Hakodate, Hokkaido: Discover the Hidden Gems of Japan's Northern Island
Hakodate is a charming city located on the southern tip of Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island. With its unique mix of history, culture, and natural beauty, Hakodate has become a popular destination for tourists from around the world. We decided to go on a little road trip all the way to Hakodate from Sapporo during our second trip to this beautiful northern Japanese island. Even though it was a long drive down, it was well worth the trip!
In this guide, we'll share the top things to do in Hakodate, so you can make the most of your trip to this hidden gem of Japan.
How to get to Hakodate, Japan?
Travellers visiting Hakodate generally come from either the mainland Japan, or from Sapporo (like us!).
If you're travelling from Tokyo, Japan, your best bet is the shinkansen train. The JR Tohoku / Hokkaido Shinkansen from Tokyo to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto takes only an impressive 4 hours. You will then have to take another train from Shin-Hakodate to the main city centre. For the best deal, buy the JR Pass online before you head to Hakodate.
Alternatively, you can always take domestic flights from Tokyo to Sapporo.
If you're traveling from Sapporo, there are several ways to get to Hakodate. One option is to take the train. The Hokkaido Shinkansen connects Sapporo to Hakodate, and the journey takes about 3 hours.
Another option is to take a bus. There are several bus companies that operate services between Sapporo and Hakodate, with buses departing from Sapporo Station and arriving at Hakodate Station. The journey takes about 4 hours, and tickets can be purchased online or at the bus station. While the bus may be less comfortable than the train, it can be a more affordable option.
Finally, if you prefer to drive, you can rent a car and drive from Sapporo to Hakodate (which was what we did). The journey takes about 5 hours or so, but you'll have the freedom to explore the Hokkaido countryside at your own pace. What we did was actually to stop by Lake Toya and had an amazing ryokan stay at Lake View Toya Nonokaze before our drive down.
However, do keep in mind that driving in Japan can be challenging for those who are not used to it, especially in Winter!
Regardless of how you choose to travel, getting from Sapporo to Hakodate is relatively easy, and both cities are worth a visit for their unique culture and natural beauty.
Where to stay in Hakodate, Japan?
When it comes to accommodation in Hakodate, there are plenty of choices to suit different budgets and preferences. A popular area to stay and what I recommend is the Hakodate Bay area. La Vista Hakodate Bay is one such mid-range hotel that offers stunning views of the harbor and the city skyline. What's great also is that it is located right in the central of all the amazing food.
1. Stroll Around the Historic Motomachi District
The Motomachi district is a charming and historic area of Hakodate that dates back to the late 19th century. The area is known for its western-style architecture, which was built during the Meiji era when Japan opened its doors to the world. The area was home to many foreign consulates and trading houses, and the buildings reflect the architectural styles of their home countries.
One of the highlights of the district is the Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward, a beautiful building that was built in 1910 and is now open to the public as a museum. You'll also find many cafes, boutiques, and restaurants in the area, making it a great place to spend an afternoon.
As you walk down, you'll also reach the Russian Orthodox Church, also known as the Holy Resurrection Cathedral. Built in 1869, the church is a reminder of the Russian influence on the city's history and is the oldest church in the whole of Japan.
Take an afternoon to stroll around the cobblestone streets and take in the charm of this unique area of Hakodate!
2. Admire the ocean from the top of the Hachi-man Zaka Slope
Another must-visit attraction in Hakodate is the Hachiman-Zaka Slope, a picturesque and historic street that leads up to the Hachiman Shrine. The slope is known for its steep incline and well-preserved stone steps, which have remained largely unchanged since they were first constructed in the 19th century.
Walking up the Hachiman-Zaka Slope feels like taking a step back in time. The street is lined with traditional wooden houses, many of which have been converted into shops and restaurants. As you make your way up the slope, you can stop to browse the little stores or sample local delicacies, such as Hokkaido milk soft serve ice cream.
Once you are at the top, don't forget to turn back and take in the serene views of the ocean. Because it is a straight road down, you'll get an amazing view of the waters.
3. Enjoy the Panoramic Views from Mt. Hakodate
While you are in the area, check out the panoramic view from the top of Mt. Hakodate. The view from the observation deck at the summit of the mountain is truly breathtaking, with a stunning vista of the city and the sea beyond. The view is especially spectacular at night, when the city is lit up and the stars twinkle overhead.
The best way to reach the summit of Mt. Hakodate is by cable car, which runs from the base of the mountain (at the other end of Motomachi street) to the observation deck.
4. Sample Fresh Seafood at the Morning Market
Hakodate is famous for its fresh seafood, and the best place to sample it is at the Hakodate Morning Market. Located near the waterfront, the market is a bustling hub of activity, with vendors selling a wide variety of seafood, including crab, squid, and scallops.
If you're on a tight budget, you can also find a 1 coin seafood bowl from Asaichi Shokudo Nibankan. You might have to queue up but the queue moves fast and soon you'll get a delicious bowl of seafood for less than 500 yen.
The market is very clean and you can find local specialties like Hokkaido milk and fresh vegetables. Be sure to arrive early in the morning, as the market starts to wind down around midday!
5. Visit the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse
One of my favourite area in Hakodate is the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse complex. In the day, it looks like instagram-worthy red brick buildings, but at night, the area truly comes to live as though it is a theme park!
The Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse is a complex of red brick buildings that once served as warehouses for storing goods such as fish, rice, and sake. The buildings were constructed between 1869 and 1909 and have since been converted into shops, restaurants, and event spaces.
There you'll also find the Hakodate Meijikan, a shopping mall, filled with all sorts of souvenirs. When you're there, don't forget to stop by the canal and have an experience of Venice in Japan.
The Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse is now a popular tourist spot in Hakodate, and it's easy to see why. The historic architecture and waterfront location make it an attractive destination for visitors.
