If you travel to Hokkaidō by train, the first major city you’ll come to after emerging from the Seikan Tunnel is Hakodate (函館), 260km southwest of Sapporo. This attractive port was one of the first to open to foreign traders following the Japan–US amity treaty of 1854. Over the next few years, ten countries including Britain, Russia and the US established consulates in Hakodate, with both foreigners and rich Japanese building fancy wooden homes and elaborate churches on the steep hillsides. Many of these late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings have been preserved, particularly in the Motomachi area, which is Hakodate’s highlight.
Among the city’s other draws are the lively fish and fresh produce market Asa-ichi; an outstanding exhibition on Ainu culture at the Hakodate City Museum of Northern Peoples; and the night view from the top of Hakodate-yama. The Ōnuma Quasi National Park, a beautiful lakeland and mountain area with good hiking trails, is an easy day-trip. Try and time your visit for the Hakodate Port Festival (Aug 1–5), when 20,000 people parade through town performing the “squid dance”, an entertaining jig where hands are flapped and clapped in time to rhythmic drumming.
Lording it over Hakodate is the 334m Hakodate-yama (函館山). On a clear day the view from the summit is spectacular, but best of all is the night-time panorama, when the twinkling lights of the port and the boats fishing for squid just off the coast create a magical scene – though be prepared to share it with hordes of tourists. The energetic can climb to the summit along various trails (May–Oct), but most people opt for the cable car (函館山ロープウェイ), a seven-minute uphill walk from the Jūjigai tram stop. There’s also a direct bus from Hakodate Station. The serpentine road up the mountain is closed to private vehicles between 5pm and 10pm.
No visit to Hakodate is complete without dropping by the atmospheric Asa-ichi (朝市), the morning market immediately to the west of the train station. Even if you arrive at the relatively late hour of 9am, there’s still plenty to see at the hundreds of tightly packed stalls in this waterside location. Old ladies in headscarves squat amid piles of vegetables and flowers in the central hall, and huge, alien-like red crabs, squid, sea urchin and musk melons are the local specialities. Sample the seafood atop a bowl of ramen or rice before leaving: Aji-no-ichiban (味の一番), at the back of the market, is a good choice – they serve a donburi topped with creamy sea urchin, salmon roe and fresh crab, as well as delicious, freshly squeezed melon juice (May–Oct).
The remains of Goryōkaku (五稜郭), a late nineteenth-century Western-style fort, lie some 3km northeast of the station and around ten minutes’ walk north of the Goryōkaku-kōen-mae tram stop. The star-shaped fort was built to protect Hokkaidō against attack from Russia. In the event, however, it was used by Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s naval forces in a last-ditch battle to uphold the shogun against the emperor in the short-lived civil war that ushered in the Meiji Restoration of 1869. The Emperor’s victory is celebrated each year in mid-May with a period costume parade.
What’s left of the fort today – a leafy park planted with 1600 cherry trees, the moat and outer walls – looks best ninety metres up from the inelegant viewing tower by the main entrance. On weekend evenings from late July to mid-August, open-air plays about Hakodate’s history are performed enthusiastically by five hundred amateurs; check with the tourist office for details.
Heading downhill from the mountain, you’ll find yourself in Motomachi (元町), with its Western-style, late nineteenth-century architecture; combined with the steeply raked streets, it’s easy when you’re here to see why Hakodate is known as the San Francisco of Japan. The best thing to do is simply wander about, stopping to explore some of the churches, which are free (few of the other buildings merit their entrance charges). The most striking is the white Russian Orthodox Church of 1919, seven minutes uphill from Jūjigai tram stop, complete with green copper-clad onion domes and spires. Inside, there’s an impressive icon-festooned carved-wood altarpiece, and piped Russian choral music adds to the atmosphere. Nearby, the Episcopal Church, with its unusual modern architecture, is more interesting from the outside than in, while, slightly downhill, the Gothic-style Motomachi Roman Catholic Church is worth a look for its decoration, which is based on the Stations of the Cross.
Walking west for a couple of hundred metres across the hillside streets will bring you to the extraordinary Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward, a sky-blue and lemon confection with pillars, verandas and fancy wrought-iron and plaster decoration. This replacement was completed in 1910 after a fire destroyed the original hall. In front of the hall is small Motomachi Park, beneath which is the Old British Consulate, from where the Empire’s affairs in Hokkaidō were looked after from 1859 to 1934. The cream-and-blue building now houses a ho-hum museum, the twee Victorian Rose Tea Restaurant and a giftshop.
Far more interesting is the Hakodate City Museum of Northern Peoples (北方民族資料館), in an old bank down Motoi-zaka, which leads away from the consulate. The museum’s superb collection of artefacts relating to the Ainu and other races across Eastern Siberia and the Alaskan islands has clear, English captioning and is well worth the entrance fee. Some of the clothes on display are amazing – look out for the Chinese silk robe embroidered with dragons, an example of the types of items traded between China, the islanders of Sakhalin and the Ainu.
Across the street is one more building worth a look before leaving Motomachi – the handsome Kanemori Yōbutsukan (金森洋物館), a former haberdashery shop dating from 1880 which has been faithfully restored to something of its original condition and is now a branch of the local history museum. Upstairs you’ll see some interesting photos and a diorama of turn-of-the-century Hakodate.
Just 29km north of the city, the serene Ōnuma Quasi National Park (大沼国定公園) can easily be visited in a day but is worth considering as an overnight stop. Of the park’s three lakes, the largest and most beautiful is Ōnuma, carpeted with water lilies and containing more than one hundred tiny islands, many linked by humpback bridges. The view from the lake towards the 1133m jagged peak of the dormant volcano of Komaga-take (駒ヶ岳) is rightly considered to be one of the most breathtaking in Japan.
Ōnuma is popular with tour groups, but they are usually herded into sightseeing boats, leaving the walking paths around the lake and islands quiet for strolls. Cycling is another good way of exploring; bikes can be rented from numerous shops around the station. Hikers can also tackle the volcano, which has two main routes, both taking around two and a half hours to complete.