Hakodate is located on the opposite side of the Tsugaru Straits from Aomori, the northernmost town on Japan’s main island of Honshu. In effect, this makes Hakodate the southern gateway to the main northern island of Hokkaido and this is demonstrated partly in it being the third most populous city in the prefecture after Sapporo and Asahikawa. The city itself spreads out in fan-like form when viewed from Mount Hakodate – a hill that juts out into the Tsugaru Straits.
Hakodate Port once prospered as a trade port when trade first opened with the U.S., U.K, Russia and other foreign countries and was known internationally alongside Yokohama and Nagasaki ports. As such, there remain some older buildings including red brick warehouses in the bay area. Indeed, the influence of Western culture that flowed into Japan at the end of the nineteenth century can still be seen in Western-style buildings that include churches around the Motomachi area, old consulates and the old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward. All of these combine to make Hakodate a rather unique Japanese port town.
Hakodate’s hilly quarter
Motomachi is located at the foot of Mount Hakodate – an area known for being particularly hilly. The port can be seen from atop any of the hills but the area hosts more than views as Motomachi is also home to Motomachi Roman Catholic Church, an Episcopal Church, a Russian Orthodox Church and several others. Restaurants and souvenir shops based in buildings built between the late 19th century and the early 20th century also add flavor to the area.
The Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward, located next to Motomachi Park, is a typically representative Western-style building built during the Japanese Meiji era (1868-1912) and is now designated as a national important cultural property due to the beauty and symmetry of its two-story wooden structure.
If you walk down from Motomachi Park to the port area on Motoizaka slope, you will find some old red brick warehouses. These warehouses are the Kanamaori Soko Warehouses and are known as one of the more famous sightseeing spots in the bay area of Hakodate. They house restaurants, shops and event halls and also permit visitors to enjoy shopping and various amusement facilities.
At Hakodate Port, the Sei-kan Ferry Memorial Mashu-maru is moored and displayed at the Old Sei-kan Ferry Pier. The Mashu-maru’s last voyage in 1988 ended the Sei-kan Ferry operation.
Mount Hakodate – for a breathtaking night view
For a panoramic view of the town surrounded on three sides by the sea, head to the top of Mount Hakodate at 334m above sea level. Taking just 3 minutes to reach the summit by cablecar (an amazing 125 people can fit in each car), the views of the city and the Tsugaru Straits are beautiful and especially so at night. This view is considered a highlight of Hakodate sightseeing and for those wanting to see the nighttime view at its best, take the cablecar up between 30 minutes and 2 hours after sunset. After 10 pm, the illuminated displays in the town are turned off and the town darkens.
There are as many as 360 stores in the maze of alleyways in Asaichi; the morning market in Hakodate located close to Hakodate Station. Fresh seafood brought ashore that very morning, vegetables and fruit are all sold. The market starts to get busy at around 4am and is home to many seafood restaurants specializing in squid dishes. Take a stroll around the market, find your favorite food serving restaurants and eat delicious seafood to your heart’s content.
Goryokaku – the ruins of men’s dreams
Many men risked their lives at the beginning of the Meiji era in the hopes and dreams surrounding a new era in Japanese history and Hokkaido was a destination for many of these men. Goryokaku in particular, taking just 15 minutes by tram from JR Hakodate Station (to Goryokaku Koen-mae Station) is an 8-minute walk from the station and was the first Western-style castle in Japan. The castle was once surrounded by a star-shaped moat and the Tokugawa government built this castle to protect northern Japan against a possible Russian invasion. Later, as the governmental office was established at Goryokaku, the castle and area became the political center of Hokkaido. Takeaki Enomoto and the former Tokugawa government forces dissatisfied with the Meiji government’s forward looking mindset, occupied Goryokaku in 1868 and attempted to found the “Yezo (the former name of Hokkaido) Republic” but surrendered the castle after a full-scale attack by the Meiji government.
This action was known as the Hakodate War and was the last domestic confrontation between the new Meiji government forces and their Tokugawa government counterparts.
Visitors can see the magnificent star shape of Goryokaku from Goryokaku Tower near the entrance of the park and for more information, the Hakodate Pavilion Goryokaku Branch with its displays of materials from the Hakodate War is adjacent. In May, some 2800 cherry blossoms bloom in the park to attract large numbers of people to what is one of the most famous cherry blossom viewing spots in Hakodate.
Yunokawa Onsen – soak away the day as you watch the fishing fires
Yunokawa Onsen is located on the coast in the northeastern part of Hakodate City facing the Tsugaru Straits and is near the mouth of the Matsukura River. With a 340-year history and one of the oldest onsen in Hokkaido, it is now home to one of the most famous onsen in the prefecture.
The water at Yunokawa Onsen includes a lot of NaCa (sodium chloride), is transparent, odorless and soft on the skin. During the peak season of squid-fishing from summer to autumn, fishing fires can be seen bobbing on the ocean and visitors need not rush off as night draws in as there are approximately 60 hotels and ryokan; many of which have their own onsen where visitors can enjoy a leisurely soak.
The Trappistine Monastery is located to the east of Yunokawa Onsen and was originally a nunnery constructed by 8 nuns dispatched from the famed Trappistine Monastery in France in the year 1898. The forecourt can be viewed but admission to the building is forbidden.
Onuma Park – an area of abundant nature, forests and lakes.
Although Hakodate is itself full of highlights, let me introduce Onuma Quasi-national Park which is an hour’s drive from Hakodate. This 9,083 ha park is at the foot of Mount Komagatake and includes Onuma, Konuma, Junsainuma and other lakes. Onuma is the largest lake and is 24km in circumference with a depth of 13.6m. A volcanic mudflow from Mount Komagatake once caused a dam to block a stream and thus led to the formation of Onuma. There are 126 islets in the lake and 18 bridges connecting a select few so travelers and locals alike can enjoy walking on the trails, cycling using rented bicycles, pleasure cruising, boating and canoeing.
Mount Komagatake stands close to Onuma and is the main symbol of the park. It is an independent mountain with 3 peaks and 3 craters. One of the ‘tops’ was blown away during a past eruption and is now rather steep. Mount Komagatake woke-up in terms of volcanic activity in 1998 so mountain climbing is now prohibited.
Nearby though, the “Steam Locomotive Hakodate Onuma” is operated on Saturdays and Sundays from July 15th to August 20th and also on Monday July 17th. A steam locomotive trip with backdrops of Onuma Park and Mount Komagatake is a memory many take away with them.
Matsumae – The only castle town in Hokkaido
Matsumae is the only castle town in Hokkaido and, for the 400 years after the founding of the Matsumae Clan, prospered as the center of politics, economy and culture in Hokkaido. Things came to an end in the Meiji Restoration of 1868 though and ruins all over the town are all that is left to remind of the past. Nowadays, the main Matsumae Park and its 10,000 cherry trees of 250 varieties are the most famous local attraction.
Matsumae Castle as was was built in 1854 and is the northernmost castle in the Japanese style. A reconstructed castle tower is now used as a museum and displays various historical items including a Matsumae Byobu Screen depicting Matsumae town as it used to look and a document about the clan’s vessels.
The Matsumae Clan Residence is another, outdoor museum representing the mid-19th century version of the town and contains 14 buildings including the Tokugawa governmental office and a shipping agency equipped with humanoid dolls.
Back in Hakodate we are in the center of southern Hokkaido. It is not a large town but it is full of history, culture, onsen bathing options and nature – all of which can be topped off with a night view and culinary delights. Visit by plane or train via the Seikan Tunnel across (under) the Tsugaru Straits as sightseeing in Hakodate will never bore and will always enthrall.