The storied history of trade between Japan and western nations in the former financial hub of Otaru has left a veritable cultural moraine in its wake. Repurposed banks and post offices house confectionaries and galleries. Trolleys that meander up and down hilly cobblestone streets pause for passing rickshaws carrying couples from the train station to the port. At sunset, Victorian-style oil lamps and hand-lit candles illuminate intersecting canals, and their disarming European aesthetic sets the stage and the allure for this uniquely charming seaside town.
With maps in hand, we’re on a gastronomical treasure hunt. The cold sea is rich in nutritious plankton that yields the most coveted seafood in the world. A bowl of seafood donburi is like a jewellery box of sea urchin, crab, scallops, squid, fatty salmon, roe, abalone and more. Hokkaido ramen is considered by aficionados to be the best in Japan, and there is plenty to be enjoyed from curry ramen to Sapporo-style miso ramen topped with sweetcorn, sprouts, pork, and a generous ladle of seafood. At Naruto Honten we sample deep-fried chicken that is so crisp and juicy it is reminiscent of Peking duck.
The abundance of nature, clean air, water and quality feed enable the over twenty-six brands of Hokkaido wagyu beef to rank very high, and we sample at every chance from charcoal grilled skewers at street markets along the harbour. So tender and marbled, so robust and juicy—I am in wagyu heaven. But wait! Now I’m distracted by the most massive oysters I have ever seen. I would literally need to share this with two other people. They are served raw on the half shell, but I choose to enjoy it smoked over the grill. The vendor laughs at my look of ecstasy as I sink my teeth into this sweet, buttery mollusk. “You had me at irasshaimase…you had me at irasshaimase.”
Hokkaido is also renowned for its quality dairy. The soft ice cream is second to none. En route to the famed Kita No Aisu Kuriimu Ya San for flavours like wasabi, squid ink, and sea urchin, I am side-tracked by the sight of vanilla ice cream drizzled with local honey and a buffet of floral options from begonias and petunias to marigolds and violas. At LeTao we indulge in the dreamiest double-layer cheesecake made with mascarpone and local cream cheese. Pyramid-shaped chocolate and Darjeeling cake is seductively fragrant, melt-in-your mouth decadence.
One could be forgiven for focusing only on the food, the local beer, sake and emerging wine region, but a leisurely canal cruise through peaceful waterways reveals rows of brick and stone warehouses filled with glasswork studios, coffee houses and museums that should not be missed.
Upon entering the Otaru Music Box Museum I am stupefied by the cacophony of melodies from the 25,000 music boxes on display. Intricate designs from antiques to trains, planes, and animals. Between nostalgia and hypnosis, I gaze at shiny revolving cylinders and pins plucking steel combs, and anguish over which one to purchase for home. Glass galleries and shops along Sakaimachi Dori like Kitaichi Glass Sangokan are magnificent with endless and awe-inspiring selections of intricately designed glassware.
At the Otaru Il Ponte studio I enjoy my own hands-on glass blowing experience. Through attentive guidance I’m lampworking, using the blowpipes and tongs, and learning techniques like melting crushed glass onto another glass and quick cooling it to create a cracked-glass affect. It’s so much fun, and to the amazement of my family, upon return, I have my own unique glassware to prove my glassmithing prowess.
Situated near the bucolic countryside, the ski paradise of Niseko and Hokkaido’s vibrant capital city, Sapporo, Otaru is a gem that exudes an easy laid-back vibe, a panoply of flavours, and a wealth of artisans sharing their crafts with all who visit.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.