For most travelers, a winter trip to Hokkaido rarely goes beyond taking in the gigantic sculptures of the Sapporo Snow Festival or hitting the slopes of the area’s ski resorts. But while these experiences are not to be missed, visitors with time on their hands should look beyond the obvious draws and head for Otaru, about 30km northwest of Sapporo.
Otaru is an enjoyable getaway whatever the season, thanks to its enviable position on Ishikari Bay. The city made its fortune during the heyday of the herring industry, and the imposing warehouses that line the downtown canals reflect that prosperity. Signs detailing the heritage of each building are posted in Japanese and English, but also in Russian, emphasizing the proximity of Hokkaido’s closest neighbor, and the role her citizens have played in Otaru’s main trade.
Stop in at the Otaru City Museum, housed in one of the old stone warehouses, for an introduction to the community’s history before wandering along the paths lined with gas lamps that run parallel to the canal. Many of the other waterfront storage facilities are also getting a second lease on life as boutique shops, restaurants and microbreweries. For picturesque dining, grab a seat in the Otaru Beer factory’s canal-side eatery and warm up with hearty German fare and the town’s eponymous brew.
Just up from the canal, the storefronts glitter with another of Otaru’s specialties: blown glass. In the 19th century, local companies manufactured oil lamps for residents, a necessity during the dark Hokkaido winters. With the advent of electricity, however, factories shifted to more luxurious products, and today the gift shops sell everything from glass jewelry to translucent ornaments.
The sprawling Kitaichi Glass Emporium, the grand dame of the industry for over a century, displays what might be the most comprehensive collection of glassware in the whole of Hokkaido. Shop to your heart’s content for new crystal, or just sip a cup of coffee under the delicate chandeliers in the attached restaurant. If you’re keen to make your own glass souvenir, brief hands-on courses are offered at several workshops, or you can watch the masters at work at the Glass Studio just outside town.
For a glimpse into the life of a turn-of-the-century shipping baron, don’t miss the Otaru Kihinkan, a mansion built by the wealthy Aoyama family. It’s a fascinating testament to what herring money could buy—exquisite lacquerware décor and porcelain toilets are just a few of the elegant trappings on display. Handcrafted stairs of Japanese ash and a 100-tatami mat room hammer home the fact that it paid—quite handsomely—to be in the Hokkaido fishing business.
You can’t come to the coast and not take advantage of the delectable seafood caught just offshore, so when hunger strikes, head straight for Sushi-ya Dori. A wide range of sushi bars and seafood restaurants here serve up the best of the day’s catch; splurge for the crab, a local specialty, or opt for a bowl of fresh chirashi-zushi.
If you’re here on a day trip from Sapporo’s snowy wonders, be sure to stay until the sun goes down. Otaru’s own snow festival—timed to coincide with the larger celebration in Sapporo—kicks off after dark, when ice sculptures lining the city’s canals and streets are illuminated from within by thousands of flickering candles. Along the old disused rail bed that cuts through the center of town, additional sculptures, snow slides, and stands serving hot drinks and warming snacks round out the icy festivities. Trains run back to Sapporo throughout the evening, but Otaru is the kind of town you might find yourself lingering in long after the last whistle has blown.
Otaru can be reached from Sapporo by JR Hakodate line (40 minutes, ¥620); be sure to swing by the tourist information center at the station when you arrive. While most visitors stay in Sapporo, Otaru also has a range of accommodations: the Hotel Nord Otaru (www.hotelnord.co.jp/english) occupies prime real estate on the picturesque main canal, while the nearby Hotel Vibrant (www.vibrant-otaru.jp), housed in an old bank, sweetens the deal with an on-site chocolate shop. Head to the Glass Studio (0134-33-9390, 10am-6:20pm) for hands-on classes, available every day except Tuesday (¥1,800). This year’s snow festival runs Feb 5-14.