Hakodate the gorgeous port city, is the third largest town on Hokkaido island. Globally, it is most famous for its spectacular night views from Mount Hakodate, but it is also renowned for fresh quality seafood. The city’s port has historically been crucial for trade in Japan’s Northern island too.
Recently, it has also recently joined the high-speed Shinkansen network since March 2016 as the most accessible northern destination. The current trip takes about 4 hours at the time of writing.
So, to make the most of your visit, here are our Top 8 recommendations for exploring the city of Hakodate.
1. The Best Scenery in the World
Mount Hakodate’s reputation as one of the best night views is no mean feat. Among others like Hong Kong and Naples, Mount Hakodate is ranked in the top 3 internationally for cityscapes. Especially, its magical reflection from the surrounding seas.
The mountain itself sits relatively low at 334m to the summit, but what it lacks in stature it makes up for in scenery. When the skies are clear, Mount Hakodate presents you with the best in encompassing landscape settings. The sweeping mountains and seas that skirt the horizon, or at night as the city lights sparkle and reflect off the harbour.
The mountain can be accessed by both bus and ropeway and operates between the hours of 10:00-22:00 (21:00 in the cooler season). There are also hiking trails and some people choose to ride a bicycle to the top of the mountain.
You can check out our post about the best night views in Japan here too.
2. Visit Fort Goryokaku
This star-shaped fort was once an active fortress built in the late 1860s during the end of the Edo era. It also later become the site of a civil war after the newly established Meiji Government was formed. After the war ended, the fortress lost its military significance and was then turned into a public park by the early 1900s.
It has now become one of the most popular cherry-blossom hot spots in the Hokkaido region. There are more than 1,000 trees planted around the park grounds and moats. So you can see this particular sight from the ground, or capture the beauty from the nearby Goryokaku Tower. The tower stands at 107m tall and provides an excellent scene of the blossoms below. The peak of the Cherry Blossom season usually occurs in early May.
To reach the park you can take a tram from the main Hakodate JR Station. There is a tram stop very close to the park which takes about 10 minutes to reach.
3. Try the Morning Markets
The Hakodate morning markets are a daily tradition for many of the locals. Directly opposite Hakodate JR Station, the markets are open daily from 5 am (6 am in winter) to noon.
The markets are well known for the seafood, but they also sell a lof the local fruits and vegetables too. Many restaurants populate the large market area too, where you can enjoy an abundance of fresh seafood. Seafood breakfasts are the most common meal, with options like uni (urchin) and ika (squid/calamari) donburi (rice bowls).
The markets are quite sizeable at 4 city blocks, so you should be able to find something of interest.
4. Stroll Through Onuma Park
Onuma Park is a national park located within the city limits of Hakodate, about 20km north of the city centre. The park is full of lush vegetation and landscapes from its many available trekking paths, peaceful lakes and nearby volcano, Mount Komagatake. The volcano alone provides a stunning backdrop to the surrounding trees and waterways.
The many islands that litter the area can be explored on either foot or bike. They are connected by a series of bridges and provide a great escape or day trip from the city. The area is also a popular site for activities like tennis, camping, canoeing and more.
From November to March, you can also enjoy the many activities that occur in the winter season. Skiing, outback snow trekking and riding on a snowmobile are just some of the fun experiences available.
Onuma Park is accessible via train from Hakodate in about 45 minutes by express train. You can also drive to the park in about 30 minutes by car.
5. Taste the Local Cuisine
We have already mentioned the morning markets opposite Hakodate JR Station, with plenty of tasty options. However, we didn’t get into the nitty-gritty detail about what’s available. Hakodate, like many places in Hokkaido, is home to a whole branch of fresh and tantalising dishes. Yet, there is also Hakodate’s own version of ramen, ice cream and more. Let’s explore some of the more well-known selections.
Firstly, the seafood bowl is as you could guess a range of succulent and richly flavoursome seafood served on a bed of rice. The range of options is immense starting with tuna, salmon, crab, squid, scallop and more. A word of caution, the more exotic your appetite, the more expensive your meal will turn out.
Second off the list is salt flavoured Ramen. For those noodle and ramen loving connoisseurs that are treating themselves across Japan, this is another dish for you to devour. While ramen did originate from China, it is the expansive variety of flavours that were developed in Japan. Hakodate’s version is lightly salted with a clear broth, but ultimately a deep and rich taste.
Hokkaido’s is also a larger dairy producer, with many farms that provide milk, butter and other products. Thus, Hakodate’s love for their soft serve cone is the go-to dessert, even during the freezing winters. The soft serve ice cream is made from locally sourced milk and is so popular, you will find many shops scattered throughout the town.
6. Explore Downtown (Motomachi)
Hakodate was actually a very lively port town towards the mid to late 1800s. This was because it opened its harbour to foreign trade from the 1850s. As a result, many foreign merchants came from China, Russia and the west to begin trading with their new neighbour. After their arrival, many traders took a liking to the harbourside area, and so they setup various communities in the area.
Today, you can still find the remains of some unique architecture that has originated from across the globe. For example, there is the Russian Orthodox Church, which is still in pristine condition. There is also an old British Consulate building and a Chinese memorial hall as part of the attraction of buildings. Furthermore, you can enter some of the older buildings, albeit for a small fee.
The Motomachi area is close to Mount Hakodate and takes around a 30-minute walk from Hakodate JR Station. Alternatively, a tram service is also available that will take you closer to the site in approx. 15 minutes.
7. Relax in the Yunokawa Hot Springs
Located close to Hakodate local airport, but a stone’s throw away from the ocean is Yunokawa Hot Springs (Onsen). The area itself is full of many Japanese style inns and public bathing houses that lie very close to the sea. In fact, many of the outdoor bathing houses provide gorgeous views of the limitless ocean as it extends beyond the horizon.
For people visiting the area, there is a free footbath available right outside the Yunokawa tram stop. After removing your shoes and socks, feel the warmth and relaxing water wash the exhaustion away from your feet.
The nearby Yukura Shrine is only a short few minutes walk from the Yunokawa Onsen tram stop. The site is a picturesque shrine with many photo ops for its large and small torii gates, plus its clean and bright colours.
Another site you can also witness is the Hakodate City Tropical Botanical Garden. Here is another place to encounter snow monkeys enjoying the natural hot springs. However, the bath itself is small for some 100 plus monkeys, and I saw many complaints on the trip advisor website expressing frustration about the conditions. Thus, it is difficult to recommend this place.
8. Learn about the Native Ainus
The Hakodate City Museum of Northern Peoples is a museum which traces the history of some of the native tribes of Hokkaido. This includes the Ainu which was one of the main native communities to inhabit the island.
The museum itself tracks some of the various instruments, garments and vessels used by the people. Including a display of knives and blade-like instruments, plus full-sized canoe-like vessels.
There are also various native activities you can try. For instance, you can experience the Ainus traditional way of papercutting. In addition, you can even create and try to play some of their traditional musical instruments.
The museum is located about a little over 20 minutes on foot from Hakodate JR Station. Alternatively, you can take a local tram in about 15 minutes.