Hakodate: The Southeastern Marvel of Hokkaido

In case you’ve been to Japan a handful of times and are already used to the same sights and sounds in Tokyo, it’s time that you explore a different island in the land of the rising sun: Hokkaido – specifically Hakodate. You’ll be surprised at what sets this island apart from the rest; the climate, food, and history are a little different than what you may be used to. As you should know, Tokyo doesn’t represent all aspects of Japan. So, which parts of Hokkaido should you visit? All, of course, but Hakodate is a great place to begin.

The History of Hakodate in Hokkaido, Japan

At the southeastern tip of the island of Hokkaido sits Hakodate, the third biggest city in all of Japan’s northern island. Although it’s most famous for being used as a port during the 19th century, its formally recorded history dates back all the way to the 15th century. Way before that, it was inhabited by an indigenous tribe called the Ainu people. In fact, it started out as a simple village near the ocean that was dedicated to fishing. This village was called “Usukeshi”, which a word in Ainu for the bay. A man named Kono Kaganokami Masamichi built a house for himself and his family. Following this would be a series of civil wars and rebellions in the 17th century; these wars ensued in attempts gain control of this area, versus other Ainu clans in Hokkaido.

During the Hoei period, Hakodate bloomed. Not only were more temples built, but a clan that went by the name of “Matsumae” decided to move their headquarters to the house that Kono Kaganokami Masamichi created. This boosted the economy in the nearby towns. Once the port was founded by Takadaya Kahei, the city gained, even more, profit from exchanging goods with travelers and foreign merchants.

By the time the Meiji restoration happened, Hakodate was already being eyed by foreign investors, as well as military personnel from the west. Here, a peace amnesty was made called the “Convention of Kanagawa”, which promised open trade after Japan’s long period of seclusion, and good diplomatic relations and favors for themselves and the U.S.A. Hakodate played as an entry point to being open to accepting new cultures, traditions, and religions.

Few were happy with this acceptance of new concepts, thus the Boshin war ensued. To fight their liberal Meiji Emperor, rebels under the Tokugawa Shogunate took over the European-styled fort Goryōkaku that still exists until today. Ultimately, after many battles, the government won, and the rebels were defeated.

Hakodate, in Its More Recent Years

On the first of August, 1922, Hakodate was finally considered a city. In the following years, it would also be subjected to the horrors of the second world war, though not nearly as devastatingly as its neighboring Prefectures. Compared to the rest of Japan, the city was only bombed twice; the air raids pulverizing 400 houses, while another 400 people murdered on a ferry.

Now, Hakodate sits in the middle of the Kameda peninsula in the Oshima Subprefecture. It has doubled in size ever since it was compounded with fragments of Kameda District, namely Toi, Esan, Minamikayabe, and Todohokke village. It was home to many successful businesses and establishments, one of them being airtransse. Aside from having its own ocean port, expressway, and airport, it has also been newly equipped with a fast train; the Hokkaido Shinkansen, which passes through other parts of Hokkaido as well.

As for education, Hakodate has satellite campuses of the Hokkaido University of Education, and Hokkaido University. Hakodate University, Junior College, and Otani College are private schools that your children may attend. There are many other private and public schools located around Hakodate; around 17 more for you to choose from.

Life And Culture In Hakodate

Hakodate is primarily known for its amazing seafood. If you’re a fan of squid, crab, salmon, sea urchins, you’ve come to the right place. Seafood has become such a staple that Hakodate’s signature ramen dish is sure to have it. Among all the variants of seafood, however, Hakodate takes most pride in its squid. If you’ve ever eaten at a restaurant where they serve squid that moves after you pour soy sauce on it, that is exactly what Hakodate is known for.

If you thought the fact they love squid so much is a joke – you’re wrong. The Port festival that Hakodate celebrates every August features a dance that mimics the same movements a dead squid does when you pour soy sauce on it. They literally call it the Squid Dance – but in Japanese (Ika-Odori). Hakodate also has a church, whose bell ring is notorious for being in the list of the 100 Soundscapes of Japan; an important audial symbolism.

Other than that, Hakodate takes on the traditions and culture of the rest of Japan; hot baths in an Onsen, visiting beautiful shrines and temples, partaking in fun yearly feasts, and enjoying a good drink in an Izakaya, and the likes. What puts Hakodate apart again from other Japanese towns, again, is the entwinement of western influence in their architecture. An example of a portrayal of this is in their use of red bricks to create infrastructure.

What’s Weather Like in Hakodate?

Hakodate doesn’t go to extremes when it comes to weather; it’s never excruciatingly hot or nail-bitingly cold. But if you’re from a tropical country and you’re not used to weather below 15 degrees Celsius, then gear up, because Hakodate’s temperatures range around that level. On average, it scores around 13 degrees Celsius on a high, and 5 degrees Celsius on a low yearly. However, in January, that average can drop as low as -6.2 degrees Celsius.

It’s best to plan your outfits around the month you want to visit. August is Hakodate’s hottest month, hitting 25 degrees Celsius as its hottest average temperature. For this, you’ll want to bring shorts and a shirt, with slippers and shoes. When the snowdrops, though, get your warmers, boots, and mittens ready.

