In this journal:
- many, many squids;
- a view worth 10000 dollars;
- snowstorm in April.
My flight slowly landed at the tiny Hakodate airport. This is one of the only two regularly operated international flights it has. The immigration hall is a tiny room filled with two tables, a TV, and a cute potted plant, and within 30 seconds, I was out in front of the terminal building.
A bus took me to the central station, and hereby welcoming me to the southernmost city in the northernmost prefecture of Japan. Famous for delicious food, rich Meiji-reform history, and a killer view, the city is criminally underrated. Originally inhabited by the Ainu, probably the only indigenous white people in East Asia, the land was quickly occupied by the Japanese in 15th century. The city ballooned in size thanks to the series of incidents that followed its incorporation, as Hakodate served as one of the most important centers of political and military activities in the north, more so than the current Hokkaido capital, Sapporo.
One of the claims of fame for Hakodate is its uniquely European old fort, called 五棱郭/Goryōkaku, literally meaning five-edged fortress. Based on a French design and built by the Tokugawa Shogunate, it was originally designed as a defense against the Russians from a potential invasion. However, its fate was quickly turned ironic as its only military seige was with fellow Japanese.
The Tokugawa Shogunate was quite dispised by a lot of the young nobles who saw them opening up Japan to foreign trade harmful for the nation. The Shogunate was just unfortunate enough to be living in the age when USA and other western powers were kicking down the doors of Eastern Asian countries one by one, and they had to open up Hakodate as the first port to accept foreign trade. This greatly disrupted the local economy of Japan, and quickly Emperor Meiji, a figurehead pomped up by the nationalistic nobles, began the Boshin War with the Shogunate. The old-fashioned warriors were swiftly defeated in a series of battles, and the last remaining group of samurais and their accompanying French allies retreated to Hakodate as a last ditch effort to preserve the shogunate, forming the only republic in Japan’s history, with Hakodate as the capital.
The fortress of Goryōkaku was quickly fortified as a last ditch defense when neither the Americans nor British wanted to recognize the new republic as a country. It did not take long for Meiji’s imperial forces to arrive at the Goryōkaku gates, and a week long battle led to the surrender of shogunate remnants, officially ending the era of samurais in Japan. One of the last who died in battle was the one shown above, Hijikata Toshizoh, as he charged into a field of enemies outnumbering his allies nearly 10 to 1. Nowadays, the fortress is converted into a park full of cherry blossoms, and a tower is erected right next to it in order to facilitate better viewing angles.
The view on the tower is absolutely spectacular, thanks to the lack of tall buildings in secondary cities in Japan, especially in Hokkaido where earthquake happens more often than meal times. On a good day, you can not only see the entirety of this 300,000 people city, but also all the way across Tsugaru Strait and reach Aomori Prefecture on Honshu.
I wandered around the city for a while to check out other interesting sights in town. The city is not known exactly for tourism, as the population has been steadily declining ever since the turn of millenium, and tourism is a people business. Additionally, the city lost its status as the biggest and most important stronghold of Hokkaido in 1930s, when a large fire burnt down nearly 2/3 of the houses, leading to a mass exodus of families towards either Sapporo or Aomori. As a result, some of those points of interests are rather unique and unconventional, such as the first ever concrete electric power pole in Japan. Yep, that is a thing to see here.
I was a bit peckish, so it was time to devour Japanese food. What can possibly be more Hokkaido than a bowl of miso ramen filled with seafood? It is not about the price tag of merely 1300 Yen/13USD, or about the posters featuring thank-you letters from local citizens, in this shop called Kamome; it is about the freshest ingredients straight from the nearby Hakodate morning market. A bowl of heartwarming ramen with sea-urchin, crab leg, squid chunks and scallops is the perfect food to warm up a cold stomach on a day almost at the point of freezing. 頂きます!
After a quick nap, I quickly headed towards the foothills of Hakodate Mountain, and bought a cable car ticket towards the peak. This 334-meter mountain is so close to downtown that you simply have to walk to one of the streets and take a 3 minute cable car in order to have a sweeping view of the entire city. It was extremely cold as the night was approaching with a large cold front visible on the other side of the bay, and I had to hurry, because according to local tourism boards, this is a view that is worth 1 million Yen!
