In 1854, when the rulers of Japan decided to end two centuries of isolationism, one of the first two ports to open for foreign trade was Hakodate.
What was once a small fishing village on the southwest coast of Hokkaido had been growing as a port city for centuries, and now it would suddenly become a gateway to the world.
But Hakodate would not go the same way as other port cities like Yokohama or Osaka, which became metropolises.
Hakodate obviously grew but, interestingly, it managed to keep its authentic charm. Probably the main thing that changed was that it had some new international influences, which brought a welcome texture to the city.
When you visit Hakodate today, you can get a sense of all of the city’s different historical periods and influences.
There is still a strong fishing community, a throwback to the days when it was the region’s main industry.
There are the historical buildings from the centuries of conflict over which lords or native people should control the land.
And there are the former embassies and churches that remain from when Hakodate first welcomed international traders ashore.
When international visitors to Japan think of Hokkaido, most probably think of the nature that Japan’s northern island is best know for, the wilderness that stretches out over this sparsely-populated region.
In Hakodate, there are also incredible landscapes and natural sights that come right to the border of the city – but it’s the local culture that makes a visit here worth the effort.
It’s one of the most interesting places in Hokkaido, where a big city has a small-town feel, where the seafood is exquisite, and you’ll find a different kind of Japanese hospitality.
I’ve previously written about doing a Hokkaido trip from Sapporo to Niseko and then Hakodate, and I would suggest you read that story to get a sense of how each spot is different.
But now, to help you plan a visit to Hakodate, I’ve put together my list of the best things to do in Hakodate. You can see them on the map below.
If you’re wondering how long you should spend in Hakodate, I would suggest a minimum two days. That will be long enough to see most of my recommended things to do in Hakodate, but not quite all of them… perhaps a good reason to come back sometime.
To get a sense of Hakodate, why not start at Goryokaku Tower, a 107-metre tower in the middle of the city. The tower is named after Goryokaku Park, which is right next to the tower and of which you get an excellent view of its star shape – but you can see much more.
From the top of Goryokaku Tower, you can see all the way to Mount Hakodate, to Tsugaru Strait, and to the Yokotsu mountain range. There are information panels to explain what you’re able to see.
There is also an interesting exhibition space with displays about the feudal history of Hakodate and how Goryokaku was an important part of that.
After seeing it from above, you can then explore Goryokaku from the ground. It’s a massive fort shaped like a star and surrounded by a wide moat. It was designed in 1855 and based on the work of French architect Vauban.
Originally it was built to protect Hakodate from the threat of a Russian invasion but it was only ever used as a fort in the famous civil conflict called the Boshin War.
Goryokaku became a park in 2010 and has over a thousand cherry trees, making it a very popular spot during cherry blossom season. You can also visit the Former Magistrate Office which is a reconstructed version of where Hokkaido was once managed from.
Ride a Hakodate tram
To get around the centre of Hakodate, one of the easiest (and most enjoyable) ways is by the city trams. It’s also a way to get a little slice of the local heritage because there have been trams in the city for more than a hundred years.
There are only two tram lines – the 2 and the 5 – and both go along the same route from Yunokawa to Jujigai, where they split and the 5 goes to Hakodate dock and the 2 goes to Yaschigashira.
It can be a little confusing using the tram the first time. You take a ticket as you get on but you pay when you get off. A display in the tram shows how much you need to pay, based on which stop number you got on (which is shown on your ticket). Drop your ticket and cash into the box as you get off.
You can get the tram to Motomachi (or get there a different way, if you prefer), the historic district where most foreigners lived and worked after Hakodate port opened in 1854. It’s still full of interesting buildings that are worth visiting.
You’ll find religious buildings like the Russian Orthodox church, diplomatic buildings like the Old British Consulate, and cultural centres like the Chinese Memorial Hall. It’s not a particularly large district, so I would suggest you wander around and you’ll come across these spots.
A lot of the old houses have now been turned into boutique shops and cafes. Motomachi is a good spot to have something to eat and drink, if you need a rest. I would recommend trying the ‘melon pan ice cream’ – a local treat!
