Hakodate is a picturesque gateway to Hokkaido
To the rest of Japan, Hokkaido has always been a frontier prefecture. Compared to the long sweep of Japanese history, Hokkaido became a part of Japan relatively recently in 1869, just after the confederation of Canada. And, despite having a dozen airports and a robust train network (not to mention some very modern expressways), Hokkaido is still seen by many to be a northern wilderness.
This image wasn’t helped any by the fact that the shinkansen, Japan’s iconic bullet train, didn’t run to Hokkaido. That’s changing at the end of March, however, as the residents of Hakodate—Hokkaido’s southernmost metropolis—welcome a new shinkansen line. Now, tourists will be able to travel from Tokyo to Hakodate (some 850 km) in just four hours.
Though it is a very modern city, Hakodate boasts a good deal of history. As one of Hokkaido’s earliest port towns, it has been shaped by a unique mix of architecture. An uninformed visitor arriving by boat would be forgiven for wondering if they’d arrived in Europe upon spying the low, red-brick warehouses that line Hakodate’s waterfront. That illusion could be preserved as they looked to the green-copper-capped steeple of the Haristos Orthodox Church rising above the harbour, or as they heard the clear ringing of its bell, which is identified as one of Japan’s 100 unique soundscapes.
Another mixed-up bit of architecture found in Hakodate is Goryokaku, a five-pointed star fort that seems more like something you’d expect to find in Germany than Japan. Though the fortress was designed by Takeda Hisaburo, it was styled after the work of French architect Vauban. Famous as the place where the Tokugawa Shogunate made their last stand against Imperial forces in the Japanese Revolution/Boshin War, it is now a city park and recognized historic site popular for sakura viewing in the spring.
To the south of the city rises the hump of Mt. Hakodate, and a short, winding bus ride to the mountaintop allows you to look back on the city and appreciate its striking hourglass shape, as it is squeezed between two bays. At night, Hakodate’s hourglass comes alive with lights. This evening skyline is so unique that it has been identified as one of Japan’s most striking as well as one of the top three night views in the world (alongside Hong Kong and Naples).
Of sushi and shio
Hokkaido is most famously known for its mouth-watering seafood. Long before the Japanese ever decided to settle the interior of the island, they’d ringed its coast with isolated fishing villages to take advantage of the bountiful catches that could be pulled from the northern waters. Hokkaido’s fishing industry is alive and well, and some will tell you that the freshness of the seafood served in Hokkaido rivals that of the Tsukiji Market, Tokyo’s sushi mecca.
As Hakodate is a major fishing port, you can get your sashimi fix in the Hakodate Asaichi Morning Market, just steps from the central train station. Or, if you’re looking for something other than seafood, best to try some Hakodate comfort food in the form of shio ramen.
Hokkaido’s natural wonders are a hiker’s dream
Lake Toya ©Nicholas Jones
Mt. Yotei ©ACworks.com
Enjoying the sights
As the climate in Hokkaido is colder than the rest of Japan, it resembles what we’re used to in Southern Ontario. Therefore, the famous Cherry Blossom Front/Sakura Zensen reaches Hokkaido in early May, or at about the time we’d expect it back home. So, should you be unlucky enough to miss the cherry blossoms further south in Tokyo or Kyoto, you’ve got one last chance to catch them in Hokkaido.
The most famous cherry blossom viewing destinations on the north island are the Goryokaku fortress as well as Matsumae Castle, located just west of the city. Matsumae, the only traditional Japanese castle ever built on Hokkaido, is far less known than the famous castles of Himeji and Osaka, but it’s definitely worth the short day trip from Hakodate—particularly because of its moss-covered memorials and extensive collection of cherry blossom trees.
While Ontarians will feel at home in sakura-viewing season, they may be more surprised to learn that large, freshwater lakes are a remarkably rare find in Japan. However, Lake Toya and Lake Shikotsu, two of Japan’s largest and most beautiful lakes, can be found just a couple hours’ drive north of Hakodate. These two lakes, along with the stunning Mt. Yotei to their north, form a rough triangle known as the Shikotsu-Toya National Park.
Lake Toya is the most developed corner of the national park, with art installations and onsen (bathing places) dotting its shores. Lake Shikotsu, for its part, is the more natural of the lakes—but what it may lack in lush comforts it more than makes up for in beauty, hiking trails and onsen closer to their hot-spring roots. It is definitely the lake favoured by hikers, particularly those interested in summiting one or all of the three volcanoes that ring the lake.
Those interested in a more challenging hike should head to Mt. Yotei. It is far from the highest mountain in Hokkaido, but it has been called the island’s most picturesque. Indeed, Yotei is often called “Ezo Fuji” (Hokkaido Fuji) for the way its symmetrical cone mirrors the famous Mt. Fuji. Unlike Fuji, however, Mt. Yotei can be summited by a dedicated hiker in a day. It is a long trek, but as you wind your way across the mountain’s slope, you’re treated to breathtaking views of Toya and the Niseko-Annupuri range.
The best way to enjoy the delicate, flavourful fish that Hokkaido has to offer is served simply on rice in the form of Kaisen-Don.
Uni [SEA URCHIN]
Uni is the ultimate Hokkaido delicacy. The local catch’s flavour is so fresh and clean that it can surprise even the most experienced uni-lovers.
Of all the fresh seafood in Hokkaido, crab is a particular favourite. To crack into this dish, look for the giant, sometimes motorized crabs hung outside kani restaurants.
Illustrations by Justine Wong
道 産 子 Dosanko: A child of Hokkaido
Bento Box staff writer Nicholas Jones loves to refer to himself as a Dosanko, or “child of Hokkaido.” He comes by this title honestly, having made the most of his two years living in Hokkaido by spending his weekends and holidays travelling all over the island. On one particularly epic trip, he and four friends drove the entire coast of the island in a nine-day, 2,000-plus-km road trip they dubbed The Four Points Tour.
Through all of these travels, he maintained a strong feeling of belonging to his furusato (or Japanese hometown) of Furubira, a small fishing village along Hokkaido’s beautiful, rocky Shakotan Peninsula. Though he’s sampled sushi from all over Hokkaido, he still swears that the best uni he’s ever eaten was served at local Furubira restaurant Minato Sushi. He recommends visiting the town on the second Saturday in July, which is both the peak of uni season and the date of Furubira’s Tengu festival.
All photos are courtesy of Hakobura Working Committee unless otherwise noted