8 Things to Do in Hakodate, the Gateway to Hokkaido

Hakodate

A star-shaped fortress, squid fishing, a Michelin-starred night view, onsen monkeys and fantastic food - all this and more is on offer in Hakodate.

Located on the island’s southern tip, the harbour city of Hakodate is the gateway between Japan’s main island of Honshu and its northern island Hokkaido, and makes a great first or last destination on the way into or out of Hokkaido.

Hakodate was one of the first Japanese port cities to open up to international trade at the end of Japan’s period of isolation. Many overseas shipping and trading companies set up their offices in Hakodate, constructing offices, warehouses and residences in foreign styles of architecture in the town’s Motomachi district. Many of these have been preserved, ensuring a beautiful townscape that is very pleasant to stroll around in.

There is plenty to do in Hakodate, Hokkaido’s third largest city. Google at the sight of an amazing star-shaped fortress, try your hand at squid fishing, fill up your Instagram feed with shots of pretty old-time buildings, enjoy a Michelin-starred night view from the top of a mountain, commune with onsen monkeys, and have a burger made by a clown (sort of) for lunch. All this and more can be done in a stopover of 2-3 days in Hakodate.

The sights you’ll want to see in Hakodate are all easily accessible using transport starting from Hakodate Station, so choosing a hotel near the main station is a good idea. 

The route begins at Hakodate Station and has several optional end points depending on how long you have in Hakodate and where you’re going next. Times in square brackets are the distances from the previous location by the recommended form of transport. 

1) Visit a Star-shaped Fortress [20-30 minutes]

Goryokaku Park, HakodateShinjuku Gyoen ©Yasufumi Nishi

Japan’s first western-style fortress, Fort Goryokaku was constructed in the late Edo Period (mid 1800s) to defend Hakodate against the threat of imperialist powers. To get there, hop on a Hakodate City Tram (line no.2 or no.5) for the 20-30 minute ride from Hakodate Eki-mae station to either Goryokaku-mae Station or Keisatsusho-mae Station. From the former it is a 10-minute walk more or less to Fort Goryokaku, while from the latter it is just a few minutes east.

The most photogenic bird’s eye views of the impressive star-shaped citadel can be had from the upper observation deck at the top of Goryokaku Tower at a height of 90 metres above the ground (900 yen / £6.30 for adults; open 8am-7pm or 9am-6pm depending on the season). 
 
In the 1910s, the fort and its surrounding grounds were turned into a public park, including the planting of over 1600 cherry blossom trees. Time your visit for early May to capture the fortress outlined in clouds of fluffy pink blossoms - although it’s stunning in any season, as you can see here.
 

2) Grab a Bite to Eat at Lucky Pierrot [35 minutes]

Lucky PierrotMotomachi district, Hakodate
 
Next, hop on a tram and head south for 20 minutes to Jujigai Station to spend your afternoon exploring the interesting architecture of Hakodate’s downtown Motomachi district. However, first you’ll probably be wanting lunch. 

Lucky Pierrot (Japanese only) is a famous local hamburger shop found only in the Hakodate area. They have seventeen locations in central Hakodate, including one outlet in front of Goryokaku Tower (address: 30-14 Goryokakucho, Hakodate) and another just a stone’s throw from the Kanemori warehouses you’ll be visiting next (address: Hakodate Main Shop 17-12 Wakamatsu-cho, Hakodate).
 
Burger aficionados will be spoiled for choice by Lucky Pierrot’s extensive menu, which includes mutton, squid and even scallop burgers as well as more regular offerings. However, if you’re stuck umming and ahing over the menu then go for their signature dish - the award-winning Chinese Chicken Hamburger, deep-fried chicken with a sweet, sticky sauce that just oozes umami, accompanied by their “low calorie” option white gravy fries. 

If you don’t fancy it crammed inside a burger bun then why not try the Chinese Chicken Curry instead? In fact, the famous Chinese Chicken makes a cameo appearance in almost every dish on the menu - not just hamburgers but also curry, spaghetti and even “omu-raisu” (rice-stuffed omelettes). Meanwhile, those with a larger appetite can take on the gastronomic challenge of Lucky Pierrot’s giant Footlong Hamburger, which includes two patties and a fried egg as well as a bunch of other drool-inducing fillings. 
 
What can we say - who knew clowns made such good burgers? Watch a video of some lucky diners taste-tasting some of Lucky Pierrot’s menu items here. Keep an eye out for the angel and religious kitsch-themed decor - it’s pretty mind-boggling! (P.S. If you’ve got your eyes on the footlong you’d better get there early, as they’re limited to 20 per day!)
 

3) Visit Retro Red-brick Warehouses [3 minutes]

Kanemori Redbrick WarehousesKanemori Redbrick Warehouses
 
Once you’ve refuelled at Hakodate’s premier burger outlet, stagger a few minutes east towards the bay to the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses, just a few minutes walk northwest of Jujigai tram stop.
 
