Monday 23 December 2013

Cultural Hakodate: The Western Influence on Architecture in Motomachi

We had a whole lot of fun during our Hokkaido trip last year with Follow Me Japan, so when BB (Who pretty much loathes travelling) grudgingly agreed to spend all his leave on a family vacation over the Christmas holidays, M & D wasted no time picking out a tour that covered a different part of Hokkaido.  

FMJ's good with the little details that ensure the trip is comfortable one, which is perfect when you're travelling with family members with bad backs or bad knees (Or in BB's case, both.) To prevent the lot of us from arriving in Hokkaido a bunch of bleary-eyed wrecks unable to properly appreciate the sights, they planned for us to spend a restful night at the Haneda Excel Hotel Tokyu after our flight from Singapore. We caught our the domestic connection to Hakodate the next morning.

After we touched down a little before noon, we were promptly whisked off for lunch at Hakodate Tei, a seafood restaurant located by the ocean that uses only the best local ingredients. From our table, we had a view of the garden and a glimpse of the water. The sashimi was delightful, with textures ranging from the firm pieces of sea bream to the almost creamy-soft crab legs. 

The basket of seafood tempura was excellent as well - lured in by the smell, I had a couple of pieces before I remembered to snap a photo. What surprised me was how much I enjoyed the kombu (Seaweed) tempura - I always think of kombu as being terribly plain (Probably because the pieces I've nibbled had already been boiled to death to make soup stocks), but this piece was mildly sweet and tasted pleasantly of the sea. 

Post-lunch, we got into the groove of sight-seeing, led by our guide Tomoko-san. Our first stop was the Trappistine Convent, a fifteen minute drive from the restaurant and located fairly near the airport. Our Lady of the Angels was Japan's first women's convent and established in the late 19th century by eight nuns sent from Ubexy, France, to spread the message of Christianity. The nuns keep to a strict schedule that sees them wake at 3.30 am every morning, and they work for eight hours and pray another eight before going to bed at 7.45 pm. Like others in the Cistercian order, this convent is self-sufficient, and beyond the management of farms, the nuns support themselves by making madelines, candies and various handicrafts that are sold at the visitor centre. (Alas, they don't brew beer)

It's a lovely place, and surprisingly peaceful even with the swarm of noisy tourists we encountered. The convent sits atop a hill and is a rather striking structure, with deep green roof tiles contrasting with the red brick of the walls and highlighted with bright white accents. Historically, Hakodate's experienced a number of rather devastating fires, and the convent itself had to be rebuilt after a fire in 1925. The buildings now house over 70 nuns, but you don't get to see them in general, apart from a few pictures in the visitor's centre showing them at work or in prayer. 

Just outside the convent is a small store selling soft serve ice cream made with fresh Hokkaido milk. Once we see a massive queue we always assume something good must be at the end of the line, so we fell in with the rest of the tourists. 

There's only one flavour of soft serve (Vanilla) on offer, but you can jazz it up with a drizzle of sauce for a simple sundae. M opted for some Matcha (Milled Green Tea) syrup, and was pleased with the results.  

The coach dropped us off in the Motomachi district of Hakodate, where we were able to get a good sense of the city's history. Located at the foot of Mount Hakodate, the area was hilly enough for us to get a glimpse of the bay in the distance. After the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854, Hakodate was the first Japanese port to be opened to foreign trade after a long policy of isolationism, and that influx of foreign influence shaped the architecture and fortunes of the city. 

We hiked up the stairs towards the Old Hakodate Public Hall, a restored grey and yellow building that was completed in 1910 after the August 1907 Great Fire of Hakodate claimed half the city, including the town hall that had previously been used for assemblies. Of the ¥58 000 used to fund the building, ¥50 000 came from a local businessman named Teppei Souma. I can't find any firm figures on what that would be today - the official information board just put "a terribly great value of money", but it was a decidedly generous gesture. 

Inside the Old Public Hall is the Haikara Old-Fashioned Costume Gallery, a dress rental service that allows visitors to take advantage of the location to run around and take pictures in fancy dress. The costumes tend to be more Wild West Saloon With Sequins than 'traditional Western dress', but that probably makes it all the more popular. Apart from costumes, there are additional hair styling services for those who want to go all out in curls and a tiara, and when we were inside it must have been peak period because the wait was over half an hour long.

We had to take off our shoes and change into one-size fits all slippers when inside the building, so with my tiny feet that meant a lot of galumphing everywhere and very gingerly taking the stairs so I wouldn't slip and break my neck. Thankfully, most of the other visitors here aren't in much of a rush and there aren't an overwhelming amount of things to explore. Mostly you see what the rooms had looked like, even the bathrooms, one of which had a Western-style tub. 

Much of the historical significance of the building comes from its architectural style and the painstaking restoration of the original decorative details, including the imported art nouveau wallpaper in some of the rooms. Funnily enough, for all that the building's been done in a European style, when I looked out the balcony I realised the roof tiling was decidedly Japanese.  

In one wing, you can even see the rooms where the then-Crown Princes Yoshihito and Hirohito stayed during their visits to Hokkaido in the 1910s and 1920s. It's interesting to see what was considered the height of luxury at that point, including the brass-piped bed and the woven silk chair covers. 

Motomachi was the place most foreign residents of Hakodate chose to stay, and even now the buildings there are a mix of European and traditional Japanese, sometimes combining both elements in the same house. 

On our stroll, we passed by rather quaint little souvenir shops and a whole series of downward slopes running perpendicular to our road, each giving us a peek at the bay below. Every slope also had a sign post, some of which were topped with figures of the city's official bird, the varied tit. These posts indicated the name of each slope and important buildings in its vicinity, including shrines and foreign diplomatic establishments. 

The most popular slope for pictures was definitely Hachiman Zaka, named for a shrine that used to be located there, and with a rather commanding view of the harbour. According to Tomoko-san, it's been featured in all manner of Japanese advertisements.

We were all struck by the sheer number of crows all around Hakodate. I don't think I'd ever seen so many in one place in my life, and they all seemed like pretty massive birds. It probably would have been creepier, but they were fairly unobtrusive and quiet, quite unlike the mynahs that gather along Orchard Road at dusk. 

We passed the Russian Orthodox Church as we walked along the narrow streets, and its gates were decorated with this wreath, which looked like an explosion of ribbons.

Across from it was the Catholic Motomachi Church. The whole neighbourhood is great to wander around and take photographs in, and small enough to cover in an hour or so. In our case, we were on our way to catch the cable car up Mount Hakodate to see the sunset and the transition between the day and night views of the city so there wasn't much time to really explore, but we managed to catch most of the sights anyway. 

The Mount Hakodate Ropeway is one of the city's busiest tourist attractions, allowing visitors a quick and easy way to get up and down the Mountain. In the summer months single-way tickets are sold for those who want to hike one way, but in winter the walking paths are closed for safety reasons. In the car, everyone jostled to stand by the windows for views of the city, but being the pacifists we are, the four of us wound up looking out the opposite way. 

It was still a pretty stunning scene, and because we lucked out with the weather it was clear enough that we could almost see all the way to Aomori.

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