Red Brick Warehouses
Down the hill from Motomachi, you’ll find another of Hakodate’s historic districts – the Red Brick Warehouses. These were warehouses built for use during the trading days that have now been redeveloped into an entertainment complex.
There are shops, restaurants, and other entertainment venues. If you’re interested in seeing a bit of the history, you can just wander around and see the old warehouses. But, if you’re thinking of somewhere for lunch or need some souvenirs, you’ll find good options here.
The Morning Market
As I mentioned earlier, Hakodate has retained its fishing village charm and the best place to get a sense of this is the Morning Market, a fish market that actually runs all day now but has kept its original name.
Walk through the outdoor alleys and you’ll see all sorts of interesting seafood for sale – crabs and urchins, for instance – and then go inside the covered areas to find even more. Look for the little pool where kids try their hand at catching squids.
There are lots of restaurants here and I would recommend popping into one of them to try some sashimi at the very least – or have a full lunch, if you’re hungry.
While the kids enjoy catching squids in the small pool of the Morning Market, there’s a much better option for adults – head out on a boat to catch squid from the ocean with a trained fisherman.
It’s a very special experience that you can book in advance. I go out with Hisaichi Takagawa on his boat and he shows me the trick to catching squid with a rod and line.
He’s been fishing for 42 years and has no trouble snagging a few. I don’t have much luck myself but it’s a really fun way to spend a few hours.
As we come back in from fishing, I get a good view of Cape Tachimachi, the headland at the southern end of the city. It has steep cliffs coming down to the sea, and then vibrant green slopes going up towards Mount Hakodate.
You can visit Cape Tachimachi from the land and there are some great viewpoints out over the water and along the cliffs. There are also some nice walking trails here, which are a lovely way to experience some of the nature along the edge of the urban development.
Yuhi Tea House
Further along the coast, on the other side of Mount Hakodate, is a little cafe called the Yuhi Tea House. It is housed inside the old Hakodate Quarantine Station, which was built in 1885 as part of the port’s international connections.
The tea house is a really special place where you can sip on traditional matcha tea and eat the wagashi sweets that are served with your drink. It’s an authentic experience inside a little bit of Hakodate heritage – and also a nice chance to slow down and have a rest.
One of the icons of the city is Mount Hakodate, the 334-metre high mountain that looms up from the southern end. It has a series of viewpoints at the top and it’s worth going up to get an incredible perspective of Hakodate and the two bays that bracket it.
The easiest (and most enjoyable) way to get up Mount Hakodate is by the Hakodateyama Ropeway, which goes from the Motomachi neighbourhood and gives you great views on the way up. Alternatively, you can take a bus from Hakodate Station.
The view from the mountain at sunset and evening is particularly famous, as you can see the whole city illuminated beneath you. But it’s great during the day as well.
Follow the coast for about five kilometres east of central Hakodate and you’ll reach the district of Yunokawa (the last stop for the trams). It is a famous onsen, with natural hot spring waters being used by lots of different hotels and public baths.
Although Hokkaido is full of onsens, Yunokawa is one of the island’s most famous. This is partly because it has a long history, having been used by the region’s leader as early as 1653. But it’s also because it’s located on the coast, making it popular with domestic tourists.
It’s no surprise that you find hot spring water in Hakodate when you realise that just 50 kilometres away is the active volcano of Mount Esan. It’s more than 600 metres high and is usually always spewing out gas from its crater.
Mount Esan makes for a dramatic scene and you can actually get quite close to it. There’s a walking track from the car park that takes you in towards the centre and then up a slope to get a perspective from above.
It’s not just a really good hike, it’s also one of the most interesting things to do around Hakodate. Even though it’s safe, it feels like a bit of an adventure to be climbing on top of an active volcano.
Another option to see a bit of nature just outside of Hakodate is Onuma Park, about 30 kilometres north of the city. The park is set around a large lake that has a stunning view of the Mount Komagatake volcano.
One of the most popular activities here is to take a boat ride on the lake, which takes you around for about 30 minutes to get different views of the small islands and the volcano.
However, I think you get vistas that are just as nice by taking the path along the coastline, that crosses bridges to a couple of islands. You can also take a cycle path but it doesn’t go along the water for most of the way.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by the Hakodate tourism board but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.