Hakodate is Hokkaido’s southernmost city and connection point for Shinkansen to Tokyo and ferries to Honshu (Japan’s main Island). It took us most of the day to get there by two busses and one train. It could have been a lot easier and faster on the express train but without a rail pass also quite expensive. JR (Japanese Railways) charge a fairly high premium for their express trains so for most tourists on short trips it’s cheaper to buy a rail pass (~£200 for 3 weeks unlimited travel including Shinkansens).
Hakodate is well known for its morning/fish market and seafood restaurants. One speciality of the island is crab and winter is the main season for it. Therefore, unsurprisingly every seafood restaurant had big boards outside promoting this speciality in all shapes of forms.
A half empty tank of horse shoe crabs
We arrived way too late for the market so we took to wander the streets around the harbour. The owner of our hostel gave us a lift into the center accompanied by a brief introduction into the main sights. Throughout Japan, the city is well known for it’s night view which is best appreciated from mount Hakodate. The peak can be reached by bus, ropeway or on foot but we we not overly excited by the idea mainly due to the lack of big buildings. Hakodate at night is said to resemble the shape of Hokkaido but consists only of a sea of lights without any stand-out features or buildings. To us it was more exciting to browse through the eclectic range of shops and restaurants located in and around some of the old brick warehouses at the sea front. They had a very nice and warm atmosphere and since halloween had passed, all buildings had English christmas songs were playing.
Compared to Sapporo and Asahikawa the proportion of higher priced hotels, restaurants and shops was much higher in Hakodate, so it took us a lot longer to find a budget friendly and nice looking place for dinner. We found a small button restaurant between the market and the train station that served salt ramen (noodles in salty broth). This dish is as typical for Hakodate as soy ramen is for Asahikawa and miso ramen for Sapporo. It was nice but definitely lacking depth of flavour compared to the other two and our favourite is still miso broth.
Trying the local speciality salty ramen
The next morning we got up fairly early to have enough time for the market before boarding the ferry to Aomori (Honshu). 90 percent of the shops and stalls sell seafood in all shapes or forms. We saw sea urchins, sea cucumbers, shell fish parts and guts of fish but it was all dominated by crab. Traders sold giant horseshoe crabs, spiny crabs and snow crabs. A lot of them kept the animals in overcrowded aquariums but most had them folded up and lying upside down on ice. Like most local delicacies crabs were very expensive. Big horseshoe crabs sold for more than ¥15000 (£100+) but most of them did not have price tags. Smaller crabs started around ¥3000 The market was very busy and buzzing with normal shoppers, Chinese tour groups with selfie-obsessions and the shouting of the sellers. Despite the number of people we saw surprisingly few people with fish bags and nobody who bought crab. It left us wondering how long it takes for shopkeepers to sell all their stock and how long crabs had to endure the crowded water tanks.
Yummy looking but raw seafood breakfast
Since when in Rome you should do what the Romans do, we had decided to have a seafood breakfast even though Zoë is not a big friend of it. It turned out to be very difficult to decide where to sit down but we found a place with reasonable prices. The food arrived quickly but we were taken aback when we discovered that the prawns, salmon and scallop were all cold and raw. Only the rice was cooked and hot. Zoë was very brave and sampled it all but left most of it to Matthias but even he did not enjoy raw prawns and fish (especially for breakfast).
Even man covers feature squids
With a funny feeling in our stomachs we wandered on to find some cooked meal to fix things. Despite the exorbitant prices we fancied tasting the local crab which many places serve grilled all over the market. We enjoyed the sweet and roasted flavour of the crab once we managed to extract the meat from the halved shells. This was one of the dishes where chopsticks are completely useless and special tongs are provided.
Getting to the ferry terminal from the city is super easy thanks to the express bus which departs right outside the train station. It only takes half an hour and costs around ¥500. If you want to take the boat across to Honshu we recommend booking your tickets in advance. There are a few different options available (from simple open spaced rooms to luxury cabins). Ships to Aomori depart roughly every two hours between 4am and midnight but not every boat has the same facilities so it is definitely worth checking which options are available.
We opted for the open space seating since booking a cabin for a four hour journey during the day was too expensive and completely unnecessary. Japanese have the great talent of being able to sleep pretty much anywhere so it was no surprise to see almost everyone around us falling asleep on the floor with only a small headrest as comfort.
Base fare area on the ferry
Thanks to an incoming bad weather front the first half of our crossing was a bit rough with big waves and spray covering our windows about 15m above the sea when the bow hit them. Since it was a pretty big ship it did not roll very much and neither of us got seasick. Once we reached the sheltered water of Aomori bay the sea was a lot calmer and before we knew it we reached the harbour. Shortly before then we were in for a shock when we realised we had lost our booking confirmation for the overnight bus down to Tokyo. Without internet on the ferry we had to wait for the terminal to find the confirmation email but we could not find it. It was also at this (the worst possible) point that Zoë got locked out of her email account (Thanks Google!; who remembers the month they created their account after over 10 years!?). We actually doubted we ever received one. Without booking details and with the office of the agent closed for the day things looked pretty dire.
In a last attempt Matthias went to the ferry ticket counter and managed to describe the problem to them and ask them to ring the bus company. This was only possible because the website had a photo of the bus with the company’s name on it. They managed to find our booking on their system and confirm it. We received a piece of paper with our seat numbers and the confirmation that this would suffice. Being slightly more hopeful we walked the two and a half kilometer to the train and bus station to have dinner and await the bus. Somebody from the company must have rang the driver because when we showed him our ‘ticket’ he smiled knowingly and welcomed us by name. Again we were amazed and impressed by the helpfulness and efficiency of the Japanese and how well the information had come from the ferry women to the bus driver.
We were also in for another treat: a fancy sleeper bus with seats whos backrests reclined to 140 degrees, foot and leg rests and and ample space. Seats at the window even featured a privacy curtain. Unlike on normal coaches, both of us managed to get a few hours of sleep so when we arrived in Tokyo we felt sufficiently awake for our onward trip to Matsumoto near the Japanese alps.