Our (late) summer vacation in early September went to Hakodate, the southernmost city on Hokkaido. It's a port city, the natural way station for travel and transport between Hokkaido and Honshu. It's a large fishing port and is still a way station for heavy transport; also, the railway line that displaced many passenger ferries passes by the city.
It's not a big place. At about 350k people it straddles being a large town and a small city, and the atmosphere reflects that. It's a very popular tourist destination; there's an old town with foreign merchant houses, a very famous view of the city from a nearby mountain top, and the food is reputedly excellent. No points for guessing what brought us there.
The city sits on a narrow peninsula capped by Hakodateyama mountain1. While the city center itself lies slightly inland, the peninsula has most of the touristy areas. You can easily get around the city by tram, and you can often simply walk from place to place if you have the time. The overall impression is a little sleepy and just a little run-down. I find it interesting that the streets share a very similar atmosphere to Ishigaki town on Okinawa, despite (or because) they lie on opposite ends of the country.
The peninsula area is home to the harbour market, which I guess may still be a real farmers and fisherman's market early in the morning. By midmorning it aims squarely at tourists of course, but it doesn't feel intrusive and the quality of the produce is excellent. Shipping rates to Osaka are pretty low, and if you ask nicely you can collect stuff from different vendors into one shipping box; something my back was a lot happier for than my wallet.
Our objectives for this trip was to 1) get away from the stifling Osaka summer heat; 2) eat and drink well; and 3) to do nothing much. Unfortunately, the first objective was a complete failure; Hokkaido was suffering through a record-breaking heatwave and at over 30° it wasn't much cooler than Osaka. We compensated for that with ample helpings of points two and three instead.
Hakodateyama mountain is famous. More specifically, the view of Hakodate is. It counts as one of the top three views in Japan, and is a very popular sightseeing destination. So much so that there's a large cable car and viewing station at the top, and a heavily used tour-bus parking lot at the foot of the mountain to shuffle the thousands of people flocking to the sight every evening. The view is beautiful, once you squeeze through the throngs along the railings, and I took a fair number of pictures of it. But I keep thinking that shooting the people watching the view would be more interesting still. Worth keeping in mind if we go there again.
Kaikōbō was probably the highlight of the trip. It's an izakaya at the edge of the market, and does serious seafood. It was all excellent, and if we'd had a bit more time we would absolutely gone there a second time. As it is, it's one of those places (along with Aburiya in Kushiro) that we'll make a point of visiting again if we're ever in the area.
The town center proper feels like any decent-sized town, with a variety of offices, shops, restaurants and all the rest. There we found Ambika, a small restaurant with a modern take on Indian food. Good atmosphere and great food. This is another restaurant on my list to revisit if I get the chance.
We ate at a beer garden housed in a former warehouse in the harbour area; while it wasn't bad it also was nothing special. You go there for the atmosphere, not the food. We also had dinner at Gotōken, a famous curry and yoshoku restaurant. Good food and pleasant atmosphere of the white-linen-and-silverware variety, though the guests (us included) tended to be a little too dressed-down for the place. A guy one table over had obviously stopped by during his bicycle training session, and sweaty blue Lycra tights just don't really make the right fashion statement at such a place.
We brought plenty of stuff back . Our culinary focus is, I believe, quite evident. From front left: salmon and konbu pickles; two kinds of squid pickles; one melon; noodle nori; grapes; dried salmon; dried squid; garlic; potatoes for baking; konbu; white corn; shio ramen-set; fresh soybeans; cheese cupcakes; soy sauce vegetable pickles; cake; salt; mugicha; mustard; pickled squid (yes, we got a lot of squid); manju; cake; Onuma altbier; sausages; liver pate; three kinds of cheese; melon jelly; wine; Onuma ale; three Hakodate beers.
There's more pictures; you can find them in the set here.
#1 "Yama" means mountain, so "Hakodateyama mountain" is redundant. But if I write just "Hakodateyama", only Japanese speakers will understand what i talk about. And "Hakodate mountain" doesn't feel right either; it looks like a mountain in Hakodate, not the Hakodate mountain. So "Hakodateyama mountain" it is. Electrons are cheap.