M. and I spent Golden Week in Hokkaido this year. Since the rest of the country experienced beautiful weather for the week, naturally we were greeted by a temperature drop of ten degrees, chased by days of rain, and only saw a few scattered cherry blossoms on our last day as Hokkaido enjoyed its second-latest hanami on record.
And we honestly had a great time.
This trip featured my first visit to Hakodate: 3.5 hours and ¥8590 from Sapporo by lumbering diesel-powered train, with a rail line so twisted by mountains that my rail advisor app recommended taking a plane.
Hakodate is famed for having one of the three best night views in the world. With a discount ticket (they’re everywhere), it’s ¥1050 to take the cable car to the top of Mt. Hakodate, which essentially forms the bulbous end of a tiny peninsula into which the city has been poured. From there you can see the lights of downtown squeezed between two ocean bays. This being Golden Week, the viewing platform was packed, rendering my tripod utterly useless as I never actually got to the front. Instead, I used a two-metre high rail spanning the platform as a camera rest. The people stuck behind me were happy to get a preview through my display screen.
Hakodate’s port was one of the first opened to foreign trade in 1859, with the result that the Motomachi area is replete with examples of Western architecture, including quite a collection of churches within throwing distance of one another.
Our main objective in Hakodate was the Old Public Hall of Hakodate Ward. Completed in 1910 and painted eggshell blue and yellow, the building itself isn’t much: just the requisite nineteenth-century hardwood floors and sumptuously upholstered furniture, with information plaques making grist from the two times a crown prince came to visit. The history didn't matter. We were there for the costumes.
Entry to the building is ¥300. Renting a period costume (“haikara issho”) is ¥1000. Getting your hair and make-up done are another ¥1000. It’s a bit silly as you first select your costume, then go pay at the gift shop, come back and put your costume on, then go to another room to get your hair and makeup done. The rental is officially for 20 minutes, but nobody’s really keeping track, and the staff are jumping over themselves to show you all the best nooks for taking photos. My camera and I were just as happy as M. to go back two days in a row. When we mentioned we’d been there the day before, they even refunded our entrance fee on the second day.
Please allow a little photographic indulgence...
I tried renting a costume the first day, but I just ended up looking like myself going to work with a bowler hat.
The one other cultural thing we did in Hakodate was visit Goryōkaku Fort—or rather, the tower beside Goryōkaku Fort, because it was pouring rain. Goryōkaku was the last bastion of resistance to the Meiji restoration, taken over by supporters of the Tokugawa shogunate (including the Shinsengumi) in the 1868-1869 Boshin War, where they tried to declare Hokkaido (or Ezo) an independent republic. It was ¥840, but it got us out of the rain, and the view of the five-point star fort was indeed pretty good.
Every day featured indulgence in delectable Hokkaido sashimi. Hakodate in particular is famous for its squid ("ika"), which are indeed significantly softer and juicier than the rubbery fare you’ll find most places. After three days, M. was still ordering it with enthusiasm, though I found myself a little tired of the gooey tentacle parade, and committed the atrocity of throwing part of our final order on a barbecue.
From Hakodate we took a one-car train up to Otaru. This train happened to pass right by Niseko ski resort and Mt. Yotei, offering us a brilliant little surprise on the way. The stations by the resort, still covered in snow in early May, looked like abandoned woodcutter’s lodges, and it looked like several lonely kilometers from the station to the slopes.
In Otaru I made what will likely be my last pilgrimage to the Otaru Beer Hall. Ten years ago, the place was animated and inviting, with strudel on the menu and German fare galore. In the six years since I last visited, half the place has been closed off and taken over by a Bikkuri Donkey. The one remaining room was almost empty, staffed by two women who didn’t seem interested in being there. The band that used to play there, Palosiks, now plays only in Sapporo. And instead of strudel, they had crème brûlée. The food was good, but it’s no longer the warm place it used to be.
I'll just close with a few final shots from Otaru and from wandering the remarkably vast campus of Hokkaido University...