Having finished up in Nikko, it was time to resume my journey north. Back at Utsunomiya I boarded a shinkansen (bullet train) that took me to Sendai and from there I took another shinkansen up to the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. Japan’s shinkansens will eventually extend all the way to Sapporo, the island’s largest city and prefectural capital, but at the moment the line ends at Shin Hakodate-Hokuto Station. From there you have to get on a regional train to wherever it is you’re trying to get to. Most of the people on my train got off and headed over to the platform for the train to Sapporo, but I wasn’t ready to go to Sapporo just yet. Myself and another group of people walked over to a different platform. Our destination: Hakodate.

Hokkaido - Hakodate.jpg
Map of Hokkaido

During the ride to Hakodate I noticed that with me on the train was a tall and very rotund white guy that had also been on the shinkansen from Sendai. In my mind I named him Giga Gaijin. Most of Japan’s public transit, facilities, and infrastructure were not designed with people of his size in mind, so even though I gave him a joke name I genuinely felt bad for Giga Gaijin since he was bound to encounter issues in Japan that average-sized persons like myself won’t have to deal with. As the sun started getting low I looked out the window and caught my first glimpse of Mt Hakodate, the small mountain next to the city of the same name. Not long after that the train arrived at Hakodate Station. The place I was staying at in Hakodate was close to the mountain and was also my first accommodation in Japan that I booked through Air BnB. Most of the time when I travel abroad I stay in hostels to save money but I always check AirBnB because sometimes you can find surprisingly good deals there. To reach my accommodations I got on a tram heading towards the mountain and strangely enough Giga Gaijin boarded the tram with me. For a minute there the overly creative side of me started to think that Giga Gaijin was actually a government agent stalking me in order to expose the nefarious deeds of my international criminal organization, but I ended up getting off the tram before he did and I never saw Giga Gaijin again. Also, even if the outlandish story that my brain concocted was true, I’m pretty sure I could have easily outrun him and escaped.

 

It was getting dark when I checked into my guesthouse. The timing of my stay in Hakodate turned out to be quite exceptional, as I had booked a shared room but for the two nights I’d be in town there were no other guests in my particular room, so I had it all to myself. After I had unloaded my backpack I walked over to the gondola going up Mt Hakodate, which was conveniently near where I was staying. There were three or four Chinese tour groups also going up the mountain that night and I was standing right in the middle of them while waiting in line. A kid right in front of me gave me a piece of candy. I don’t speak Mandarin, so I said “Thank you.” His mother said something to him and he replied to me “You’re welcome.” The kid’s pronunciation was surprisingly good, though I’m guessing his knowledge of English didn’t extend beyond basic words and phrases (similar to my knowledge of Japanese). Still, I wish I knew some Mandarin so that I could commend him for making the effort to learn bits of my own language. The gondola was packed to capacity and I was standing at the rear of it so I got to see the view of the city as we went up the mountain. It was pretty crowded on the outdoor observation deck when I got up there but I’m a patient man and with a little time the crowd thinned out enough for me to get a good spot up front at the railing. Mt Hakodate is regarded as having one of the best nighttime views in Japan, and from what I’ve seen online the daytime views are pretty good too. The town of Hakodate was built on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, with Mt Hakodate at the tip, so at night you have a broad river of lights in front of you with the dark sea on either side and then in the distance the river spreads out on the mainland. I must have spent an hour or so up on the mountain—gathering pictures, looking down at the city’s landmarks, and just enjoying the moment.

Coming down from Mt Hakodate took some time due to all the tour groups waiting in line for the gondola, but when I got back to the base of the mountain I did one more thing before returning to my guesthouse. In my time researching Japan I had come across a burger chain in Hakodate called Lucky Pierrot that a number of travel writers and Youtubers had said good things about. Lucky Pierrot has about ten or so outlets across Hakodate and each one has a distinct visual theme. The one I went to that night was themed after a circus and even though the staff didn’t speak English I was able to easily place an order just by pointing at what I wanted from the menu. While Lucky Pierrot has some traditional burger offerings, they also have unusual burgers, as well as non-burger options including curry, seafood, and even spaghetti. I opted for the Chinese Chicken burger, cheese fries, and a drink. The burger was tasty and before leaving I bought an ice cream cone that I ate while I walked back to the guesthouse.

