Away from the hustle and bustle of the big cities of Honshu from Kyoto and Tokyo to Yokohama and Osaka, Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido is home to Hakodate’s attractions. First settled some 20,000 years ago, this land of fire and ice became home to the Ainu people from the twelfth century. Hokkaido island is best known for its capital of Sapporo – home to festivals and winter sports. Aside from the mountains, forests and coasts, Hokkaido is also a fascinating destination, nestled just south of Russia. The port city of Hakodate’s attractions are many and varied, and combine to take your breath away.
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- 1 Hakodate Attractions
- 2 Mokomachi District
- 3 Goryokaku Park
- 4 Onuma Quasi National Park
- 5 Hokkaido’s National Parks
- 6 When to Visit Hakodate
- 7 Hints and Tips for Visiting Hakodate Attractions
- 8 How To Visit Hakodate
- 9 Further Reading On Hakodate Attractions
Just five per cent of Japan’s population lives on the island of Hokkaido, mostly in the capital Sapporo and the port city of Hakodate. The city was founded in 1454 as an Ainu fishing village. The port opened fully to international trade in 1859, becoming one of Japan’s five Treaty Ports. The influences of international connections can be seen across the city.
We visited Hakodate in November. We were lucky enough to get the best of two seasons during our trip: autumn with the leaves afire and a crisp bite of winter with tiny crumbs of snow on the coast and more snow inland.
Mount Hakodate: the Highest Of The Hakodate Attractions
Want so see Hakodate from on high? Then this is your viewpoint. Accessible by road, on foot via hiking trail through its forests or via cable car, this is the spot to see the beautiful twin bays of the city. Whether in bright sunlight or when the lights of the city create a new silhouette below, this is a perspective that will leave you lost for words. In a country that celebrates views and vistas, this is regarded as one of the very finest.
The Mokomachi District reflects much of Hakodate’s history. Here you’ll find monuments to explorers, Western buildings reflecting the port history of the city and museums that celebrate its heritage. It’s been described very aptly as a confluence of culture. It’s certainly one of Hakodate’s main attractions.
Old Public Hall
This beautiful mix of East, West and colonial architecture was completed in 1910. Its guest rooms were used for state visitors. With the balcony panoramic views of Hakodate Bay, you’d want to be invited back. While the outside looks primarily colonial in style, you’ll find Japanese scrollwork and patterns in the Art Nouveau rooms.
Fan of Art Nouveau style? Check out Art Nouveau in Saint Gilles, Brussels
Russian Orthodox Church
Another nod to Hakodate’s international role – and its proximity to Russia – the church, complete with onion dome, is a beautiful landmark.
Old British Consulate
This elegant and airy building was used as the British Consulate from 1913-1934. Now you can sip tea while overlooking the rose gardens. Which seems to me to be a great marriage between the Japanese and British cultures.
Wander a little past the Old Brick Warehouses, and you’ll find The Slopes. In line with Japanese design ideals for beautiful vistas, these roads were built steeply to offer grand views to the bay at the base and to the mountain at the top. They are brilliantly designed too, with a roadway flanked by a sloping path for pedestrians. There are also steps, making the road much more easily navigated by pedestrians during the snowy months. Visit for a serious case of house envy, and more chances to see the beauty of Hakodate’s surroundings. This was one of my favourite Hakodate attractions, with each of The Slopes offering a different perspective on the natural landmarks of the city.
Old Brick Warehouses And Hakodate Meijikan: Possibly the Best Known Hakodate Attractions
Reflecting Hakodate’s role as a trading port, these warm brick buildings are now open to the public as a series of shops, restaurants and other portside attractions. The area reminded me of Gloucester Docks in England, the port warehouses there also having been redeveloped.
The mellow brick here is beautiful, and twined with greenery. Although when we visited it was more red and orange in a nod to the autumn colours of Japanese maple. Hakodate-Mejikan was the old city Post Office. Inside the buildings you’ll now find a selection of shops, restaurants and other options for your entertainment and delight. Here you can buy anything from a pencil case with an elegant tracery of bamboo to a cheesecake ice cream or a small bear. The mixture of diverse shops is fascinating, even if you’re not normally a fan of commerce.
Outside you can opt for a short boat trip to see more of the twin bays. We were tempted, but a little too chilly to opt for the experience.
The former Goryokaku Fort is now a public park. The fort has a spectacular star shape, and was the main fortress of the Republic of Ezo. It was designed in 1855 in a shape chosen to permit the maximum number of gun emplacements, and to reduce blind spots for incoming fire. The fort was intended to protect against a possible Russian invasion via the Tsugaru Strait. Now it’s a beautiful spot year round, and a great delight during cherry blossom season. If you want to see something rather unusual among Hakodate’s attractions, this is surely it.
