THE gloomy clouds that have been hugging Hakodate since daybreak are dissolving to drop a torrent that’s building puddles along the footpath and forcing me to skip like a schoolgirl as I head to the city’s famous morning seafood market.
I’m expecting the inclement weather to keep the crowds away but as soon as I reach the market, which sprawls across four city blocks a couple of minutes from the main JR train station, I can see the rain isn’t a deterrent.
The narrow lanes, congested alleys, vast sheds and crowded stalls are bustling with activity as couriers carry boxes of fish between shops, traders spruik specials while pacing around their counters, fussy locals inspect ingredients, and salarymen seek a midmorning meal.
I’m anxious about visiting another Japanese seafood market — previous outings to these busy places show me locals don’t like sharing their shopping space with tourists as we tend to get in the way — so I initially linger in the corners but quickly discover inquisitive travellers are welcome here in Hakodate.
It’s not long before I’m learning how to select the best crab from the man running the market’s most famous crustacean kiosk, snapping up-close photos of the colourful produce, trying samples handed out by the traders, and occupying a stool in a noisy arcade to savour the celebrated oyako donburi served with fresh sushi and roe.
While no one can tell me exactly how old the market is it dates back to the days after World War Two when food was scarce and, rather than have local fishermen trade the catch on the black market, the regional government found a place for them to sell the seafood.
Today there are 300 shops and stalls, with similar products grouped together in the same shed or laneway, and it’s the abundance of squid that makes the Hakodate’s complex special when compared to Japan’s other retail seafood centres.
“The amount of squid on sale here is the largest for anywhere in Japan and that’s because these waters — around the southern tip of Hokkaido Island — are the ideal place for fisherman to catch squid,’’ explains Nina Homma who works for the city government’s tourism department.
“People come to Hakodate and visit the market just to select live squid and have it made into fresh sushi and sashimi, the price is different from day to day depending on how many the fishermen catch in the morning, and there are chopsticks and plates ready for you to use so the whole experience is covered in the price.’’
Five things every traveller should try at Hakodate’s morning seafood market
While many of Japan’s seafood markets are wholesale, which means visitors can’t sample the produce on display, the Hakodate compound is retail making it the ideal place to taste gourmet goodies unique to this overlooked Japanese settlement.
- Hakodate is famous for its fresh squid but this is not an activity for vegetarians or animal lovers with customers fishing their own feed from a pool at the centre of the Ekini Market then presenting the critter to a master chef stationed at a counter nearby who immediately turns the catch into the freshest sashimi.
- There’s a corner stall close to the Ekini shed’s fishing pool that sells black dumplings — Japanese dumplings are typically white — with squid ink used to colour the mixture and minced squid meat filling the centre of this chewy cake-like creation.
- Visit the Donburi Yokocho annex to try oyako donburi — the traditional “rice bowl’’ that’s given a local twist by adding the “parent and child’’ combination of sushi and roe — with each cafe that serves breakfast and lunch displaying plastic versions of the food by the front door to help travellers make a mealtime selection.
- There’s a shop opposite the western entrance of the donburi hall that prepares shredded squid, which is high in protein and low in fat, with locals favouring the tasty delicacy as a snack and matching it with sake or beer when enjoying a tipple at home.
- There’s not just seafood for sale at this market so it’s worth strolling through the produce shed to buy a peach as big as a baby’s bottom, the melons grown around the island, apples the size of a man’s fist, and perfect persimmons before savouring a cone of the soft ice cream made from the milk of Hokkaido’s famed dairy cows.
Getting there …
Hakodate is in the southern corner of Hokkaido — the island that’s home to the Niseko Ski Resort and Sapporo Snow Festival — with city served by regular flights from Tokyo and Shinkansen “bullet train’’ services that race north from Honshu via the 54km Seikan Tunnel beneath the Tsugaru Strait.
Doing there …
A sunset climb to the top of Mt Hakodate, a tour of Fort Goryokaku, and a wander around the historic Motomachi neighbourhood are other activities to tempt travellers.
Staying there …
Four Points Sheraton Hakodate is a pleasant hotel beside JR train station.
The writer travelled as a guest of the Japanese National Tourism Organization.