Hakodate is a historic port city in the south of Hokkaido, known for its fresh seafood, European-style architecture, and one of the best panoramic night views in Japan. It is built on a narrow strip of land that reaches out to sea, culminating with the dramatic Mount Hakodate at the peninsula’s end. Its history revolves around its strategic port; it was one of the first Japanese cities to break isolation and trade with the rest of the world. Western sailors, traders, diplomats and officials made the city their home, bringing their ideas, culture and religion. As a result, Hakodate formed a hybrid personality that gives it a unique and endearing character.
Hakodate In A Nutshell
Hakodate is located on a peninsula-shaped outcrop of land, with the great silhouette of Mount Hakodate towering at the end. Many visitors come to hike to the top of Mount Hakodate and admire the viewpoint of the city lights and the sea on either side. It is also a city of western-influenced architecture, beginning with the city’s grand centrepiece, the star-shaped Fort Goryokaku. The Motomachi area is the historic neighbourhood, with British, Russian and Chinese buildings making it a mish-mash of cultures and styles. By the sea, Hakodate’s historic Red Brick Warehouses were the storage depots during its shipping heyday, and are now the place to go for shopping for souvenirs.
With its position close to the sea, Hakodate is all about great seafood. Because of its topography, it’s a very windy city, so popping inside for a ramen is always a good idea! Then there’s the squid, Hakodate’s local icon. There are squid in the seas around Hakodate, inspiring the city to name the city’s official mascot Ikaaru Seijin, an alien squid. But the love for squid doesn’t stop there – there are squid on the city’s manhole covers, live squid to catch at the market, even an annual festival to celebrate squid!
Beyond the main sights, Hakodate is a charming place to wander around. The city has great fresh food markets, a love for eating local ice cream, a great tram system, and some beautiful onsens to relax in after a long day exploring.
What To See In Hakodate
Most of Hakodate’s main sights are centred around the port area, where Motomachi and Mount Hakodate meet. This is the best place to see historic sights of Hakodate, as well as do some hiking and souvenir shopping.
Hakodate’s most celebrated viewpoint is the summit of Mount Hakodate, at the end of the narrow strip of land that reaches out to sea. At 334 metres (1,096 feet) high, it is the highest point in the area. Reaching the top can be done in a few different ways. For hikers, there are a few hiking trails, which take about an hour to complete through the forest. There is also road access for cars, and a ropeway to the summit, which is one of the most popular options. The ropeway runs every 10 minutes, and takes 3 minutes to reach the top. Tickets are￥1000 one way, or ￥1500 return. While the daytime views on a clear day are spectacular, it’s worth checking out the view at sunset for stunning dusk and night views, when the whole city is illuminated below!
On the south-east corner of the mountain is Cape Tachimachi, which can be reached on foot. It offers views of rugged cliffs, as well as the chance to visit Hanamasu Park, which blooms with pink rugosa roses in the summer.
From above, Goryokaku fort is a marvellous sight to admire – a huge star of canals, grass and brilliant sakura trees. The star-shaped fortress was built between 1855-1864 by the Tokugawa Shogunate to house its magistrates office that managed the booming shipping industry in Hakodate. It was designed in a western ‘star fort’ style, only one of two of this style in the whole of Japan to be built. With cannons and interlocking fields of fire to protect blind spots, it was designed to repel any potential invasions. When a breakaway political group proclaimed a new Republic of Ezo (now known as Hokkaido) in 1869, the Meiji imperial forces attacked the resistance forces in Hakodate to put down the new state. The fort saw action for a week, as imperial soldiers surrounded the fort until its capitulation.
Since 1914, the star fort has been a public park, and one of the best places in the city to see cherry blossoms in full bloom. Visitors can explore the grounds, which has buildings on site such as the Former Magistrate Office, a reconstruction of the original building. At night, the star is illuminated around the edges of the canals, making for a magnificent view. The most impressive view of all is from the special 106-metre Goryokaku Tower, which lets viewers observe the star shape from above.
For lovers of yuru-chara (cute Japanese mascots), Goryokaku has a strange mascot in the form of Gosshi, a yellow carp possessed by a dead soldier, who wears high heels and stockings. The viewing tower even has its own mascot, Gota-Kun!
Hakodate Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses
The Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses at Hakodate port are a throwback to another era in the city’s history. In 1859, Hakodate joined Yokohama and Shimoda as some of the first ports to allow international trade. The first warehouses were built in 1859 to house goods that were coming and going by sea, and eventually replaced with the current buildings, which were built in 1909.
The seven warehouses today are packed with restaurants and shops. The lofty interiors are lit by ostentatious chandeliers, with rows and rows of souvenir shops. Hakodate is particularly known for its artisan glassware, made by glass blowers in the city. Some beloved restaurants are bars are located here, such as Lucky Pierrot Hamburgers, and the Hakodate Beer Hall.
