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Winter Magic in Otaru, Hokkaido

北海道小樽市:雪あかりの道・小樽運河・小樽カナル・堺町通り

snow 3 °C

BGM: Ano Hi No Kawa by Joe Hisaishi

Every February, Otaru celebrates its mountains of snow with the magical Otaru Snow Light Festival (雪あかりの道, Yuki Akari no Michi), where candles and lanterns are placed in holes in the snow all along the Otaru Canal (小樽運河, Otaru Unga), giving it an enchanting ambiance. This festival attracts hoards of tourists, photographers and couples in love. My dorm mate friend from China and I decided to escape the confines of college life and further explore the artsy-fartsy side of this city of sparkling glass and lights.

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Though blizzard conditions made it hard-going, that didn't stop us at all!

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Before hitting all the uniquely-themed gift shops and museums, we fueled up on sushi and a few special treats.

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Flavors from top to bottom: lavender, Hokkaido milk, Yubari melon, green tea, chocolate, hascap (北一三号館, Kita-ichi Sangokan

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The Handsome & Friendly Fellas of Chiharu Sushi

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Deep-fried Squid Tempura

The museums in question all straddle the far end of Sakaimachidori Street (境町通り)and we decided to hit them all. Our first stop was the Otaru Orgel (Music Box) and Antique Museum (小樽オルゴール堂2号館アンティークミュジアム), where we saw lots of things our moms would want -like pendant-sized music boxes, dolls, Tiffany lamps and antique furniture. One of the ladies running the museum gave us a delightful pipe-organ and old phonograph demonstration. We were mystified by how simple, old technology could still produce such a pure joy of sound.

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We trudged back into the storm and trying not to slip, sloshed through the snow further on down Sakaimachidori to Souvenir Otarukan (小樽館). Much to our surprise, on the second floor, we encountered the most inspiring collection of kaleidoscopes we'd ever seen!

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People thought we were crazy for wanting to do the Ice Museum in the middle of winter but we did, anyways. We bundled up in quilted smocks and entered a refrigerated room with walls displaying all things Hokkaido encased in blocks of ice. Stuffed white seals (that used to be alive) and other poor animals stared blindly at us in the ice fog as we were escorted from room to cheesy room. One of the rooms was a cooler set to -40C. But my friend and I were both from cold country so it was no sweat. The girl who took our tickets looked disappointed at our lack of reaction when she finally let us out.

The highlight of the tour was the ice bedroom complete with a starry "sky light" and electric lamp. It reminded me of the snow fort I used to make in our front yard every year as a kid. (As of 2012, the Otaru Ice Museum seems to be closed down, since no information is currently available on the Web).

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When Otaru's herring fishery began to flounder in the 1950's, blowers of glass floats and lamps turned their industry towards the production of Venetian-style glass art, putting Otaru on the world map as a producer of high-quality fine glass and crystal products. Otaru has some impressive glass museums like the Museo Dell'Arte Veneziana and Gallery Venini. Unfortunately, as with many Japanese museums and galleries that demand an entry fee, photographs weren't allowed. I wish I could show the amazing art we saw: a real paper wasp hive covered in hundreds of realistic life-size blown glass wasps, a pyramid tower of glass spheres -each one containing a different colored flower design, chandeliers that would make Queen Elizabeth II jealous and true-to-life glass birds to name only a few. For a moment, my friend had to sit down and cry, overwhelmed at the painstakingly exquisite beauty surrounding her. (Too bad this chandelier shot was the only one I could manage).

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Inspired to try her own hand at glass-blowing, my friend and I went to K's Blowing, where experts helped her breathe life into her very own orange and red glass vase. For several thousand yen, you get a mini lesson in glass bubble-blowing and after your creation cools, they will ship your work of art to your home a few days later.

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As the sky slowly darkened into dusk, it was time to turn around and head back to the canal to watch it twinkle alight in candle flicker. Oh, what a gorgeous sight!

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We stayed out there in the cold for about an hour, competing for good angles with professional cameramen all dancing with their tripods. But hunger triumphed yet again, so I suggested we head out to my favorite restaurant in Otaru: Otaru Souko Ichiban (小樽倉庫No. 1), a waterfront German-style beer hall located in one of the old warehouses right on the canal.

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Tender and smoky German-style roast pork with savory wine sauce.

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Oooh. These guys are smooth!

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An appropriate hall for group feasting, indeed!

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"Pari Pari" (crunchy) daikon radish salad with ikura salmon roe, carrots, cucumber, katsuobushi and onion dressing.

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Souko Ichiban Venetian Masks available in all sizes in the gift shop.

Souko Ichiban's main claim to fame is the Otaru Beer label draft pilsner, dunkel and stout, brewed in gleaming, shiny vats right there in the beer hall.
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All warmed up with bulging bellies and a beer buzz, we staggered slowly back up the hill, arm-in-arm (for snow safety!) to Otaru Station to catch a quiet, uncrowded train back to Sapporo. If there's one thing Otaru never lacks in winter, it's snowy streets that need shoveling.

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The Old Bank of Japan Museum, built in 1912, looks majestic both night and day- especially when viewed in a drunken state.

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Grazie, Otaru. Grazie!

Posted by GenkiLee 12.02.2002 05:17 Archived in Japan Tagged otaru otaru_souko_ichiban otaru_beer sakaimachidori orgel_museum glass_museum k's_blowing

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