Otaru Snow Festival, worth the detour

TL;DR Don’t bother with the Sapporo Snow Festival when you’re just a 30-minute train ride from Otaru. And once you’re there, enjoy the best hamburger steak you’ve ever had at Muse

Otaru is for lovers

Otaru is for lovers

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.

In all fairness, the snow sculptures are pretty elaborate and impressive. I'm just bitter that we skipped Tokyo and the Park Hyatt for it.

In all fairness, the snow sculptures are pretty elaborate and impressive. I’m just bitter that we skipped Tokyo and the Park Hyatt for it.

Where Sapporo fell short, Otaru stepped up to redeem itself. The next day, I rallied the troops and we began making our way along the Hokkaido coast. From Sapporo, you can take a direct train to

The 30-minute train ride to Otaru wraps around the coast providing chilly views of the ocean flanked by snow banks

The 30-minute train ride to Otaru wraps around the coast providing chilly views of the ocean flanked by snow banks

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.

The many wonders of Otaru by day

The many wonders of Otaru by day

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 Patisseriewhich 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.

Hokkaido is famed for its milk with the Kitakaro boutique in Otaru known for its soft cream.

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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.

I really couldn't get enough of the bear turd souvenirs in the bear goods shop.

I really couldn’t get enough of the bear turd souvenirs, and especially this bear turd ear picker, in the bear goods shop.

It took us awhile to figure out what this store was, but we think it was associated with the underwear shop next door.

It took us awhile to figure out what this store was, but we think it was associated with the underwear shop next door. If anyone can provide a translation, I’d be keen to know!

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.

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Otaru is known for being very couple friendly

The canals are lined with lanterns and tealights.

The canals are lined with lanterns and tealights.

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Otaru’s snow sculptures were much smaller and more humble than those in Sapporo, but I found them 10,000 times more charming.

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Many of the photo ops are staffed by volunteers at the ready to help you take a photo.

And only in Japan are there people roasting potatoes to share with you, while you wait in line for a photo.

Hokkaido is also known for its potatoes, grilled with butter churned from happy Hokkaido cows.

Hokkaido is also known for its potatoes, grilled with butter churned from happy Hokkaido cows.

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.

The best hamburger steak I've had ever!

The best hamburger steak I’ve had ever!

More posts on the last three months of my life to come!

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