 

The next morning I had a chance to talk with two of the staff at my guesthouse before I left for the day. I had at first assumed they were Japanese but they were actually from Singapore and were in Japan on temporary work visas. One of them spoke very good English, to the point where I’d almost mistake him for a native speaker. Somehow we ended up getting into a discussion about history, including WW2, but I also got a notable tip about something to do while in town. I was already planning on visiting Hakodate’s Morning Market, but one of the staff recommended I try the squid that is brought in fresh each day by a particular group of men. With that in mind, I left the guesthouse and made my way down to the harbor where the Morning Market was being held. Hakodate’s Morning Market is full of seafood and produce, and after walking around and checking things out I went over to where the squid tank was. For a fee you can catch a squid yourself and have it chopped up and served to you right then and there. Part of me didn’t want to try it, but I argued myself into doing it, telling myself that it would be both a unique experience and it would allow me to know once and for all if I liked eating squid or not. I paid the fee and was given a small fishing rod that had something like a tiny grappling hook at the end of the line. The squid in the tank have very thin skin towards the top of their bodies, so the idea is that you drop the line in the water and when a squid passes over it you just your fishing rod and the hooks will pierce and grab the squid. This turned out to be easier said than done but after a few tries I successfully caught one. I handed my phone off to the old man running the place and he took a photo of me with the squid. He also accidentally took a selfie of himself. I dropped the squid into a bucket and it was then brought to the chef who was busy slicing and dicing each squid brought to him. The chef’s skill with a knife was quite impressive and he clearly had the whole process down to an exact science. In a minute I had my plate of squid sashimi and I found a nearby table to eat what will probably forever be the freshest animal product I’ve ever eaten. The parts of the squid that you eat are the tentacles and the muscular upper regions, as well these brown pod things that I’m not sure what they were. I didn’t care too much for the pods, but the tentacles and the rest of the squid were ok. The taste is hard to describe since have never eaten anything with a similar flavor, but I can say that the tentacles were the meaty part of the squid. One other thing I can say about the tentacles was that they still had a little life in them. When I poked them of picked them up with my chopsticks they would move a little and when I dipped them in soy sauce they moved even more. To wash the weird squid taste out of my mouth I found an ice cream shop and got some sakura ice cream, which tasted a lot like strawberry ice cream.

 

I still had plenty of sightseeing to do in Hakodate, and as I walked along the waterfront I remember passing by a dance group that was practicing their routine. A little ways from the Morning Market is Hakodate’s old redbrick warehouse district. The warehouses used to store goods back when Hakodate was a more important international port and but more recently they’ve been redeveloped into a modern commercial zone with shops and restaurants. It was starting to get warm so I made a quick stop back at the guesthouse to drop off my hoodie and then I continued on to the Motomachi District. When Japan’s era of isolation ended in the 1850s, Hakodate was one of the first ports opened up to the outside world and Motomachi became home to a fair number of foreigners from Russia, China, Britain, and other nations. Among other things, you can find a Catholic church, a Chinese temple, a Russian Orthodox church and an old British consulate. Motomachi struck me as a really pleasant neighborhood and parts of it even reminded me a bit of San Francisco. Except for the really cold winters, I probably wouldn’t mind living there.

 

Once I was done in Motomachi I decided to keep walking for a little longer even though I suspected there wasn’t anything else I wanted to see in that part of Hakodate. My suspicion proved correct and my extended stroll turned out to be a serious mistake. My plan for the afternoon had been to take a day trip to Onuma Park, north of Hakodate, but by continuing to walk around town rather than going to the train station right after finishing in Motomachi I ended up barely missing the train I had intended to get on. The next train would be leaving in just over an hour and I thought I could get in a quick visit to Fort Goryokaku before that train departed. This would prove to be my second big mistake that day. Fort Goryokaku is the remains of a star-shaped fort up in the northern part of the city. Originally the fort was built to defend against the encroaching Western powers and later became the site of the last battle of the Boshin War (the war that overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate and ushered in the Meiji Era). These days the fort is a public park and I thought my visit to it had been short enough to return to the train station in time for the next train to Onuma Park, but I was wrong. Again, I had just barely missed the train. At the Hakodate train station I was sitting on a bench, looking fine on the outside but stewing with anger on the inside. I was mad at myself for making such a stupid mistake twice in a row, but thankfully I was experienced enough that I knew what to do to keep myself from acting out or throwing a mental temper tantrum. I walked around near the train station for half an hour and let the bad thoughts slowly drain. Once I was feeling better I went to a nearby 7-Eleven to buy some snacks and withdraw some more money get me through the coming days. I had learned my lesson and would be much better at budgeting time for most of the rest of my trip. Looking back at it now, I’m glad I screwed up at a relatively less important part of my journey. Had I made those mistakes at a more critical moment I could have been in much more trouble. With my head back in the right place, I returned to the train station and just sat it out for 20 minutes until the next train came. I was going to Onuma Park and even though things hadn’t worked out the way I had planned I was going to make the most of the situation.

