There are a number of different ways to get around Japan, but we found that one of the most convenient ways to travel from city to city is using Japan Rail. Japan Rail (JR) passes are special passes that are only available for overseas tourists, allowing you to travel on any of the JR train and local bus lines within the region specified on your pass. The passes can be bought as 7, 14, or 21 day passes to be used consecutively from the date of exchange. We bought a 14-day Japan Rail Pass from JTB Travel (about 46,000 JPY or 485 AUD) which covered almost of our days in Japan.
The pass itself isn’t cheap, so we had to do some research and planning to ensure that it was the best option for us in terms of how much we were going to be travelling using the JR pass. To make the most of it, we took day trips out to different towns and cities from where we were staying using the JR pass. Our first day trip was to Otaru, a port city northwest of Sapporo that is affectionately known as “The Town of Hills”.
The train ride from Sapporo takes a little over 30 minutes on a semi-rapid train on the JR Hakodate line (~640 JPY one way). The train ride is quite pleasant, especially as we can reserve seats for free with our JR Pass. The view is quite scenic as the Hakodate line follows the Hokkaido shoreline, so you get beautiful views of Ishikari Bay as you approach Otaru Station.
Being a port town and in such close proximity to the sea, it’s no surprise that seafood is everywhere in Otaru. A hop, skip and a jump away from Otaru JR Station is the Sankaku Fish Markets (三角市場). It’s not nearly as big as Nijo Markets in Sapporo, but it still has several stores in the triangular-shaped building (sankaku means triangle) including ones where you can sit down and eat your freshly prepared seafood.
We found the store owners to be very generous as well, showing us live crab and huge scallops and inviting us to try samples of salmon roe, picked hairy crab meat and even a piece of uni! Of course, they also try to sell you stuff, and while we didn’t really want a whole crab, we were happy to have some huge Hokkaido scallops for breakfast. The scallop in the shell was about the size of my hand, and we purchased two to have them served different ways – 1 raw and 1 grilled. Both were served with the roe and what I think were the intestines which are usually removed from the shell-on scallops that you find here in Australia.
After the Sankaku Fish Markets, we walked down Chuo Street towards the canal which is quite picturesque with the street lamps lining the canal and old warehouses lining the other side. During winter time, the canal is surrounded by snow sculptures and lanterns as part of the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, and I can imagine that it would be a beautiful sight next to the canal.
After checking out the canal, we followed the street running parallel to the canal until we got Sakaimachi Street (境町通り) which is the main shopping area in Otaru. This area used to be a merchant street during Otaru’s port city history and we noticed that there was a distinct European influence on the architecture of the buildings in this area. What used to be offices and buildings for shipping and trading merchants are now souvenir shops, museums and restaurants designed to attract tourists. We noticed that there were lots of shops selling glassware and other Venetian style arts and crafts (there was even a Venetian art museum with a canal running through it!), but there were other shops with souvenirs and seafood-based restaurants.
One place I was keen on visiting in Otaru was Le Tao, a popular Otaru bakery and sweets store. I did a bit of research beforehand so I knew approximately where to find Le Tao, but what I didn’t realise was that there would be 4 Le Tao stores within very close proximity with one another! Each store also had staff handing out samples outside, so we got to taste quite a number of different chocolate, biscuit and cake samples before heading to the cafe in the flagship store to have some afternoon tea.
I already knew I wanted to eat Le Tao’s famous cheesecake, so we went for a cake set which included a slice of cake and a drink for around 840 JPY (~$9AUD). I tried the chocolate double fromage cheesecake which was heavenly. “Double fromage” makes it sound heavy but it was the complete opposite, light as a cloud with a distinct cheesecakey flavour. The cake had two layers – one normal cheesecake layer and one chocolate cheesecake layer. The cheesecake layers are topped with mascarpone and the outside was crusted with chocolate crumbs. It was freaking amazing!
Sir D chose to go with the chocolate strawberry shortcake – a chocolate sponge layered with chocolate cream and sliced strawberries. Despite all the cream in this cake, it was also light as air and the sweetness was offset by the slightly tart strawberries.
Downstairs in the main shop, you can purchase whole cheesecakes and I was seriously tempted to buy a whole one and just eat it in our hotel room. And now I’m having serious regrets about not doing that!
Another thing I was keen on doing was eating good sushi in Otaru. There are lots of places along Sakaimachi Street selling seafood rice bowls, but we were after something a little more special. I’d taken note of some sushi restaurants in Otaru, some of which were on Sushiya-dori (寿司通り) or Sushi Street. I think this was the first time when we realised that finding exact addresses in Japan was a big pain in the butt without GPS, so we resorted to wandering up and down the street (which also made a local ask us if we were lost!) until we finally found Kukizen (one of the restaurants on my list), only to see that it was closed.
We consoled ourselves by finding a WiFi connection and pinpointing another restaurant on the list and going there for an early dinner. Google Maps is a saviour in Japan and we managed to fumble our way there by using 7-11 and Lawson stores as landmarks (“So, turn left when you get to the Lawson, and then you should see a 7-11 on the next street”)
The outside of Isezushi was quite unassuming, located off the main roads in a largely residential area with a few restaurants and shops dotted here and there. We went in with our fingers crossed that there were seats available, and got a table seat (sadly not at the counter though). English menus were procured (yay!) and we selected the recommended Dai (醍) Omakase sushi set that included 12 nigiri sourced locally from the Hokkaido region (3900 JPY, about $40 AUD). We also had a bottle of local sake to accompany the meal.
This sushi meal was definitely one of the highlights of my trip – the sushi was fresh and amazing with each nigiri prepared exquisitely. Half the time we didn’t know what we were eating but that was part of the fun.
I was really pleased to see that there were some of my favourites like botan ebi (humpback shrimp), hotate (scallop) and kani (crab) as part of the set, but I was seriously excited to eat shako (mantis shrimp) which I’d never had before. To be honest the flavour of the shako was quite bland, but the uni (sea urchin) was so good.
After the meal, we headed back to the JR station to get the train back to Sapporo. I’d definitely recommend visiting Otaru for a day or two if you’re in Hokkaido. It’s a nice change of pace from the busy city that is Sapporo and there’s heaps of good food to be had as well. I’m already thinking about my next visit which will hopefully be during winter so I can catch the Snow Light Path Festival. Japan is awesome!
Sankaku Fish Markets (三角市場)
3 Chome-10-16 Inaho
Ph: +81 134-23-2446
Open 7 days, 8am-5pm
Le Tao (ルタオ)
Ph: +81 134-31-4500
Open 7 days, 10am-6pm
Also other outlets on Sakaimachi street, Sapporo Daimaru, and Hakodate and New Chitose airports.
3 Chome-15-3 Inaho
Ph: +81 134-23-1425
Open 7 days, 11.30am-2.30pm, 5pm-9.30pm