Hakodate is one of the main cities on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Situated on the south coast, it is a port city with a rich history and thriving contemporary life. I (Merge) visited for a couple of days in mid-October 2023 and had a chance to explore the sights. Hakodate was among the first Japanese port cities that were opened to international trade after the country’s Edo era of isolation. As a result, the city has experienced notable influence from overseas, particularly in the construction of the Western-style Goryokaku Fort and architecture in several neighbourhoods. Looming over the town is 334m-high Mount Hakodate, and at its base is Motomachi, a neighborhood of steep streets that reminded me of San Francisco, California.
My first stop in Hakodate was the morning market that runs daily from 5 AM to noon. I got there around 9 AM, and the market was in full swing. Fresh seafood was the star here, but there were stalls selling produce and souvenirs as well. Hakodate also goes by the nickname of “Squid City.” Popular products include vacuum-packed pouches of “ikameshi” (squid stuffed with rice), squid pickled in salt (known as “shiokara”), as well as dried squid products such as “surume” (dried squid) and “saki-ika” (shredded dried squid). The market was loud and boisterous, and a great place to get a feel of the town.
I next made my way to the main bus station and caught a bus to the base of the Hakodate Ropeway which would take me to the top of Mount Hakodate. I was promised spectacular views of the town, and I was not disappointed. It was a perfect sunny day, clear for miles, and the vistas across the town and over the ocean were stunning. Goryokaku Tower, my next planned stop, was visible across town.
The original 60 m tall Goryokaku Tower was built in 1964 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Goryokaku. In 2005, 41 years later, it was demolished, and reopened in April 2006, this time 57 m taller, coming in at 107 m (including the lightning rod). The observation deck has the Goryokaku Historic Corridor – sixteen sequential miniature dioramas that explain and illustrate the history of the fort from 1854 to 1952.
Ayasaburo Takeda, the designer of Fort Goryokaku, was also a researcher in Dutch studies, and he modeled the fort after 16th century European “citadel cities”, cities that were completely surrounded by forts. The fort’s unique star-shaped citadel reduced the number of blind spots for guns and cannons in battles, and so was preferred to older construction styles. Construction of the fort began in 1857, and was essentially complete in 1864, seven years later. The fort served as a defense base for the next three years as control switched back and forth between the former shogunate’s army and the new Meiji government. On May 17, 1869, the former shogunate’s army surrendered and handed the fort over to the new government’s army, ending the Hakodate War. The turbulence of the Restoration period ended, and the Meiji era began. That was the last time the fort was used as a defense in battle. In 1871, natural ice was collected from the moat in winter and sold in Honshu under the brand of “Goryokaku Ice”. The Fort became a public park in 1914, and in 1952, it was designated as a special historic spot.