HAKODATE, Japan -- The city of Hakodate on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido has gained popularity as a tourist spot thanks to the debut of the "shinkansen" bullet train line on the island in the spring of 2016. And local confectioners in Hakodate and along the new line are targeting tourists with distinct offerings.
As a result of their efforts, there is now an interesting line up of local sweet offerings, including a legendary cake that has been faithfully resurrected using a long-forgotten recipe from the Meiji era (1868-1912), and unique sweets using local ingredients or linked to local features.
Gotoken, one of the most famous restaurants in the city, is best known for its curry rice, but it also sells its own sweets, one of which, a long-discontinued product, has been gradually gaining in popularity.
Gotoken started making and selling Sofu Cake when it first began operations in 1879, but discontinued it. But it was given new life as the flagship in the Bouquet series collecting nine of the restaurant's sweets that have proven popular over the years. These established Gotoken's reputation as a confectioner.
According to the restaurant, the recipe for Sofu Cake was perfected by its first head chef, Eikichi Goto, who took his inspiration from "kasutera," a sponge cake-like sweet from his home town of Nagasaki, at the other end of the Japanese archipelago. Presumably because of this, Sofu Cake resembles kasutera in appearance.
When Hakodate thrived as an international port, the cake was sold on international passenger liners, and enjoyed huge popularity among foreign customers.
The cake was discontinued at some point, but luckily Gotoken kept the recipe. The new Sofu Cake is a faithful reproduction.
The cake has a rich buttery flavor and a distinctive sweetness, resulting in a different flavor from the currently popular types of sweets that feature lightness and a refreshing quality.
After its revival, the Sofu Cake gained popularity through word of mouth. Many shinkansen passengers now buy it as a souvenir. It is now the top seller among the Bouquet series, according to Kengo Harada, a Gotoken director.
Seaweed is one of Hakodate's best known local specialties, and a restaurant at Hakodate Airport has created a sweet that aims to take advantage of the ingredient's recognition.
Pollux, operating inside the terminal building of the international airport, introduced Kaiso Jelly -- seaweed jelly -- in February.
The jelly is made from an extract of the fiber-rich gagome kelp.
When smothered in herb syrup and then sprinkled with lemon juice, the jelly turns pink in color. A spoonful of it fills the mouth with a pleasantly light sweetness, refreshing sourness and the flavor of herbs.
Yuji Horikawa, Pollux's lead chef, said he expects an increase in orders during the summer as temperatures rise.
In the town of Kikonai, home to the southernmost train station bearing the same name on the Hokkaido Shinkansen, a new sweet designed after the image of its local "yuru chara" (cute and friendly mascot character), Kiko, was born.
Yakiichoko is a baked sweet introduced by Suehiroan, a local confectioner with a long history.
Since Kiko's design is based on the red-haired cows raised in the town, its body is red. To obtain the color, the crust of Yakiichoko that covers a baked chocolate filling contains locally produced black rice. The color of the filling is inspired by grilled meat.
The confectioner chose to sell Yakiichoko at only selected outlets, including a "michi-no-eki " truck stop in the town, according to Suehiroan President Mitsunobu Takeda.
"We don't want it to be a souvenir item available everywhere. We want to make it something that you must visit Kikonai to purchase," Takeda said.
A confectioner in the town of Matsumae has also found its way into Hakodate to offer a distinct sweet designed after the image of cherry blossoms, a major tourist attraction of the town that historically grew as the only "jokamachi," a town formed around a feudal lord's castle, in Hokkaido.
Hokuyoudou in April opened an outlet inside Share Star Hakodate, a commercial complex that opened in central Hakodate. Its products had only been available in Matsumae.
"It was my predecessor's wish to open a shop in Hakodate," said Hajime Kida, the third chief of the confectioner, which opened in 1937. "I'm so elated we've finally done it. We're going to expand our business territory further by showcasing our Matsumae sweets in Hakodate."
One of Hokuyoudou's popular products is the Junnama Sakura Roll, creme brulee containing cherry leaves and whipped cream rolled up in a sheet of pink sponge cake.
The Matsumae castle is a tourist attraction where some 10,000 cherry trees blossom in spring. The Junnama Sakura Roll debuted six years ago to exploit the well-known image of the cherry blossoms.
While Hakodate boasts one of the top three night views of the world, its sweets are also a local feature to remember.