This is it, the famous panorama. Thanks to its unique position under a volcano at the edge of the sea, the entire landbridge that forms today’s Hakodate is completely beneath my feet, and the lights sure were pretty. Even though I would not say it is the best night scene to ever enter my retina, as Shanghai, Los Angeles, and Paris all have their own charm, but this is especially tranquil. You do not see big traffic jams piling on with strings of red lights, or big stadiums shooting light beams into the sky, and that gives me a special industrial city feel.
After freezing in the incoming snow for way too long just to take the perfect night time photo, it was time for some actual food action. You thought a bowl of ramen would satisfy my thirst of Japanese food? If so, then you are sorely mistaken, and definitely need to be reminded of the time I flew to Tokyo for a weekend just to try food and see flowers. I lodged myself firmly inside a bar chair next to the conveyer belt that constantly delivered sushi down the pipeline. Yes, I was finally trying kaiten sushi in Japan! Are you ready to munch on unfathomably large amount of sushi? Because I am. I always am.
The concept is simple. The belt passes by with sushi, and you grab them, and you eat them. Sounds nice right? At the end, the price is calculated by the plates, as each color of the plate indicates a certain price point. In this particular restaurant, you can also custom make anything by using the touchscreen next to your seat, as some awesome top-end items have to be made-to-order for the highest quality. The price tag seemed to be quite friendly, as the cheapest purple plate only goes for 170 Yen/1.7USD each. However, they added up so quickly that at the end, I had to shell out almost 40 dollars for a full meal complete with dessert and a soda drink. Oh my wallet, what a gruesome death have you suffered!
A quick food coma later, I was awake in a completely different city. Overnight, the cold front put a heavy blanket of white fluff onto the city, and the entire Hakodate was transformed from a charming little port town into a heaven of white tranquility. Snow absorbed all the sounds and chased away noisy cars, and the harbor felt more like a village than a major point of call in Japan. I put my feet into the crunchy snow, and left a long sequence of footprints on the brick-red pavement.
I walked by the famous red brick warehouses of Kanemori Corporation. Its logo is the word 森/mori, which means forest in kanji system. And the corner rounding off the logo is a carpenter’s ruler, which is made of metal. In Chinese five-element theory, the forest word is too heavy in 木/wood, and thus in need of balance from metal, hence the logo in its current form. And the carpenter’s ruler is as straight as it can possibly be, symbolizing the straight-forwardness and honesty of the Kanemori family. Nowadays it is converted into a shopping mall, beer hall and a restaurant.
I approached the center of the city, where I visited the morning fish market for a breakfast. This is one of the most authentic Japanese markets I have ever seen. The Osaka Kuromon Market may be vibrant and popular, sure, but it is also very touristy. Here in Hakodate, you will find virtually no English and only a tiny bit of Chinese, as there is almost no tourism going on here in this strange corner of Japan’s economy. You still see local fishermen going about in their days, and hawkers trying to attract a rare tourist with their broken English to their goods, most of the time wiggling or slimey.
The market mostly focuses on seafood and relevant products, because the area is rich in sea life and seaweed. Here you can find nearly every kind of fresh fish and mollusk known to men, and don’t you worry about price. In the middle of the market is a special feature known all around Japan: the fish-your-own-squid shop. Yes, you can catch your own tentacled friend in this shop, because squid is Hakodate’s city animal. You can see it plastered everywhere, on sewage manhole covers, large city signs, and right here in the middle of the market. Squid love is at its heart here at this shop, which is sometimes heralded as the most important symbol of Hakodate.
I found that they were quite agile and rather cunning, as they would either nibble at your food or take a huge chunk off the hook within a blink of an eye. Of all 5 people I watched attempting to fish out squids, only 1 was able to catch one by dumb luck. After laughing my butt off watching the guy not knowing what to do with his catch, I ascended a flight of stairs to the public canteen of the morning market. This place offers genuine, fresh and bargain Japanese breakfast, so how can I say no? They offered me a bowl of seafood don with miso soup for a jaw-dropping 600 Yen/6USD.
