Until I landed at New Chitose Airport, I did not realize that Otaru's very own winter festival, Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi (Otaru Snow-Light-Street or something) was happening at the same time as Sapporo's big snow thing. I WAS NOT EVEN AWARE OF THIS!!!
Miwako and I left for Otaru in the early afternoon, and my host family came to pick us up at the station near their work. I guess I was never all that clear on what they do... and I'm still not. But we drove past their office building in some weird warehouse district of Otaru that I've never seen before (or rather, have passed by plenty of times but never realize it spreads so far out into the bay) that was like a big maze of warehouses and parked semi trailers and gargantuan snowdrifts. I sort of knew that Papa Ueno was in construction, but it turns out he actually owns the company, and Mama Ueno works there, too. I guess that explains why they can leave work at any time to meet me for lunch. Also how they managed to raise four children and still travel all over the place.
Anyway, they took us to the Otaru Ferry Terminal (a huge building that hosts a ferry once a day that takes at least a day to get to mainland Japan), where it turns out there's both a restaurant and an onsen in the building. Who knew? They knew. The Uenos know every restaurant in Otaru. Papa Ueno had actually briefly met Miwako before, but that was a long time ago. We ate lunch and they told us stories of their adventures, including the ridiculously awesome story of how they met, and how they were in a long-distance relationship between Osaka and Otaru for four years before they got married. I LEARNED MANY THINGS TODAY!!! I think it's pretty awesome that they've been married for probably 20 or so years and are still a very loving couple. Also, they're the nicest people in the world. Sorry, everyone else in the world, but we are all jerks in comparison!
I forgot to include our double date photo in the pictures for today's blog, so you'll have to imagine what the four of us looked like with a sweeping view of the Sea of Japan behind us.
After lunch, the Uenos dropped us off in Minami Otaru, and Miwako and I began exploring the touristy district. In between the thousands of souvenir shops, vendors selling sea creatures in various states of living, and swarms of Chinese tourists were a bunch of neat little snow sculptures.
Walking through the various shops containing glassworks blown in Otaru (oh how I miss the sign that used to say "It blows, glass blowing experience!") always makes me sleepy, and today was no exception. We needed to wait until dark so the candlelit street would make sense, so we had our first real date at a cafe where the two of us have had millions of playdates at in the past.
When we decided we were semi-awake enough to continue on, we went to the park that was built on top of the now defunct site of the first rail lines in Hokkaido. The Sapporo Snow Festival is a really neat thing to see, but Otaru's festival sort of puts it to shame. For one, it's not nearly as crowded, but the people who are there are all taking their time wandering around enjoying the sights. Being in the middle of a big city, Sapporo's festival is also surrounded by the lights of the city (and at night the illumination on the giant snow sculptures is pretty but they kinda don't look like snow anymore), whereas the little railroad park thing in Otaru is mostly dark at night, which makes the various lamps and structures built out of snow look extra pretty and romantic.
When we started getting cold, we took a break to enjoy some hot sake and meat-on-a-stick from the various vendors that had set up festival-style shops. We then moved on to the Otaru Canal, where the canal was all lit up with floating candles, and the sidewalk that runs its length was covered with a million billion more snow and candle creations. Miwako and I have spent a million playdates walking along the canal, so just like the cafe, it was pretty awesome to finally get to have an actual factual date there.
As we got closer and closer to the favorite spot of every tourist to Otaru ever, we started getting really cold, and I had to pee really badly, so we picked up the pace and headed to Hanazono to go to my favorite place in Otaru, Owl's Bar, where I finally got to eat soup curry. Soup curry was just first starting to catch on in Sapporo when I was an exchange student, so Mizue got me hooked on the stuff, and even with only visiting Sapporo once a year, I'm still very knowledgeable about the various soup curry shops in and around Sapporo. Remember: I was into it WAY before it became popular.
After visiting my favorite place in Otaru we then went to Miwako's favorite place in Otaru, Bar Modern Times, yet another place that Miwako and I have gone on a million playdates to. She hadn't seen the owner ("Master") since before she left for Canada about two years earlier, so they had a lot of catching up to do. Miwako keeps saying I need to move to Otaru and work as a bartender there, which would be TOTALLY awesome, except that I don't think he can afford to hire a second person. An interesting fact about Master (who probably has a real name, too) that neither of us knew... in spite of being an awesome and incredibly knowledgeable bartender, he doesn't drink alcohol! ANOTHER THING WAS LEARNED TODAY!!! Unfortunately due to Otaru being a small town, the last train to Sapporo leaves at 11pm, so we couldn't stay for long.