Sunday, August 23, 2015

Hakodate Diary

This weekend my wife and I took a short trip up north to the city of Hakodate.

Just for a bit of geography, Japan consists of four main islands. From north to south, these are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. Honshu is the largest and most populous, and the island Tokyo is on.

Hakodate is on the northern island of Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the 2nd largest of the four islands, but the whole island is one big prefecture, which makes it the largest of Japan's 47 prefectures. A prefecture is somewhat analogous to a province or state. Each prefecture is subdivided into districts and cities and towns and villages. Tokyo, for example, is technically a prefecture, and a collection of many different administrative units.

Anyway, there's Hakodate, sitting right at the tip of the fish-tail-shaped peninsula in southern Hokkaido. By virtue of its location it acts like a gateway between Honshu and the rest of Hokkaido (and historically, between Japan and the rest of the world). It's connected to Honshu via an undersea train tunnel. So you can travel between Tokyo and Hakodate by train, the one-way journey takes around six hours. In March 2016 Hakodate will be connected to the shinkansen (bullet train) network, so that should reduce travel time even further.

The city is surrounded by the ocean on three sides. The tip of the peninsula is Mount Hakodate (which at 334m is basically just a small hill) and then the city spreads up and out along both coastlines.

We opted to fly in as it's only 80 minutes from Tokyo. Got in Friday night, and took the city bus from the airport to the hotel, which took about half an hour.

First stop was dinner at a restaurant called Lucky Pierrot, which is a Hakodate institution. It's a chain of diners with a 1960s Americana theme, serving everything from hamburgers and pizza to curry to Chinese-style sweet 'n' sour chicken to Korean food. They're located all over town and given the ridiculous/kind of creepy facade they're hard to miss.

We had the ebi (shrimp) burger and Chinese fried chicken as we listened to covers of The Mamas & the Papas and Abba, and it was pretty yummy.

After dinner we turned in for the night as we needed to be up super early the following day. Hakodate being surrounded by the ocean is known for its fresh and abundant seafood. Every morning from 5 am till about noon there's a fish market near the main train station in town where shops display their wares. There are also many restaurants in the market area where you can grab a fresh seafood breakfast. So that is what we intended to do.

In the morning we set off at around 7.30 am, with a hint of rain in the air. Transportation was via streetcar.

These remind me of things you might see at your grandparents' house. They are old and quaint and the paint might be chipping from places, but they are extremely functional and still running strong. For a small city the size of Hakodate, they are perfect.

Hakodate Station was a 20-minute ride, and the Morning Market just a short walk after that.

We first wandered around in the market area.

There were water tanks filled with crabs.

In one place there was a large tank of squid where for about 1,000 yen you could take a rod and try and catch one. Actually there was no 'try and catch' about it, this was the proverbial fish in a barrel so it only took a few seconds.

Once you caught one, they were made short work of, and you got to enjoy squid sashimi for breakfast.

I didn't actually have this as it didn't seem to be a great amount of food. I had my mind set on a more traditional breakfast. We made our way to Donburi Yokocho or 'rice bowl alley', which is a row of restaurants all selling seafood over rice. We found one that we liked and ordered.

A photo posted by @shah1r on

This was a set that also included miso soup, some wasabi and soy sauce for dipping, and pickled radish as a digestive/palate cleanser.

It was my first time trying sea urchin. The texture is somewhat like scrambled eggs or egg pudding. It sort of just melts in your mouth. Fantastic stuff.

We also ordered tempura. Shrimp, squid, and scallops.

This was a lot of food, especially for 8.30 in the morning. It would eventually last us the whole day, we didn't even feel like eating lunch despite all the walking we did later.

Next we rode the tram a couple more stops to head to the bay. Hakodate was one of the first Japanese ports opened to international trade in the 19th century. A few red brick warehouses from those days still survive today and have been converted into a dining and shopping complex. It's a nice place to go for a stroll. Thankfully the rain had died down.

A photo posted by @shah1r on

We then walked around the Motomachi district, at the foot of Mount Hakodate. This area was favored by foreigners during Hakodate's trading days, and some architecture still survives, such as the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Old British Consulate.

But we enjoyed looking at these manhole covers a lot more.

A photo posted by @shah1r on

A photo posted by @shah1r on

Around mid-day we took a break to go back to the hotel.

After a couple of hours, we headed to Fort Goryokaku, one of the other main attractions in the city. Goryokaku literally means 'five-sided fortification' in Japanese and true to its name it's a star shaped fort, complete with a moat around it. It was built in the 19th century to protect Hakodate against the imperialist ambitions of Western powers. Over the years, however, it lost its military and strategic importance and is now known more for its beautiful gardens. There are cherry trees planted all around and apparently during cherry blossom season in spring it's a sight to behold.

The fort is best seen from a 100m tall tower with an observatory at the top.

We later walked through the public park, which was an entirely pleasant, peaceful experience. In the middle there is the Former Magistrate Office, which was rebuilt and opened to the public in 2010.

In the early evening we went back to Hakodate Station to wait for a bus to take us to the top of Mount Hakodate. The foremost attraction in the city is the night view of Hakodate itself from the top of the mountain. Even though we were a good 40 minutes early, there was already a line of people waiting ahead of us. Gradually the line got bigger and bigger, and so the tourist office had to arrange for a second bus.

The ride to the top took around 30 minutes with brief pauses along the way where a clearing in the trees would offer a glimpse of the city below us. The views were great and also filled us with excitement as to how it would look from the summit. When we got to the summit, there was a dash up the steps to the observing deck to see who could get the best vantage point. There was a sizable crowd already assembled as some people came via taxis or in private tour groups.

It was very windy, in shorts and a t-shirt I was definitely not dressed appropriately. But we found a spot and camped there, waiting for the sun to set.

The view truly was spectacular. Orientation-wise, we're looking down in a northeast direction, across the narrow strip of land towards the rest of the city. The airport is to the top right of the image, so we would frequently see planes going across to land.

A photo posted by @shah1r on

A photo posted by @shah1r on

As night fell we rode the bus back down, and then took the tram back to our hotel. Dinner was at an izakaya where we sampled more local seafood, except this time most of it was grilled.

Our flight back to Tokyo was today in the morning. All told we were in Hakodate for about 36 hours. So fairly short, but enough to take in the main sights and get a feel for the place. I really had a great time, the place is very laid-back and relaxed compared to the hustle and bustle of big-city Tokyo. I would gladly go back, maybe as part of a longer trip through the rest of Hokkaido.

If you're considering visiting Japan, definitely try and make a stop in Hakodate. The food is to die for. And with the shinkansen connection happening next year, which will be covered in the Japan Rail Pass, it will be a fairly quick jaunt up north. You could potentially take an early morning train from Tokyo, and be there in time for a seafood breakfast at the Morning Market!

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