Visiting the Hakodate Morning Market

If you’re a fan of buying fresh seafood and vegetables to make a lovely and nutritious dinner at home, then the Hakodate Morning Market would be a haven for all your resource materials. Then again, it’s also fun to enjoy the sights and sounds in this market. If you aren’t the type to whip up something special in the kitchen, fear not – they also sell ready-made food. Some stalls will let you pick out the seafood, and cook it on the spot, smoking hot for you, if that’s’ what you want. What’s so great about this market compared to other markets are the freshness and fantastic quality of their goods. Many selections of seafood are still alive and kicking, and haven’t made too much of a far travel to get to where they are.

They’re also very accommodating to tourists, so if you are one, don’t worry that you’ll feel like a fish out of water when you’re there; the merchants are ready to help you and are very friendly. In case you’re looking to go all out and spend a fortune on a really good meal, go for the King Crab. In case you want to save money but still get a taste of that Hakodate freshness, scallops are a good alternative. As for fruits, have a taste of their crunchy Aomori apple.

Hakodate Morning Market is located right across the Hakodate JR Station. It’s open from 5 AM to 12 PM during most seasons, except winter. During the colder months, it opens at 6 am.

Fun Things To Do In Hakodate

Apart from checking out the Hakodate Morning Market, there are a lot of other fun things you can do in Hakodate. The most popular ones are to visit Mt. Hakodate, take a stroll around the Goryokaku Park (Or Goryokaku Tower for an aerial view), or take the Hakodate Tram.

Hiking up Mt. Hakodate is an absolute must-do for any visitor. Not only is it relatively easy to reach the top, but there are a restaurant and a bathroom waiting for you when you get there. That’s not even the best part yet – the view is said to be one of the best in Japan. It’s exceptionally gorgeous at night, with the mingling of blue and orange lights illuminating the city. It’s best to go during the late afternoon so you can catch the sunset. The craftsmanship of the shape of the park is best appreciated by viewing it from the Goryokaku Tower, so you may watch the entire city light up.

Goryokaku Park is stunning if you catch it during its cherry blossom peak. It’s a relaxing park to walk in and leads to the Magistrate’s Office, which you can pay a small fee to visit and learn more about its historical relevance, especially with the Goryokaku tower.

The Hakodate Tram is next on the list of must-dos. Not only is it a scenic way to explore Hakodate, it conveniently stops in many hot tourist spots. It may ask for quite a bit (210 yen per ride) but that isn’t too much considering you get to both enjoy the sites, and get to where you want to go. If you prefer, you can buy a pass for unlimited rides during that day, costing you 600 yen.

Where to Stay In Hakodate: Great Hotels

It takes more than a day to really get to know Hakodate, so you may have to stay for a longer time – which means booking a hotel. Luckily, there are many great hotels to stay in. One of them is the La Vista Hakodate Bay, and the other is Four Points by Sheraton Hakodate.

La Vista Hakodate Bay is a great option for you if want to pay a reasonable price of around 27,000 yen per night. The service is very attentive, buffet food tastes amazing, and their rooms are deemed the coziest. For the price you pay, you also get an Onsen at their top floor, overlooking Hakodate.

Four Points by Sheraton Hakodate is for you if you’re looking for convenience in location. It’s near both the Hakodate Morning Market and the JR station, as well as a bus terminal that goes directly to the hotel. The rooms may be a little more cramped than La Vista Hakodate, and the building is a little older, but if you’re lucky, you can get a room with a great view, and you’ll never be late for your commute.

Hakodate Kokusai Hotel: Stellar Accommodation

Out of all these hotels, Hakodate Kokusai Hotel has cheap rates. It’s found behind the port, and it’s reviewed to be spacious and clean. It’s also been recently renovated, so you get to reap the benefits of their latest updates. A twin room should cost less than 30,000 yen, and those rooms are comfortable and also relatively decent-sized. It’s also a 15-minute walk to the JR station. 

Getting to the Airport in Hakodate

If you find yourself in the middle of Hakodate, there are buses available that go directly to the airport in Hakodate. Unfortunately, there is no direct train line to the airport. Hakodate isn’t such a large place, so if you’re coming from the center, your trip to the airport would likely take around 20 minutes. Now in case you’re coming from Tokyo, you can go by train or by plane. If you decide to go by plane, your trip would likely take around an hour and 20 minutes.

Find You Way To Hakodate From Sapporo

There are seven flights in a day that can take you from Sapporo to Hakodate. But if you want to take a train, you can – the JR Hakodate Line goes through the district of Sapporo, all the way Asahikawa. The entire JR map of that connects this supposedly looks like a fish that’s flopping to the east. There are two ways to go about it; a fast way, and a slow way. The fast way by train from Sapporo to Hakodate, (direct express) costs 8,830 yen and takes 3 and a half to four hours. The slower way costs 5,540 yen, makes you change stations, and takes around 7 and a half hours.

Map Your Trip To Hakodate Out

It’s crucial to map your trip out if you want to go traveling, and not wing it. This is to save time and money. If you plan where you want to go and what you want to do beforehand, you can maximize what you can do with your day, and properly utilize your resources to make the best out of where you are and what you have.

Discovering new places is great. Bring your kids, or take Jr. out for a traveling spree. Show them the world by taking them out to other places that aren’t necessarily the capitals of the countries you visit. No matter what age they are, it’ll always be a great learning experience.