[blog]* Sorry about the delay, real life intervened! But we're back to bring you Day 20, Part 1: Otaru, an enchanting little tourist town on the western edge of Hokkaido.
(Again, apologies for the delay, but we're back and better than ever! Well, we hope...)
So, day 20. From Kushiro, I decided to head west, going slightly past Sapporo to Otaru, on the western coast of Hokkaido.
First taking the JR Super Ozora limited express train back to Sapporo, I then changed for a normal JR Hakodate Line train to Otaru. The journey, in total, costs a cool ¥9,130 (£70.20 / $108.10) and takes just under five hours to complete. By the time I arrived in Otaru, it was already approaching noon.
One of the first things you see on entering the station is a wall entirely covered with traditional blown-glass lamps:
Now, just to be clear - I usually like touristy things even less than most people, but after near-consecutive days of Wakkanai - Abashiri - Kushiro, I really rather appreciated the warm, cheesy touch.
As a town, Otaru is smaller than Kushiro - the current population stands at around 130,000 - but with its proximity to Sapporo and a rich history it has quite impressively managed to turn into a productive tourism industry, it has - superficially at least - managed to escape the necrotic decline of the latter.
It's worth noting, though, that (in 1920) it was once the largest city in all of Hokkaido, and that Otaru's population is the same now as it was in 1925. And indeed, an initial look around the area did rather remind me of Kushiro, with the same melancholy, slightly worn air to it.
There's really not much to say. This section of Otaru, at least, was quiet, with strangely large and deserted shopping centres and arcades criss-crossing the main streets.
Otaru is actually pretty hilly, with steep roads running up and down all the way to the sea. The first thing I thought of was San Francisco although, of course, the two are quite a bit different in atmosphere. But still.
The tracks here are of the now (obviously) derelict Temiya Line, a passenger / freight line that previously ran from south Otaru into the city centre. The tracks were first laid in 1880 - quite impressive - although operation only in fact ceased in 1985, which perhaps makes it less so.
Still, it makes for a pleasant, tranquil little stroll, and it's clearly still carefully tended to, with colourful flowers springing from the side even this late into the year.
Um, sorry, got carried away there. But yes, rail tracks.
The tracks emerge onto the rather adorably named "Sepia Road", marking clearly and, dare I say, thankfully, the start of the tourist district.
Many of the buildings here are colossal brick-and-stone structures, reflecting the city's historical Western influence. They're so big it was kind of hard to take a proper picture, though...
This one had met a slightly unusual fate, having been hollowed out to accommodate the product of one of the other lingering Western influences here in Otaru: a glass-blower's shop.
As with most tourist hotspots in Japan, rickshaws were pretty popular here - every half hour or so I'd see a grumpy-looking couple or a group of ecstatic schoolgirls whiz past under the impressive muscle power of the toned (and often quite good-looking?) rickshaw drivers.
The word rickshaw, in fact, actually derives from the Japanese word for rickshaw, jin-rikisha, although some sources credit it as an originally American or French invention. Well... whatever.
The slight depression (?) of the earlier areas aside, Otaru really is quite a pretty city once you get to the centre.
As mentioned above, Otaru is famous for its glasswork - a legacy of its long history as an active trading port with the West - and the centre is dotted with shops selling intricate, and always somehow distinctly Japanese, pieces. If you've dreamed since the age of three of glass chopstick holders or a hand-blown kappa figurine, here's your chance.
The canal running through the city centre is, of course, one of Otaru's main attractions, although for the time being I crossed it instead to take a look at the harbour.
I had rather expected the port area to be a glitzy touristy affair, but there was none of that in sight at all.
The Japan Coast Guard PL02 (Patrol Vessel Large) - usually resident in Kushiro - was docked here, too:
PL02 is the Ojika-class Erimo, coming in at 91.5 metres long, 11 metres wide, powered by two 7,000 hp diesel engines and armed with an M61 Vulcan Gatling gun. Well... just so you know.
And... we'll continue with this tomorrow! Sorry, this really shouldn't be a two-part post at all, but it's getting late and I wanted to put something out for now to reassure you, my dear readers, that I hadn't (yet) keeled over and died.
So - what happens next? Why is there a picture of incredibly cute plushie kittens coming up?
All answers coming up in the next post. Stay tuned!
A brief intermission...
Most of the touristy stuff is going to be mentioned in the next post, but for now, have you ever been to Otaru? What did you think? What and where would you eat? Send in an e-mail, comment below, or follow me on Twitter / twitter.com/foodjapan