Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Hakodate: A hidden treasure

Hakodate one of my favorite cities in the world. The old town (motomachi) is built on a peninsula that just out between two seas and rests on the side of Hakodate mountain, which overlooks the rest of the city. The views from atop Hakodate Mountain (you can go up to the top using a ropeway car) or Motomachi, a bit further down the mountain, are spectacular, particularly since Motomachi has some wonderful architecture, particularly the beautiful churches, temples and shrines that are intermingled with old traditional Japanese style homes, many of which now house highly atmospheric cafes and restaurants.

It is often said that Hokkaido, with its spaciousness, colder climate, and European influences, combines the best of Japan and the West. This adage rings true for me. The people in Hokkaido seem more relaxed and have a different style to those in the more heavily populated areas of Japan, such as the metro-Tokyo area, with its super high-fashion and its bustling subway stations. Hokkaido was settled only recently, and so it's almost like Japan's "Wild West" (although there's nothing much really wild about it). It feels much more "outdoorsie" and open, and is often praised for the beauty of its nature. Yet it still has the incredible food, service, and amenities that the rest of Japan enjoys, making it the perfect place to visit, whether you like outdoors activities or not.

Here are 10 great things to see/do/eat/visit when you're in Hakodate:

1. Milk products. Hokkaido is well known for its dairy farms. They take good care of their cows and the milk products here are out of this world. I highly recommend trying some of the local milk puddings (utterly unlike anything called "pudding" in the US), and the ubiquitous "soft cream" (soft-serve ice cream) -- again, try the "raw milk" flavor first (called "nama miruku"). It's delightful! Also amazing are the milk confitures that you can get in a stall in the Kanemori red-brick warehouse shopping center. Their most popular one--Camambert--is ridiculously good.

2. Ramen. Ramen (Chinese noodle soup) is one of the great things you can get in Japan, but can't really get anywhere else. Although technically you can order Ramen in Japanese restaurants in the West, it's nothing like the real thing. Most places in Japan have specialty ramen, and Hokkaido has its own style, too. Despite being a chain, "Ajisai" restaurants in Hakodate make great ramen, using squid in the broth (Hakodate is famous for its squid--but don't worry, there's no actual squid in the ramen). I'd recommend the "shio ramen", but the others are good, too.

3. Cafes. Hakodate has some incredible little cafes that are rich with their own personalities. Each one has its own character, and many of them are rustic in style. Although cafes are beloved all over Japan, Hakodate cafes are typically much less commercial-feeling than those in the bigger cities on the main island. My favorites are: Peacepiece Cafe, Cafe Tutu, and Cafe Mountain Books (all in Motomachi). Peacepiece is very old school, and has the most serious coffee-maker as its owner or "master" ("mastaa"). Cafe Tutu has incredible milk-based drinks (try the hot almond milk, or hot caramel milk--delicious!). Cafe Mountain Books has one of the most beautiful views of any cafe I've ever been too, and is wonderfully relaxing, with tons of books and magazines to browse through. I was also introduced to Priscilla Ahn's newest album there, since the master was playing it. Another great cafe near Goryokaku is "Peaberry," which has nice tea and cake sets. Also worth checking out is the traditional English tea house in the old British consulate (also in Motomachi).

4. Restaurants. For the best food try: 1) Sprout, 2) Pazar Bazar (a tiny Turkish restaurant run by a young Japanese couple with amazing food and a great little atmosphere), 3) Ajisai Ramen. Hakodate is also known for its squid, as mentioned, and other seafood. To get the freshest seafood, go to the morning seafood market (located in Motomachi) before noon. Also worth checking out is the Carl Raymon sausage shop/restaurant/museum (yes, it's all three!). You can get hot dogs, chilli dogs, etc., here, but it's really worth checking out the museum upstairs to learn about the life of Carl Raymon, a German who emigrated to Hakodate, married a Japanese woman, and started a sausage factory in his adopted homeland. He lived for 93 years (died in 1987) was a peace advocate, and suggested that Hokkaido focus more on dairy farming (which is now one of its major industries). Oh, and he also designed what is now the flag for the European Union! A remarkable person and a symbol of what kind of a city Hakodate is.

5. Goryokaku. This pentagonal fort was built just before the Meiji restoration in the 1860s, and housed a beautiful housing complex for the Magistrate and local government. That structure only lasted 3 years before it was destroyed in the war to unify Japan, and it lay dormant until 2010, when it was rebuilt. The first time I went to Goryokaku in 2009, it was just a nice park -- still worth seeing. But now that the Magistrate's house has been rebuilt, it's definitely worth a trip. The reconstruction of the house is incredible in terms of the detail and the level of the workmanship. Do take a moment to watch the video on the reconstruction that is shown continuously inside. The wooden architecture used no metal nails, so wooden beams were fitted and locked together, and in some cases bamboo nails were employed. You can also head up the Goryokaku tower for nice views of the city (although the Mt Hakodate Ropeway is probably a better choice for views).

