22 November 2016

Exploring Hokkaido: Otaru

Otaru is a lovely coastal town in Hokkaido, and an easy day trip if you're located in or visiting the Niseko area. It's not huge so it's the perfect place to visit for a just a day or two. I've been a handful of times, and I keep going back. I suppose for me, there are a couple of things that I really like about Otaru. I love being by the sea, and being able to walk right up to the edge of the island and take in the view. There's something really calming and restorative about looking out at the water, even more so when you're spending a lot of time in the mountains here, where everything turns completely white for a good few months of the year. The second reason I keep going back to Otaru is because it's a really great place to go on a food crawl. There are lots of places to eat and drink, especially if you love fresh seafood. Below are a few of my favourite places to visit in Otaru.

Sankaku Market
This is a great place to start your trip to Otaru, because it's right next to the station. Exit Otaru station, turn left, head up some stairs and you'll soon see the entrance to the covered Sankaku Market. It's predominantly a fish market, but some shops sell other Otaru and Hokkaido delicacies as well. Even if you're not planning on buying anything, it's a great place to wander around and take pictures, as there are lots of odd-looking things on sale: everything from fish cheeks to live clams that occasionally squirt water at you! 

There are lots of dried seafood products for sale too, which are ideal for tourists due to the relatively long shelf-life. I've bought the dried salmon and dried scallops before, both of which are delicious as beer snacks, but you can also get more creative and use them in cooking. If you want to buy something fresh (for example a live crab) a lot of the traders have restaurants opposite their stalls where they can cook whatever you've bought for you.

I usually eat at one of the restaurants that serves seafood donburi. The best one is about halfway down the market, on the corner of where the public toilets are (doesn't sound like the best location for a restaurant, I know). This place is always really busy, but you can write your name on the list first and then wander around the market until they have a table ready for you. You can choose whichever seafood toppings you like for the donburi. Often they have a few daily specials as well. I recommend having a late breakfast / early lunch here and putting your name down by 11.30am. Often they stop taking reservations later during the service, or sell out of certain popular items (such as uni, sea urchin).

The Sea
If you keep walking downhill straight out of the station, you eventually come to the port, where you can look out over Ishikari Bay. There's nothing down here apart for a parking lot and a government building, but I always wonder why there isn't a hotel here as the view from a few floors up would surely be spectacular on a clear day.

I just like to spend a few moments here, take in the view, enjoy the fresh sea air and of course take a few photos!

The Canal
The canal is another really attractive part of Otaru. During the winter months the waterside is also illuminated, making it even more beautiful after dark. You can take a cruise down the canal on a boat. On the side of the canal, there are lots of old stone warehouses and Victorian lamps, giving you a sense of what the town looked like in past times.

Sakaimachi Street
This attractive shopping street is the perfect place to pick up souvenirs, or simply admire the local products. Otaru is well-known for glass-blowing, and many of the shops sell gorgeous little figurines. Music boxes are also produced in Otaru (one of many of the city's European influences) and you can marvel at these cute little boxes, each of which plays a different tune, which can be anything from classical music to the latest pop song.

Towards the end of the Sakaimachi street you can find two LeTAO shops, one opposite the other. LeTAO is a famous Hokkaido brand whose shops are a sweet-lovers' paradise, selling everything from cheesecakes to chocolate truffles. The shops are usually pretty generous with samples too! On my last visit I managed to try their Niagara Chocolate (grape flavour white chocolate), Royal Montagne (chocolate truffle) and Premier Maalu (crunchy wheat chocolate) all for free. After a few hours of wandering around Otaru, I like to sit in the LeTAO cafe on the top floor of the main shop, for coffee and cake. If you want to go all out, you can sample three of their famous cheesecakes in one plate. If you try just one cheesecake, make sure it's the Double Fromage: the base is a rich baked cheesecake, and the top layer is a smooth fresh cheesecake.

Otaru Brewery
This beer hall with on-site microbrewery is a great place to finish your day in Otaru. You can sample the authentic German-style beers (pilsner, white beer, dark beer) and enjoy a picturesque canal-side view. The quality of the beers here is really good, as they use organic ingredients imported from Germany alongside the high-quality Otaru water. Prost and Kampai!

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