Things to Do in Otaru Japan – How to Visit Japan’s Northern Port Town


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The small harbour city of Otaru is just 30 minutes by train from Sapporo on the northernmost island Japanese of Hokkaido.    Otaru is easy to visit as a day trip from Sapporo or a great place to spend longer.   Otaru has always been a major trade and fishing post and retains much of its charm today.   The Otaru attractions include many museums, historic remnants and excellent seafood and they all make for a great place to visit.

Otaru is easy to navigate on foot in the main downtown area with all of the main things to do in Otaru clustered here.   The area around the Otaru Canal is delightful in all seasons.  The Otaru canal was completed in 1923 and while the canal is no longer used, warehouses and buildings in this area have been rejuvenated and reused to form commercial and dining spaces.

How to Get to Otaru

The easiest and most convenient way to get to Otaru is by Japan Rail.  Most especially if you already have a JR Pass then your trip here is free!  If you don’t have a JR pass yet, then buy one here, or read more about the benefits of a JR Pass here.

It takes around 40 minutes on the train to reach Otaru from Sapporo.  It’s also easy to reach Otaru from Niseko, which takes around 90 minutes on the train.


Where is Otaru

Otaru is located on Japan’s island of Hokkaido in the north-west of Japan.  You can reach Hokkaido by train or car from Sapporo in about 40 minutes.

Where to Stay in Otaru

In Otaru opt to stay in traditional ryokan lodgings and experience a true Japanese cultural experience (read more about Ryokans and etiquette here) or select a hotel on the canal to be right in the centre of this.  Here are our recommendations for Otaru accommodations.

  • Ryokan Ginrinsou provides Japanese Style rooms and a private indoor and outdoor onsen baths.   Each room has tatami flooring, a seating area and floor to ceiling windows.  Stay in Otaru and have a gloriously serene time here.  There’s free WiFi in the lobby so you can truly enjoy the Rokyan Experience.   The hotel also serves a traditional Japanese breakfast and multi course dinner in your room.  Check availability and book your ryokan in Otaru now.
  • Hotel Nord – located on the gorgeous Otaru Canal, this ia  a great spot if you want to be in the middle of things in Otaru.  There’s a restaurant and free WiFi, all rooms are air conditioned and you’ll get a fridge and an electric kettle in each room.  Buffer breakfast is available.  Get panoramic views of Otaru and the area from the roof top bar.  Check Prices and Book Your Room now!
  • Hotel Torifito Otaru Canal is in a great location on the Otaru Canal and has a 24 hour front desk, free WiFi and AC in each room.  Buffet western or Asian breakfast is available.  There’s alslo luggage storage if you want to explore before or after check out.  Check now for pricing and availability. 

Things to do in Otaru

Walk along the Otaru Canal

The Otaru Canal is one of the main attractions in Otaru.  Built-in 1923, there are walkways on either side of the canal, which are illuminated with Victorian-era lamps on an evening.   Be sure to traverse the pretty stone bridges, they make for excellent photo opportunities.

The centre of the canal is the area between the Chuo Bridge and the Asakusa Bridge.

The Otaru canal is located just a 10-minute walk or a 2-minute bus journey from the JR Otaru train station.

Otaru Canal View Hokkaido

Take an evening cruise along the Otaru canal

Taking an evening cruise along the Otaru canal is a great way to get your bearings.  There are several landmarks and attractions located on the Otaru canal.  Bars, cafes and restaurants line the canal these days and provide for an excellent evening’s entertainment. – more details about Otaru Canal cruises here

Take a Walk around Otaru

All of the Otaru attractions are well placed for you to visit on foot (unless we’ve noted the time or distance on a bus).  Otaru is generally small and compact and once you’ve decided which of the Otaru attractions you wish to see, then put together a self-guided walking tour of Otaru is easy.  Book a tour around Otaru with a local guide – get to sample food, understand the history and explore this gorgeous port city. >  Check prices and book now!

Take a Cooking Class in Otaru

Take a cooking class in Otaru to learn how to cook the local delicacies and prepare fresh sushi.

Sushi and Sukiyaki cooking course  – you’ll learn to make sushi and sukiyaki in this Otaru cooking class plus also Sukiyaki – the food being cooked in a sweet and salty soy sauce based broth and full of bold flavors straight from the pot!  – Check availability of classes and book your space now!  

