Japan – a land of ancient traditions, modern marvels, and natural wonders.
With its unique cultures, landscapes and experiences, it’s not hard to see why it has always captivated travellers. Bustling metropolises like Tokyo and Kyoto often steal the limelight, but there are lesser-visited regions in the north that have so much to offer (with a fraction of the crowds!) Our Fenton is just back from his adventures exploring Japan’s northern Tohoku region. For his first stop, he spent 24 hours in the port city of Hakodate on the northern island of Hokkaido. Here’s what he got up to and his quick guide on what to do in Hakodate…
“Earlier this month I was fortunate enough to brave the heat and humidity of summer on a whistlestop tour of northern Japan. This is a part of the country that offers everything you could want from a trip – samurai history, breathtaking scenery, delicious food, and incredibly friendly people. Despite this, less than 2% of international visitors will make their way to to Tohoku region – a vast section of the main island of Honshu, accessible from Tokyo by uber-efficient bullet trains. My own journey began a little bit ‘above’ Tohoku on the map, in the port city of Hakodate, on the island of Hokkaido – Japan’s northern frontier.
Hakodate’s Distinctive Cuisine
The northern island of Hokkaido is famous for its food. It’s so different from the rest of the country, but will feel a lot more familiar to visitors from the West… think potatoes, cheese, ice cream, melon, and sweetcorn. What’s more, the seafood in the port city of Hakodate is considered to be some of the best in all of Japan – with Hakodate especially famous for its morning seafood market, and squid (ika) being a symbol of the city itself. A must-visit!
As you’d expect from wonderful Japan, these local specialties sometimes take on a life of their own – whether that is as cute mascots, the graphics on drain covers, or even in weird and wonderful flavour combinations – squid ink and melon ice cream, anyone?
A Glimpse into Hakodate’s Cosmopolitan History
The city of Hakodate has a rich cosmopolitan history, shared by only a few places around the country. When Japan opened its borders in the late 19th century, after a few hundred years of isolation, a select number of ports began to welcome international visitors and merchants. The Motomachi district, below Mount Hakodate, is still full of many buildings that look completely out of place in a Japanese city – a Russian Orthodox Church, a colonial style Public Hall, a Catholic Church, and a Chinese Memorial Hall. The Old British Consulate still flies the Union flag outside, though (fittingly) now serves afternoon tea, rather than dealing with administrative issues.
Mount Hakodate: A Panoramic Vista of History
When considering what to do in Hakodate, I knew I couldn’t visit without taking the ropeway up to the top of Mount Hakodate. It’s a brilliant spot to take in the stunning panorama of the history-packed peninsula.
The view was magic, but the best view in the city looks down on the iconic Goryokaku. This huge star-shaped fort, built in a European style, was the site of the last battle in the civil war between the old shogunate of Edo period Japan, and the new modern Meiji government. Although no longer the military stronghold it once was, it is now a beautiful public park, with over a thousand cherry trees coming to life in spring, filling the moats with blossom.
Lucky Pierrot: Hakodate’s Quirky Hamburger Haven
If burgers are your thing, you’re in luck. Hakodate has its very own hamburger chain – Lucky Pierrot.
There are more than 17 Lucky Pierrots across the city and surrounding areas (vs. just the 5 McDonalds). Each store is unique and weirdly retro – impressionist paintings, 50’s music… one even seems to have more Elvis memorabilia than Graceland. The (admittedly quite scary) clown mascot for the brand might not sit well with coulrophobes, but the much-celebrated Chinese Chicken Burger is worth queuing up for if you ask me!
Hakodate is a real treasure trove of history, culture, and gastronomy waiting to be explored. Just over the water from Tohoku, it was the perfect start to my adventure through this lesser-visited region. So, if you’re looking to really get under the skin of real Japan on your next adventure (and sample some fantastic food along the way), Hakodate is well worth a visit!”