There are two popular ways into Hokkaido. If you’re arriving by plane, chances are you’ll arrive at Sapporo, but if you come by train or the ferry from Aomori then you’ll stop at Hakodate. I visited in early 2014.
Arriving and Transport
Hakodate’s main train station is right in the centre of town, with a large bus terminus right in front in the ekimae (literally, “near the station” – most towns have one) area. If you arrive by plane, as I did, the airport is some way outside the town, but there’s a bus route that rolls, eventually, to the station.
To get from the station to the interesting parts of town it’s easiest to take the tram a few stops. The line starts just at the side of the Loisir hotel in front of the station, and uses the ‘take a ticket on boarding’ system – take a ticket when you get on, and it has a number – when you get off, pay the fare for that number denoted on a board by the exit.
The biggest tourist attraction in the city has to be the view from the top of Mount Hakodate, which is easy to reach via one of Japan’s half-million cable cars. At the top there’s a surprisingly big station with two restaurants – one more formal, one where you order at the counter, and both serving the same food – and a huge gift shop. As night falls, tour group after tour group arrive, giving the feel of a station concourse – but one with a hell of a view, so it’s worth the bustle.
During the daytime, there are more interesting places to explore down below. From the cable car station, facing the mountain, you can turn right and wander through a beautiful area where Eastern Orthodox churches (Hokkaido’s pretty close to Russia, and Hakodate is a big port) bump up against temples, and parks blossom with cherry trees. It’s a great place for a stroll. Alternatively, the tourist signs helpfully point out the location of Japan’s first concrete telephone pole (not pictured).
The Morning Market
Having arrived in Hakodate during the Golden Week holidays, I was only able to stop in Hakodate for 15 hours or so. But there’s one attraction that’s easy to catch even if – in fact, especially if – you have an early train out: the morning market. If you’re standing outside the JR station, looking away from it, then turn 90 degees right, and look past the Loisir hotel to the left: you’ll see a low building about a block away.
This is the asa-ichi market complex. At about 7.30am it was teeming with all manner of seafood, but especially some of the largest, scariest crab I’ve ever seen, all crashing about in suitably giant tanks. There’s all manner of stuff to eat – blowtorch grilled sea urchin, freshly sliced squid – but also a whole alley devoted to seafood donburi. Choose a busy shop, grab a seat, and you can order anything you want as long as it comprises several forms of seafood on rice – I went for salmon salmon roe and crab, for about a tenner.
If you’re arriving in, or leaving, by train, then there are two obvious places to stay: right outside the station you’ll find the Loisir hotel on the right, and the Route Inn Grantia (ルートイン) on the left. I stayed in the Route Inn because it was slightly cheaper.
I’ve stayed in Route Inn hotels before, and some are great – the one near Aoshima felt like a 5 star hotel with five quid prices. This one’s seen better days – my bed was as hard as a rock– so to be honest I’d consider the Loisir next time. On the plus side, it does have an onsen-style bath – this is on the top floor, presumably so as to command the best possible view of the JR train station – and free coffee in reception.