Hakodate was one of the first Japanese cities to open up to foreign trade after Japan’s self-imposed period of isolation ended in the 1850s. Opening in 1850, Hakodate Port was one of Japan’s first international trading ports, along with two other more famous ports that you may have heard of - Yokohama and Nagasaki. 

Many historical buildings from that time have been preserved, including the Kanemori warehouses, a row of renovated redbrick warehouses lining the bay area dating from the late 1800s. The first commercial warehouses in Hakodate, they have witnessed many different periods of history come and go. Nowadays they no longer serve their original purpose, but rather house a pleasant shopping and entertainment complex with an enviably retro atmosphere thanks to its location.
 
The complex consist of three areas: check out the unique shops and daily flea markets at Kanemori Yobutsu-kan, first opened over 100 years ago as a shop selling exotic “Western” goods; the beer hall, handmade rice cracker shop, and Sen’en Kobo, which offers workshops for just 1000 yen (£7), in Hakodate Historical Plaza; and the scenic bay views from Bay Hakodate, which are particularly nice when the bayside is illuminated at night.
 

4) Go Old-Building Spotting in Motomachi [5 minutes]

Hakodate Christ Orthodox ChurchOld Hakodate Public Hall
 
Next, venture out to explore the attractive old buildings in Hakodate’s Motomachi district, a former residential area of foreign traders boasting many well-preserved beautiful old buildings.  After Hakodate opened up to foreign trade in the late 1800s, an influx of traders from other countries such as Russia, China and western countries arrived. They settled in the hillside Motomachi district, where they constructed many foreign- and western-style buildings as their residences and places of business. 

The main area takes about 30 minutes to traverse on foot end to end from east to west, and the whole area is dotted with old buildings, so you can explore the sights in any order. However, we recommend starting from the Kanemori warehouses and working your way round in a loop anti-clockwise, going as far west as Motomachi Park and ending in the south at Mt Hakodate Ropeway Station.
 
On the way, you can see and photograph many of Hakodate’s beautiful and well-preserved old buildings, many of which have considerable historical and cultural importance. If you’re strapped for time, or don’t fancy walking too far, then make a beeline for the two major showstoppers: the Hakodate Christ Orthodox Church and the Old Hakodate Public Hall (both pictured).

If, on the other hand, you’re up for pounding the streets, put your best foot forward and spend a few happy hours working your way through the Old Hakodate Branch Office of Hokkaido, the Old British Consulate, Meijikan (Former Hakodate Post Office), several Christian churches - and the oldest concrete electricity pole in Japan! Here’s a couple more shots of some of the buildings to further whet your appetite:
 

Fountain, Motomachi dsitrictFormer Hokkaido Prefectural Office Hakodate Branch

5) Enjoy the Michelin-starred Night View from Mt Hakodate [10 minutes]

Hakodateyama Ropeway©Hokkaido Tourism Organization
 
Time your walk to end towards dusk at the foot of the ropeway going up to the top of Mt. Hakodate. If you’ve ended your exploration Motomachi at Mt Hakodate Ropeway Station, you’ll be ideally placed to whizz up to the summit on the Hakodateyama Ropeway (departures every 15 minutes, return ticket 1280 yen / £9). Alternatively, buses operate between Hakodate Station and the summit several times per hour in the evening (30 minutes, 400 yen / £2.80).
 
Bid farewell to Hokkaido by gazing at the spectacular night view from the summit - said to be one of Japan’s “top three night views”. It’s also the holder of an impressive three Michelin stars. When viewed from the top of Mt Hakodate, the sparkling multi-coloured lights below make an interesting and unique hourglass shape due to Hakodate’s location on a peninsula with water on either side. The view is said to be at its best around 30 minutes after sunset.

Once you’ve had your fill of Hakodate’s shimmering lights, take the ropeway back down to the bottom of the mountain and either catch a taxi (10 minutes), walk and take the tram (10 minutes walk to Jujigai Station; 5 minutes by tram from there) or walk (20-25 minutes) back to your hotel near Hakodate Station.

 

6) Feast on Seafood at Morning Market [2 minutes]

Hakodate Morning MarketKaisendon, Hakodate Morning Market
 
Make sure you get up early and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for a mouthwatering seafood breakfast at Hakodate’s famous Morning Market (Hakodate Asaichi, 5am-noon). Assuming you’ve chosen to stay at a hotel near the station, it should only take a few minutes to reach the market.

If you’re anything like us, your stomach will already be growling, so head to Donburi Yokocho Ichiba, a restaurant arcade inside the market with about 20 shops. It’s a slightly long-winded name, but don’t let that put you off - this is where you’ll get to stuff your face on the must-eat local delicacy, kaisendon (seafood rice bowl), bowl of steaming fresh white rice topped with unbelievably fresh seafood - you can’t leave Hakodate without sampling it! Salmon roe, sea urchin and crab are some of the most popular toppings. Alternatively, if you don’t mind working harder for your food, then you can try your hand at squid-fishing - the chef will turn whatever you catch into fresh squid sashimi. 

