Less than an hour northwest from Sapporo and en route to Niseko is the port city of Otaru. It faces the Sea of Japan and is known for the beautiful Otaru Canal that runs through the city. The canal is lined with rustic old warehouses that have been converted to restaurants and cafes.
Riding the train from Sapporo, the coastline gradually emerges and the majestic ocean and mountains come into view. Taking a walk further north nearer to the coast, the buildings are old, short and have an architecture that is distinctly not fully Japanese. Following Hokkaido’s colonization in the late 19th century, Otaru was made into a fishing port because of its strategic location. It feels like a harbor city, with ships, old buildings that used to be warehouses or offices of shipping and trade companies, and glass buoys dotting the landscape. Glass blowing is a big industry in Otaru, as big hollow glass spheres held in woven rope were used as buoys. The culture is reminiscent of that in Murano, Venice. There was even a glass buoy tree standing in the snow. The miniature glass buoys make really pretty souvenirs!
Walking along the canal conjures images of the vibrancy and liveliness of a fishing port that Otaru used to be. During winter, the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival is also held in February, where lighted ice sculptures and lanterns illuminate the path with a soft warm glow. Nearby is Sakaimachi, which is a merchant street that houses many restaurants, music box and glass blowing museums and souvenir shops. These brick buildings used to belong to the resident trading and shipping companies.
Seafood naturally dominates the cuisine in Otaru. Fresh scallops, tuna, salmon, sweet shrimp, roe, and sea urchin, the list goes on. Many places offer seafood sashimi style on a rice bowl, torched, or grilled. Walking around the other side of town toward the central bus station to catch a bus to Niseko, we came across a fresh market, and a huge ice sculpture of a monkey eating a banana. It was nice looking at the local produce, catches of the day, and even a lone exhibit of what a typical living room looked like in a 1930s Hokkaido household.
For whiskey enthusiasts, the Nikka Whiskey Distillery is 25 minutes from Otaru by local train. It was established by the father of Japanese whiskey Taketsuru Masataka himself who also opened the first whiskey distillery in Japan, the world-renowned Yamazaki distillery. Overall, Otaru is perfect for a half or full day trip from Sapporo or Niseko, and certainly brings a touch of charm to your visit to Hokkaido.