Hakodate is Hokkaido’s third biggest city, and is located on the island’s southern tip. Home to the Hakodate Airport, this port city is well-visited and easy to get to, especially from the rest of Japan.
Hakodate was one of the first Japanese cities to open it’s doors to foreign trade, and as such, this foreign influence can still be felt today, notably in the form of grand Orthodox Churches and Western-style government buildings and consulates.
All this means that Hakodate is a fascinating blend of Japanese and foreign influences and makes for an interesting visit; even if it means travelling all the way down to Hokkaido’s southern end. Bear in mind that it’s quite the journey from Sapporo and the rest of Central Hokkaido’s highlights of Furano and Biei.
There is plenty to see and do in Hakodate, so let’s get started.
Take in Surreal Night Views of the City from Mount Hakodate
If you’ve ever picked up a Hokkaido travel brochure or browsed through a travel magazine, chances are you’ll have seen the stunning flower fields in Furano, the Blue Lake Pond in Biei, the TV tower of Sapporo, the quaint canals of Otaru and of course, the cityscape view from Mt. Hakodate.
This is Hakodate’s most famous attraction.
By which I mean, expect to share this attraction with what feels like the rest of Japan and Asia.
From the base of the cable car ropeway, you’ll get your tickets from the ticketing office and take the lift up to board the cable car.
Immediately you’ll see everyone rushing to the windows to secure themselves a great view, and there’s good reason for this!
As the cable car makes its upward ascend, the views of the city get more and more surreal.
The scenery here is really quite something if only because of the way the lights illuminate the interesting shape of the land.
Many come up here to enjoy the sunset, so if you’re headed over during those hours it will be packed.
On the mountain, there are observatory decks, but expect to have to wait to get to the edge of the railings or have to push your way through, especially at the highest observatory deck.
The views are definitely worth it though.
If you’re coming over in the winter, dress accordingly as you’re up a mountain and it gets windy!
Enjoy Fresh Seafood at the Hakodate Morning Market
The Hakodate Morning Market is a series of streets next to the Hakodate JR Station where you’ll be able to enjoy fresh seafood from the endless amounts of stalls.
There isn’t much of an alternative beyond seafood though!
But if you’re a seafood lover, you will truly be spoilt for choice.
Admire the Architecture of Hakodate’s Foreign Buildings in Motomachi
When Hakodate was one of the few ports to be opened to foreign trade at the end of Japan’s Era of Isolation, the Motomachi district is where the foreigners settled.
They brought their culture and architecture, which has been preserved till today.
There are several notable sights of interest here, including the beautiful and surreal Russian Orthodox Church.
Then, head to the Old British Consulate where you can take a tour, have a spot of afternoon tea overlooking the streets outside, do a spot of admittedly kitsch shopping, or all three.
There is also the Old Hakodate Public Hall, a grand European-style building (more Russian if I’m being specific) which used to house the Hakodate government. Note though, that this building in particular is closed for renovations till April 2021.
Then, there's the Roman Catholic Church, Chinese Memorial Hall, and Gokoku Shrine amongst others.
Even if you’re not ticking off a laundry list of sights, the neighbourhood is a really nice one to get lost in.
Get a Postcard Picture of Hakodate from Hachiman-Zaka Slope
Easily accessible by foot if you’re already in the Motomachi district is another postcard view of Hakodate, namely the view of the port below from the Hachiman-Zaka Slope.
You’ll know when you’ve reached as you’ll see tour groups huddling for photos in the middle of the slope, which is actually a functioning road.
The view is famous for the port in the background and the tree-lined streets.
Take in Surreal Overhead Views of Fort Goryokaku
Fort Goryokaku is a star-shaped fort which played an important role in Hakodate’s history.
The fort was built in its unique shape to avoid blind spots in the event of enemy invasions.
Today, you can take a lift up the Goryokaku Tower to visit the indoor observatory deck with expansive glass windows.
Come Spring, this is the place to be to see the cherry blossoms bloom in the shape of the fort. Mind, because it’s one of the top sightseeing spots for cherry blossoms in Hakodate and possibly in Japan, you can expect the accompanying crowds.
In the summer, you’ll see the green leaves of the trees; the turning of the leaves during the fall; and stunning wintertime scenes as the lights come on at night illuminating the fort which will be blanketed under a cover of snow.
Shop for Souvenirs at the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse
When Hakodate was opened to trade, these warehouses played an important role for commercial activity and storing commodities.
Today, the area has been completely revamped into a shopping district, from clothing to accessories to souvenirs from Hokkaido.
There are a number of cafes and restaurants in the vicinity too.
Come nightfall, the area is lit really nicely.
I should add though, despite the size of the area, I breezed through the shops and warehouses relatively quickly as a lot of it felt very touristy. However, if you’re determined to pick up some souvenirs, there is probably no better place.
Hakodate Tropical Botanic Garden
You might have read that Hakodate is where you can see that scene of snow monkeys dipping in the onsen during the winter, more specifically at the Hakodate Tropical Botanic Garden. However, reading reviews about how skinny and sick some of the monkeys looked, how unexcited and depressed they are, how they have to share a tiny enclosure etc. like this very one below was honestly enough to put me off.
“Just like a few reviews above, the monkeys have one pool to share. Some of them look like they have not been taken care of at all. There are a few that [have] no fur left at all, and are forced to sit outside of the pool in -10 degrees celsius as there is no other option for them to go.”
Matsumae houses the only castle in Hokkaido, and is one of the top 100 spots for cherry blossom viewing. It is said to house hundreds of different varieties of cherry blossom trees, which account for it’s unusually long cherry blossom viewing period (said to be from late April to late May according to Japan’s tourism organisation).
Mind, Matsumae is not a short hop away. It’s a 2 hour drive or 3 hour bus ride from Hakodate, so do this if you have time or during cherry blossom season.
Onuma Quasi National Park
Twenty kilometres north of Hokkaido brings you to a serene and beautiful national park.
If you’re driving, it’ll only take about 40 minutes.
Otherwise, you can hop on a train to reach the park— 45 minutes by limited express trains or 1 hour by local trains.
The National Park is famous for its lakes and you can rent bicycles to get around, or take a sightseeing cruise in the warmer months.
You can also enjoy various other activities like canoeing, golfing, fishing, camping etc.