I left the market while a small crowd was gathering. A political candidate rolled his car towards the market with his loudspeakers on full volume, and blasted his promises towards the white-covered streets. He stepped off, stood in the heavy snow, and began a long tirade that I could not understand, while just a handful of bystanders decided to stop and listen. Being a politician in Japan is probably one of the hardest jobs in the world, so I guess not only the candidates but also the people have become mostly apathetic. I don’t blame them, and let’s just allow the snow fall for on him a while then.
I wandered off the tracks, slowly drifting towards the northern side of Hakodate mountain. This is one of the quietest neighborhoods I have ever seen, probably partially because it was snowing harder and harder. I had nowhere else to go, so I just trudged on, hoping that the snow would lessen for a bit. Yet it went the opposite way. It was April, I mind you! It was spring and I was battling cold gusts in a snowstorm! Where is this crazy place, and why does this April snowstorm remind me of Finnish Lapland???
I eventually reached the furthest corner of the city by the sea, where two rather interesting points of interest were located. This is the foreigner’s grave in Hakodate. Because Hakodate was the first port to ever open in Japan as a provisional supplying port for foreign ships, so it was not unusual for it to have the very first foreigner buried here. Now it is mostly just a handful of Americans, British and Dutch who had passed away in the far-east from nearly 2 centuries ago.
Thus, the city is also the first to have an Orthodox church, thanks to the Russians who came here to spread the word of God. This is also next to the first Catholic establishment in Japan, both of which are still operating this day. However, my favorite part is a quiet Japanese cemetery next to the old Russian consulate. It was quiet, and serene, after the snow. And it faces a large turbulent cove right at the sea, under a murder of crows constantly cawing for something ominously. It really gave me the feeling of peace, of a gentle, dark, and bottomless void, and I was just sinking, floating, swimming, or levitating in it. It was telepathically telling me that the world would continue without me, but it is okay.
Back to the world of the living, I finished my last meal in the famous Lucky Pierrot burger store. Squids may be the symbol of Hakodate, but everyone with a bit of food education would know this strange clown holds the crown of the city. Known for its ridiculously good Chinese chicken burger (which is not a thing in China), this chain has spread to 17 stores all around the city, and only in the city. Each of them also has a different theme, so you have to go to every one of them! Its extravagant decoration both on the outside and on the inside has given it even more attention boost, and it is practically un-missable for every visitor in Hakodate.
I took a seat after ordering the relatively cheap burger combo, and took a huge bite of the Chinese chicken. Though not exactly of any Chinese flavor, the juicy whole chicken chunk with breasts bursted with taste, dancing on my tongue like a physical manifestation of satisfaction. It was also freshly made, and warmed up my dying heart after being snowed on for the entire morning. The fries and the ice tea were both excellent as well, but honestly nothing can beat an ice-cream cone made from Hokkaido milk. The soft, creamy texture was filled with the thickest milk taste one can ever imagine, leaving a large white mark on my lips, which I would promptly lick off. This is the ultimate soft-serve, not a doubt about it.
To the South!
Finally, after lunch, I was on my way to somewhere warmer. Japan is bigger than a lot of people think. While it was snowing in Hokkaido, in Kansai, my next destination, cherry blossoms were blooming fiercely. It was time for me to take part in my yearly ritual, and get away from the cold. I boarded my E190 Japan Airlines plane towards Osaka Itami airport, and looked down as Hakodate disappeared underneath the clouds. This is a widely overlooked destination in Japan, and perhaps even in Hokkaido, but it is well worth my time. Besides its unique history, a gorgeous fort from a killer vantage point, a night view worth 1000000 Yen, and bargain prices, it also had squids. Squids everywhere, EVERYWHERE! Squid is いか/ika in Japanese, and you can say this place is just a large monstrous squid in disguise, hard to spot but very smart. Just a monstrous squid, just mon-ika.
My short ride ended when I finished up the free drink and snack offered by the incredibly generous Japan Airlines hostess, and suddenly we pierced through the clouds as we glided above Osaka city. One of my focus cities in Japan, this place is absolutely magical, and just you wait and see.