At its northern tip, Japan’s main island of Honshu sprouts what looks like a massive pair of pincers that reach up into the Tsugaru Strait toward Hokkaido. The point at the southern end of Hokkaido that the twin peninsulas seem to be homing in on is the port of Hakodate.
Hokkaido has a lot going for it — sweeping northern vistas, magical skiing, nature on a grand scale — but visitors with a soft spot for history will find this island’s pickings markedly scant. The big exception is Hakodate.
Back in the days before John D. Rockefeller discovered how crude oil could turn someone into the richest man on the planet, the United States depended for its oil supply on its huge whaling fleets. For the western end of the North Pacific, the U.S. badly needed a supply station to service all those whaling ships. And that was where Hakodate came in.
After Commodore Perry and his naval squadron arrived in Japan in 1853 to try out a little gunboat diplomacy in forcibly opening up the then-secluded nation, he selected Hakodate as one of two ports to accept American vessels. With the signing of subsequent treaties with other countries, tiny Hakodate suddenly found itself taking on a remarkably international character as Western merchants and diplomats made their homes here.
The part of Hakodate to which most foreigners gravitated was the area called Motomachi, above the city’s excellent natural harbor. Today, Motomachi is an atmospheric section of town, with many attractive wooden buildings that still bear the historical stamp of its days as a treaty port.
Perhaps the area’s most distinctive structure is the Russian Orthodox Church, originally built in 1859, and which is all gleaming white walls and moss green-colored roofs topped by exotic onion domes.
The church’s only serious rival in terms of architectural exuberance is the Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward, constructed in 1910 — a giddy confection of a building that looks like some antebellum mansion plucked out of South Carolina and planted in Motomachi, its paint job being handed to a contractor eager to use up his surplus of sky blue and canary yellow.
Historical buildings of a more subdued character are situated by the harbor in Motomachi in the form of red-brick warehouses, also dating from around 1910. Though these buildings were originally made to handle the traffic of goods passing through this port, the warehouses today cater exclusively to the tourist trade, housing a sizable clutch of eateries and small stores, which offer the usual range of humdrum souvenir knickknacks, gifts, clothing and accessories. Here you can find Christmas Square, a store that ensures that no one need ever again run short of Santa and reindeer decorations in February.
Further along the waterfront is located one of Hakodate’s livelier attractions, in the shape of the Morning Market. Along with other nearby fishing grounds, the Tsugaru Strait supports an industry that has long been of vital importance to Hakodate, and the fine seafood is invitingly displayed in the market.
The market is a cheerful place where stall holders happily let a huge crab crawl over the road in front of their premises to persuade passing tourists to inspect their wares a little more closely. There’s also silvery salmon, assortments of mollusks, glistening fronds of seaweed and the yellow-orange ovaries of sea urchins within their dark spinous shells. Prominent too is squid — caught locally and a creature of such pride and fished in such numbers here that it is one of the symbols of the city.
Stall holders inform you how you can’t beat Hakodate for freshness — how you can enjoy seafood here long before it appears in Tsukiji. Many of the stalls double up as small eateries to allow visitors to sample for themselves the freshness of the produce in the form of such dishes as kaisen-don, a versatile concoction featuring various kinds of raw seafood served on rice in a bowl.
If the market is the place to sample the gourmet side of Hakodate, the spot to get a taste of the most dramatic events of the city’s past is a 4-km tram ride away. Goryokaku, a roughly pentagonal fort, was built in 1866 to house government offices, and was the country’s first Western-style fortress.
The place saw military action much sooner than its builders could have imagined. After pro-Imperial forces overthrew the shogunate, which had ruled Japan for over two-and-a-half centuries, the proshogunate army, badly reduced after a series of defeats, made its way to Hakodate. There, it captured Goryokaku in October 1868. The proshogunate force held out until the following May, when it was overcome by troops of the new Meiji government.
The great hero of what became known as the Battle of Goryokaku was Toshizo Hijikata, a senior officer in the proshogunate army. Hijikata was killed by a bullet as he led a dashing counterattack on horseback. Hijikata may take some consolation from the fact that his image endures forever in Goryokaku souvenir shops, gracing everything from clocks and ashtrays to towels and mouse pads.
Though popular, Goryokaku is only Hakodate’s second-biggest tourist attraction. Top place goes to the summit of 334-meter-high Mount Hakodate, from which, as practically every visitor knows, the night view has to be experienced.
“It’s one of the finest night views in the world,” one local declared to me, repeating an often-heard local opinion. “It’s right up there with the night views of Hong Kong and Naples.” (When pressed, he did have to admit that he hadn’t actually ever been to either place.)
Whatever you may think of the comparison, the view is not a bad one, with the city spreading out like an elegant hourglass — Hakodate Bay on one side and the Tsugaru Strait on the other. And as darkness descends, Hakodate’s lights gradually twinkle into life, stretched out like burning jewels along the isthmus.