Otaru, Japan: Day trip from Sapporo - Hokkaido's beautiful port city and capital of glass-making

After we pass the third glassware shop within 100 metres I turn to our guide, Tosh, who reads my thoughts. "I bet you're wondering why there are so many glass shops here," he says. "It's because Otaru is famous for its high-quality glass production."

As we stroll down Sakaimachi Street, Otaru's main shopping thoroughfare, Tosh tells us about this beautiful port city's history – how the town enjoyed prosperity as an anchorage for cargo ships, then how it flourished as a fishing town during the Meiji Period (1868 to 1912), reaching its pinnacle about 100 years ago. Around that time, local fishermen focused their fishing efforts on salmon, however it was herring that brought in the big bucks. Railway lines were constructed, warehouses were built along the canal, and lavish mansions popped up like daisies during this prosperous period.

As the fishing industry declined, locals had to diversify to make ends meet. As we pass yet another glassware shop, Tosh explains that although the production of glass has long been established in Otaru – it started with the manufacturing of oil lamps used to light the dark Hokkaido winters and then, during the fishing heyday, glass buoys were used to hold the fishing nets – it only evolved into a craft form in recent times. "The people of Otaru needed income, so they started making beautiful glass ornaments," he says as he stops to admire a collection of translucent glass vases neatly positioned in a shop window.

We're not the only ones enthralled by the beautiful works; the shop is full of visitors, some of them waiting to start a glass-making class during which they will learn to craft their own cups and bowls. We'd do the same if we were staying overnight, but we've just come for the day.

Otaru makes for a great day trip from Sapporo. It is about 30 kilometres north-west of Hokkaido's capital, a journey that takes about 40 minutes by train, and all the main tourist sights are easily accessible on foot from Otaru station.

We met Tosh at our hotel at 9.30am (we're on a customised tour with Wendy Wu Tours and one of our requests had been not to start touring too early) and had arrived in time for morning tea, which was fortunate as there are more sweet shops in Otaru than there are glassware shops.

The island of Hokkaido is renowned for its dairy produce and Japanese people are crazy for sweets – so in Hokkaido dairy sweets are big. You'll find everything from soft-serve ice cream in a variety of interesting flavours to cheese cakes,cheese biscuits, milk puddings and more.

There are many dessert shops along Sakaimachi Street, but Tosh veers us in the direction of his favourite haunt – LeTAO – the town's most legendary dessert cafe. Here, people queue for the double fromage cake. The top layer consists of smooth mascarpone cheese while the base is a fluffy baked cheesecake. It could well be the best cheesecake I've ever had … so I enjoy a second portion (serving sizes in Japan are smaller when compared with Australian serving sizes anyway) and vow to return in the afternoon to try the custard pudding.

Otaru Canal is the city's most scenic spot. This is where all the action took place in the days of yore and we take our time ambling along the waterside soaking up the picturesque surrounds. We're not the only ones, there are many other tourists milling about and artists and musicians have set up alongside the water to entertain the throng.

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We've seen photos of the canal in winter, when powdery snow covers the pavement, but the warmer months offer a different kind of charm. Today, the bright blue sky is studded with white puffy clouds and there's plenty of greenery. Come night, the canal will be illuminated by gas lamps which make for a postcard-perfect photo.

The canal makes for a great photo any time of day and Tosh tells us there are a few obligatory spots where we should get a family snapshot. Alongside the canal is one of the better options, with the historic brick and stone warehouses that date back to the fishing era in the background. These warehouses have been transformed into restaurants, bars and shops in recent times. Standing on Asakusa Bridge you get the historic warehouses in the background as well as the length of the canal. We wait for our turn to get this shot.

In Japan, foods that are a local specialty are typically only easy to find in their place of origin. Hokkaido dairy is a great example – it's easy to find here but travel to the mainland and you really need to look. This is because Japanese people take great care with food preparation and will only serve the very best. If food has to travel far, it's no longer considered to be of the highest quality.

The island of Hokkaido is also famous for having some of the best seafood in the country – and Otaru is known for its quality sushi and kaisen-don (a rice bowl topped with seafood variations). We head to Sushi-ya Dori for lunch – a "sushi street" developed in the 1980s to assist with tourism efforts and help position Otaru as the city of sushi. The street is only about 200 metres long but home to a huge number of sushi restaurants, including a few sizeable eateries and many smaller ones. We choose a little hole-in-the-wall place jam-packed with people and order with help from Tosh.

We try shrimp, snow crab, sea urchin, salmon and abalone sushi, and get ready to order more … but then remember there's still that custard pudding at LeTAO to fit in before we head back to Sapporo.

FIVE MORE GREAT DAY TRIPS FROM SAPPORO

NOBORIBETSU

Located about one hour's drive from Sapporo, Noboribetsu is one of the island's most visited and established natural hot spring resort towns. The surrounding area is famous for its beautiful mountain vistas, which are best enjoyed while relaxing in an onsen, naturally.

SHIKOTSU-TOYA NATIONAL PARK

The hiking trails that weave their way around this park – which is named after its two lakes, Shikotsu and Toya – pass volcanoes, gorges and craters as well as the lakes. See env.go.jp

FARM TONITA

If you're in Hokkaido in summer, the flower fields of Furano are worth a visit. Farm Tonita is one of Hokkaido's most famous flower farms, home to lavender, poppies, violas, marigolds and more. See farm-tomita.co.jp

BIEI

Surrounded by rolling hills and flower fields in the summer, the small town of Biei is as picturesque as they come. A bike is a great way to get around. One of the most interesting sights is a bright blue pond, which appears vivid because of natural minerals found in the water. The pond itself is man made and has only recently become an attraction.

SHIRAOI AINU MUSEUM

The Shiraoi Ainu Museum is one of the best places to learn about the Ainu – an indigenous people of northern Japan and Russia. The main drawcard is its display of five traditional Ainu houses – each representing an aspect of Ainu culture and lifestyle. Shiraoi is about an hour's drive from Sapporo. See ainu-museum.or.jp

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

jnto.org.au

FLY

Qantas flies to Tokyo from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, connecting with Japan Airlines from Tokyo to Sapporo. Otaru is easily accessible by train from Sapporo. See www.qantas.com, www.au.jal.co.jp/aul/en/ and www2.jrhokkaido.co.jp/global/

STAY

Keio Plaza Hotel Sapporo has comfortable rooms and is conveniently close to Sapporo station. See keioplaza-sapporo.co.jp

TOUR

Wendy Wu Tours offers bespoke tailor-made tours, private tours and group tours through Japan. Personalised tours of Hokkaido can be organised and cherry blossom tours are always a popular choice. See wendywutours.com.au

Tatyana Leonov travelled as a guest of Wendy Wu Tours.

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