06 Jun Sidebar: Hakodate – Local Style
May 20th was a special day in Hakodate. Baru-Gai was finally back! Conceived by a local (university assistant turned chef) from Hakodate, this bar-hopping seasonal event occurs across Japan. Please click on the link to learn more: https://www.nippon.com/en/guide-to-japan/gu014051/
Baru-Gai (aka Bar-Gai) posters announcing the event popped up on storefronts and kiosks along with colorful brochures with a map of participating establishments throughout town. It had been 3 years since the last event and Baru-Gai 2023 has been eagerly anticipated, drawing visitors from towns and cities around Hakodate. Jun-san had purchased tickets in advance and highlighted his top selections to visit that evening. Don, Sharry and Sam opted to stay on the boat, so I joined Jun-san for the evening.
First stop is La Concha, famous not only for the owner who started Baru-Gai but also because it had been shuttered since the pandemic began, only opening for this singular event then to be immediately closed again. I’m glad we were there early because by the time we left the lineup wrapped around the corner! La Concha’s standing bar tables were buzzing with patrons and the area decorated with festive lighting. After picking up our Pinchos (small tastings) and drink we were led to a tatami mat-lined room with large communal tables. There we enjoyed potato salad, crab cake and delicious fresh shrimp.
Next stop is a Japanese Izakaya, a short walk uphill crossing beautiful flower-lined streets. After a brief wait, we dined on seasonal onion salad and two types of fish cake wrapped in shiso leaf accompanied by a locally made sake.
Jun-san checked the time and called his wife, Kyoko-san to let her know we were stopping by their apartment. In their cozy home we enjoyed a drink and some of Kyoko-san’s homemade cake while chatting and sharing pictures of our families. Kyoko-san showed me a beautiful handmade crocheted baby gown she had created for their grandchild – so intricate! Kyoko-san, a recently retired pharmacist, helped me find another clinic and pharmacy to obtain more medication. Like Miyuki before, Kyoko-san and Jun graciously took me around Hakodate for my appointments. I’m forever indebted to them for their generosity.
After our brief stop in the condo, Jun-san indicated it was time to go. He wanted to show me his “most familiar” bar. Kyoko-san is recovering from a recent illness but felt well enough to join us. The city trolley takes us a few blocks away where even more restaurants and seafood markets are located and nearer to where Starr is docked.
Passing a cluster of small shops, Jun-san explains that these are “standing bars” – small, contiguous structures decorated with various strands of lights illuminating the alleyways between the shops. Winding through the area we see gathering customers who likely have already spent their Baru-Gai tickets and are not quite done for the night. The idea is to grab a drink and maybe a bite then move on…a bar crawl of sorts, like Baru-Gai but these bars are permanent fixtures of Hakodate’s night life.
Now we arrive at Bar Suginoko – Jun-san’s “most familiar” bar. He has a 50 plus-year history with this family and it’s easy to tell that Jun-san is beloved here. We are immediately greeted by Motoki, the daughter of the original owner. The place is definitely a “locals” bar with well-used barstools, plenty of lounge seating, a private party room and a larger party loft upstairs.
Jun-san introduces me to Mr. Aoi who joins Motoki behind the bar. Jun-san explained to them that I had arrived on Starr. Mr. Aoi says knows about Starr and where we are docked because he volunteers as a tour guide aboard the Mashu Maru, a ferry boat-turned-museum permanently docked across from us. Fifty years ago, Mr. Aoi – then a new graduate from Toyama National College of Technology, Maritime Technology program gained his experience in the Northern Pacific aboard a 10,000-ton cargo ship and traveled during the winter months from Japan to San Francisco. When he returned to Japan Mr. Aoi became the navigational engineer for the Seikan Ferry then later, while living in Kushiro, he worked as a ship inspector. He returned to Hakodate 8 years ago to help with the bar and now enjoys sharing his knowledge of the Mashu Maru with others.
In tour guide mode, Mr. Aoi offered to show Kyoko-san and I the rest of the bar. Suginoko occupies an 80-year-old building which was formerly a Chinese restaurant. They kept features of its past, such as the red-lacquered banisters that lead to the second-floor loft. Its comfortable and charming with the entire place warmed by a single heater near the bottom of the stairs. The second-floor loft is swanky with its dim lighting, velvety carpet, jazz posters and dark couches.
Hidden staircases are a feature we have noticed when touring older Japanese homes. Bar Suginoko is no exception, so up a steep staircase we go to the attic space where seasonal decorations along with family artifacts are kept. The air is cold tonight, but Mr. Aoi opens the window to show the spectacular views of Mt. Hakodate above the cityscape as well as the standing bar area across the street.
Downstairs the bar area was filling up with individuals and some groups arrive, mostly men. One gentleman found the barstool next to Jun-san and soon they were in a lively conversation. Turns out this man was a former student of Jun-san’s and is now a teacher himself! It was so heartwarming to see Jun-san and Kyoko-san among friends. After drinks they walked me to Starr where we said our good-byes. Since then, I have corresponded with Jun-san and Mr. Aoi via email. What wonderful people and an amazing “local style” experience…Kampai!