A Chilly Winter Tour of Hakodate (Japan)

This visit to Hakodate Hokkaido followed a nine-hour JR train journey which started in Takayama on Japan’s Honshu island (11:00AM), and after stops at Toyama, and Omiya, we finally crossed the Seikan Tunnel, through the Tsugaru Strait, to reach the island of Hokkaido. Where the first stop is the port city of Hakodate where we arrive at the main Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto station at around 19:50PM. A final shorter journey (20 mins) then reaches the main city centre station of Hakodate (JR Hakodate Station), where our hotel sits pretty much opposite the Hakodate station. But it is late, so other than a run for beers and instant ramen at the nearby Familymart, we do little more that night. So it is winter time when we arrive to Hakodate, our visit being more of a stopover en route to the Sapporo Snow Festival, which we would continue to the next day. But of course we give time to explore the city, and are up early and eager the next morning for the main tourist attractions in Hakodate. Otherwise, our first impressions, are that Hakodate and Hokkaido are freezing, as expected, but we are surprised at just how little fresh snow there was compared to Honshu, and while the backstreets and footpaths are still inches thick with compressed ice, there seems to have been very little snowfall in a while.

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The Hakodate Fish Market

We start at the Hakodate Asaichi, or ‘Morning Market’, which would be the nearest tourist attractions in Hakodate, and sits almost opposite our hotel, next to the main train station. This market runs between 06:00AM and 12:00PM daily, and is pretty much just fish and seafood, and it is in fact the first fish market we have visited in Japan, despite their obvious infatuation for fish. But it is smaller, quieter and more approachable than I had expected, at least when compared to the chaotic scenes depicted at the larger Tokyo markets. Anyway, we find a close-knit maze of alleys with morning barbecues, and fresh stalls selling fish and massive crabs, and lots of squid, as squid is apparently Hakodate’s “City Fish”, where an annual festival called the Hakodate Port Festival takes place to celebrate them, where people parade through the main streets while doing the squid-dance, obviously.

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On the Trams

But we are more or less passing through the fish market this morning, as we continue to the nearby tram station en route to the main tourist attractions in Hakodate at Goryōkaku (Goryōkaku), although for me the trams are an attraction in themselves. They are also very easy to use, where they more or less circle the city in each direction, the red line going in one direction, and the blue line travelling in the opposite. They also work similar to the local buses of Japan, where you climb on through the middle door, grab a ticket, before paying and disembarking through the front. For longer visits it maybe best to purchase the tourist day passes, but we literally have one journey out, and then back again, so we make do with single tickets.

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Goryōkaku Park

It takes around 10 minutes by tram to the reach the Goryōkaku Koen Mae station (230 Yen one way), then it is a further 5 minute walk to Goryōkaku Park, which sits at the base of the Goryōkaku Tower. And in winter the streets are now covered with a think layer of ice, a bit like an ice rink, only its bumpy enough not to slip. So Goryōkaku Park is more or less an ancient fort built to protect the Tsugaru Strait and was a significant site of the last battle of the Boshin War and is now a Special Historical Site, and home to the Hakodate city museum and the old Hakodate Magistrate’s Office (¥500 for tours). Otherwise it’s just a really nice park to explore, making it the main site for cherry blossoms (sakura blooms) in Hakodate, although the trees are held in ‘yukizuri’ during winter, with ropes attached in a conical array to prevent the branches from breaking under the weight of snow.

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Goryōkaku Tower

We started early this morning at the fish market, so it is a while before the Goryōkaku Tower opens (09:00AM), when we are quick to take the lift to the observation deck (840 Yen), which sits 107 meters above the fortress grounds. From the observatory we then find views over the star-shaped fort, which was shaped to allow for more guns turrets, and to reduce blind spots around the fortress walls. Further are panoramic views of the surrounding mountains, which is one of the main tourist attractions in Hakodate we would miss on this visit, where the cable car (Mount Hakodate Ropeway) takes you to the peaks for birdseye views over the city. Which at least gives us reason for a return, as this visit was cut rather short, when we board the trains again, to arrive at the Sapporo Snow Festival later that afternoon. Also, you can apparently see across to Honshu Island and the mainland from the observation deck on a good day.

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