Once a flourishing port specializing in the herring trade, Otaru, on Hokkaido’s west coast and about an hour’s train ride from Sapporo, has found out that the tourist trade is far more profitable these days. Since Otaru has a picturesque canal lined with old warehouses, why not make an “Illuminated Night Path” with lanterns on the canal and candle-lit ice containers along the walk and have it take place the same week as Sapporo’s Snow Festival?

Add to it a burgeoning – mostly miniatures and beads – glass industry, local delicacies and good marketing and presto! A festival is born. I found the Illuminated Night Path far more charming and intimate than the big sponsored works in Sapporo. In Otaru, a bevy of volunteers made sure that all the candles were lit, the lanterns straight, were helpful with taking pictures and giving explanations, saw to it that each child got a chance at the snow-tube slide.

And it boasts one genuine contender for the Guinness Book of Records:  the biggest and freshest cream puff ever!  A whooping 15-18 cm in diameter, filled with delicious, not-too-sweet custard cream made with wholesome Hokkaido milk. A steal at 550 Yen (approx. $ 7, Euro 5).  And oh yes, king crabs, hairy crabs, scallops, salmon, oysters and all kinds of fish I don’t even know the name of in all manner of preparation:  dried, smoked, fresh, grilled.  From the samples I tasted, all very “oichi oichi” (tell that to any Japanese cook and he/she will beam).

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