Tempura & Ball Sushi Cooking Class – in this class in Otaru you’ll learn how to make tempura and temari sushi in Japan!    Get together with locals and make some of the most famous Japanese food here!   More information and prices here!

Japanese-Style Stewed Hamburger, Miso Soup, and Pickles – this home cooking Japanese class in Otaru will teach you how to make some stple dishes of the Otaru area.    The menu includes tofu hamburger stewed Japanese-style and miso soup. You’ll also learn how to make fermented or pickled vegetables and dishes.  Check out availability and prices here!


Visit the Museums in Otaru

Despite its relatively small size Otaru has a reasonable number of interesting museums to visit.    Each Otaru museum relates to the history of the city and the area.  Some Otaru museums are free to visit too.

Visit the Museum of the Bank of Japan

The Otaru Bank of Japan Museum is housed in an old brand of the Bank of Japan, the building dates to 1912 and it was designed by the same architects who designed Tokyo station.  The keystones on the building are made as owls, a famous Ainu deity.   The branch was converted to a museum in 2003.  The museum of the Bank of Japan in Otaru covers the history of the yen and the economy of Otaru.  Banking and money regulations are also covered.  You’ll find old vaults as well as the shredded remains of 100,000,000 yen and be able to experience what the weight of money is.  This is a great attraction for adults and children alike.

Otaru Money Museum

Entrance to the Museum of the Bank of Japan is free and the museum is open from 0930 until 1700 (but is closed on Mondays) – you’ll find the museum at 1-11-16 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0031, Japan – it’s just a 10-minute walk from Otaru JR Station.  You can read more information about it here.

Visit the museum of the music box in Otaru

The Otaru Music Box museum or Sakaimachi is located here because Otaru is the home of the main music box industries in Japan.   You’ll notice many shops still in the city of Otaru selling Sakaimachi.  The Sakaimachi museum provides an introduction to music boxes and how they work as well as providing a free performance of an oversized music box.

You’ll find thousands of music boxes here with some dating from the Meiji era in Japan.

The music box museum of Otaru is located across several buildings on Sakaimachi Street and is just a 10-minute walk from JR Otaru Station, the address is 4-4-1 住吉町 Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0015, Japan Entrance to the music box museum is free and opening hours are from 0900 -1800.

Visit the Otaru City museum

The Otaru City museum lets you discover the history of the city of Otaru.    This museum is located in a warehouse close to the Otaru Canal.  You’ll learn about the city during the herring trade and how the city has changed over the centuries.  A secondary part of the museum is the Otaru Railway Museum.

Otaru Literary Museum

Once known as a gathering place for literary personalities, the Otaru literary museum gathers together the letters, manuscripts and notes from some of Japan’s leading literary lights.    Opened in 1978, the museum is closed on Mondays but open the rest of the week from 0930 – 1700 and it can be found at 1 Chome-9-5 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0031, Japan

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Museum of Venetian Art

Otaru is also famous for glassware, the Otaru Museum of Venetian art is huge – 5 stories high and contains displays of Venetian glassware as well as a full-sized gondola.  Kitaichi is the local glass producer and the museum can be found a 10-minute walk from Otaru JR Station.  The entry cost is 700 yen and the opening hours for the Museum of Venetian art are from 0845 – 1800.

Visit the Yujiro Ishihara memorial at Otaru Station

A famous movie start in post-war Japan, Yujiro Ishihara is often known as the Japanese Elvis Presley.   He spent much of his childhood in Otaru and became famous as a macho hero for his singing and acting roles.   Ishihara died at the age of 52 in 1987 but is remembered here with a memorial on platform 4 of the Otaru JR Station.

Visit Nichingin-Dori in Otaru

Once known as the Wall Street of the North, this famous Otaru neighbourhood is reminiscent of Otaru’s history as a financial centre.  You’ll find Nichingin-dori 5 minutes’ walk from the Otaru Canal.

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Tour the Herring Mansion – Otaru Nishin Goten Otaru

Fishing has always been important to Otaru, with the main local catch being herring.  In the early 20th century, herring was the main industry here.  Herring fishermen became rich and elegant mansions came about as a result of the riches in the industry.    The Nishin Goten – or Herring Mansions still exist today, with one open for visitors.  You’ll find the rooms preserved as they were and also tools of the herring trade and artefacts from the era displayed inside.

