Thursday 1 February 2018


We had caught the ferry from Honshu and arrived in Hokkaido the same evening. The ferry was empty apart from a handful of industrial workers presumably on their evening commute and two or three Asian tourists.

It was dark and bleak as we looked out across the water and that uneasy sort of feeling filled out stomachs, the feeling of diving into an abyss, not knowing what was going to happen on the other side. How would we find where we were staying? Would there be a bus? What was going to happen? The usual type of travel anxieties.

The ferry docked in darkness of Hakodate, the terminal oily and abandoned. After a long wait in the cold, a bus journey, and then a second bus journey we had finally arrived at our destination. Our kind host Michiko was ready and waiting for us in her little boxy lemon car as we got off the bus and crunched our heavy feet down onto snow.

Michiko was in her 60s and ran a local cafe where she served coffee and home cooked dishes to the local community. She rented her upstairs rooms out to students from the nearby university and also on airbnb which is where we happily found her. That evening she had offered to take us to an onsen, one of many typical things to do in Japan, and a scary proposition, but it turned out to be fantastic.

The next morning, relaxed and laid-back from the onsen experience the night before, Michiko was hard at work in the cafe's kitchen preparing bento boxes to deliver to local businesses. She was a busy lady but had time to make us some cinnamon toast and coffee for breakfast.

We caught the bus in to Hakodate on the same route that we had taken the night before. On most buses in Japan passengers take a ticket when boarding and hand it over to the driver when they want to get off, the driver then charges a certain fee for the distance travelled.

Deciding to leave the climb to the top of Mount Hakodate a high point which looks out over the city until night fell, we followed our map to Fort Goryokaku, a European-type fort shaped like a five-pointed star. The fort is now a city park with a museum and a viewing tower. The Park was like a battle level on Mario Kart, different levels and layers and corners to explore. It was covered in thick, untouched snow when we visited and Chinese tourists, dressed in brand new puffer jackets on their Chinese New Year trips, stood in family groups taking selfies in the snow. We made snow angels and tried to follow untouched paths.

Hakodate used to be an industrial city; it was the first in Japan to open its port to foreign trade in 1854 and is now one of the main cites on Hokkaido. Because of the history of openness to foreign trade, a Western-influenced area grew up called Motimachi: this is where Westerners in the shipping and trade industry lived and worked, the whole of it looking like it is somewhere in Europe.

Unexpectedly the city was busy with tourists. We walked up through the streets towards to the ever-looming Mount Hakodate at the top of the city. Red brick warehouses that have long since lost their purpose have been regenerated to sell expensive gifts and unnecessary items to Chinese tourists. We wandered through disinterested, the architecture and buildings themselves being the attraction.

As the sun began to sink we made a slow ascent up the hill toward the famous chairlift to take us to the summit of the city. The Michelin Green Guide: Japan marks it 3/3, ranking up there with two other vistas: the view of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak, and of Naples from Vomero hill. The cobble style walkway was steep but we took our time, stopping for coffee at a trendy stripped back coffee shop - the type that's all bare grey concrete with a bike hanging on the wall. It was here that we sipped on the second most expensive coffee we bought in Asia (the first being in Guiyang in China) and zipped up the rest of the hill in a caffeine fuelled daze.

Groups of Chinese teenagers on a school trip were also making the climb. The wide cobbled road turned into small lanes and we cooed over old store houses and wonky buildings. We stopped to asked a local woman what a thin, triangle-roofed building was, they said it was called 'kura' (a storehouse; about a hundred years old) and called for more neighbours to come and chat; we smiled and talked together in broken versions of each others languages. One of the ladies spoke Italian. It was becoming abundantly clear the further we travelled in Japan how kind-hearted and interesting Japanese people are and how similar British people are to Japanese people in their manners and politeness.

We trundled on to the entrance of the cable car but it was overwhelmingly busy. We stood and watched the pods move by silently overhead packed with the school children, all loud and excited to be on their school trip. We considered the money we would have to part with to take the cable car and then walked away. This wasn't what we wanted to be doing, we wanted to be exploring Japan, not getting caught up in a tourist scene. We kept walking and found a shinto shrine nearby, further up the hill.

The shrine sat perfectly in the snow, lanterns led the way up to it. The wash basin iced over. We threw our coins and bowed. Turning round we caught the view of the city as night fell. A lone schoolgirl came to pay her respects and left. Lights began to be switched on appearing as small squares of pin pricks, the mood rose round in the coldness of the night and boats moved along in the channel, their work never ending. The city appeared huge and vast and we watched it alone, from the grounds of the snowy shrine on the hill, the old buildings and the city of Hakodate before us.


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