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15 Things to Do in Hakodate

With the extension of the Shinkansen [bullet train] network in 2016, travel to Hakodate, a stunning city in Southern Hokkaido, from the other major urban centers around Japan got a lot easier. Awash in a rich history of international connections, delicious seafood, ramen, and ice cream, and spectacular natural scenery, Hakodate should be a must-visit on your excursions northwards. Below are 15 “Things to Do” in this laid-back, cultural, and foodie city!

15. Be Entranced by Mount Hakodate’s Jewel-like View

Photo by User:Satellizer on Wikimedia Commons.

Mount Hakodate [函館山], sometimes considered the symbol of the city, is a 334 meter mountain overlooking southern Hakodate. Accessible via car, bus, or cable car, the stunning views of the city, especially on a clear day, are often ranked as one of the best in the whole country. If you can, plan your trip to coincide with a dusk or nighttime visit to this spot, you’ll be awed by the jewel-like panorama to feast your eyes upon.

14. Climb Up the Goryoukaku (Star Fort) Tower Observatory

Photo by User:京浜にけ on Wikimedia Commons.

Goryoukaku [五稜郭] was the first Western style fort built in Japan, intended to defend the city from Western imperial powers during the end of the Edo Period. By 1910, since it was no longer used for military purposes, it was opened as a public park, now often known for its distinctive star-shape. This is an especially lovely place to visit during the cherry blossom season in Hokkaido in early May since the park is studded with 1,600 sakura trees. Climb to the top of the adjacent Tower Observatory to enjoy spectacular views of the Star Fort and cherry blossoms come Spring.

13. Retreat Into Hokkaido’s Natural Beauty at Onuma Park

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Onuma Park [大沼公園], a ‘quasi’-national park only 30 mins by train from Hakodate station, is a peaceful retreat dotted by lakes, mountains, and forests. Central to this park’s natural beauty is Mount Komagatake, an active volcano, which towers over the three main lakes. Enjoy this park for its four seasons of fun: In the warmer months, you can enjoy walking, cycling, camping, and renting boats while the winter transforms the lakes with a thick layer of ice opening the door for snowy pleasures, such as ice fishing, snowmobiling, and sled-driving, alongside cross-country skiing.

12. Go Back in Time in the Motomachi District

Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons.

Another must-see is Motomachi [元町], a district which is home to many early 20th century foreign and Japanese buildings. As a key port, Hakodate was one of the first five Japanese cities to open to trade with the West in 1859, and was even surveyed by Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet of American ships in 1854. Some notable buildings to observe during your strolling in this picturesque and historical neighborhood, which used to house the foreign community, are the Hakodate ward’s Public Hall (1910), the former Russian consulate (1860, in use between 1908-1944) and the Soma Residence, a heritage house of a wealthy Japanese merchant (1908). Make sure to also pose for photos atop Hachiman-Zaka [slope], a famous spot in many Japanese movies and television dramas, with its stone-studded street and view of the port!

11. Sit in the Star-Shaped Bath at Yachigashira Onsen

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What better way to relax after exploring Mount Hakodate than in Yachigashira Onsen [谷地頭温泉 ], a hot spring bathhouse at its base? Located only a twenty-minute tram ride from Hakodate station, this affordable municipal bath house (under 500 yen for adults!) has an outdoor star-shaped bath as well a cool bath and a sauna to soak your troubles away. There is also a cafeteria on site which opens after 11am where you can enjoy a leisurely meal. It is particularly great for tourists since there are large lockers where you can store your luggage and you can purchase towels, shampoo, and soap on site for a nominal fee.

10. Hang Out with Monkeys at Yunokawa Onsen Resort

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Located 30 minutes by car from Hakodate station and only 8 minutes by shuttle bus from Hakodate Airport, the Yunokawa Onsen Resort [湯の川温泉] has many attractions to offer. Dip your feet in the footbaths in front of the Yunokawa Onsen streetcar stop, sample wagashi [Japanese sweets] from olden times, like triple-coloured dango [sweet rice dumplings], and soft-serve ice cream, and enjoy the famously high volume and hot springs themselves. Also, be sure not to miss the most surprising of the resort’s various charms: outside of “Monkey Mountain” in the Hakodate Tropical Botanical Garden, you can meet monkeys bathing in the hot springs between December and early May!

9. Sample the Freshest Seafood at the Hakodate Asaichi Morning Market

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Perfect for early risers, Hakodate’s Morning Market [朝市] is an ideal place for a delicious kaisen don [raw seafood rice bowl] and gourmet souvenirs. Open between 5 am (6 am in the Winter) and noon, the market is split into four areas, Nakadori Street-a shop-lined street where you can feel the vibe of the market, Donburi Yokocho-a restaurant arcade, Ekini Market- great for food souvenirs like dried fish, and Hakodate Morning Market Square- equipped with a food court for your non-seafood food cravings. All of the fish served in the Donburi Yokocho, your best bet for a fabulous kaisen don, is caught in the suburbs of Hakodate. Two seafood specialties of Hakodate are hairy crab and squid. Be sure to try both if you have the chance!

