We’re moving on to Hokkaido for our last few days in Japan folks….
We’re down to our final few days in Japan, which makes us sad…but we’re off to Hokkaido Today, which makes us happy! Hokkaido is Japan’s Northern-most island, and, despite being the second largest island in Japan, is home to only 5% of its population. Because of this, Hokkaido is something of an unspoilt frontier, renowned for its natural beauty, multiple national parks, plentiful wildlife and harsh winters. There are numerous ski fields here and quite a few of our friends have been here for skiing and snowboarding holidays in recent years – apparently the ski town of Niseko hosts more Aussie tourists than Japanese during the ski season!
The island of Hokkaido was only colonised by Japan some 150 years ago; before the Meiji Restoration this island was home to the Ainu, an indigenous people who are believed to have migrated across from the Northern reaches of Siberia millennia ago. They had their own language and culture, distinct from that of the Wajin of Honshu island (i.e. the dominant native ethnic group in Japan; related to those of Korea and Taiwan). With the Meiji era of modernisation and industrialisation, however, Hokkaido was fully colonised by Japan and the Ainu culture virtually wiped out. Few remnants of Ainu tradition remain today, though there is reportedly some movement towards protecting what is left. It’s a story somewhat similar to that of the Australian Aborigines, and really of many indigenous populations colonised around the world. So we can’t really see or experience anything of the Ainu, except perhaps what we might see at the museums. With its recent history of colonisation, Hokkaido does not have much in the way of castles and temples for us to see either. It still has plenty of natural wonders, however, which is why we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the opportunity to head up there.
Our first stop in Hokkaido is the city of Hakodate (population 300,000). This port city can be easily reached from Aomori City by train – a train that goes UNDER THE SEA! How cool is that? Yes, we caught the train today that went under the Tsugaru Strait, through the 54km long Seikan Tunnel to Hakodate, Hokkaido. Our train left Aomori City at the civilised hour of 9:30am, speeding past rice paddies and farmlands on its way up the Tsugaru Peninsula. We entered the Seikan Tunnel itself at around 10:15am and spent about half an hour underground, 100m below the floor of the ocean (Seikan is both the longest and the deepest operational rail tunnel in the world). Freaky to think of all that earth and rock and water above you, especially in a country so prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions… We made it through alive though, and with nothing exciting to report. Popping up on the other side, in Hokkaido, the train took us all along the coast to Hakodate. The weather on this side of the strait is really different – cold (maximum today of just 14C!), wet, cloudy and windy.
We arrived in Hakodate and immediately pulled out our jumpers (first time whilst on this trip!). Fortunately we had arrived just in time for a visit to Hakodate’s Asa-ichi seafood markets. These markets weren’t as overwhelming in size or smell as the Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Markets, but still had lots of interesting things for sale. The specialities up here are freshly caught squid, sea urchin and crab – and I mean REALLY fresh (i.e. alive). The coolest thing we saw were the giant crabs; these monsters weighed 5-10kgs each, with carapaces easily 20-30cm across and legs that extend out to a metre or more. Apparently they are Red King crabs and are native to the Bering Sea and the icy ocean waters North of Japan. I was pretty excited at the thought of crab for lunch, but Shane thought 10kgs was more crab that we could handle. I’m not so sure….
By the time we’d finished wandering around the markets it was lunch time, and since Shane wasn’t in the mood for crab, we went searching for other dining options. And man did we score! We found the Hakodate Beer Garden & Brewery – a boutique brewery that served a good mix of stuff for lunch. Shane got to try their alcoholic wares with a sampling tray of 120mL of each of their 3 brews. His verdict: “Thumbs up for Hakodate Beer!”. They all tasted revolting to me, but as most of you know, I just don’t get beer. At all.
With bellies full of beer and lamb we then set off to explore the steeply inclined streets of Hakodate’s historical centre. This seaside city has a rather unique history in that it was the first port to open to foreign traders in the 1850’s; as a consequence many Russian, British, European and American traders settled here and built homes, churches and communities in Hakodate. Many of the Western-style homes, public buildings and churches from this era have been preserved, making for an interesting afternoon stroll. We also enjoyed the Aka-renga Warehouses; these 6 red brick buildings were the first commercial warehouses in Hakodate designed to store goods for trading with foreign traders. They have now been converted into commercial buildings, filled with boutique shops and restaurants designed to attract tourists and locals alike.
For dinner we took ourselves out for a nice warm bowl of ramen noodles and then braved the 10C temperature to catch the cable car up to the top of Mt Hakodate. The views of the city by night were great. With its busy port, lively seafood trade and interesting history, Hakodate is a funky city and one we really enjoyed visiting, even if it was only for the day!