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Otaru: Former herring capital now home to Hokkaido’s other snow festival

16 Comments
By Mandy Bartok

For most travelers, a winter trip to Hokkaido rarely goes beyond taking in the gigantic sculptures of the Sapporo Snow Festival or hitting the slopes of the area’s ski resorts. But while these experiences are not to be missed, visitors with time on their hands should look beyond the obvious draws and head for Otaru, about 30 km northwest of Sapporo.

Otaru is an enjoyable getaway whatever the season, thanks to its enviable position on Ishikari Bay. The city made its fortune during the heyday of the herring industry, and the imposing warehouses that line the downtown canals reflect that prosperity. Signs detailing the heritage of each building are posted in Japanese and English, but also in Russian, emphasizing the proximity of Hokkaido’s closest neighbor, and the role her citizens have played in Otaru’s main trade.

Stop in at the Otaru City Museum, housed in one of the old stone warehouses, for an introduction to the community’s history before wandering along the paths lined with gas lamps that run parallel to the canal. Many of the other waterfront storage facilities are also getting a second lease on life as boutique shops, restaurants and microbreweries. For picturesque dining, grab a seat in the Otaru Beer factory’s canal-side eatery and warm up with hearty German fare and the town’s eponymous brew.

Just up from the canal, the storefronts glitter with another of Otaru’s specialties: blown glass. In the 19th century, local companies manufactured oil lamps for residents, a necessity during the dark Hokkaido winters. With the advent of electricity, however, factories shifted to more luxurious products, and today the gift shops sell everything from glass jewelry to translucent ornaments.

The sprawling Kitaichi Glass Emporium, the grand dame of the industry for over a century, displays what might be the most comprehensive collection of glassware in the whole of Hokkaido. Shop to your heart’s content for new crystal, or just sip a cup of coffee under the delicate chandeliers in the attached restaurant. If you’re keen to make your own glass souvenir, brief hands-on courses are offered at several workshops, or you can watch the masters at work at the Glass Studio just outside town.

For a glimpse into the life of a turn-of-the-century shipping baron, don’t miss the Otaru Kihinkan, a mansion built by the wealthy Aoyama family. It’s a fascinating testament to what herring money could buy — exquisite lacquerware décor and porcelain toilets are just a few of the elegant trappings on display. Handcrafted stairs of Japanese ash and a 100-tatami mat room hammer home the fact that it paid — quite handsomely — to be in the Hokkaido fishing business.

You can’t come to the coast and not take advantage of the delectable seafood caught just offshore, so when hunger strikes, head straight for Sushi-ya Dori. A wide range of sushi bars and seafood restaurants here serve up the best of the day’s catch; splurge for the crab, a local specialty, or opt for a bowl of fresh chirashi-zushi.

If you’re here on a day trip from Sapporo’s snowy wonders, be sure to stay until the sun goes down. Otaru’s own snow festival — timed to coincide with the larger celebration in Sapporo — kicks off after dark, when ice sculptures lining the city’s canals and streets are illuminated from within by thousands of flickering candles. Along the old disused rail bed that cuts through the center of town, additional sculptures, snow slides, and stands serving hot drinks and warming snacks round out the icy festivities. Trains run back to Sapporo throughout the evening, but Otaru is the kind of town you might find yourself lingering in long after the last whistle has blown.

Trip tips

Otaru can be reached from Sapporo by JR Hakodate line (40 minutes, 620 yen); be sure to swing by the tourist information center at the station when you arrive. While most visitors stay in Sapporo, Otaru also has a range of accommodations: the Hotel Nord Otaru (www.hotelnord.co.jp/english) occupies prime real estate on the picturesque main canal, while the nearby Hotel Vibrant (www.vibrant-otaru.jp), housed in an old bank, sweetens the deal with an on-site chocolate shop. Head to the Glass Studio (0134-33-9390, 10 a.m.-6:20 p.m.) for hands-on classes, available every day except Tuesday (1,800 yen). This year’s snow festival runs Feb 5-14.

This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp)

© Japan Today

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16 Comments
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The Otaru Beer brew is fabulous - some of the best beer you will get in this country..

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My very favorite place in all Japan! I would recommend anyone going to the snow festival to make the trip by JR as the article says. It's very beautiful at night especially. But dress warmly as it can get a bit windy in the winter months.

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fantastic place.The little stalls selling Mongolian lamb float my boat.

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Simply love the feel of walking down the street there with its variety of ancient architectural buildings

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The city made its fortune during the heyday of the herring industry

Where are all the herring now?

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I see the Otaru hot springs (no foreigners allowed) are not listed as an attraction. And the canal is only a few hundred yards long, hardly impressive when we have hundreds of miles of the things back home. They do have some nice old stone/brick buildings there though.

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Nothing wrong with Hokkaido -but you need to be aware of dump trucks crossing the tracks. Something that can really set your day back.

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I had a lovely time in Otaru a few weeks back, but Hotel Nord was a bit of a walk from any decent food in the evening, and the staff looked at me blankly when I asked for restaurant recommendations. Later, coming back, I noticed a poster of such information in the very foyer of the hotel...

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AGW WP Otaru will be my destination in Fall this year or latest Winter next year. Food in Hokkaido is just delicious

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it is a beautiful city and the bars around the canal are great. barmen - handsome.

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LoveUSA: if barmen are handosme I am definitely going there

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LoveUSA: if barmen are handosme I am definitely going there

check the bars at the bayside.

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LoveUSA: i have been told they have a sushi street in Otaru, is it true? bayside will be the second place to go after onsen

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Marushka, there are signs in Russian everywhere, so you will be fine in Otaru.

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Great, I have been in Sapporo and Jozankei, but I haven’t seen so many signs in Russian, or maybe didn’t pay attention

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Marushka, there are signs in russian even in the onsen. They will guide you through the procedures. I am sure you will be fine. The atmosphere is friendly.

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