Onuma Park is a quasi national park about 30 minutes north of Hakodate. I say “quasi” because it’s not officially a national park, but it certainly looks like one. Home to a group of large lakes dotted with islands, and with the volcano of Mt Komagatake not too far to the north, Onuma Park is a picturesque place. Small bridges link many of the islands together with the mainland and there are multiple walking trails you can hike to explore the park. I had just enough time to complete the longest walking course but had I gotten to Onuma earlier in the day I would have also rented a bicycle to take a ride around the lake. As I was leaving the park I found a path to a place that looked like it would get me a good shot of Mt Komagatake, but it was now late in the day and that part of the park had been closed off. There was nothing I could do, so I just shrugged my shoulders and went back to the train station to catch a ride back to Hakodate.

 

While walking from the train station back to the guesthouse I witnessed an unfortunate sight. At one of the intersections some sort of serious car crash had occurred, with one vehicle knocked on its side and the other having its front completely smashed in. It must have been a t-bone crash. Ambulances apparently had already arrived and taken the injured to hospitals, since the only people around the crash sight were a pair of cops and a cleanup crew. Japan may be generally safer than most of the rest of the world, but even there they have bad car crashes.

At my guesthouse I ate dinner and talked more with the two staff from Singapore, and later I chatted with a guy who was staying in one of the other rooms. His name was Julien and he was from Korea. He was traveling across Japan with his parents and I learned that he was a big fan of League of Legends, (LoL) a video game that’s popular around the world but extremely popular in Korea. I knew a bit about LoL thanks to a former roommate of mine who played it religiously and Julien was impressed with the modest knowledge I had. It was getting late so we soon wrapped up our conversation and I headed off to bed.

On the following day as I was packing up my backpack I realized that I actually had an opportunity to get a little bit of redemption from the previous day’s self-inflicted misfortunes. The trains running from Hakodate to Sapporo all stop at the Onuma Park train station, which meant I had a chance to get the photo of Mt Komagatake I had missed the day before. I checked out of the guesthouse, saying goodbye to the staff from Singapore, and made my way back towards the Hakodate train station. It was about 11:00am when I got to the area near the train station and before getting on the train I decided to get an early lunch. Checking my phone’s GPS, I saw that there was another Lucky Pierrot a few blocks from the train station and I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to try them out again. This Lucky Pierrot’s themed appeared to be Art Deco (I could be wrong on that) and I had some sort of cheeseburger with rice and a sauce that I didn’t recognize but tasted pretty good. While eating I kept a close watch on the passing minutes and made sure to leave with plenty of time for me to reach the station before the train departed. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake as the day prior.

 

At Onuma Park I got off the train, hauling my fully loaded backpack with me, and hiked over to the spot I had seen the day before. A group of Chinese tour buses were at the park and a mass of people were standing around at the spot I intended to take my photo, but I didn’t mind waiting for them to leave. It was getting warm and I needed to cool off in the shade anyways. Soon enough they left, I stepped out onto a rock on the lake, brought my camera down really low to the water, and got the photo I was looking for. A cloud was cover the top edge of Mt Komagatake but it was still a solid photo and I was feeling good. To celebrate, I bought a cone of squid ink ice cream from one of the vendors at the park. It was gray in color and had a milky taste. I then marched back to the train station and waited for the next train north to Sapporo. Mistakes had been made while I was in Hakodate, but I had learned from them and was better for it.

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