Two Perfect Days in Otaru on Your Hokkaido Vacation


Two Perfect Days in Otaru on Your Hokkaido Vacation

by Matt Vachon | TRAVEL

© Tengu Ropeway, Overlooking the City of Otaru, Hokkaido

When foreign visitors come to Hokkaido, it is typically with the single-minded purpose of enjoying the world-class skiing. However, the island has a great deal to offer those less-inclined to winter sports as well! Little known outside of Japan, the port city of Otaru now serves as a time capsule of sorts, a well-preserved remnant of pre-war Japan. From the stone and brick warehouses flanking its central canal, to the handmade crafts for which the city has become known, a trip to Otaru is like a living snapshot of the past. Let’s take a closer look at some of the best things to do in and around Otaru, Hokkaido.


1. Enjoy Turn of the Century Architecture

The Bank of Japan Otaru

Just an hour’s train ride away from Sapporo Airport, which is most people’s entry point to Hokkaido, the city of Otaru is a world away from the rest of the island. Some of the impressive local architecture has changed very little since the early 1900’s. A distant departure from traditional Japanese architecture, the stone and brick buildings in Otaru embody a much more European aesthetic.

Along its famous canal, vines stretch across along the weathered facades of warehouses in summer and spring, replaced by glistening icicles come winter. Though many of these old buildings have since been repurposed as shops, galleries and museums, they have managed to retain their original look and charm, both inside and out.

© Matt Vachon, Otaru Canal

You can spend a good few hours enjoying the sights. Start out at the Canal (see map), where you should enjoy the selection of cafes, then head inland a little towards the Bank of Japan Otaru Museum (see map) before turning back down Sakaimachi Street…

2. Shop for Handmade Otaru Glass

© Matt Vachon, Kitaichi Glass Dining Set

Spend any amount of time in Otaru and you will quickly come to see that it is a city rich in artisanal pride. Handmade crafts adorn store display windows, an open invitation for passerby to stop in and appreciate the efforts of their labor.

Otaru’s biggest claim to handmade fame comes in the form of glass. In the early 20th century, local craftsmen began making glass orbs for fishermen to use as floats in their herring nets. In time, they transitioned from fishing equipment to kerosene lamps; a necessity, as electricity was not yet prevalent in the region.

Today, local glass blowers are making everything from sake glasses, to jewelry, to figurines and more. Each shop along Sakaimachi Street, Otaru’s shopping center, tends to specialize in varied styles and glass products, making visiting each store feel like a unique experience.

© Otaru Sakaimachi, Kitaichi Glass Sango

Kitaichi Glass is one such glass merchant specializing in Otaru’s unique style of glassware. There is plenty of craftwork to chose from, but this is one thing you should do here in Otaru, because you can’t buy Kitaichi glass anywhere else in the world.

Address: 7-26 Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido (see map)


Hours: Open every day from 9am to 6pm.

Transport: From Otaru Station, take the Hakodate Line to Minami-Otaru Station. From here, it is approximately 10 minutes away on foot.

As an added bonus, many of these shops on Sakaimachi Street, including Kitaichi, participate in Japan’s tax-free shopping, so visitors from outside of Japan can get even more for their money.


3. Visit The Otaru Music Box Museum

© Akiyoshi Matsuoka / Creative Commons, Otaru Music Box Museum

Boasting the largest music box collection in Japan, the Music Box Museum has been bringing a sense of nostalgic wonder to Otaru since 1912. The interior of the store feels a bit like a music box itself, with long, wooden beams buttressing the walls and ceilings, and golden white lights twinkling from every corner.

Here, visitors will find not only historical music boxes on display, but modern and vintage versions for sale as well. For the more craft-savvy shoppers, reservations can be made for a make your own music box class. With a wide variety of styles and over 100 songs to choose from, they’re a great sentimental souvenir for yourself or a loved one.

Address: 4-1 Sumiyoshi, Otaru, Hokkaido (see map)


Hours: Open every day from 9am to 6pm.

Transport: From Otaru Station, take the Hakodate Line to Minami-Otaru Station. From here, it is approximately 5 minutes away on foot.


4. Walk the Halls of a Japanese Villa

While most of Otaru’s buildings are clearly derived from a more western frame of reference, the city has something to offer fans of traditional Japanese architecture as well. At nearby Old Aoyama Villa the lavish home of a once wealthy herring magnate, Masakichi Aoyama, has been preserved and designated as an area of historical significance, and you can see why from the video above.

