German beer hall
Otaru is a sleepy little tourist-friendly town just outside of Sapporo, Hokkaido. Anyone spending a couple of days on Japan's main northerly island should try to make time to stop by. I've been a couple of times while visiting Sapporo for the annual snow festival. During the same week, Otaru holds their own smaller event, filling their famous canal walk with hand-made ice lamps. Although it's usually quite full of tourists, it's still a nice break from the crowds of Sapporo.
I assume most foreign tourists in Otaru want to experience Japanese things, but my favourite spot is the Bavarian beer hall. It's kind of cheesy and kitsch, but it's also and warm and cosy - the perfect place to take shelter from the snow! It's decorated like a ye olde german tavern and even the staff are dressed in period costume. There's a wide variety of beer on the menu, along with potato and sausage dishes. Personally, I love the giant pretzels (see above) which go perfectly with the hot wine.
Otaru is famous for making two things: glass and music boxes (orgels). In the canal district there are countless shops and museums dedicated to both. Tourists can even try their hand at at blowing their own glassware or designing their own music box. I'd really love to try to create my own box but it was too crowded and noisy during the ice festival. Instead, I found this groovy little statue outside.
We shared a moment.
Ice jack'o'lanterns or maybe Nameko
Dating from the 1920s, the heart of Otaru is the canal.On one side is a walkway, while the other bank is home to shops, warehouses and the aforementioned beer hall. Although the snow sculptures in Sapporo vary in size and style, the ice sculptures in Otaru are much smaller and delicate. There's not a whole lot to see, but strolling along the canal bank makes a perfect evening.
Canal walk by candle-light
Although this photo of the canal looks peaceful, I had to lean out over the wall to get it. To the left is the rest of the path leading along the canal bank. At the time it was full of people, forcing everyone to stick to two lanes along the narrow path. Nonetheless, people were very understanding about pausing so others could pose and take pictures with the sculptures.
Otaru might not be worth a dedicated holiday, but if you're heading to Sapporo then I highly recommend it as a day trip at the very least. My goal is to visit in summer next time. I'll miss the ice sculptures and cozy warmth of hot wine, but I want to make a music box!
On a more personal note, today I graduated from my Japanese language school. I've spent the past year attending an intensive system of courses in Tokyo and not everyone managed to pass our final exams. Honestly I doubted that I would do so. There were times when living here, studying and just getting by seemed impossible. Getting that certificate today felt like a year's worth of validation.
It sounds a bit silly, but I live my life believing that something better is always around the corner, even if you can't see it yet. If anyone feeling self-doubt is reading this, then I want to pass on this feeling of confidence to you. No matter how many times we lose our way, we always end up where we're supposed to be. Here's to living life like a cheesy, 1980s motivational song!