Walking in Hakodate is like exploring the musty living room of a favourite eccentric aunt stuck in a time warp – stuffed with quirky old curios, sometimes kitschy, occasionally mysterious but always charming with lots of stories. Hakodate is not unknown. In fact, many would not visit Hokkaido without stopping by Hakodate. After all, it has its share of fans who flock to its fish market for fresh and delicious sea food and its famous night view from Mount Hakodate, said to be among the top three night views in Japan. To be honest, I did not have high expectations of Hakodate. I was just there for the food – specifically a breakfast buffet ranked among the top five in all of Japan – and simply because I wanted to max out the super convenient JR East Tohoku South Hokkaido rail pass. But Hakodate turned on its quiet laidback charm and I found myself unexpectedly a newfound fan.
Hakodate is a bay city. Much like San Francisco, it is hilly in parts, traversed by an old-school tram system. Like San Francisco, its charm lies in pretty faded old houses dotting the slopes of Mt Hakodate. Snuggled on a narrow strip of land flanked by two bays, Hakodate started life as a port city and was one of the first to open up to foreign trade in the 19th century. Western settlers left their mark all over the city – from the design of the Goryokaku fort to the architectural styles of major commercial buildings and residences. It is these, left pretty much looking as it did more than 100 years ago, that give Hakodate its charm.
We stayed in an interesting hostel – the Hakoba Share Hotel; part of which comprised an 85-year-old wing which was a former bank – ask to see the vaults! The location was perfect – right at the foot of Mt Hakodate and across the road from the refurbished warehouses. Accessible by tram, it’s also possible to walk from Hakodate station about 20min away on foot.
We took a family loft which could comfortably house all five of us. The only drawback is the common bath and toilet which were out of the room and up a flight of steps, accessible by card entry – not ideal when you’re this side of 50 with a leaky bladder in the middle of the night. They’ve got lovely tastefully done doubles and twins with ensuite attached so that would be my choice if ever I return to Hakodate. Also liked the mini-gallery/gift shop which showcased work by local designers and artists.
From the hotel it is an easy stroll up the hill to the cableway which would take us all the way to the observatory to catch the famous night scene. This is one of my favourite parts of Hakodate. Beautiful weathered old houses, some in traditional Japanese style, some in western-styled clapboard or some a combination of both! It was early summer so the roses were in full bloom and along the road, pretty bushes of flowers added colour to the green. Some houses were gloriously over-grown in the best of ways!
Enjoyed peeking into old cafes and galleries, admiring the personality of the places through its details like mailboxes, tiny sculptures, weather vanes. I’m a fan of anything vintage so these houses were a joy to see. And because Hokkaido does not have the mugginess of Japanese summer further south, the walk uphill was really enjoyable. There is a laidback vibe mixed with dignified faded gentility in this quiet historic district.
Suehirocho being the westernised quarter of old Hakodate, there are two old churches here worth a look. We stopped by both the Catholic church, which unfortunately was closed for the day, and the old Russian Orthodox church. The latter was also closed but is set in nice leafy slightly overgrown grounds with lots of trees, roses and benches, ideal for a short break in all that walking. The oxidised bronze onion domes and spire would not have looked out of place somewhere in Europe.
At the Catholic church, the big brass knockers on the doors caught my eye. The symbolism of the Evangelists – St John and St Luke. Never realised until recently that St John is represented by the eagle and St Luke by the winged bull. The bull of course representing the ideals of hard work, sacrifice and strength while the eagle represented the freedom and power to soar through the sky.
It was golden hour and late evening as we wended our way slowly through the leafy lanes up to the cable way to take us up to the observatory – a big switch from the quiet empty roads below to the thick crowds all jostling for space to capture the scene. We were there a good hour before it got dark and already the place was packed. It was cold up there but the breathtaking sunset and subsequent glittery night scene was worth it. As the light turned from gold to sapphire, Hakodate’s lights began to come on – a bed of diamonds twinkling and glowing in the night – well worth the wait.
Heading back down after admiring the view, we were not sure where to head for dinner but just as we rambled along, we came across this very intriguing restaurant which served steak. This is the Hige Bar Steak + Wine. The food was good but the setting was fantastic – it was a refurbished old church! Right at the foyer is a faded fresco of the Last Supper. Where the altar once stood is the entry to the kitchen. What used to be the choir loft is now additional seating space. The stained glass windows no longer have religious imagery but still evoke the feel of a church. Prices are reasonable and the servings are generous. We left happy.
The next day we checked out the buffet breakfast at Hotel La Vista, said to be among the best in Japan. We had researched this and learned that limited tickets were available for non-hotel guests after 9am. But sadly, even though we made sure we were there at 9am sharp, we were apologetically turned away. Not meant to be, so we ended up with breakfast at the nearby Hotel Kokusai, whose breakfast buffet was also generous. Give me free-flow ikura and I am a happy camper.
We spent some time at the Goryokaku Tower with fantastic views of Hakodate’s newer half of the city, and the star-shaped Goryokaku fort. In spring, you wouldn’t see green but pink as the cherry blossom outline the star shape perimeter:
We ended the day checking out the old warehouses near the hotel. Nothing much to write home about except for the yummy catch-cakes which were sinfully good and (thankfully!) available in Singapore too. Dinner was at the tacky, offbeat over-the-top but inexpensive burger joint, the Lucky Pierrot, almost a cult signature of Hakodate. You have to check it out at least once.
We closed our Hakodate sojourn with breakfast at the fish market near the station. It was a bit disappointing and we found the whole place a bit of a tourist trap. In the end, we settled for a small restaurant right next to the station which served this:
The weather was a bit drizzly so we were thankful that this came only on the morning of our departure, the previous days blessed with gentle sunny cool weather. From here, we took the local train to Shin-Hakodate station (about 10 or 15minutes away) and then caught our shinkansen back south towards our next stop – Tazawako and the very atmospheric Nyuto Onsen!