Visit Goryokaku Tower for a view of the architectural delights of the fort from on high. There are two observation floors at 86 and 90 meters. You can also see Mt Hakodate, the Tsugaru Strail and the Yokotsu mountains to the north. Visit at sunset to see the city light up.
Onuma Quasi National Park
A delight in any season, Onuma Park is the smallest on Hokkaido but beautifully formed. Here you’ll find lakes surrounded by birch and maple forests. The park includes Hokkaido Komagatake. Summer offers you cycling, canoeing, riding, camping and hiking. In winter, there is the chance to snowshoe, and try ice-fishing or snowmobiling.
There’s an Ice and Snow Fair to enjoy in winter, or else lose yourself wandering the 18 bridges of Lake Onuma. After all, there are 126 small islands to explore. And did I mention herons, Mandarin ducks and kingfishers? Plus waterlilies in summer. If tranquility and calm is your delight, you can’t go wrong with a visit.
Hokkaido’s National Parks
In addition to Onuma, there are plenty more National Parks to explore on Hokkaido. Not far from Hakodate is Skikotsutoya, which is just south of Sapporo. Further north by Mount Asashi is Daisetsu-Zan and to the east, the Kushiro Wetlands.
The National Parks of Hokkaido offer plenty of opportunities for camping, hiking and bathing in hot springs. From forests to mountain ranges to lakes and wetlands, there are so many opportunites to enjoy the big outdoors. Fascinated by birds, deer and other wildlife? You’ll enjoy seeing the best of nature here, including wildflowers in spring and summer.
When to Visit Hakodate
To my mind Hokkaido would be a great destination at any time of year. Visit in Spring, and the cherry blossoms will charm you. Plus with fewer visitors than the island on Honshu, you will get to enjoy them more peacefully. Choose summer for the lazy days spent on the coast, exploring beaches and islands. You’ll find summer temperatures pleasantly warm and well into the 20s.
Autumn brings the hills and cities afire with red maples. New England may be famed for fall colours, but I found Hokkaido every bit as spectacular. And then there’s winter, with festivals and snow making for a fine experience at Sapporo and beyond. The prevailing winter winds from Siberia can result in temperatures dropping to minus 30 degrees Centigrade. This gives you perfect powder snow conditions. I spent a lot of time in November tasting the tiny jewels of early snow as we explored. Hakodate receives just under 4 metres of snow each year.
Hints and Tips for Visiting Hakodate Attractions
It may be less easy to find speakers of other languages in Hakodate, so be ready with some basic language skills. We got by with very limited Japanese, Google Translate and miming. Any efforts to learn Japanese will be warmly appreciated during your visit.
Be prepared for opening hours that are less extensive than on Honshu and in bigger cities. It’s worth checking opening times before you visit. Although many of the landmarks are stunning from the outside, so don’t be put off visiting if you can’t actually enter the building.
Dress for the climate. Despite layers and a down jacket, I was still chilly in November. The wind off the sea – and don’t forget that Hakodate has two curved coastlines – was best described as bracing, so remember your gloves. There was also a tingling scatter of snow in the air. If you need to warm up, I recommend the Brick Warehouses.
Unexpected Charms In Hakodate’s Attractions
The love of things whimsical shone through in Hakodate. I particularly loved the sculpture featuring a woman and her cats. The woman had acquired a big scarf for the cold weather, reminding me of Antony Gormley’s Another Place on Crosby Beach (where some of the 100 statues don fetching clothes).
Head down Minatogaoka Street and you’ll find endless shops selling soft-serve or whippy ice cream. With flavours ranging from Hokkaido melon to squid ink, there’s something for every taste or adventurous palate.
The Old Post Office is graced by a bevy of bears, including a lifesize version keeping his diary at a desk in the entrance.
Then there were the vivid vending machines, and life size figures outside some of the food stalls. I was particularly taken with the barriers for the road works beside the port. Holding supporting poles to keep us from falling into the roadworks was a cheerful gang of squirrels doing their best for public safety.
Of such delights is Hakodate made. Alongside its history and natural beauty, there’s a real sense of pleasure in small quirky details. It charmed me, and I think it might just charm you too.
How To Visit Hakodate
Hakodate airport is served mainly by ANA and Japan Air flights (including to Tokyo Haneda), plus some seasonal operators. The port of Hakodate is one of the major ports of northern Japan, and operates some pleasure cruises.
The Hokkaido Shinkansen runs from Shin-Aomori Station to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station through the Seikan Tunnel. The terminal is 17km from Hakodate Station. A planned extension to Sapporo is expected to be operational by 2030.
In addition to buses, there is a tram/streetcar network covering the city.
Further Reading On Hakodate Attractions
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