HAKODATE - Hakodate occupies a unique place on the Japanese landscape, both literally and gastronomically speaking.
Facing the Tsugaru Strait from its position on the southern shores of Hokkaido’s Oshima Peninsula, the city grew from a small Ainu fishing village to become, in 1854, Japan’s first port open to foreign trade after the Sakoku Edict restricted such commerce in 1635.
The center of town sits on a narrow isthmus between the mainland and Mount Hakodate, which towers over the city and surrounding waters below. Visitors come for a combination of this unique scenery and superb food, as the city’s reputation for some of Japan’s freshest seafood far precedes itself and, as I recently learned, exceeds all expectation.
Hakodate’s most recognizable coastal commodity is unquestionably crab. Four species are caught in the nearby seas at different times of year, which makes crab a year-round affair in Hokkaido. The optimal time to go, however, is mid-autumn when the peak seasons of all four species briefly converge.
Crab vendors abound in Hakodate, with the greatest concentration being in the neighborhood around the asaichi (morning market) just south of Hakodate Station. The market itself is a great place to browse and sample an array of local delicacies, from fresh abalone to sliced melon. Prices at sit-down restaurants vary wildly, however, and the bigger and flashier ones closest to the station have a reputation for gouging wallets. What’s more, without insider knowledge it can be difficult to gauge the quality of any given eatery’s supply of the clawed crustaceans.
Enter Maruyama Shoten. This modest and timeworn seafood house on the district’s southern outskirts is owned and operated by the Hakodate-based fishing company of the same name. The best of every catch is reserved for Maruyama Shoten’s own storefront, and each crab is cooked to order. They also catch and serve fresh squid, scallops and other sundry seafood from local waters, so diners are advised to pack a big appetite.
If crab is Hakodate’s standard-bearer, then sushi is its squire. A strong contender for Hakodate’s finest sushi shop is tucked away in the Yunokawa Onsen area east of the city center. The chefs at Kiharu hold court while slicing up some of the freshest fish in all of Japan. When caught in peak season during fall or winter, the hon-maguro (bluefin tuna) hardly requires chewing, as the perfect balance of lean meat and fat seems to melt over your tongue. The elegant shop overlooks the Matsukura River as it empties into the Tsugaru Strait, which is well-known for its squid. Tsugaru squid sashimi, firmer in texture and more opaque than those caught in warmer waters, has naturally become a shop specialty at Kiharu. And yes, they also serve crab.
Eating seafood for every meal, no matter how good the quality, runs the risk of wearing thin. But visitors to this epicurean playground need not worry; Hakodate continues to deliver.
Local burger chain Lucky Pierrot opened its first location in 1987 in the Bay Area neighborhood next to the popular sightseeing locale Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse. Now 17 locations, each with its own demented, clown-bedecked charm, are scattered across the city. Those near tourist destinations see more traffic but offer the same consistently delicious and novel fare with a focus on fresh Hokkaido ingredients. The Hakodate institution’s flagship burger hardly qualifies as a burger at all. Rather, it’s a burger bun stuffed with crispy fried chicken that’s been marinated in a sweet and spicy “Chinese sauce.” Every burger is made to order, and given Lucky Pierrot’s die-hard local fan base, expect lines at every location just about any time of day. For those whose hankering for seafood doesn’t rest, don’t fret: they also sling Tsugaru squid and scallop burgers.
If such self-styled burgers aren’t quite your bag, Hakodate ramen is a dependable alternative for a quick and affordable meal, especially as winter temperatures on the Oshima Peninsula can dip well below freezing. As in any Japanese town that boasts its own style of ramen, such eateries are a dime a dozen in every pocket of the city. Ajisai is a Hakodate favorite, with branches in centrally located Kurenai, Hakodate Station, and adjacent to Fort Goryokaku in the northern part of the city. Hakodate ramen is characterized by its broth, which is salt-based and clearer than other varieties. It’s also common to add kelp or seafood to the stock, which can be chicken- or pork-based. Local residents and tourists alike line up for Ajisai, which supplies this deeply satisfying dish with an added twist: Okinawan kōrēgusu, a hot sauce made from chili peppers soaked in awamori spirits, which is placed on every table for diners to experiment with. Perhaps the thinking here is to bring a little sunshine to your bowl on those dim winter days. Oh, and the gyōza are great, too.