6. Soundtra. Near Goryokaku is one of the gems of Hakodate, the little cafe called "Soundtra." It doesn't look like much (although the cafe inside is surprisingly good, and I'd recommend the "hotto sando set" (hot sandwiches with tea or coffee). But what is great about Soundtra is its music selection. On the walls are a selection of new and independent music from around the world, and you can listen to anything, for as long as you like, on the headphones and CD players provided. The CD's are handily arranged by country of origin, recommendations (including seasonal recommendations), and the "My favorites" section of the "master"/owner. When you've made your selection, you can retire to the back room where the cafe is located, where you can have a coffee and snack and browse magazines. Soundtra introduced me to "The Innocence Mission," "The Weepies," "Azure Ray" and others. In fact, I didn't realize how vibrant the Indie music scene in the US was until exploring that music through this cafe.

7. Mt Hakodate. It's worth taking the ropeway up Mt Hakodate to get the night view. There's a cafe and restaurant up there, and it's considered a romantic spot. There's not much to do up there, though, apart from sip a coffee and take some pictures. On the way back down, people then wander the streets of Motomachi around the churches as they make there way back to the main part of the city.

8. Onuma Quasi-National Park. I'm not sure why it's "quasi" but this is a wonderful park that is worth a visit if you are staying in Hakodate. It's only a 17-minute train ride away by express train from the Hakodate JR train station. Once you're there, it's a large park with two huge, interconnected lakes, that you can walk (or better, bike) around. There's a short 50-minute walking trail that takes you between the two lakes through some islands. There is a great restaurant along the way, called "Table de Rivage", where I'd highly recommend the Onuma Beef Steak (local beef) and the blueberry tart (yum!). Also recommended is renting a paddle boat or row boat (only 1000 yen for an hour) and heading out into the middle of the lake. The lake is so vast, that it's really a thrill to get out there, although you feel a bit unsafe when a big motor boat rides by and your little row boat rocks back and forth (yeow!). You can also ride one of those motor boats if you don't feel like paddling or rowing out yourself.

9. Hotel of choice. There are a lot of housing choices for a stay in Hakodate, but two stand out for me. The first is the very large "La Vista Bay" hotel next to the Kanemori red-brick warehouse shops (kind of on the edge of Motomachi towards the JR train station). Although pricey and a bit out of character compared to the low-rise and old-fashioned architecture of Motomachi, La Vista Bay boasts very nice rooms that are a mixture of the modern and the tradition, and its best feature is its roof-top onset and rotenburo (hot spring bath and outdoor hot spring bath). You get incredible views of the city while relaxing in a steaming hot bath, and if you step outside to the outdoor bath, you can enjoy the view with the cool night air against your skin. My wife and I have been there in both the summer and the winter (when there was snow falling and ice around the tubs), and the winter experience was even more amazing! Truly unlike anything else I've ever experienced. Being able to change into your nice provided pajama-like outfit, hop up to the top floor for the onsen, enjoy your nice soak with the view, then come out and relax in the waiting area (which also has an incredible view) while licking the freely provided milk bars (bars of ice cream) to relax and read a magazine or newspaper, is truly a luxurious experience. Rates are US$200-$300 depending on season (and exchange rate...)

10. Guest house of choice. If you'd prefer a more low-key (and cheaper) option, then Garden House Cha Cha is a great bet. It only has 6 rooms, and sits atop Cafe Mountain Books (mentioned above -- a great cafe). Each room is very spacious and has a kitchenette for cooking and a nice Japanese soaking tub with a great view. Both bathrooms and main rooms have large windows that overlook the city, and since you're situated right behind the Russian Orthodox Church, you get a great view of this church and both bodies of water on either side of Motomachi. The downsatirs rooms sleep 2-3, and the upstairs rooms have lofts and can accommodate up to 6 (the 3 people in the loft would sleep on futons, though, Japanese style). There is internet, but not wireless, so you need to plug in the LAN line into your laptop. Rates are Y110,000 - Y130,000 (about US$140-170) with the upstairs rooms (with lofts) being the pricier ones.

Well, that's it. There's so much more, but I'll save the rest for later. I hope you make it to Hakodate and explore this wonderful city.

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