Japan’s written history only dates from 600 AD and while there are facts in the old tales, there is also plenty of fiction. Known as the Kojiki and Nihon-Shoki (record of ancient matters and Japan chronicles, respectively) the rich legends tell of a people that descended from the gods themselves!
Of Japan’s 3,000 islands, only 600 are inhabited. Most foreign visitors only know the four main islands: Honshu, Kyushu, Skikoku and Hokkaido. Even though most of the nation lies in a temperate zone, the “Black Current” flows northwards along the shores from the tropics and warms things up considerable. All the islands are mountainous, reflecting volcanic origin.
As Japanese societies developed in the south, Hokkaido was writing its own history. Unlike Japan’s other main islands, Hokkaido is a single prefecture (a status that is indicated by the suffix -do). The smaller islands of Etorofu, Shikotan, Habomai and Kunashiri in the Strait of Nemuro, off Hokkaido’s northeast coast are Russian-administered and occupied, but Japan has claimed dominion over these lands since 1945 and contention simmers 🙂
Many names for Hokkaido mountains, rivers, lakes and towns come from the Ainu language (Ainu is not a Japanese dialect). The island is traditional home to the Ainu people, a fact that surprises many foreign visitors who tend to (erroneously) think of Japanese society as being ethnically homogenous.
Hakodate has architectural as well as human treasures. The oldest Western-style fortress in Japan, Goryo-kaku was built in 1864 after Commodore Matthew Perry negotiated the opening of several Japanese ports. It took seven years to build, but it was a necessary precaution against the threat of Russian attack. A short time later, the defeated Tokugawa Shogunate’s last forces captured the fort, and staged a final stand against the victorious Meiji troops. Our first stop of the day was to the fort and it is just magnificent. The five pointed star shape allowed defenders to trap assailants in crossfire. It appears to be somewhat similar to the fortifications in Naarden, Holland. Today, only the outer walls remain, the surrounding grounds have been restored as a very spacious public park. A moat surrounds the walls and you can take advantage of little rowing boats to sail around. It’s a very popular thing to do and today the Cherry Blossoms were still in full bloom, it was amazing. The Hokodate Museum is also on this site in the upper observatory tower. It showcased the history of Matthew Perry’s time in Hokkaido.
Even though it is about as un-Japanese as Japan gets, the Motomachi District, a place of late 19th century western style buildings is a great place to explore. Many of the old structures are restored as museums. There’s a very impressive Eastern Orthodox Haristos Church built in 1862 at the behest of Russian priest Nokolai. The church did burn down but was rebuilt in 1916. Many of the rich interior furnishing were salvaged from the original church. Right next door (and I mean next door) the French missionaries established a very gothic-style Roman Catholic church in 1924. There’s also a Unitarian church in the area as well as a Buddhist temple.
Plans were discussed for a tunnel to traverse the Tsugaru-kaikyo Strait in 1946, but construction did not begin for two decades. It took another 20 years to complete the work. The undersea portion of the 33mile tunnel between Yoshioka (Hokkaido) and Tappi (Honshu), reaches a maximum depth of nearly 800 feet and represents almost half of the total length. The submarine tube is the world’s longest and is a remarkable engineering feat. Even the fastest shinkansen (bullet train) takes an hour to traverse the channel. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to experience the tunnel – we had other things planned and we didn’t know about the tunnel until we arrived.
Next we headed up a ropeway or cable car that links the Motomachi district with Mount Hakodate’s 1100 ft high summit. The mountain (yama) is really a dormant volcano, it’s been quiet for centuries. The view of the city from the peak is magnificent. We had a wonderfully clear day.
As we headed back into port we asked our driver to drop us off at the local train station where we quickly went in search of local cuisine – yummy. We found an awesome fish market selling some of the largest crabs we have ever seen in our lives. Octopus, skate, salmon and more types of fish that we hadn’t a clue are sold here each morning to the locals. It’s just amazing the hum and buzz of life at their door steps – it was just awesome. Of course we found a wonderful little place to eat. Gert had shredded shrimp and Hairy Crab miso soup and Pat had sashimi and rice, served with both green and Japanese tea. It was very tasty.
The day was ending and we had to hurry back to the ship. We really enjoyed today. Of course, the port had arranged for some wonderful dancers to give us a great send-off.
Ah tomorrow another port 🙂