Hakodate, in the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, is home to one of most unique fortifications in the country. Fort Gorokaku is a bastion fort, a western-style fortress characterised by triangular bastions, and a spectacular star-shaped moat. Along with Tatsuoka Castle in Saku, it is one of only two in the country, and by far the largest one. Today, Fort Goyokaku is one of Hakodate’s most impressive sights, and one of the best cherry blossom viewing spots in Hokkaido, with Goryokaku Tower providing bird’s-eye views of the amazing structure.
Goryokaku is something special to see in all seasons. It is known as one of the best cherry blossom spots in all of Hokkaido in the spring. In summer, the fort is filled lush green trees, and then transforms into gold and red leaf cover in the autumn. Even in winter the fort is a special sight to behold, with wonderful light shows illuminating the edges of the frozen canals.
History Of Fort Goryokaku
Under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), Japan was in a state of isolation from the rest of the world, refusing to trade in both commodities and ideas. When the United States sent a fleet of warships led by Matthew Perry to Japan to coerce Japan to open trade, the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854 was signed, Hakodate was one of the first ports in Japan to open its ports to the west, and began shipping with the USA, Russia, and the UK.
Along with the influx of trade, Hakodate also received new ideas from other countries. Western-style buildings were built all over the Motomachi area, such as consulates and churches. For the Hakodate magistrates that oversaw the booming shipping business, a government building was planned, protected by a fort that could hold off guns and cannons. Architect Ayasaburo Takeda was brought in to design the fort, using Dutch teachings on military architecture. The fort was completed in 1864.
Fort Goryokaku In The Battle Of Hakodate
It wasn’t long at all before the fort was tested in battle. The Boshin war erupted between 1868 and 1869, between imperialists seeking to restore the emperor, and the feudal rulers of the Tokugawa Shogunate. A resistance group of 3000 soldiers under the command of the samurai Enomoto Takeaki, admiral of the Tokugawa navy. His forces captured Goryokaku, setting it up as a stronghold for the newly proclaimed Ezo republic.
Imperial forces were dispatched from Edo (now Tokyo), arriving in Hakodate in April 1969. After defeating Takeaki’s navy, the troops surrounded the fort, and the resistance soldiers surrendered a week later. Since then, Goryokaku was designated a public park in 1914, with the plantation of cherry blossoms to attract visitors.
To truly appreciate the star shape of Fort Goryokaku, the city built Goryokaku Tower in 2006. Rising 107 metres (351 feet) high, the viewing deck is the best place to see the fort from above. From the vantage point, people can admire the full shape of the star fort, the moat, and the city beyond. Goryakaku Tower even has its own yuru-chara (cute mascot), a character named Gotu-Kun! You can meet him in the lobby and pose for photos.
From late April to early May, Goryokaku Tower is decorated with a string of koi-nobori windsocks. These huge 12-metre (39-feet) decorations are long, fish-shaped windsocks that flutter in the breeze. They celebrate Children’s Day on the 5th of May, which is dedicated to the happiness of children.
Hakodate Magistrates Office
The main building of Goryokaku is the Hakodate Magistrates Office. It was built as an administrative building and diplomatic base to manage the many foreign ships in Hakodate’s waters. The original building was dismantled at the end of the Battle of Hakodate, and rebuilt in 2010. Visitors can explore the inside, which features traditional tatami mats, sliding doors, and geometric timber designs.
Hoshi-no-Yume Winter Illumination
From the start of December to the end of February, the Hoshi-no-Yume illuminations take place from 5pm to 8pm every night. Translated to ‘dream of stars’, the spectacular illumination uses over 5000 light bulbs to create a spectacular light effect along the edges of the moat.
Cherry Blossoms Of Fort Goryokaku
The grounds of Fort Goryokaku was transformed in 1914, when it was converted from a closed fort to a public park. 1600 cherry blossom trees were planted, which makes it one of the best sakura viewing spots in the whole of Hokkaido. Lining the moat, the reflections and the falling cherry blossom leaves seem to turn the water pink. The cherry blossom season is usually a bit later than the rest of mainland Japan, blooming from late April to early May.
Fort Goryokaku Night Lanterns
While exploring at daytime is certainly very beautiful, the park transforms at night with strings of red and white lanterns. They are strung up throughout the park, making it a great place for an evening stroll.
Hakodate Goryokaku Festival
Goryokaku hosts an annual festival in mid-May, to commemorate the end of the battle of Hakodate and those that died. The parade starts in the city, and ends in Goryokaku. There are over 1000 costumed performers dressed in military uniforms of the time, with sword-wielding samurai and ship floats participating in mock battles. One of the highlights of the parade is the show about Hijikata Toshizō, a Tokugawa commander and heroic local figure who died in the battle. Participants reenact his life, and dress up in Hijikata Toshizō costumes. He’s become somewhat of a mascot in Hakodate, and his likeness is even used in promotional images in gift shops!
As one of only two bastion forts in Japan, Goryokaku is an interesting mix of Japanese and western architecture, with an important part to play in Japanese history. And unlike its European counterparts, Goryokaku bursts with pink blossoms during cherry blossom season, making this fort truly one of a kind. Whether you choose to see it from the viewpoint of Goryokaku Tower, or walk around in the parkland under the light of the lanterns, the star fort is a must-see sight in Hakodate.