Many of Hakodate’s western style buildings are located in Motomachi. Some of the best examples are the St. John’s Anglican Church, the Chinese Memorial Hall, and the Hakodate Orthodox Church. Some buildings can be visited on the inside, like the Old Hakodate Public Hall, where 19th-century costumes are available for rent. At the former British Consulate, where you can enjoy a scone and a cup of tea, and even pose signing forms in the consul’s office!
The streets in Motomachi are considered to be some of the prettiest in Hakodate, especially Hachiman-zaka Slope, which is a steep hill that overlooks the port and the sea below. Motomachi is also the best place to find local ice cream, the perfect snack for exploring the streets.
Eating, Drinking (And Squid) In Hakodate
Hakodate is known for its fresh seafood, and there are plenty of great markets and restaurants to find some. It also has some ramen recipes that are unique to the region, and its most curious dish, katsu ika odori-don, AKA the dancing squid bowl!
Hakodate Morning Market
Let’s start with Hakodate’s food hub, the bustling Hakodate Morning Market. Near Hakodate station, the market opens at 5am (6am in winter), and closes at midday. It’s the best place in the city for seafood, vegetables, sweets and desserts. There are tanks of mud crabs, and the chance to hook a fresh squid from a tank, which the chef will turn into sashimi for you.
Donburi Yokocho Ichiba restaurant avenue is a long food court within the market that has plenty of small restaurants, chairs and tables. It’s the best place to sit down and enjoy some fresh seafood, straight from the source.
Dancing Squid Bowl – Katsu ika odori-don
For one of the most eyebrow-raising culinary experiences, try katsu ika odori-don. It’s served as a bowl of noodles or rice and salmon roe, topped with a small headless squid. When soy sauce is poured on top, the squid appears to dance and flail about. Sometimes it even escapes the bowl!
The dish became a viral sensation for obvious reasons, even attracting calls that it’s a form of animal cruelty. But the squid isn’t alive at all, and the movement is caused by the salt of the soy sauce interacting with the muscle fibres, making them contract. Nevertheless, it’s still a strange sight to witness.
Hakodate Specialty – Shio Ramen
Shio Ramen (salt ramen) is one of the specialities of Hokkaido, and is one the most heart-warming dishes for a cold day in Hakodate. The ramen broth is made with chicken or fish bones for stock, and uses added sea salt (instead of miso, or soy). It is often served with chashu pork, egg, nori, noodles, and for a touch of Hakodate’s seaside flavour, sometimes donan-san kelp.
Kitano Megumi Ramen – Butter Ramen
For a more unusual take on the humble ramen, there is Kitano Megumi Ramen, which translates to ‘blessing of the north ramen.’ It’s a pork broth made even more rich by the addition of a slice of Hokkaido butter. Delicious, but not very healthy!
Sapporo Soft cream
The island of Hokkaido is known for its great quality milk, which is particularly creamy and tasty. As a result, a love of soft serve ice cream has popped up in the city. Known as Soft Cream, these ice creams can be found throughout the city, especially along the street known as Soft Cream Street! Minatogaoka Street in the Motomachi area has plenty of ice cream choices to try!
Other Things To Do In Hakodate
Beyond the port area and Goryokaku, there is much more to see and do in Hakodate.
Hakodate Port Festival
The largest event in Hakodate is the summer Hakodate Port Festival, which takes place at the beginning of August. 20,000 people pack the streets for the Wasshoi Hakodate, a parade through the streets that features a signature squid dance. The festival also has fireworks, and plenty of squid to eat from market stalls!
Hakodate Jōmon Culture Centre
One of the most important museums in Hakodate is the Hakodate Jōmon Culture Centre, which displays artefacts from Japan’s Jōmon period (estimated to have lasted from 10,500-300BCE). The largely prehistoric hunter-gatherer culture is known for its pottery style characterised by cord-pattern motifs.
There are several Jōmon cultural sites throughout Hokkaido, such as settlements, stone cores and burial sites. Many artefacts discovered at these sites are at the Hakodate Jōmon Culture Centre, including the chūkō dogū (hollow dogu/earthen figure) from 1500-1300BC.
Onuma Quasi-National Park
For more hiking and fresh air, the best place to go is a day trip to Onuma Quasi-National Park (Ōnuma Kōen). Located 20km (12 miles) north of the city, it’s a picturesque area of parklands, still blue lakes, lazy lilypads, and bevies of swans. In the distance is Mount Komagatake, an active volcano.
There are plenty of walking trails that criss-cross the peninsulas and islets of the national park, linked by pretty traditional bridges that make for great photo ops. There are boat trips and bicycle rentals available from the Onuma Information Centre near the station. The park can be reached by car (30 minutes from Hakodate), or by train (45 minutes limited express, 1 hour local train), stopping at Onuma Koen Station.
Hakodate is one of the best destinations to check out in the northern island of Hokkaido. While not the most well-known holiday location, Hakodate is filled with interesting history, unique buildings and architecture, great seafood, and of course, delicious ice cream. Whether it’s for a purpose visit, or just a stop along the way to other destinations further north, Hakodate is absolutely worth visiting.