Monthly Archives: November 2013

The City of Glass: Otaru

Back to my Hokkaido road trip diary, now that one of my friends was able to help save my photo files off my old, and dying computer! Last time the adventure left off with me just leaving Shiretoko, and the beautiful Kaminoko Pond

It appears that in leaving Shiretoko I forgot to pack my luck. I kid you not, after I drove away it was just one terrible thing after the next, domino style. I had promised to meet my friend from Fukui (who was visiting Sapporo with his parents) for dinner that night, but instead of a little luck of the Irish rubbing off on me, it appears I suffered the worst string of bad luck imaginable. I’m not looking for a pity party, but seriously, it was terrible! So terrible I know it’ll be therapeutic to write down and hopefully let go of the negativity forever!

My Series of Unfortunate Events:

  • Typhoon like weather hit and I had to drive the 381km winding roads (which would not have been fun to begin with) in non-stop torrential downpour terrified out of my mind. This should have taken 6 hours, due to terrible weather, it took 8.5 hours.
  • Had an absolute BLAST with my friend and his parents at dinner. Genghis khan BBQ is fabulous and it’s a must do if you’re in Sapporo! Unexpectedly, I then went out drinking with him and his parents (must be an Irish thing, but loved it!) where I guess I drank a little too much and proceeded to loose my iPhone getting out of my cab home.
  • Spent the entire morning calling police stations and lost&found offices. Unfortunately nothing was open because it was a Sunday. Just my luck, eh? Seeing as I had no reservation to stay further in Sapporo, I was forced to leave…because, of course just my luck yet again, my hostel, and every other hostel was fully booked.
  • Admitting defeat, I printed off driving directions and road maps because I was now about to commence the last 2 days of my road trip with no GPS. Checked out of my hostel and upon arriving at my car saw that someone had dented the passenger side door, which would later cost me 20,000yen (approximately $200) in damage fees to the rental company. UGH!
  • Drove the entire way to Otaru and Niseko with no bloody idea where I was going and “winging it” in the truest sense of adventure. However, instead of the adventure and “liberated-at-long-last-from-the-ball-and-chain-that-is-technology” experience I was expecting, I instead proceeded to have numerous minor heart attacks on the Japanese highways with all of the road directions being written in kanji (which I am only so-so at reading).
  • Oh, and the cherry on top I broke my kindle (e-reader book) screen, rendering it completely useless, not long after.

Even 2 months after this nightmare has ended, it’s still painful to recall. I can vividly remember parking my car in Otaru, after many harrowing driving experiences (for the record it’s only 40 minutes from Sapporo, a mere 40 minutes!), putting my head against the steering wheel and wanting to cry. I had made it, but I was barely holding it together. It’s at times like this that traveling alone is really the pits, you have no one to cheer you up and try to make you laugh. You are forced to delve into the depths of your own wandering-weary soul all by yourself and find that gem of hope and optimism in light of a terrible situation.

I took several deep breaths, told myself to just breathe, just breathe. I played my favourite Michael Buble song to rally my spirits and slowly began to calm down. I was in Otaru, and I was going to enjoy myself. I was in Otaru, and I was going to enjoy myself. I was in Otaru, and I was going to enjoy myself…It became my mantra, and after several minutes I took one last deep breath packed everything into my purse and stepped out of the car ready to spend my now limited time in Otaru (only a few hours at most) having fun. Only of my friends used to have a quote for times like these. Screen shot 2013-10-17 at 10.40.19 AM

So true. I may not have been able to drink (I had to drive later) but I could brush my hair, apply a fresh coat of lipstick, smile at myself in a mirror, stand up a little straighter and go have an amazing adventure. That’s exactly what I did. So glad I did too, Otaru was simply delightful. IMG_1524 IMG_1525

Otaru is a small little city very near Sapporo that is often called ”The Venice of Hokkaido” for its beautifully preserved canal area and the multitude of blown glass.  Blown glass art is a specialty of this city so be sure to save time to go shopping! Nothing like a little retail therapy to turn a frown upside down!IMG_1547

