Hakodate… Hakodate… That’s right! I did actually go there last year for 2022’s cherry blossom season!
Somehow, I totally forgot to write about my adventures up in Hokkaido’s third biggest city. How the hell did that happen? Anywho, while I am a bit baffled how I managed to screw the pooch in regards to recounting my adventures, know that Hakodate is definitely someplace that’s worth documenting. So, seeing as cherry blossom season is again now upon us, allow me to present you with my ultimate area guide to the city of Hakodate.
For those of you already not in the know, I’d first like you to make a mental memo that Hakodate can be found in southern Hokkaido on the Oshima Peninsula (that part that sticks out towards northern Honshu). Historically, it was one of the first port cities that were opened to international trade following the end of Japan’s several hundred years of self-imposed isolation. As a result, Hakodate has been the recipient of far more foreign influence than many other parts of Japan. All throughout the city, you’ll find hints to this legacy in Hakodate’s historical buildings.
At least as far as I am concerned, there are two primary reasons why one would want to visit Hakodate. These are the cherry blossoms that blanket the western-style fortress of Goryokaku and the night view from the top of Mt. Hakodate (a vista that is considered to be one of the top three evening glimpses of Japan). Of course, these are not the only places with appeal in Hakodate but this pair of allures that I’d wager are worth traveling all the way there for. Remember, Japan has so much that you’d need several lifetimes to see it all so there’s a lot of competition for your time.
All things considered though, Hakodate is a great addition to any trip and this is even more the case during the spring. While there are indeed a number of places further up in Hokkaido that might compete for limited stints in Japan, Hakodate is a great add-on if you can budget for an additional day. When I was visiting Hakodate, I made my excursion after again experiencing the cherry blossoms at Hirosaki Park down in Aomori. Should you miss the main season in the rest of Japan and want to give these northern locales a go, Hakodate is where it’s at!
How to Get There
For most people, the easiest way to get to Hakodate is to simply fly from wherever you’re at to Hakodate Airport. Conveniently located around 8 kilometers to the east of the port city, a quick flight up greatly reduces your travel time. Both JAL and ANA as well as some of the budget carriers all run daily flights from major airports all across Japan. While you won’t be able to milk that JR Rail Pass, you can reach Hakodate in only 80 minutes. Unless you’re already somewhere up in Tohoku, this is the preferred method of transportation.
Should you be opting to fly, know that you will need to catch a bus to the city center. These depart regularly from Hakodate Airport and will set you back 450 yen. Personally, I did not opt to take this route but it seems simple enough to figure out from what I’ve read online. In my case, I was already in Aomori so I elected to take the Tohoku Shinkansen. Since 2016, bullet trains have been able to pass under the Tsugaru Strait via the Seikan Tunnel. Supposedly, this will be extended to Sapporo by 2030.
Should you so desire, you can actually take the bullet train all the way up to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station from Tokyo. Especially if you’re a digital nomad like myself and want to get some work done en route, the Tohoku Shinkansen can be a great alternative to flying. Regardless of whether you take the bullet train all the way up or start somewhere closer though, you’re going to first want to make your way to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station. From there, the next leg of the journey will require that you take the Hakodate Main Line down to the JR Hakodate Station.
Getting around Hakodate via public transportation is pretty simple once you’ve made your way down from Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station. Basically, you’ll need to make use of the local Hakodate bus network as well as the two tram lines. At the end of the day though, many parts of Hakodate are very walkable. That said, you’ll at least want to take the tram over to Goryokaku if you’re down towards Mt. Hakodate on the southern tip of the city (otherwise, I did everything on foot). As always, use a service like Jorudan to help you calculate the various departures.
Next, we’ll cover what to see and do in Hakodate. Before that though, I’d like to end this section by urging you to consider overnighting in the city. As we’ll see in a second, Hakodate is home to one of the top three night views in all of Japan. While I supposed that you could somehow manage to see it and then skidaddle off to somewhere else, you’ll be able to better enjoy the impressive spectacle if you spend a night in Hakodate.
The Hakodate Morning Market
Held daily from sunrise until around noon, Hakodate’s legendary morning market is one of many things that you ought to try while in town. Found but a mere stone’s throw away from the JR Hakodate Station, this bustling bazaar spans approximately four whole city blocks. While the main thing on offer at Hakodate’s morning market is the savory seafood, you’ll find a number of other merchants hawking fresh produce as well as a number of other wares. Especially with Tsukiji back in Tokyo now a shadow of its former self, the Hakodate morning market is a solid alternative.
Now, in case you’re wondering why you as an overseas visitor to Japan would want to go to a seafood marketplace, know that many restaurants can also be found in the morning market area. Here, you can sample some newly caught seafood and feast on freshly prepared, succulent dishes (such as a sea urchin rice bowl that is topped with tasty salmon caviar). If you don’t agree that dining on Hakodate’s local food is a great way to start your day of adventures in northern Japan, then I don’t even know what to tell you.
By the way, should you be up for an after breakfast stroll, consider walking down to the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses. An iconic part of Hakodate’s history as a port city for foreign traders, this atmospheric shopping complex dates from the time immediately following Japan’s reopening to the world. In addition to some trendy shops, restaurants and an epic beer hall, you can also find some sightseeing cruises that will take you out onto Hakodate Bay. You should definitely swing by if you can budget the time.
