It was a sunny Saturday morning in Otaru, a port city on the western side of Hokkaido. Gathered at one end of Otaru Canal was a busload of Chinese tourists whose tour guide was instructing where to meet later. Shaded under colourful umbrellas, the women were busy posing for photos in front of the shimmering water.

Turning away from the brick warehouses, AB remarked, “This looks like a typical former industrial town. I don’t understand why this is a tourist area.”

“Maybe it’s uncommon to see canals here?” I suggested. “Anyway, follow me, I’ll bring you to the port area – it’s more interesting than here.”

We crossed the canal, leaving behind the hordes of tourists. As well as the impossibly tanned rickshaw touts in tight cycling shorts and jika-tabi (split-toe footwear).

After passing a few roads, we arrived at Otaru Port and its wide promenade. It was relaxing to gaze at the endless horizon, which leads to the Ishikari Bay and the Sea of Japan.

There was a flurry of activity ahead of us and we wandered over to check it out. People were setting up stands at a market to sell secondhand items and local produce. At first we thought it was for a festive occasion. Instead it was because a cruise ship was arriving with hundreds of visitors from other parts of Japan.

Four middle-aged men in matching checkered shirts were playing Japanese surf rock to an attentive audience of obasans and ojisans (middle-aged women and men). The music, together with the gentle breeze, warm sunshine and market buzz, created a charming ambiance.

Even though we were standing in the middle of a concrete parking lot next to a shipyard, if I closed my eyes, I could imagine being on a sandy beach in Okinawa instead!

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