Hakodate, Japan – Trying out a bargain tour guide

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I arranged a private guide in Hakodate through the Hakodate Goodwill Association. http://www.hakodategoodwill.com/indexeng.html The Association offers tours for up to 6 people on a pre-arranged basis for an unbelievable 3000 yen total ($29.41) plus any expenses of the guide which was explained to be a day-pass for the tram (600 yen or $5.88) and maybe some entrance fees, although those might be free for the guide. How could I resist?

A few weeks before our departure, I posted on our Cruise Critic roll call and 4 shipmates quickly jumped on this deal. In about a week, I got an email response to my online application to the Hakodate Goodwill Association from a local named Kensuke (“Ken”) who agreed to be our guide. He responded promptly to my few email questions about payment and again the day before we arrived in Hakodate to give me a weather forecast and assure me he would meet our shuttle bus from the ship.

When I’d asked him by email how we’d recognize him, he wrote back to say he was “a 5’7″ Japanese man with black hair and brown eyes” and would be holding a sign. (I’d been really grateful for that last, since the physical description did little to set him apart from the vast majority of his countrymen.) Anyway, I’d created a mental image of a slender man, dressed in typical Japanese business black-and-white. His emails indicated a pretty good command of English, but I knew Google Translate could have something to do with that.

As promised, Ken was front and center, holding up a sign with my name as soon as we stepped off the shuttle bus from the port just after 11am. In contrast to my imagined guide, he was round-faced and a bit rumpled, wearing a black t-shirt with a large graphic design, and army green pants with a thick chain hanging from the wallet he kept in his pocket. It was also immediately apparent that his English was limited. Oh well, he was there and he knew where to take us, so all in all, things were OK. Ken walked us briskly into the nearby train station to buy day-passes for the tram saying we needed to hurry so that we could experience the morning fish market before it closed at noon. We pitched in 200 yen for his ticket, a whopping $1.96 per couple.

We walked the few blocks to the market where we found a teeming mass of activity. Hakodate is famous for squid. In the center of a big covered market, we watched people fishing for live squid in a tank to be summarily turned into sashimi. At Ken’s urging, David prepared to join the queue, but when 9 school kids piled in ahead of him, he changed his mind…and one squid got a temporary reprieve.

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Fishing-for-squid tank in the Hakodate Morning Market
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Inspecting the goods

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Ken’s English was limited, but it was great to have him identify some of the mysterious things for sale: whale bacon, smoked scallops (I’d thought they were caramel candies!), herring roe (the only item we didn’t like on our sushi lunch in Otaru–a strange, solid rubbery mass of tiny yellow beads) and so much more.

The covered market opened onto a busy, sunny street filled with vendors and tiny restaurants of all types. David bought a luscious slice of canteloupe, eating it perched on a bench beside his fellow customers. We bought “barbequed” scallops piled high on a shell and cooked on an open pit fired by a handheld propane torch until the broth around them boiled. Delicious! A little further on, I couldn’t resist squid ink soft serve ice cream that turned out to be surprisingly good…probably because there was little of the squid ink to be found other than the odd gray color.

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“Barbequeing” scallops
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David finishes off the last of the broth while the chef and his wife wait for the final thumbs-up
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Squid ink ice cream!

Leaving the market, we headed towards restored brick warehouses which Ken explained were now shopping malls. Their brick construction and the brick pavers we saw on roads belied the strong European influences in Hakodate. None of our group was interested in shopping, so we breezed past more music boxes and souvenirs, stopping only for cold local beers and a melon drink at a grocery store/deli.

Our path took us up an increasing slope to Higashi Honganji Temple, a beautiful Buddhist temple. After repeated destruction by fires, the current building was erected in 1915 and was the first reinforced concrete temple in Japan. Apparently, the construction caused some concern, both as to whether the material was strong enough to hold the massive roof…and as to the purity or lack thereof of a material that people had walked on and therefore made impure. Geishas were hired to dance on the floor and somehow that resolved all. The temple shows some western influence, one main depiction looking as much like a Catholic saint as anything. Nearby Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox churches emphasize that influence.

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Continuing our uphill climb, we boarded the gondola up to the Mt. Hakodate Observatory House for a sweeping view of the city and the surrounding waters of the Tsugaru Straits. The Hakodate Ropeway (gondola) tickets turned out to be the biggest expense of the day at 1280 yen pp, roundtrip ($12.55). Sure enough, after a little negotiation between Ken and a lady at the ropeway office, Ken was free so long as we paid for the group of six at once. No problem. We were a cooperative group and we settled up quickly.

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We finally used our tram tickets for a long ride to Goryokaku Fort, a star-shaped fort of European design. The grounds of the fort are now a park and people rowed small rental boats on the moat waters. At the center of the fort the former magistrate’s office has been rebuilt and provides an interesting glimpse of classic Japanese architecture. Tatami mats felt delightfully cool under my bare feet, giving off a fresh scent of straw. The large wooden sliding doors to the building were thrown open as well as the paper interior doors allowing in both sunshine and a light breeze from the beautiful day outside.

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Pleasantly tired and happy after our long day and nearly 6 miles walking, I thought it a perfect end to our tour. The rest of the group agreed and we followed Ken to the tram for our ride back to the train station and the ship shuttle bus.

It was 4:45pm by the time we reached the station and Ken had had nothing to eat and only a few canned soft drinks despite our offers. We felt guilty that he was to receive only 3000 yen for nearly 6 hours of time with us. Conferring among ourselves and worried about the Japanese aversion to tips, we offered him an extra 3000 for his dinner which he very happily accepted. We parted with positive feelings all around.

I’d recommend the Hakodate Goodwill Association to anyone looking for an unbeatable deal, willing to try an amateur guide with unknown language skills, and physically able to handle a good deal of walking, often uphill. (We walked about 6 miles with Ken.)

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Cruise port details:

It’s about a 15-minute shuttle bus ride from the port to the train station. There’s no realistic way to walk. Celebrity and/or the city provided the shuttle at no charge.

Free wi-fi was offered just beyond the gangway in the passenger welcome area.

Comments and questions are welcome!