6. Grab a bite at Lucky Pierrot
You absolutely cannot miss this out! Founded in 1987, Lucky Pierrot is one of the most beloved fast food chains in the region. And you can only find it in Hakodate! From delicious and affordable "chinese chicken" burgers to tasty fried yakisoba, you will definitely find something for everyone.
One of the most unique aspects of Lucky Pierrot is its quirky and colorful decor. Each restaurant has its own distinct theme, ranging from a jungle-themed location complete with a giant gorilla statue to a space-themed restaurant with a UFO parked on the roof. It's a fun and playful atmosphere that will have you snapping photos and posting them on social media.
Before you leave, don't forget to get something from the souvenir shop!
7. Drink a cup of coffee at Komeda
There are many cafes at the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouse region, but if you want a good local cup of coffee, we do highly recommend heading to Komeda coffee. Even if you're there at night, you should stop by for its amazing desserts.
When we were in Hokkaido, we had Komeda coffee for breakfast almost every day! That's how much we love it and recommend it!
8. Visit the Goryokaku Fort
Located a little further away from central Hakodate is the Goryokaku Fort. This star-shaped fortress built during the Edo period was the site of a famous battle during the Boshin War in 1869, and today it has been restored as a park.
In spring, you definitely have to visit the park as it is a popular spot for cherry blossom viewing, and there are several museums and historic buildings on the grounds.
9. Explore the Goryokaku Tower
The Goryokaku Tower is a 107-meter-high tower that offers stunning panoramic views of the Goryokaku Park and surrounding areas. The tower has an observation deck on the top floor that provides a 360-degree view of the city. The tower also has a museum on the lower floors that showcases the history of the Goryokaku Fort and the Battle of Hakodate.
10. Relax in an Onsen
Hokkaido is famous for its natural hot springs, and there's no better way to unwind after a day of sightseeing than by soaking in an onsen. Hakodate has several onsen resorts where you can indulge in the healing waters of the hot springs. One of the best is Yunokawa Onsen, which is located on the outskirts of the city and offers stunning views of the sea.
If this is your first time at a Japanese Onsen, you'll be happy to know that you don't even need to pack your swimming suits! Embrace your natural selves in the onsen (like the locals do!)
11. Watch the hot-tubbing monkeys at the Botanical Garden
While you're in the Yunokawa region, and are looking for a unique and memorable experience during your visit to Hakodate, Hokkaido, the Hakodate Tropical Botanical Garden should be on your must-visit list. This lush and expansive garden features a wide variety of tropical plants and flowers, as well as a unique attraction that you won't find anywhere else: hot-tubbing monkeys.
Yes, you read that right. The Hakodate Tropical Botanical Garden is home to a troop of Japanese macaques who enjoy soaking in the garden's hot springs during the colder months. Visitors can observe these adorable primates as they lounge in the warm water, grooming each other and generally enjoying the luxurious surroundings. It's a truly unforgettable sight and one that you won't want to miss.
In addition to the hot-tubbing monkeys, the Hakodate Tropical Botanical Garden also features a variety of other attractions, including a butterfly house, a greenhouse filled with exotic plants, and even a small zoo with animals like capybaras and meerkats. It's a great place to spend a leisurely afternoon, strolling through the garden's paths and taking in the stunning scenery.
12. Take a Cruise on Hakodate Bay
For a unique perspective on the city, take a cruise on Hakodate Bay. The bay is home to several small islands, and the cruise takes you around the bay, with views of the city skyline and the surrounding mountains. There are several different cruise options available, including a sunset cruise that's especially romantic.
13. Feel the breeze at Cape Tachimachi
Cape Tachimachi is a scenic location in Hakodate that offers stunning views of the sea and the surrounding landscapes. Located at the southernmost point of the Oshima Peninsula, Cape Tachimachi is a popular spot for tourists and locals alike. The area is surrounded by cliffs and rugged terrain, and there is a walking trail that leads visitors to the tip of the cape, where they can take in panoramic views of the sea and the surrounding mountains.
Getting to Cape Tachimachi is not an easy feat. First, you'll definitely need to drive as the nearest tram stop is located quite a distance away. Thereafter, you actually have to walk past a cemetery before you are greeted with a beautiful cape.
But what's worth the journey is the amazing view - and that there's almost no one there when we went.
14. Stroll along Lake Onuma
As this is located quite far out from Hakodate itself, it is best for those who are on a self-drive road trip. This is a stop you should not miss as Lake Onuma is a stunning natural gem located in the town of Nanae. The lake is surrounded by lush forests and mountains, and is a popular destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts. If you want some activity, you can rent boats and kayaks to explore the lake and take in the scenery from a different perspective.
In addition to the lake itself, the surrounding area is home to a number of hiking trails and nature walks that offer breathtaking views of the landscapes. The Onuma Quasi-National Park is a vast nature reserve that encompasses Lake Onuma and the surrounding forests and mountains. There are several hiking trails that wind through the park, including the popular Onuma Nature Trail, which takes visitors on a journey through the forests and along the shores of the lake. For those who want to experience the beauty of Hokkaido's natural landscapes, a visit to Lake Onuma and the surrounding area is an absolute must.
Should I visit Hakodate?
Well, even though Hakodate may not be as well-known as some of the other tourist destinations in Japan, we think that it's a city that's definitely worth visiting. It is definitely not as crowded as the more popular Sapporo and the fact that it is located right beside the water makes it ever so appealing.
From its delicious seafood to its stunning views and historic landmarks, there's something for everyone in Hakodate. Whether you're a foodie, a history buff, or just looking for a peaceful retreat, you'll find it all in this charming city. So why not add Hakodate to your travel bucket list and experience it for yourself?