Otaru Buildings

Find the Herring Mansion at 3 Chome-228 Shukutsu, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0047, Japan – and read here for more information:  Otaru Nishin Goten.

The Herring Mansion is open from 0900 – 1700, they are located around five kilometres from Otaru JR Station and can be reached by taxi or by using buses number 10 or 11.  Entry costs 300 yen per person.

 

Explore the Nihon Yusen Building

Major fishing shipping orders were completed here in one of Otaru’s most important buildings dating from 1906.    The building was in use for this purpose until the collapse of the herring industry in Otaru.  The interior has now been restored and contains wallpaper made of rice paper and overlaid with gold leaf.  You’ll find the Nihon Yusen Building at the northern end of the Otaru Canal.  The building is open from 0930 until 1700 and the entrance fee is 300 yen.

Check out Otaru’s Steam Clock

Using steam power, this gift from the city of Vancouver (which has a similar steam-powered clock) chimes with a steam whistle every 15 minutes.   It makes for especially pretty photos, particularly on colder days!

Explore Otaru’s Old Temiya Train tracks

Hokkaido’s oldest train tracks are here in Otaru.    Originally built as the Honori Railway, the Temiya Line ran from Otaru to Temiya and the tracks were used to transport cold and marine produce to and from Otaru.   The tracks are located just off the Chua Dori Street at 1 Chome-15-14 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0031, Japan and there is no entrance fee.

Temiya train track Otaru

Look at the Glassware in Otaru – Otaru’s Sakaimachidori

As one of the main glass producing areas of Japan, Otaru was famous for oil lamps and more recently decorative glass pieces.  As well as visiting the Sakaimachidori museum run by local glass producer Kitaichi you can take a glass blowing class here too

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Create your own glass ornaments at Otaru Taishu Glass Palace

The glass palace in Otaru not only has an exhibition of Japanese-style glass pieces made in Otaru but also sells them and provides glass blowing classes where you can make your own glass ornaments to take home as a unique souvenir of Otaru and Japan.  You can find the Otaru Taishu Glass Palace at 1 Chome-1-8 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0031, Japan.  The opening hours of the Glass Palace are from 0900 – 1700.

Visit the Otaru Aquarium

Attracting more than 35,000 annual visitors, the Aquarium of Otaru contains more than 250 different marine species, including the main attraction here, a penguin feeding how and porpoises.

The Otaru Aquarium can be found at 3 Chome-303 Shukutsu, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0047, Japan and is open from 0900 until 1700 each day.   You can get here by Chuo bus from the JR Otaru train station.  Entrance fees are 1000 Yen for adults and 400 yen for children.

Go on a Cruise from Otaru

There are two types of cruises to take in Otaru.  The first is a cruise along the canal, with all the sights pointed out as well as a historical commentary.  The second type of Otaru cruise is out into the harbour.  English commentary is available on Cruises of Otaru harbour.

Eat Ice Cream in Otaru

It seems that every province in Japan is famous for its ice cream – in Otaru you’ll find the famous ice cream inside a warehouse dating from 1892.  Kita-no Aisukurimu-ya-san is known for its strange flavoured ice cream 0 including sea urchin and black squid ink ice cream.

Eat Sushi in Otaru

Renowned as one of the best places to try sushi in Hokkaido, it’s worth making a beeline for Otaru Sushi-ko known for the freshness and unique flavours of Otaru sushi.  You’ll also find kaisen-don here – bowls of rice with sashimi on top.

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Eat at Komachi Dori

If street food is more your scene, then a visit to Komachi Dori is where you’ll find snack stall and local Otaru delicacies.

Try Hokkaido wine at the Otaru Wine Gallery

Award-winning Hokkaido wine – which tends to be sweet – can be sampled at the Otaru Wine Galley.  You’ll also get a guided tour and local knowledge of the Japanese and specifically the Hokkaido wine industry here too.  Find the Otaru Wine Gallery at 1 Chome-130番地 Asarigawaonsen, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0154, Japan.  The Otaru Wine Gallery is open from Monday to Friday (closed weekends) from 0900 until 1730.

