Big in Japan: Hakodate, the gateway to Hokkaido

All this month, Big in Japan is on the road in Hokkaid?, Japan’s northernmost island. Join us as we take a look at the rugged wilderness, world-class skiing and remote hot springs that make this winter wonderland so justifiably famous…

The island of Hokkaid? (??????, literally North Sea Circuit) is connected to the Japanese mainland through the modern marvel of engineering that is the Seikan Tunnel.

At length of 33.5 miles, with a 200 yard-deep and 14.5 mile-long undersea portion, the Seikan Tunnel is the deepest and longest undersea tunnel in the world.

While the journey underneath the Tsugaru Channel can be a bit claustrophobic at times, you soon emerge in Hakodate (????), the gateway to Hokkaid?.

Following the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854, Hakodate was one of the first ports to open up to foreign trade. As a result of this early internationalization, the city is a veritable living museum of late 18th and early 19th century European architecture.

Something akin to the San Francisco of Japan’s far north, Hakodate is best explored by riding nostalgia-inducing trams though the hilly streets.

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Built on a narrow causeway, and spread out along the water’s edge, Hakodate is a romantic city with distinct European airs.

At the base of Mt Hakodate is the famed Motomachi district, which is home to the vast majority of the city’s historic wood and brick buildings.

Here, you’ll find Hakodate’s most famous landmark, namely the Russian Orthodox church. Dating from 1916, the church is adorned with distinctive metal domes and spires and that would certainly look more at home in St. Petersburg than in Japan.

Indeed, Hakodate was once home to a large Russian community, who came here more than a century ago to make their fortunes in the Land of the Rising Sun. Of course, not all of them were privileged enough to return home, and a good number ended up dying far away from their family and friends.

You can pay tribute to these lost souls at Hakodate’s Foreigners’ Cemetery, which is peppered with old gravestones containing inscriptions in English, Russian and French.

While the modern city wields but a sliver of its former power and influence, at one time Hakodate was Japan’s first port of entry for Europeans.

A great place to relive this golden age is at the former British Consulate, where you can partake in that classic English institution that is high tea.

And finally, you can’t leave Hakodate without visiting the ruins of the Goryō-kaku, Japan’s first Western-style fort.

Built in 1864, this structure was built in the shape of a five-pointed star, which was intended to trap attackers in a lethal crossfire.

While much of Hokkaidō has been untouched by human hands, Hakodate is one place where history lives on…

Want to learn more about Hokkaidō? Sure you do!

Tune in all this month as Big in Japan heads north and blogs from the road.

** All images courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons Project **