Facing out on two bays, Hakodate is a 19th-century port town, with clapboard buildings on sloping streets, a dockside tourist zone, streetcars, and fresh fish on every menu. In the downtown historic quarter, a mountain rises 1,100 feet above the city on the southern point of the narrow peninsula. Russians, Americans, Chinese, and Europeans have all left their mark; this was one of the first three Japanese ports the Meiji government opened up to international trade in 1859. The main sights around the foot of Mt. Hakodate can be done in a day, but the city is best appreciated with an overnight stay for the illumination in the historic area, the night views from either the mountain or the fort tower, and the fish market at dawn. City transport is easy to navigate and English information is readily available. Evening departure trains from Tokyo arrive here at dawn—perfect for fish-market breakfasts.
Meiji Hakodate Beer Hall
This seaside hall serves seafood specialties such as squid, octopus, and tofu shabu-shabu (cooked table-side by dipping the food into boiling water and then into a sauce) for ¥1,300, as well as three local brews (wheat beer, ale, and the slightly more bitter "alt" beer). Its spaciousness and conviviality are typical of Hokkaido, and although it's in a tourist complex, even locals like the wide range of seasonal specialties.
What does squid taste like? Did we mention that it's actually pretty good? And fresh—your squid is pulled flapping from the tank and returns minutes later sliced, with squid-ink black rice, delicious slivers of still-twitching flesh, soup, pickles, and two big black eyes. Wash it down with gray-squid ice cream for dessert. Too much information? Luckily, the restaurant has plenty of other seafood, and a picture menu for easy selection. Look for a sign with red letters on a yellow background.
Harisutosu Sei Kyokai
A green Byzantine dome and tower rise above this beautiful white Hakodate Russian Orthodox Church. The present building dates from 1916, and donations help with the upkeep of one of the city's most exotic attraction. If you're less orthodox, the Episcopal and Catholic churches sit on either side.
Bright red crabs wave giant claws from old fishing boats filled with water, squid dart furiously around restaurant tanks, and samples of dried octopus parts are piled high—it's all at Hokkaido's largest public fish market, located one block from Hakodate Station. It opens at dawn; if you can stomach it, try a fish-on-rice breakfast. Asa-ichi, which also has a fruit-and-vegetable section, stays active until mid-afternoon.
Overlooking the western bay at the foot of Mt. Hakodate is a 2-square-km (1-square-mile) area of wide, sloping streets lined with the 19th-century churches, stately consulates, interesting shops, and homes of the Japanese and foreigners who first opened up this part of Japan to commerce. Return here at night when the illuminated buildings show why Hakodate is a favorite location for romantic movies and TV shows.The most interesting historic buildings and museums are the Victorian Old Public Hall (Kyu Hakodate-ku Kokaido), with the Emperor's Toilet; the Old British Consulate (Kyu Igirisu Ryojikan), a nice place for tea and scones; and the Hakodate City Museum of Northern Peoples (Hakodate Hoppo Minzoku Shiryokan). To visit Motomachi, get off the streetcar at the Suehiro-cho stop.
On the cobbled waterfront of Motomachi, the Kanemori Red Brick Warehouses now bustle with shops, bar, and restaurants. Enjoy harbor cruises, cheer on street entertainers, or poke your head into glassblowing studios. In December there's a giant Canadian Christmas tree and nightly fireworks. The place is a 1½-km (1-mile) walk from Hakodate Station.