Sample the drinks at Tanaka Sake Brewery

Take a tour of the Tanaka Sake Brewery, Otaru’s only sake brewery.  Here you can sample the Takaragawa brand of sake and also try rice wine used for cooking too.   Explore seasonal Hokkaido flavours and learn more about the sake brewing process.  The Tanaka Sake Brewery is located at 3-2-5 Ironai, Otaru, 047-0031, 2, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0031, Japan and is open from 0900 until 1800 every day.  You can read all about Sake and taking a Sake tour in Japan’s Sake town here.

Drink the local Beer in Otaru

Otaru Beer is brewed at a brewery in the heart of Otaru city.  The style of the beer is German and it’s no surprise that the entire brewery is themed as a Bavarian beer hall.  That includes the staff and the décor of the building!  The beer is strong and tasty!  Want a free brewery tour?  Check out the Asahi tours in Japan here – and find out how to get on them throughout the country.

OTaru Canal

Have afternoon tea at Kitaichi Hall

Continue the local glass speciality going and take tea or dinner at Kitaichi Hall.  This gorgeous building is lit by more than 160 gas lamps – it’s a stunning location and you can enjoy sweets, coffee and tea in one of the more spectacular locations in Otaru.

Kitaichi Hall is lit up by 167 gas petroleum lamps giving the atmosphere a really calmly lit and ethereal vibe. Enjoy cakes, sweets, coffee, and tea in one of Otaru’s most beautiful cafes.

You’ll find Kitaichi Hall at 7-26 Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0027, Japan.  The hall is open from 0845 until 1800 every day.

Asahi Observatory

Paved walking trails lead from the Otaru Jr Station to the Asahi Observatory where you can get great views of the city and her surrounds. Be sure some visit both during the day and evening for a completely different view!  You’ll find the Asahi Observatory in Otaru at 2 Chome Tomioka, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0033, Japan and entrance is free.

Otaru

Festivals and Special Times of the Year to Visit Otaru

While the most famous festival of Otaru is the Snow Light Path Festival held in February each year, a small temple just outside Otaru is also a great place for following the Sakura or cherry blossoms in Otaru.  – read more about other places to view the cherry blossom front in Japan here.  There are some awesome festivals in Japan to visit – here are seven of the most celebrated!

Cherry Blossom Time in Otaru

Tenjo-ji temple in the residential area of Otaru is one of the best places to view the sakura in Otaru.  Cherry blossom comes late here in the north and the usual time to see the cherry blossom in Otaru is May.   This Buddhist temple dates from 1882 and is located at 4 Chome-32-1 Irifune, Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0021, Japan

Snow Light Path Festival in Otaru

Held every February in Otaru, the Snow Light Path Festival runs for 10 days.  The entire city of Otaru is decorated with lanterns, giving a candlelight appearance.  Snow statues also decorate the city.  The two main areas that are decorated are the Unga Kaijo area and the Temiyasen Kaijo – with lights on from 1700 until 2100.  These areas are close to the Otaru JR Station and the Otaru Canal.  The festival is free and you can find out exact dates for the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival each year here.

What to eat in Otaru

Otaru food specialities focus primarily on seafood.  Sushi is excellent here, kaisen dori is also a firm favourite.  Ice cream that is flavoured with marine life is also famous – try the black squid ink ice cream or the sea urchin flavoured ice cream that you’ll find at Kita-no Aisukurimu-ya-san for starters!

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When it comes to local drinks, head to the Otaru Brewery for locally brewed beer in a German-style, or local sake from the Tanaka Sake brewery.  If wine is more your thing then the Otaru Wine Gallery will tempt you with local Hokkaido wine.

Where to eat in Otaru

For street food type snacks in Otaru, you should head to the snack food stalls of Komachi Dori.  Get a  more formal experience in the gorgeously decorated Kitaichi Hall.   Ice cream comes best from Kita-no Aisukurimu-ya-san and the best sushi to be found in Otaru is at Otaru Sushi-ko.

How Long Will You Spend in Otaru?

Otaru makes for a pleasant and easy day trip from Sapporo, but it is easy to spend longer here.  Much quieter than her southern neighbours you really will feel as though you’re getting away from it all in Otaru.  Whether you choose to take an Otaru day trip or spend longer here, there are plenty of attractions in Otaru to keep you occupied!  How long will you spend here?  And where’s next?

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About Sarah Carter

Sarah Carter is an avid reader, writer and traveller. She loves hiking, sailing, skiing and exploring the world through food. She left a successful career in IT security and compliance in both the UK and US to travel the world with husband and partner in adventure, Nigel.

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