Winter in Hokkaidō: Otaru Canal by Candlelight
A Candelabra of Snow
The Otaru Snow Light Path festival is a winter spectacle that illuminates the northern city in the light of some 120,000 candles. Established in 1999 by local volunteers, the annual event has continued to grow, drawing upwards of 500,000 visitors to the twenty-first installment of the festival held February 8–17. Over 2,000 volunteers from across Japan and abroad made art installations from hand-carved ice candle holders at venues around the city, including the Otaru Canal, along the tracks of the old Temiya Line, and at Asarigawa Hot Spring.
Set on Ishikari Bay on the western coast of Hokkaidō, Otaru flourished beginning in the Meiji era (1868–1912) as a port for the nearby Ishikari coalfields and the city of Sapporo. The Otaru Canal, one of the town’s main symbols, was built during the Taishō era (1912–1926) by reclaiming land from the bay and used to move cargo to and from the port’s many brick warehouses.
Activity at the Otaru port waned after World War II as demand for coal fell and the local herring industry declined. The canal fell out of use after docks were built in the harbor, and from the 1960s to 1970s, a plan was hatched to fill in the canal and demolish the warehouses to make way for roads in an attempt to alleviate traffic congestion. A citizens’ movement arose in protest, and debate went on for more than a decade before authorities finally decided on building a road over half of the canal but also preserving the warehouse district. A walking path, municipal gardens, and 63 gas lamps were installed along the course of the canal, and the brick warehouses have also been gentrified, with restaurants and other businesses leasing space in them. Excursion boats now ply the canal’s waters, with hotels, bars, eateries, and souvenir shops lining the banks serving the many tourists who come to enjoy the historic atmosphere.
Along with candlelit paths and art installations, the decorations of the Snow Light Path festival also include hundreds of illuminated glass balls on the canal reminiscent of old-fashioned fishing floats.
(Originally written in Japanese. Reporting and photography by Laufen Katsu. Banner photo: Visitors stroll along the walking path at the Otaru Canal venue of the Otaru Snow Light Path festival.)