Winter Wanderings in Japan’s Little Europe
An old stone bridge is set against a backdrop of forested mountains, branches bare from the winter freeze. Across the road stands a cluster of gingerbread wooden cottages, sloping roofs coated with thick layers of icing sugar snow. Further along the main street are the town’s major landmarks – a grand Renaissance-style bank building and an antique steam clock tower. But this isn’t a quaint European village, it’s a small town in Japan.
Hokkaido's Hidden Gem
Take a train journey north-west of Sapporo and as the concrete sprawl fades into the distance, the scenery opens up to reveal the wide expanse of Ishikari Bay. It’s along this coastline that you’ll find the picturesque port town of Otaru.
I’ve arrived on a day trip from Sapporo. Only 30-minutes from the city, the route passes some of the renowned ski resorts which have made Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, a mecca for winter sports enthusiasts.
Most foreign tourists pass straight by Otaru for the ski slopes, but I discover a place lively with visitors seeking the enchantment of wandering through a real-life snow globe city.
Time Travelling Through Otaru's Old Town
Otaru started out as a remote fishing village and became a thriving financial hub by the early 1900s, whose harbour served as the gateway to Europe and Russia for Japan’s lucrative grain and rice trade. European influences extend to the colourful shopfronts, French-style patisseries and Victorian-style street lamps which line the central thoroughfare. Running alongside it is the Otaru Canal, built in 1923, when at around 300,000, Otaru’s population was twice what it is today.
The former Bank of Japan building, with its grand, Grecian-style columns and vaulted ceilings, stands as a stately reminder of Otaru’s prosperous glory days. Today, the bank has been converted into a museum tracing the history of Japan’s currency system. It’s free, extremely in-depth and surprisingly fascinating. I opt to also check out the Otaru Music Box Museum situated in a year-old heritage mansion. It’s one for fans of lovingly curated niche museums. With a collection of more than 3000 music boxes, many of them astonishingly beautiful, I don’t doubt its claim to be the largest museum of its kind in the world.
A steam-powered clock tower marks the end of Sakaimachi Street, the main shopping district. On the day of my visit, the strip is bustling with kids building snowmen on the sidewalks, and tourists going shop-to-shop sampling local delicacies. Most famous of all is the Hokkaido double fromage cheesecake. Completely different to dense, heavy European cheesecake, the Hokkaido variety is miraculously light and airy, yet velvety rich and creamy. It’s ridiculously good.
Almost every small town in Japan is associated with a type of craft deemed to be its speciality. The many stores and showrooms dedicated to handmade glassware clearly advertise Otaru’s claim to fame.
Glass blowing was first introduced to Otaru by Dutch traders. The Dutch were some of the first foreigners on the scene, and had set up trade here in 1852 when Otaru was still just a tiny fishing hamlet. The locals’ interest in glassmaking was piqued when they discovered hollow glass spheres made perfect floats for their twine fishing nets. Soon, a small industry sprang up around making glass floats to supply Hokkaido’s fishing trade.
As a market for more luxurious goods arose, Otaru’s master glass blowers began putting their skills towards more ornamental creations, and Otaru became known nationwide for the quality of its coloured glassware.
The most impressive of several outlets of the esteemed Kitaichi glassware chain covers two stories of a 100-year-old warehouse on Sakaimachi Street. The showroom is stacked with stunning handmade wares I wish I could take home, from delicate tea and sake sets to extravagant vases and traditional stained glass oil lamps.
Winter Warm-Ups at Nikka Whiskey Yoichi Distillery
I decide to combine my daytrip with a visit to the historic Nikka Whisky Distillery in the nearby town of Yoichi.
Of all the European imports adopted by Hokkaido’s industries, whisky is undoubtedly the most prestigious.
While I’m far from a whisky expert, I’m still well aware of Nikka’s reputation for single malts, which some connoisseurs say easily rival the Scots.
Japanese whisky first received international acclaim in 2001, when Nikka’s 10-year-old Single Cask Malt Whisky Yoichi won Best of the Best at an esteemed event by the Whisky Magazine of Britain.
Although the tourist experience at Yoichi Distillery is most definitely a casual, neophyte-friendly affair, I still feel like a bit of an interloper, a tequila-drinking savage on holy ground devoted to the most elegant and refined of spirits.
Still, I’ve always wanted to gain a better understanding of whiskey, if only to appear more sophisticated at dinner parties, so I opt to join in on an hour-long guided tour.
The tour provides an insightful, stage-by-stage explanation of the lengthy manufacturing process. Nikka’s top single malts are matured in barrels for 10 to 20 years, with their development overseen by a master taster. According to our guide, the master taster has several disciples to whom he passes on his wisdom. Should the master die before the batch is completed, a new master is appointed to carry on the work of his esteemed teacher.
An onsite museum is dedicated to the life and achievements of Japan’s master of whisky, Masataka Taketsuru, the complex and brilliant son of a sake brewer with an uncannily heightened sense of taste and smell.
Taketsuru learned the art of crafting authentic single malt whisky during his years of studying in Scotland. With the knowledge he brought back, he opened Japan’s first distillery in Yoichi, due to its climactic similarities to the Scottish Highlands. The grounds feature distinctly un-Japanese, vaguely castle-like architecture, reflecting the nostalgia Taketsuru felt for the distant lands where his love for whisky, and his Scottish-born wife first arose.
Tour complete, I head to the tasting hall with a newfound appreciation of the incredibly intensive labour, instinct and skill involved in the creation of this precious, and pricey, liquid gold.
Unfortunately, only the more common Nikka varieties are available to sample in the tasting hall. Still, I’m impressed with the smooth, delicately woody, faintly fruit-tinged flavour of the Yoichi Single Malt. It’s nothing like the fiery throat-punch of smoke and peat I’ve long associated with Scotch whisky. I think I may have found my go-to drop at last, so I pick up a couple as classy souvenirs from the gift shop.
An Unexpected Discovery
While most tourists come to Japan for the ancient temples and the bright lights of the cities, in Otaru and Yoichi, I’ve found an altogether different side of Japan. These places are no less authentic than the 1000 year old shrines of Kyoto, but simply shaped by distance and divergent histories.
Between the stunning surrounding scenery of snow-swept mountains and coastlines, the atmospheric charm of Otaru and the educational and sensory experience of visiting the Nikka Distillery, my time in this hidden-away pocket of Hokkaido has been eye-opening, endearing and surprisingly delicious.
From Sapporo, Otaru is easily reached by train, with services along the JR Hakodate Line departing several times an hour and reaching Otaru station in 30 minutes.
Nikka Whisky Distillery is a short walk from Yoichi station on the same JR Hakodate Line. It around another 30 minutes past Otaru.
There are also direct buses from Kyoto station taking about an hour and 15 minutes.
Although most visitors come to Otaru for the day, Otaru has a modest number of accommodation options, which often book out during the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival in early February.
The gorgeous Otaru Furukawa offers fabulous views and hot spring baths for around US$232 a night.
There are a handful of more budget priced Japanese-style guesthouses in town (around the US$63 mark) and a few slightly pricier business-style hotels.
Words Fiona Davies
Photos Fiona Davies