© Japan Objects, Old Aoyama Villa Ceiling

Throughout the home, dark, lacquered wooden floors are offset by lighter Japanese cyprus ceilings, drawing the eye upwards and making the rooms feel even more spacious than they already are. Emblazoned on sliding doors throughout the property are original paintings by Gyokudo Kawai, a master Japanese painter who spent one month in residence at the home. An avid collector of Japanese painting and calligraphy, Aoyama’s home, which is a work of art in and of itself, now doubles as a cultural museum.

The villa is just on the outskirts of town, so make use of the in-house cafe before you head off!

Address: 3-63 Shukutsu, Otaru, Hokkaido (see map)


Hours: Hours vary by season, so please check the website for details.

Transport: From Otaru Station, take the Otaru Aquarium bus line and get off at the Shukutsu 3-chome bus stop.


5. Sample the Local Flavor at Nikka Whisky Distillery

© Matt Vachon, Nikka Whisky Barrels

While Japan may be best known for sake, the past century has seen a boom in award-winning whisky production. One of Japan’s top whisky brands, Nikka, was founded in Otaru and continues production on-site at their Yoichi Distillery to this day. Created by Masataka Taketsuru, Japan’s first Scottish-trained whisky master, the distillery was built in Otaru due to its climate similarity with Scotland, cold temperatures and precise humidity being key factors in excellent tasting whisky. During a guided tour of the distillery grounds, which in winter has an almost Santa’s workshop ambiance, visitors can see the coal-fired pot stills that have been in operations since Nikka Whisky’s beginnings in 1934.

© 663Highland / Creative Commons, Nikka Distillery

Visitors can also walk through the home once inhabited by Masataka and his wife, Rita. The house, while Western-typical on the outside, has traditional Japanese touches such as tatami rooms inside. Visitors will next be guided through the Nikka Whisky Museum, detailing not only the history of Nikka Whisky, but whisky production generally, and the life of Masataka as well.

© Matt Vachon, Whisky Tasting

The tour concludes in a tasting room where guests can sample three of Nikka’s product offerings. Guests will be given tasters of Singlemalt Yoichi, Nikka’s signature single malt whisky; Super Nikka, a blend of whiskies from their Otaru and Sendai distilleries; and an easy-drinking apple wine. Ice and soda water is available to mix to your liking, ensuring you have the perfect whisky tasting experience.

After the tasting, be sure to stop by the gift shop to browse a selection of small batch whiskies that can only be purchased at the Otaru distillery.

Address: 7-6 Kurokawacho, Yoichicho,Yoichi-gun, Hokkaido (see map)


Hours: Open daily from 9am to 5pm. Reservations for tours can be made in advance.

Transport: From Otaru Station, take the Hakodate Line to Yoichi Station. The distillery is approximately 7 minutes away on foot.

While you’re visiting distilleries, you should also check out Japan’s oldest brewery in nearby Sapporo. Head over to 5 Things You Might Not Know About Sapporo Beer to find out more! You can also check out these Cool Things to Do in Sapporo if You Love Art!


6. Ride the Mount Tengu Ropeway

© Tengu Ropeway, Overlooking the City of Otaru, Hokkaido

For the best view of Otaru and the surrounding region, the Mount Tengu Ropeway offers a bird’s eye view from its 532 meter (1745 feet) summit. The view is spectacular throughout the day, but is particularly breathtaking at night as the lights of the city reflect off the neighboring Ishikari Bay.

At the top, visitors will also find the Tengu Museum, celebrating the mythical creature from which the mountain gets its name. This free museum features tengu artworks and exhibits from around Japan. Afterwards, head over to the nearby Observatory Restaurant and enjoy dinner while overlooking the stunning waterfront views.

Address: 2-16-14 Mogami, Otaru, Hokkaido (see map)


Hours: Hours vary by season, so please check the website for details.

Transport: From Otaru Station, take the number 9 bus to the Tenguyama bus stop.

For still more suggestions on what to do in Otaru, check out the What to Do in Niseko When You’re Not Skiing! For other top winter destinations, check out 10 Best Towns to Enjoy the Winter Snow in Japan!

March 12, 2019 | Travel, Shopping, Japan