Formerly an important fishing port, the small city of Otaru on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido has retained much of its traditional charm and appeal. The bulk of the city’s bustling activity revolves around the quaint canal which is lined with converted warehouses, shops and eateries, and is popular with tourists and locals who come for scenic riverside walks. Venture beyond the canal to discover a sprinkling of quiet neighbourhoods which add a sense of tranquility and calm.
With its rich history still evident across the city, including in numerous excellent museums, along with a top notch food scene centred around freshly caught sushi, and plenty of shopping and nightlife opportunities, Otaru is an enticing mix of old and new. If you’re planning a trip here and want some ideas for how to spend your time, we’ve put together a list of 12 of the most unique things to see and do.
Learn about the history of Otaru’s railroads
One of two venues that make up the Otaru City Museum, the Otaru Railway Museum is situated on the former site of the terminal of Hokkaido’s first railway line, about 1.5km north of the main tourist district. Several full size trains from a range of periods are on display on the tracks outside, while the history of Otaru’s railroads, which played such a critical role in the city’s growth, is chronicled via exhibits and dioramas inside the museum itself.
LOCATION 1 Chome-3-6 Temiya HOURS Weds-Mon 9.30am-5pm Closed Tues
Discover Otaru’s spiritual heritage
Like most of Japan, Otaru’s past and present are deeply intertwined with spiritual practices and beliefs. Visitors can explore this enduring heritage on a spiritual private bus tour that takes you to some of the city’s most important sacred landmarks. Highlights include stop offs at Otaru’s oldest Buddhist temple, home to one of the largest known “Mokugyos” – a traditional type of wooden drum – and a visit to Mount Tengu, where a long-nosed goblin at the summit is said to make your dreams come true simply by touching its nose. Tours can be booked through Viator.com.
Attend a magical winter festival
Every winter, Otaru plays host to the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, which for ten full days sees the city bedecked in lights and imaginative snow sculptures. A companion event to the nearby – and more famous – Sapporo Snow Festival, the Otaru edition is held across two distinct locations and boasts a truly unique atmosphere, with visitors invited to stroll along a candlelit path, past shimmering lanterns, illuminations and small snow statues. Local shop keepers and restaurant owners also decorate their premises for the occasion, while street food stalls are dotted across the festival sites selling local delicacies.
LOCATION Downtown Milwaukee DATES 17 Each February
Visit a local distillery
Japan is famous for its whisky production and among its most renowned brands is Nikka Whiskey, which is produced right here in Otaru. Connoisseurs of the globally popular spirit can visit Yoichi Distillery on a private full-day tour that takes in both the distillery and some of the city’s main tourist sites. During the distillery tour you’ll get to learn about its founder, Masataka Taketsuru, and the Scottish inspiration behind his vision, and sample some of the home produce yourself too. Tours are limited to 15 participants and can be booked through GetYourGuide.com.
Admire an amazing collection of antique music boxes
Spread across several buildings around Otaru’s Ironai-dori district, the Otaru Music Box Museum is home to a remarkable collection of intricately designed antique music boxes. Among the items on display are French music boxes dating back to the nineteenth century, a grand English organ and numerous vintage pianos, while many of the music box captivate visitors by playing renditions of famous songs. Beyond the exhibits themselves, the museum buildings can be appreciated in their own right for their elegant western-influenced Meiji-era architecture.
LOCATION 4-1 Sumiyoshicho HOURS Mon-Sun 9am-6pm
Explore Otaru aboard a rickshaw
Otaru is a wonderful city to explore, with its street life buzzing with energy. If you like the idea of discovering its nooks and crannies with the wind in your hair then you can book yourself onto a rickshaw tour. Helmed by a local English speaking guide, you’ll pass along the famous canal, taking in its northern stretch before stopping off at the old post office for a look inside. Continuing alongside the old rail tracks you’ll soon cross Asakusa Bridge, which affords fantastic views of the city. Your final stop will be the Otaru Port Marina where you can enjoy a quick stroll to bring the tour to a close. Rickshaw tours of Otaru can be booked through Viator.com.
Step into the home of a former fishing tycoon
The herring fishing industry play a key role in the history of Otaru until the 1950s when herring stocks dramatically declined and the industry collapsed. During the heyday of herring fishing, large Herring Mansions (‘Nishin Goten’) were built by wealthy fishermen to process the fish and as a residence for themselves and their employees. Today a large preserved herring mansion dating back to the end of the 19th century stands on a hill beside the water about five kilometres outside of central Otaru, and is open to the public who can come and view fishermen’s tools and other exhibits that recall the living conditions of those who lived here displayed inside.
LOCATION 3 Chome-228 Shukutsu
Get a taste of Otaru’s rich culinary scene
Being an island city set on a harbour, it’s little surprise that Otaru’s culinary scene is dominated by fresh seafood. Food fans can discover some of its most delectable offerings by joining a street food and walking tour. During the half-day tour a local guide will take you to several renowned foodie hotspots, including the famous Sankaku market, stopping off for a seafood lunch comprising delicacies such as snow crabs, fresh oysters, and juicy butter scallops, all washed down with locally brewed beer. Tours can be booked through Viator.com.
Immerse yourself in the history of Japanese money
Set in a grand building dating back to 1912, the Bank of Japan Museum chronicles the story of Japan’s financial system and how it contributed to Otaru’s development through an assortment of interactive exhibits and displays. Visitors can learn about the history of banknotes and how they are stored and printed, discover anti-counterfeiting techniques, enter vaults, and open safe deposit areas with stainless steel doors.
LOCATION 1 Chome-11-16 Ironai HOURS Thurs-Tues 9.30am-5pm Closed Weds
Get hands-on during a craftworks tour
Not for nothing is Otaru known as “the town of craftworks”. Dotted with craft shops and studios, it is a haven for artisans in fields as diverse as embroidery, glasswork, candle-making and even Japanese noodle-making. This burgeoning craft scene can be explored on a half-day craftworks tour, with highlights including a trip to a glasswork studio where you’ll be invited to create your own one-of-a-kind glasswork to take home as a memento. Tours can be booked through Viator.com.
Sample the local amber nectar
Situated among a row of warehouses lining the Otaru Canal, Otaru Warehouse No. 1 has been a fully operational brewery since 1995. An on-site Beer Hall invites patrons to sample the home-brew – including the hugely popular Otaru beer – while large, shiny “coppers”, or kettle preparation pots, take centre stage within the brewery’s spacious timber-framed interior. Free tours run on a daily basis, offering visitors the chance to learn about the history, ingredients and manufacturing process of Otaru Beer.
LOCATION The Otaru Warehouse No. 1 HOURS Mon-Sun 11am-11pm
Shop for bargain curios
Aficionados of the old, the unusual and the collectible flock to Otaru for the impressive number of antique stores dotted across the city. Many of these shops are situated in the central district and sell an eclectic variety of trinkets and knick-knacks, spanning everything from period kimonos and hair pins to ornaments and dolls. Those keen to land a bargain shouldn’t shy away from haggling – it’s standard practice here and won’t be frowned upon.