Some of my favorite parts of Japan are a short train ride away from major metropolises of its cities. and this proved to be true of Otaru. After an underwhelming day of sculptures at the Sapporo Snow Festival, I remembered a place called Otaru that I had made a mental note of. I remembered something about it having Victorian architecture and a snow festival of its own, and figured I had nothing to lose, considering how underwhelming I found Sapporo. The Snow Festival was mediocre and while I certainly couldn’t build those structures myself, I also didn’t need to see this over the Park Hyatt Tokyo (Rob instantly regretted his decision). I also recommend Uniqlo, Muji, and the massage chairs at Bic Camera, as “must-see” sights in Sapporo, i.e. you’re not missing much if you decide to skip Sapporo.
We arrived in Otaru at mid-day and spent the entire day walking its Victorian streets, sampling various Le Tao cheesecakes and chocolates, and taking photos with snowcats. I love how eccentrically Western Otaru is with its canal, Venetian Mask museum, and gothic gargoyles.
All of that walking really helped us work up an appetite, so we ducked into one of the many Le Tao boutiques for free samples of chocolates and cheesecake. There were five stores within a 10-minute walk, ensuring that you were never very far from a free sweet treat. There’s also a large Kitakaro Patisserie, which is known for its soft cream, but also doles out free samples. One of my favorite cafes was inside Kitaichi Glass, a formidable stone building that houses its own tavern dripping in kerosene lights. It was well worth the visit just to escape the cold and warm up, even if the coffee was mediocre, and you were filling your lungs with toxic fumes.
I’m not a big shopper, but actually found all of the trinkets and tschotske stores in Otaru to be pretty amusing. Each one focused on its niche of handicrafts and omiyage, or souvenirs, with shops selling hand-carved woodcrafts, sad cat figurines, umbrellas disguised as samurai swords, all manners of music boxes and seafood stands galore.
Otaru really comes alive at night, when the city’s humble snowscapes are transformed by soft candlelight. There are two main areas to explore alongside the canal, and off a side street as you walk from the train station. If you’re not an endurance traveller, I suggest arriving after 5PM to get the most our of your day.
And only in Japan are there people roasting potatoes to share with you, while you wait in line for a photo.
At the end of the night we met back up with the rest of our crew for dinner at Muse, a bistro specializing in hamburger steak. The salads were amazing and the hamburger literally melted in our mouths. Muse is just a short jaunt south of the Otaru train station. And in case you’re wondering how I find all of these places, I combine diligence with Google Translate to use foodie site, tabelog.com.
More posts on the last three months of my life to come!