Header image courtesy of Sugarman Joe (via Unsplash)
Otaru is a port city on the isle of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. This city lies northwest of Sapporo on Ishikari Bay, and was one of the original major trade and fishing ports in Japan. The city is now most well-known for its glassworks, dessert, and beer breweries, best visited during winter. This little city is the perfect place to visit for a day if you’re ever in the Hokkaido area—these are the best things to see and do in town.
Being the terminal station of Hokkaido’s first railway line, you can most definitely expect to reach this city by train. No matter where you’re coming from—be it Sapporo or Niseko—just hop on the train and take it to the end. There are multiple trains every hour between Sapporo and Otaru along the JR Hakodate Main Line. A one-way trip costs around JP¥ 750 and takes 30 minutes by rapid train or 45 minutes by regular train.
Once you alight, most attractions are a 30-minute walk south of the train station, towards the ocean. This is definitely a walking city so you won’t need to worry about organising and looking for transport.
There are quite a few museums one could poke around within Otaru, such as the Museum of Venetian Art, Bank of Japan Museum, Otaru City Museum, and Railway Museum. The Otaru City Museum is composed of two separate museums—a conventional history museum beside the Otaru Canal and a railway museum (with a railway yard) that is at the north end of the canal. These city-operated museums are your guides to learning more about Otaru's history and the early development of the Hokkaido island. You can expect each museum’s entrance fee to be around JP¥300 to 400, but some are free.
The perfect place for photo-taking is along the canal path. If you’re in town during February, you could catch the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival where the city is decked in lights and small snow statues for two weeks. The iconic Otaru Canal is lined with cafés and shops housed within the old and converted warehouses—the city works towards preserving the city’s industrial history in a modern way.
Sakaimachi Street is an artsy lane with numerous cultural and crafts shops, which used to be a merchant street where many trading and shipping companies built their bases. You can find restaurants and cafés amongst the many boutiques offering all kinds of Japanese goodies—perfect to take back to your family and friends! Otaru is also known for its glassware, and visitors are given the opportunity to take part in glassblowing workshops to experience creating their own personalised Otaru glass.
Otaru is famous for its delicious cheesecake. LeTao is now a worldwide brand that is well known for its “northern sweets,” but its iconic dessert is the double fromage cheesecake. It is the perfect balance of a creamy no-bake top layer coupled with a rich and tasty baked cheesecake base. LeTao has stores around Asia, but everything tastes the best from its place of origin, so definitely check out the first and main LeTao store on Sakaimachi Street!
For those who appreciate a tipple, Otaru is home to a few sake and beer distilleries!
Otaru beer can be found in one of the old warehouses—Warehouse No. 1 is a pub along the canal that has been converted into a distillery and restaurant. Upon entering, one would feel as if they were in a German brewery. That’s because the Otaru beer is a German-style beer made using traditional German methods that can mass-produce high-quality beer, though all ingredients are locally sourced within Otaru. While not as famous as Asahi, Otaru’s beer will not disappoint—the Japanese know what they’re doing!
If beer is not your cup of tea, head to Tanaka Sake Brewery instead—the most famous sake brewery in this region. The factory tour includes tasting 10 different brands of sake, hosted within a historical architectural site. If you’re feeling adventurous, head over to the neighbouring town of Yoichi where Nikka Whiskey—one of Japan’s top whiskey makers—is based. Guided tours are also available, though in Japanese only. Non-Japanese speakers may download a voice guidance app to make sense of their journey.