The bustling market spans a few blocks of the city, so after you’ve broken your fast, spend a happy hour or two browsing the 250 or so shops and stalls selling a variety of fresh products and delectable Hokkaido produce such as melons and other local fruit and vegetables as well as seafood such as crab, sea urchin, and salmon roe.

 

7) Try Snaffles Cheesecake [2 minutes]

Photo: flickr always hungry and greedy Photo: flickr Wee-Lit Lim
 
Now that you’ve had the main course, it’s time to satisfy that sweet tooth! Before you hop on a train from the station to go and take a reinvigorating bath at nearby Yunokawa Onsen, stop in at the Snaffles store in front of Hakodate Station (address: 18-2 Wakamatsu-cho, Hakodate). 

Made with fresh, rich milk from cows “raised in a relaxing atmosphere in the meadows of Onuma”, and a unique brand of eggs bizarrely named “Salad Mood”, Snaffles Cheesecake is Hakodate’s most famous confectionary export. Their Cheese Tart and Snowballs are also worthy a try, but it’s their Catch Cakes that are the real headliners here, with a texture like a soft, creamy souffle so that makes the perfect melt-in-your-mouth treat - try the maple or the chocolate flavour.
 
Snaffles has five stores in Hakodate, including the main store in front of Hakodate station. If Hakodate is missing from your itinerary (and it shouldn’t be!), never fear - there are also two stores in Sapporo and one at Shin Chitose Airport, so you can stock up on supplies for your sugar fix even if you don’t plan to drop in at Hakodate.

8) Take a Relaxing Dip at Yunokawa Onsen [20-40 minutes]

Snow moonkeys ©Hokkaido Tourism OrganizationYunoyama Onsen, Mie
 
If you’ve still got time before you catch your train out of Hakodate, decamp to Yunokawa Onsen, a large hot spring resort with an array of inns and hotels in the east of Hakodate. To get there, ride the bus along the coast for 20 minutes or the tram (no.5) through the city for 40 minutes. If you’ve any plans to fly into or out of Hakodate Airport, then the hot spring is ideally placed for a quick dip on your way to or from the airport.

While you’re here you have a few options for how to enjoy Yunokawa’s soothing mineral waters. If you’re dipping your toe into the hot spring bathing experience for the first time, then why not start out with a relaxing “ashiyu” footbath - you get to keep your clothes on! There is a free public footbath right in front of Yunokawa Onsen tram stop. Pop your socks and shoes off and slip your feet into the warming water, then tune out and relax as you watch the trams come and go.
 
For those who’re happy to flaunt their birthday suit, many of the baths in Yunokawa just a stone’s throw from the ocean’s edge - meaning you get to enjoy the unusual mix of pampering in-house bathing combined with glorious ocean views. From summer to autumn, the ocean twinkles with the lights of huge tungsten lamps on Hakodate’s fleet of fishing boats as they trawl the straits in search of the succulent squid for which the town is famous.
 
The Hakodate City Tropical Botanical Garden is home to some 100 free-range Japanese macaques (snow monkeys). Watch them immerse themselves in the steaming mineral water from December 1st through the beginning of May - those expressions of pure bliss are really something else! The gardens are 15 minutes walk south of Yunokawa tram stop (300 yen / £2.10, open 9:30am-6pm or 4:30pm in winter). 
 

Bonus - Take a Sidetrip to Onuma Park [30-60 minutes]

Onuma Quasi-National ParkOnuma Quasi-National Park
 
If you’ve more time to spare in Hakodate, go and chill out at Onuma Quasi National Park, 20 km north of Hakodate. You can visit the park on a daytrip from Hakodate or as a stopover on the way in or out of Hakodate, as the journey there takes you through Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station, from where the bullet train to the mainland departs. From Hakodate Station, catch either the JR Hokuto Express for 30 minutes or the JR Hakodate line for just under an hour to Onuma Station.
 
Onuma Park is known for its picturesque, island-studded lakes and majestic volcano, Mt Komagatake. Explore the peninsulas and islands, connected to each other with a series of small bridges, between the two main lakes, on 15-60 minutes walking courses. In summer, get active with a variety of typical outdoor activities such as boating, cycling and camping. In winter, Onuma offers the usual skiing and cross-country skiing, but also a couple of more unusual winter activities - try your hand at ice fishing for Wakasagi smelt through a hole in the ice, or dare yourself to a snowmobile ride across the thickly frozen lake!

All that fresh air and exercise is sure to have worked up quite an appetite, so once you’ve had your fill of Onuma’s great outdoors, take a break in one of the lakeside hotels or restaurants. Tuck into a plate of steak or stew of Onuma Beef, offering melt-in-the mouth juiciness that comes from cattle allowed to roam freely on Hokkaido’s unspoilt pastures. 
 
After you’ve digested your steak food baby, if you’re leaving Hakodate, catch the train from Onuma Station back down the line to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station for your train out of town. The JR Hakodate Line takes 35 minutes, while the JR Hokuto express whittles the journey down to just 10 minutes. 

To stay up to date with all the latest happenings in Japan follow us on Facebook or Twitter.