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We'll Always Have Otaru


snow 3 °C

BGM: Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence by Sakamoto Ryuichi

I think my friend timed it so that it would snow the day he showed me Otaru.
(Okay. So there were only a few flakes. But it was enough to send me in a whirl of a dither).
Otaru by itself, particularly the area near the sea, is plenty romantic without any extra help from Mother Nature. Nonetheless, the stage was set for my heart to fall hopelessly in love and it certainly did.


I honestly don't know what struck me about Otaru but it all worked together to blow me away with wonder. When you get off the train, it looks just like any other modern Japanese city with its excess of tall rectangular buildings in various shades of gray.


But follow the main road leading from Otaru Station down the gentle slope to the sea and soon you're in a different world with old Russian warehouses and softly painted Western-style brick buildings that whisper old tales of wealth and opulence, back when Otaru was hailed as Hokkaido's Wall Street. Yet decades after its boom and bust had already passed, Otaru still has an active fishing community, a thriving tourist economy, the prestigious Otaru University of Commerce and a hopping art scene just to name a few of its attributes. Otaru was also home to famous film icons and musicians like Ishihara Yujiro, Kitajima Saburo and the group Glay, whose images adorn quite a few of the storefronts. Many Japanese flock here just to see where their idols grew up. Others come for plump, juicy seafood fresh off the boat. As my friend showed me around this enchanting city where everything sparkles with shimmering glass and flickering lamp light, I was amazed at how just 30 minutes by train away from Sapporo, the entire world can change. I'd never been to Russia, or Europe for that matter. But everything I imagined it to be was here, and in a language I could somewhat understand. (It's a real mind-trip when that happens!)

The Canal, with its Mikage stone walkways and 63 Venetian-style glass lamps, is the main attraction in Otaru- too romantic for anyone's own good when all lit up on a winter's night.


The warehouses near the harbor hold fish markets and famous restaurants like Non-non, specializing in fresh crab, scallops, urchin and salmon caught in Hokkaido's chilly waters. We came to Non-non for grilled hokke fish and kaisen donburri, a bowl filled with white rice, topped with a variety of seafood. The scallops were so creamy and plump, it was like eating butter straight off the stick!


The other end of the canal leads to the heart of Otaru's glass industry, where artists give glass-blowing lessons for a reasonable fee. Crystalline, tinkling orgel (music box) tunes of Japanese pop hits fill the streets, making the whole place feel like Christmas, even in the heat of summer. Otaru twinkles and shines like a fragile blown-glass vase. Touch it too much and the image might shatter. Our favorite haunt here is Kita-ichi Glass Cafe, owned by the same people who run the glass galleries. Live piano music plays softly as oil lamps reflect light from every table. It's terribly enchanting. I slowly savored a tart and sweet mixed hascap berry parfait, chased down with a cappuccino topped with thick, fluffy whipped cream. I made friends with the lady at the counter, since I didn't want to come here by myself with nobody to talk to (a useful survival tactic. The piano music alone was enough to destroy me!)


This side of the canal is dotted with a charming selection of gift shops, interesting museums (music boxes, kaleidoscopes, Venetian glass, etc), and a small group of seaweed and crab vendors. One place in particular is our ultimate favorite: just a few hundred yen and you can enjoy a piping hot bowl of rich, sweet crab miso soup, boiled right there on site. For an extra few hundred yen more you can dig into a fat, juicy red crab leg with a pair of scissors.


After my initial introduction to Otaru, I'd since made over twenty trips during my year in Hokkaido. I admit the first couple of times were simply to recapture some of that first-time magic. But like any new romance, the deeper you fall in, the more you wish to discover.

Access Otaru by Train: Take the JR Hakodate Line from Sapporo Stn. to Otaru Stn.

Posted by GenkiLee 21:05 Archived in Japan Tagged hokkaido otaru otaru_canal crab_miso_soup

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