There’s a relaxing quality to this town of 224,000 where most residents speak in a dialect that separates them from the rest of Japan, the way language nuances separate Texans from New Englanders.
Parts of Hakodate look like a movie set. Others belie its no-nonsense, large port way of life. Its name means “box house” in Japanese because the houses on the hills looked like boxes to early mariners, but there’s nothing boxy about the grand mansions and warehouses that were built by rich Western merchants and today have been converted into artists’ lofts, boutiques, galleries and a series of restaurants that give Osaka—the Japanese city lionized for its food—a run for its money.
Today, the city receives more than four million visitors annually, mostly Japanese. Strangely, Hakodate is relatively unknown to foreigners, although it has a long history of receiving them since it became Japan’s first port to open to international trade.
Foreign influence is evident in every corner of Motomachi (“Old Town”) and in the area known as the Western Zone. A Russian Orthodox church dating back to the 1800s stands next door to an old French Roman Catholic Church, which in turn faces an Anglican church of the same vintage.
Its downtown area is cluttered with streetcars that look like they were dug up from a 1940s time capsule, while a modern tramway climbs to the summit of Mt. Hakodate, offering what some consider the most beautiful seascape in Japan.
Hakodate is thoroughly Japanese in many ways (such as habitual courtesy and polite bows from even the most insolent youth), but it often seems like it’s in another country.
It can boast without blushing of serving the finest seafood in the country and dinner at Maru Katsu, a delightful restaurant in the Hakodate Bay area, is most memorable.
The place is known as a “revolving sushi table” restaurant, with its conveyor belt moving delicious dishes along the edge of a huge counter. Chefs prepare food in the center, describing loudly in guttural Japanese the merits of each dish. Smiling waitresses announce the arrival of new clients to the rest of the diners yelling the merits of what the newcomers are choosing from the conveyor belt.
The chef yells in agreement. Diners pick sushi from small saucers of different colors on the belt. After dinner, the saucers are counted to determine the amount of the bill.
Maru Katsu would bring fits of ecstasy to sushi lovers anywhere. Blowfish, tuna, squid, octopus and vegetable delights prove that Hakodate gives the fabled Osaka restaurants formidable competition.
A dinner of this caliber isn’t complete without stopping at any of the many ice cream stalls in Motomachi for the regional favorite: squid ink ice cream. It’s delicious.
The delights of Hakodate make travelers eager to venture into Hokkaido, the marvelous province that prides itself in its reputation as Japan’s frontier. This is where Japanese go to seek refuge from it all in large expanses of countryside and farmland crowned by majestic active volcanoes.
One of the delights of Japanese travel is the flawless train service as exemplified by the Hokkaido Railway Company that has services to the interior of the island where one can best experience the great changes in nature made by the four seasons.
Summers are mild and flower fields cover the mountains while towns come alive with markets and outdoor festivals. This is also perfect weather to explore the many sites where Ainu culture is kept alive. The Ainu, Hokkaido’s aboriginals, are an ethnic group of possible Mongolian descent with their own language and culture. Shiraoi, two hours by train from Hakodate, has a marvelous lakefront Ainu village maintained as a repository of Ainu traditions.
But it’s in winter when Hokkaido shines. After all, Sapporo was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics, an event that made Westerners aware that Japanese snow resorts rival or surpass anything in Europe or America.
Every February, more than two million visitors come to Sapporo’s Snow Festival to see hundreds of stunning snow statues and ice sculptures along Odori Park and other locations where their artistry gives Sapporo the feel of a city made of crystal, ice and snow.
The 350-room JR Tower Hotel Nikko Sapporo (approximately $129 dbl for a standard Western room, to about $450 for a full amenity suite; jrhotels.co.jp) is one of the most favored hotels in the city. Every room has a panoramic view of the city, and its spa offers treatments ranging from reflexology to indoor-outdoor hot-spring baths. The convenience of the Nikko Sapporo’s central location seems custom-made as a base for exploring Sapporo.