8. Drink Tea at Victorian Rose (The Former British Consulate)

Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons.

Drawing again on Hakodate’s rich international past, why not enjoy a cup of tea at the Victorian Rose [ヴィクトリアンローズ], the former British Consulate in Hakodate, a center-piece of Motomachi? The century-old building houses a classic British tea house on the first floor, known for its afternoon tea in a stately environment and views of the British gardens outside. Enjoy small sandwiches, scones, tarts, and cakes on beautiful floral china as part of the High Tea and check out the adjoining gift shop which sells British merchandise. And, of course, an English menu is available for perusing.

7. Eat Delectable Hokkaido Milk Ice Cream at Minatogaoka Street

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While in Motomachi, stop into one of the many ice cream parlors along Minatogaoka Street, also called Soft Cream Street, for its prevalence of shops dedicated to Hokkaido’s famous soft-serve ice cream. Hakodate is known for its ice cream, even eaten in the cold winter months, and Soft Cream Street is a great place to sample it. Hakodate Soft House [函館ソフトハウス元町], is known for its wide variety of options although purists recommend their Hokkaido Milk soft cream [牛乳ソフト]. If you are feeling adventurous, why not try some unique ice cream flavours, like squid ink, or Japanese specialties, such as sweet kabocha [squash]?

6. Sample Hakodate’s Famous Ramen, Shio [Salt] Ramen

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Known as one of Hokkaido’s three best ramen types (alongside miso from Sapporo and soy sauce from Asahikawa), shio or salt ramen is a Hakodate specialty with a long history–it was first served here in 1884! Compared to other ramen, shio is known for its refinement: its broth is clear and lightly flavored with kelp added to the traditional chicken or pork base to create a fresh sea-like taste and its toppings are simple: negi [green onion], menma [salted bamboo shoots], and chashu [char-grilled] pork. Locals and visitors alike agree that Ajisai Noodle Kitchen, either in its location near Goryoukaku [Star Fort] or in the Bay area, is a great bet.

5. Enjoy a Moment of Tranquility at Hakodate Hachimangu

Photo by ja:user:ぽん吉 on Wikimedia Commons.

Hakodate’s Hachiman Shrine [Hakodate Hachimangu 函館八幡宮], surrounded by the forests of Mount Hakodate, is perfect for a moment of contemplation. Dedicated to the kami [divinity] Hachiman of war and archery, this shrine, established in 1445 houses a main hall with an impressive roof which was built in 1915. It is especially popular as a holy site around New Years and August 15, when its festival is held. Come and visit it in the snow when it looks particularly stately and beautiful!

4. Explore Northern Japan’s Stunning Christian Architecture

Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons.

A testament to Hakodate’s history of cultural exchange, Motomachi houses two magnificent churches from differing sects of Christianity to visit. The Motomachi Roman Catholic Church [カトリック教会元町], was established in 1877, a mere twenty years after the city was open to foreign trade. The current church building was rebuilt in 1923 with an alter in the cathedral that was sent as a gift from the then-pope! The Hakodate Orthodox Church [函館ハリストス正教会] was founded even earlier, in 1858, by the Russian Consulate itself. The existing building to view, built in 1916, was designated as an Important Cultural Property by the Japanese government and stands out in the Motomachi streetscape.

3. Shop in the Uniquely Designed Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse

Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons.

Explore Hakodate’s long history as a vibrant port for foreign exchange in a new format! The first warehouses along Hakodate’s Bay area were built in 1869 while the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses which still stand were rebuilt in 1909. Transformed into an innovative consumer plaza, the seven warehouses are the perfect place to spend an afternoon of shopping for souvenirs and sampling gourmet treats. A great spot to grab a pint is the Hakodate Beer Hall [函館ビヤホール] in the Hakodate History Plaza.

2. Spend a Leisurely Afternoon in the Hakodate Jomon Culture Center

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During the Jomon Period, between 14,000 and 1,000 BCE, Japan was inhabited by a primarily hunter-gatherer people, called the Jomon, who made sophisticated pottery, tools, and jewelry from bones, shells and antlers. This museum showcases the cultural artifacts from this period which have been excavated across the Japanese archipelago, such as stoneware, earthenware and accessories. The most famous piece in this museum, and Hokkaido’s only designated National Treasure, is the Chuku-dogu, a hollowed-out clay figure from 3,500 years ago. Worth a visit for all pre-history buffs wanting learn about Japan’s earliest people!

1. Get to Know the Ainu at the Hakodate City Museum of Northern Peoples

Photo by 663highland on Wikimedia Commons

This museum centers around indigenous groups who lived in Northern Japan, such as the Ainu. Located in the former Bank of Japan Hakodate branch building, which was built in 1926, the Hakodate City Museum of Northern Peoples displays lifestyle and clothing artifacts related to Orok and Ainu people. Since historical materials of these populations are rare to see outside of Japan, this museum offers the unique opportunity to delve into the history of indigenous inhabitants of the Japanese archipelago, with a wealth of folk objects designated by Japan as Important Tangible Folk Cultural Property.

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