The View from Mount Hakodate
Situated down towards the southern tip of the peninsula that Hakodate calls home, this 334-meter-high mountain is one of the main reasons that one would want to come to this part of Hokkaido to begin with. From the summit, those visiting Hakodate will be able to take in a panoramic view of the city center down below. Along with the vistas from atop Mt. Inasa in Nagasaki and Mt. Rokko in Kobe, this stunning night view is considered to be one of the best in all of Japan and easily justifies an outing to Hakodate alone.
Getting to the top of Mt. Hakodate is also quite easy. You can either elect to take the bus up or instead opt for the convenient cable car. In either case, the facilities up at the summit include a free observation platform for you to snag that selfie as well as souvenir shops, a cafe and even a full-fledged restaurant. While it certainly beats anything that you could buy at the convenience stores, the photos of the food don’t look too appealing. Unless you want to dine with some epic city views, consider eating elsewhere.
In addition to what’s at the top of Mt. Hakodate, be sure to swing by the historic Motomachi District at the base of the mountain. Here, you can find all sorts of relics from the mid 1800s when Japan was forcibly opened to foreign trade. While there’s a fair bit to see in this residential area, one famous stand out is the Motomachi Roman Catholic Church (which you’ll find located here). In addition to this Russian orthodox church, the old public hall of Hakodate, the old British Consulate and the Chinese Memorial Hall are also worth seeing.
Hakodate’s Cherry Blossoms
Killer scenery from the top of Mt. Hakodate aside, one other reason that you really ought to come here is the cherry blossoms at Goryokaku. Located in the northern half of Hakodate, this western-style fortress was built in the final years of the Edo period (1603–1868). Originally designed to serve as a bulwark against the encroaching foreign powers, the stronghold became the site of a civil struggle between holdouts loyal to the defunct shogunate and the forces now serving the imperial family.
Once Japan entered the 1900s and became part of the modernized world, the former fort was transformed into a shared public space called Goryokaku Park. While the historical heritage of the garrison is of course interesting, the real reason to visit today is the park’s hundreds of cherry blossom trees that dot the many moats wall and ramparts. What’s more, these trees don’t reach peak pinkness until the middle of April meaning that you can either extend your season or still see Japan’s most iconic blossoms if you miss the main window elsewhere.
Perhaps the best way to see the carpet of pretty pinkess is from high up in Goryokaku Tower. Located in the center of the fortress, the 107-meter-tall spire offers killer views of both the cherry blossom trees down below as well as Mt. Hakodate and the bay area in the distance. In addition to the unique vantage that an ascent to the top of Goryokaku Tower affords, you’ll also get a chance to learn more about Hakodate’s history here too.
Hakodate Station Vs. Hakodate Airport
Once you’ve seen and done all that there is to do in the Hakodate port city, you’ll need to make a decision as to what to do next. You can either continue further north to Sapporo and beyond or return down to the Tohoku region. To be frank, it all really depends on your own individual itineraries. Should you arrive midday to Hakodate though, one suggestion might be to spend the night in the city, get up early and have breakfast at the Hakodate morning market before making your way to the next destination.
In my case, I took the Tohoku Shinkansen directly back to Tokyo but that isn’t something that I’d recommend for most overseas travelers. Instead, you’d be wise to either gradually make your way up to or down from Hakodate. For example, you could fly up to Hakodate Airport, experience what the city has to offer and then slowly head down through Tohoku on your way back to Tokyo. Alternatively, you could do the opposite and snake your way up towards Hakodate and then fly back from the airport.
As noted previously, I first visited Aomori before checking out Hakodate. I took the Tohoku Shinkansen up to northern Japan to see Hirosaki Park (a place that can only be described as heaven on earth during the springtime). Thereafter, I made my way up to Hakodate on the subsequent day. Whether you fly up and train back or do the reverse is up to you but I seriously suggest that you make use of both means of transportation. Otherwise, it’s just too much time on the train.
Other Nearby Attractions
As I’ve tried to hammer home throughout this piece, there’s a nearly infinite number of things to see and do in between Tokyo and Hakodate. What’s more, you also have the option of heading north and exploring more of Hokkaido. Thus, it’s rather difficult to say exactly what one ought to add onto their time in Hakodate. Within the vicinity of the former port city, there is the Onuma Quasi National Park as well as the hot springs at Yunokawa Onsen and squid fishing by the bay area.
Should you have had enough of Hakodate though, I suggest that you consider the rarely-mentioned Matsumae. Formerly a castle town, Matsumae can be found just west of Cape Shirakami, the southernmost point of Hokkaido. Centuries ago, it was the northernmost limit of the shogunate’s influence and sat on the very edge of Hokkaido. Thanks to this, Matsumae created a strong mercantile culture that was in turn protected from Hokkaido’s otherwise wild and untamed frontier.
Like with Hakodate, one of the reasons one might want to visit is the former castle ground’s 10,000 plus cherry trees. Among their number there are more than 250 varieties and this has earned Matsumae the distinction of being ranked in the top 100 springtime spots in all of Japan. What’s more, the remarkable variety of cherry blossom trees means that Matsumae has a much longer season than just about anywhere else in Japan. Thus, you can get your pink fix anytime between late April and late May.
Just adjacent to the castle grounds, you’ll also find Matsumae’s temple district. Here, you can find a whole host of buildings that belong to the various sects of Buddhism. From what I read, many of them predate the construction of Matsumae Castle, thereby making them among the oldest Japanese structures in all of Hokkaido. Outside of the temples, Matsumae also has a few other locations of interest too so I guess I’ll just need to do a guide on it sometime soon.
Until next time travelers…