My first course of action was to walk along the canal, breathing in the salty air and hunt down the famous steam clock. There is a steam clock outside the music box museum which was a gift from Vancouver (where I’m from) so I was determined to find it! It didn’t take me long and I arrived just in time to hear the main steam whistle which occurs on the hour every hour (it plays a little chime too, every 15 minutes). After that I strolled along happily shopping what felt like every glass store I saw.IMG_1536 IMG_1537 IMG_1540

When I was young and wild, or at least wilder than I am now, I dreamt of running off to Venice to learn how to blow glass. It has always been something that fascinates me. When I was really little, my favourite part of visiting Granville Island in Vancouver was dragging my parents to watch the glass blowers at work. It was nothing short of magical the way the artists blew the glass as effortless as if they were blowing up a balloon. About 3 years ago, after finishing university and before I moved to Japan, I actually took a night class at my local art college in Calgary. It was a dream come true and much more difficult than I ever imagined. Since then my appreciation of blown glass has increased even more. Therefore Otaru was like glass blowing heaven for me, I could have watched the artists at work for hours and shopped all day long. I think I spent more money shopping this day, than any other day the whole 2 weeks I was in Hokkaido.


I bought a cute circle vase to grow my marimo in and a few under-the-sea miniature glass figurines to keep them company! It was a perfect souvenir!

I also bought myself the sweetest looking tea set. I adore yuzu (a Japanese fruit similar to a lemon) and was positively smitten with this set. It was hugely inconvenient hauling this around Hokkaido with me for the rest of the trip, but I bought the whole set (stand and all!) and brought it back to Fukui.

I also bought myself the sweetest looking tea set. I adore yuzu (a Japanese fruit similar to a lemon) and was positively smitten with this set. It was hugely inconvenient hauling this around Hokkaido with me for the rest of the trip, but I bought the whole set (stand and all!) and brought it back to Fukui.

Finally, if you’re looking for a nice little place to grab lunch, seek out PRESS CAFE. It’s right along the canal, and it’s a pleasant walk to get there. I know that sushi is a specialty of Otaru, but I was seeking somewhere quiet so I bypassed the expensive and busy sushi restaurants. The sushi in Fukui is plenty delicious enough that I don’t feel the need to seek it out when I travel.  If you stroll along the canal away from the busy area you’ll probably be able to smell this restaurant before you see it. Wait for the tantalizing scent of curry being carried on the breeze. I followed my nose and I wasn’t disappointed. They serve delicious curries and have a unique drink menu. I ordered the blood orange juice and my taste buds were singing hallelujah after the first refreshing sip.IMG_1528 IMG_1529 IMG_1531 IMG_1534

I loved the tall ceilings and general sense of spaciousness. I really savoured my meal here, relaxing in the tranquil atmosphere and gazing out at the Venetian canal before heading out. I guess the lesson that can be learned from this terrible, terrible day is that mindset when traveling is everything. Once I was able to tuck my bad mood under the rug and turn over a new leaf I was able to experience all the beauty of Otaru and salvage my day. Out of curiosity, any travellers out there, do you have any advice for a new solo-traveller for what to do when things just go unbelievably wrong? How do you deal with bad luck when traveling?


Sometimes life closes a door. That doesn’t have to mean the adventure is over. It’s up to you to find another way…

Categories: Life in Japan, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Memoirs of a Maiko

I have amazing friends, something I’m incredibly grateful for. Three of my good friends from Canada recently came to visit me for 14 days and travel around Japan with me as their tour guide. There are days where I wake up and wonder if it was all just a dream, because it was that amazing; it seems too good to be true. Sadly however, all dreams must come to an end and my friends returned home and I returned to my busy job. The fun we had still brings a smile to my face even as I sit grading the neglected mountain of essays that awaited my return. Visions of cat cafes, shopping in Harajuku, karaoke marathons and Suntory whiskey dance in my head. It was assuredly one of the highlights of my 3 years in Japan.603096_10100780364585121_1181759933_n-1

Reflecting now on our time together, one afternoon in particular was my favourite; the afternoon we underwent the transformation from cute caterpillars to breathtaking butterflies. One of the things I really wanted to experience with my friends was dressing up like a maiko (or as most people in the West would say, geisha). Maiko, meaning “children of the arts” as they prefer to be called, and are the traditional Japanese traditioanl art entertainers in Kyoto.

