We left Sapporo on a beautiful autumn morning and began our long journey south, first stop Hakodate. The local train from Sapporo to Hakodate has to be one of the most breathtaking moments of the trip so far. The rickety little train first winds its way south through the mountains across endless gorges and wooded hillsides before reaching the southern coast of Hokkaido. From here the train follows the coastline taking in spectacular views of the jagged cliffs and rock formations that make southern Hokkaido so distinctive.
After 4 hours we arrived in Japan’s answer to San Francisco, the picturesque city of Hakodate. This hilly city with its dinky little trams and multitude of bays and harbours is dominated by the mighty Hakodateyama, a wooded mountain that rises out of the sea at the end of Hakodate peninsula.
Much like San Francisco the hills in Hakodate start to lose their charm after you’ve climbed the 400th slope only to realise you need to climb further still. Our hostel was situated on the top of one such hill. The endless incline, morning sun and weight of our backpacks only served to make us delirious as we reached the final climb to Hakodateyama guesthouse. I would really like to say that the view from our room made the pain worth it but my numb feet and aching neck would have to disagree.
After checking in we climbed back down the hill and boarded one of the quaint little trams that crisscross the city. Next stop Goryokaku, the first western fort built on Japanese soil. Since the end of the Pacific war and the tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Japan has not taken part in any type of military action. As a result many wartime sites such as Goryokaku have been repurposed as parks, housing schemes and monuments.
Goryokaku is spectacular, upon crossing the first of three wooden bridges the sound of the city is immediately dampened and replaced instead by the slow flow of water and singing of birds. Once inside what were once the ramparts of the fort you are confronted with countless wild flowers and endless lawns, all immaculately maintained by the locals. In places like this is it easy to see why Zen Buddhism is so prominent in Japan, the feeling of tranquility and peace is hard to avoid.
By the time we left the park the sun was beginning to set and our stomachs were once again communicating through a series of low pitch murmurs. So after a short tram ride we arrived in Hakodate bay, an area full of restaurants, bars and strange museums.
Upon the recommendation of our hostel we went to Ajisai for our dinner, a lovely but frankly confusing ramen restaurant. Instead of ordering at your table you have to order using a strange kind of vending machine, now Yianna and I are hardly the most competent of people at the best of times so this sent us into a little bit of a panic. The only instructions in english were certain food names and bright red button labelled ‘RETURN CHANGE’. After many failed attempts and with a queue rapidly growing behind us we finally got our little tickets and sat down for dinner.
The food was incredible, again the hearty Hokkaido food was a huge change from the small portions and delicate tastes of Tokyo. I went for curry ramen, a saffron spiced noodle dish with a thick curry sauce that instantly warmed me up. This was accompanied by the biggest gyozas I’ve ever seen…which was rapidly followed by a falling gyoza / soy explosion related incident which left both Yianna and myself covered in soy sauce.
After leaving dinner we wandered along the sea front dropping in and out of all the shops and museums until we reached the Hakodate fish market. Inside this old wooden warehouse was every kind of seafood imaginable from spider crab to giant squid and cod roe to smoked salmon. Like many things in Japan this market had an adorable mascot…Gokko the fish and as well as all the actual fish there was a stand of Gokko merchandise. Most of these had an obvious function: backpacks, purses, cuddly toys and slippers to name but a few. However one item was a mystery to us, it appeared to be a hat…but it had a second hole above the head, was it an armband? So after putting it on our heads and arms and after many strange looks one of the workers in the market laughed and told us it was in fact a tissue box cover, ah! Although I still don’t know what a tissue box cover is…
So after embarrassing ourselves in front of half of Hakodate we left the market with one consolation, the night couldn’t get worse right? Wrong. After stumbling into a strange shop filled with hello kitty and studio Ghibli memorabilia we saw a sign for ‘Teddy Bear Musuem’ how bad can that be? As it turns out that can be very bad…in fact possibly one of the most unpleasant experiences ever.
It was apparent immediately after entering the museum that we needed to leave, but curiosity got the better of us. Inside this so called museum were hundreds of teddy bears all dressed in human clothing, and next to each bear was a picture of the bear and its old owner. Were the owners dead? Were they in the bear? Did the bear kill the owner? All valid questions. The only thing worse than the terrifying teddies themselves was the music, a kind of twisted lullaby that would be more appropriate in an episode of ‘American Horror Story’ than in a museum.
To make matters worse there didn’t seem to be an exit, every turn revealed yet more creepy bears. From BDSM bears to bridal bears and everything in between. After what seemed like hours trapped in the Teddy Bear maze we finally made it back out to the seafront, safe to say it took a few minutes to regain sanity and digest what had just happened.
As soon as you get to Hakodate there are signs recommending a trip to the top of Hakodateyama to see the city at night. After the horror of the Teddy Bear Museum we decided to distract ourselves with a nice view. The cable car journey to the top of the mountain was spectacular enough but nothing prepared us for the view from the top. Juxtaposed to the view from Asahi-Dake this showed modern Hokkaido, a place of high rises, parks and piers. From atop a Hakodateyama the shape of the city became clear. Surrounded on three sides by water this ancient port was as beautiful from the air as it was from the ground.
We ended our night the only way we know how…whiskey. After a wander through the dimly light streets of the city we found a stylish little place and took up two seats at the bar. After another lovely glass of whiskey overlooking the city we paid what we thought we owed only to be told there was a surcharge for entering the bar…something they neglected to tell us before we ordered our drinks. This took the price of a single whiskey to what you would expect to pay for a meal in a pretty nice restaurant. Annoyed, disheartened and quite frankly upset we wandered back to the hostel. Hakodate had been a lovely stop over and I recommend a visit if you are ever in Hokkaido but the whiskey bar had somewhat ruined the final night on this beautiful island.
The next day we would be continuing south to Sendai and the legendary Matsushima Bay.
See you soon,