Otaru, the small port town on Hokkaido in northern Japan, is a former fishing village and centre for trade, during both the Meiji and Taisho periods. Otaru’s massive stone buildings, which once served as banks and trading companies, date back to 1868-1926. They still stand as warehouses and other monumental industrial buildings, creating a ‘romantic’ environment around the Otaru Canal. Many of these buildings have today been converted into restaurants and shops.
The northernmost island of Japan, Hokkaido, has only been part of the country for around 150 years, but the first Japanese settlers arrived as early as 1596. Of course, the Japanese colonisation also had an impact on Otaru as a city, particularly in the 19th century.
You may choose to stay in Sapporo and make a day trip to Otaru and other fascinating places in Hokkaido. The city is a great place to experience unique Japanese cultural heritage, stroll along the scenic canal, taste exquisite seafood, and relax in the city’s onsen baths.
Cross Hotel Sapporo the hotel features large public outdoor and indoor baths with spectacular city skyline views, a restaurant, spacious air-conditioned rooms, and a perfect location near JR Sapporo Station.
Solaria Nishitetsu Hotel modern 4-star hotel with an excellent location near Odori Station and Sapporo Clock Tower. The hotel features a spa and wellness centre as well as a restaurant with a buffet breakfast that is a mix of both local and international cuisine.
For panoramic views of the city and the bay, take the cable car up to Mt Tengu, where you’ll also find the Tenguyama Shrine.
You can easily travel to Otaru by train on a day trip from Sapporo since there are regular JR trains.
Otaru in Hokkaido is a popular tourist destination, and the small town is perfect for a day trip from Sapporo. It is easy to hop on one of the frequent trains to Otaru at Sapporo Station. By rapid train, it only takes 30-35 minutes to get there (and by car even less)! The train runs along the coast, between the Sea of Japan and the mountains, before arriving at Otaru, one of the favourite places for visitors to Hokkaido.
As a historical curiosity, Otaru was the terminus of the first national railway line in Hokkaido. The line was established when the island started being colonised after 1868. Today, you can stroll along the historic rail line, Temiya Line, in the city centre and visit the Otaru Museum for more information. It is a technology museum and a journey back in time with historical information on Japan’s railway system – you will even have the opportunity to step inside some of the oldest trains in Japan!
In the old days, Otaru was a thriving fishing village. Fishing was already by then central to the inhabitants. In the 1800s, the town enlarged the port, which meant it soon became a major port city in Hokkaido.
The port flourished with herring fishing, and this was the core of Otaru’s economy at the time. The herring was both eaten and used as a fertilizer in the paddy fields. Wealthy fishermen built large herring mansions in town as residences for themselves and to house their workers. The success of the herring industry in Otaru lasted until the 1950s when it lost its importance in Japan.
Nevertheless, the city is still known for its daily fresh catch and supply of fish, e.g. at the local fish market, Sankaku Market, a stone’s throw from Otaru Sation. At the indoor market, you will find a wide variety of excellent seafood, including exquisite seafood dishes and exceptional rice bowls with Hokkaido specialities.
Today, the city features preserved herring mansions and old warehouses used by former shipping companies around the turn of the 19th century. Like the warehouses, some of the herring mansions can be visited.
The warehouses have a beautiful setting overlooking the canal. Together with the former fish processing plants and buildings formerly owned by shipping companies, they emphasise the industrial importance of Otaru in Japan in recent centuries.
There is no doubt that the main attraction is the picturesque Otaru Canal from 1912. People love strolling along the canal, and canal cruises are popular at all times of the day. Various artists perform and sell their works along the quaint canal.
Even in the evening, visitors flock to experience the beautifully preserved canal area in a historical, romantic setting with retro gas lamps and spectacular warehouse architecture. When illuminated at night, the structures are particularly eye-catching. They stand as a reminiscence of the heyday of previous decades when there was a lot of traffic between vessels and warehouses to load and unload the goods.
In the 1980s, the canal environment underwent restoration, and today, historic warehouses along the Otaru Canal have been turned into e.g. shops, glasswork studios, cafés, and restaurants. Even an Otaru Beer brewery now exists in the old buildings.
The Otaru City General Museum provides an insight into Otaru’s cultural heritage and tells the city’s history throughout the last centuries.
In the past, Hokkaido was the land of the original Ainu people. However, the island completely changed character after the colonisation of it by Japanese settlers and Westerners.
Among the historical buildings in Otaru, several Western-style stone buildings date back to the heyday of Otaru, when there was a flourishing trade in the coastal town. Because of the herring trade and, not least, a significant coal trade, Otaru was also a financial centre, which explains the existence of numerous old bank branches and office buildings in the cityscape. It is estimated that there were approximately 25 banks in the city’s financial heyday in the 1920s – many more than in Sapporo at the time! Today, there is even still a financial ‘Wall Street’ with historical Western-style bank buildings. The preserved bank buildings now serve many different purposes.
The Bank of Japan Otaru Museum, located in the Otaru Branch building, offers a unique opportunity to gain insight into the city’s history.
Otaru is rich in museums, art galleries, and craft stores that sell local glassware and other art. The Otaru Taishou Glass Museum is one of the local museums with glass handicrafts on display.
Another historical street is Sakaimachi Street, which is also lined with impressive structures from the past. The preserved merchant street is located close to the canal area and the port and is a must-see when visiting Otaru. The old Western-style buildings, formerly serving as trading and shipping companies, have now been transformed into museums, art shops, glass workshops, and enticing local restaurants with top-class cuisine.
One of the top museums is the Otaru Music Box Museum, which is in the former Kyosei Co. office building, a former rice trading company from 1915. It has a spectacular steam clock in front of the brick building and is actually both a museum and a shop where you can buy locally made music boxes, which are a special type of glass craft in Otaru. Music boxes have been produced here since the beginning of the 1900s. The museum features about 3,200 different types of music boxes!
Tanaka Sake Brewery, founded in 1899, is a sake-producing brewery that uses exclusively Hokkaido-grown rice for production and underground meltwater from Mt Tengu! Sake is produced here all year round, and thanks to the old warehouses, it is the only brewery in Hokkaido that is not dependent on the season. So you can enjoy fresh sake here, even in summer!
The stone warehouse is another historic building in the city, and you can watch the brewing process inside – and, of course, taste the local sake!
Otaru’s scenic canal is also the primary site of the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, a festival held in February where the city becomes decorated in light. Besides the lanterns, the snow festival also features an abundance of illuminated snow statues.
The festival mainly takes place in two locations: the Unga Kaijo area near the canal and the Temiyasen Kaijo area along the tracks of the old railway. The time of the festival often coincides with the Sapporo Snow Festival. Therefore, it is easy to plan to visit both festivals on the same trip!
In addition to visiting Otaru, you can from Sapporo also go on a day trip to the lavender fields around Furano in Hokkaido.
Otaru Japan – Day Trip from Sapporo
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