in Sapporo.
Hakodate Airport is 8km north of downtown Hakodate. Buses take around 20-30 minutes to reach the city center. There are flights from Haneda Airport in Tokyo, Itami and Kansai International Airport (KIX) In Osaka, Nagoya Chubu International, Okushiri Island and Sapporo’s Okadama Airport and Shin-Chitose Airport. There are also flights from Hakodate to Taipei in Taiwan and Seoul in South Korea. Hakodate Teisan Buses run to Hakodate Airport in 30 minutes (280 yen).
There are regular highway buses from Hakodate to Sapporo (Journey time around 5 and a half hours) operated by Donan Bus Hokkaido Chuo Bus and Hokkaido Kotsu. There is one over night bus on the route. Buses to Esashi take about 2 hours, 15 minutes.
There are regular ferries between Aomori and Hakodate operated by both Seikan Ferry and Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry making the 3 hour, 40 minute to 4 hour crossing. Each company operates 8 boats a day with two crossings on the luxury Blue Dolphin run by Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry.
Tsugaru Kaikyo Ferry also operate a ferry from Oma on the Shimokita Peninsula to Hakodate (1 hour, 30 minutes).
Getting around Hakodate
There are two tram lines in Hakodate with a combined length of 10.9km: tram #2 goes from Yunokawa to Yachigashira while tram #5 goes from Yunokawa to Hakodate Dock. Both trams go via Matsukazecho, Hakodate-Ekimae and Jujigai.
A one day pass for the trams is 600 yen, or 1000 yen for buses and trams. A 2-day pass for buses and trams costs 1700 yen. Hakodate’s buses and trams take the Ikasu Card (イカすカード).