One of my friends in Fukui had done this when her sister visited and I enviously poured over her photos. I wanted to do it too, very badly! I was far to shy to ever do this alone however, I absolutely needed backup. Cue best friends planning their visit to Japan. I waited with the patience of a cat ready to pounce, and casually suggested the experience and waited with baited breath. After all we are all 25-year old mature adults; long gone are the days we dressed up in our mothers clothes and inexpertly smeared makeup over our faces convinced we were little fashion masters. I was really nervous they wouldn’t want to dress up as maiko with me. Luckily they all agreed! Best decision of the trip!

At first I was a little shy to post these photos, but my friends kept begging to see all the photos so here they are, so enjoy everyone!


The photos with the umbrella were my absolute favourite. The man taking the photos was so professional and had the process down to an art, and even though we spoke different languages somehow everything turned out breathtakingly. I wasn’t allowed to see any photos during the shoot and so when I received a series of pictures at the end of the session I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it was actually me in the photos. I looked so…beautiful (sorry for the vanity everyone)!


Here is a full shot of the kimono I wore that day and holding the traditional package-style purse of maiko in Kyoto. Walking in those shoes was bloody HARD for the record. The photographer and I had quite a few laughs as I attempted to move my body for the poses he directed, nearly dying numerous times in the process. I was the most beautiful “bambi” you can imagine. Eventually I found my balance, mastered the knack of moving in a kimono and got the hang of teetering around in these babies. Tada!


After the shoes came challenge number 2: sitting Japanese style and arranging my body in the traditional Japanese room. I thanked heaven for 2 years of studying tea ceremony because sitting seiza (Japanese style with both legs tucked neatly underneath your body) wasn’t too difficult.  The photographer actually mini-applauded me for grace with which I was able to sit down whilst wearing the bulky kimono, what with all of it’s layers and tight obi ensuring I could not lean forward the teensiest iota. For most foreigners this is incredibly difficult, the only way to master this is practice, even Japanese women struggle.

DSC_0002 DSC_0003 DSC_0004I absolutely loved the particular red kimono that I chose for the day.  The company owns about 60 kimonos in various styles, lengths and colours. I wanted to stand out so I chose a very traditional bold red colour. Wasn’t it simply marvellous!? I was really nervous because I’m very tall for Japan (175cm, 5feet 9inches), but they had many kimonos for my height! So if you’re tall like me don’t worry you’ll have a nice selection I promise.

DSC_0007Well there you have it folks! My maiko photos to view at your leisure. My favourite thing was that, at no extra fee, the company also took 2 group photos for us. It strictly speaking wasn’t part of the deal, so I was very grateful they did so. We were also allowed to take as many photos on our own cameras throughout the whole process (including the getting ready makeup part) which was really cool. I’ll be sure to post some of those soon once my friends upload them! DSC_0001 DSC_0002

For anyone else hoping to do the same I really recommend Yumekoubou-Maiko Makeover Studio. We went to the one at the base of the Kiyomizudera Temple and had a great experience there.

You can find out more information or to make a online reservation please visit their website here:

Plan: We opted for the Maiko Makeover + Walking Plan, which took about 3 hours, and cost 13,125yen. This plan includes a CD with all of your professionally shot photos.  We chose the short walking course which was only about 15 minutes outside total (you walk to a small temple, take some photos and go back) because of the difficulty walking in the geta shoes.  Also, the lady staff member with us recommend the short (versus long) walking course because the tourists tend to mob you the second you leave the studio, she was right everywhere we walked people wanted photos.

Other points: The company was very English friendly, not perfect, but easy to understand for people who can’t speak Japanese.  The ladies dressing us and doing our makeup were very friendly. The company had a lovely array of kimonos to choose from. Bring a camera of your own as it’s perfectly ok to take your own photos throughout the entire process!


If you’re in Kyoto and looking for an unforgetable experience I hope you can enjoy doing this too! If you have any questions don’t hesitate to ask!

Categories: Life in Japan | Tags: , , , , | 2 Comments

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