One Day Guide: Things to do in Otaru (Japan, Hokkaido)
Otaru (小樽) is a port town steeped in rich history and home to many beautiful architecture along the picturesque canal and the busy Sakaimachi street. These rows of stone buildings were mainly former warehouses and office buildings of shipping and trade companies. They were left behind from the Meiji and Taisho eras when Otaru was once a prosperous commercial seaport. Otaru was also a busy financial district with a street that was once known as the “Wall Street of northern Japan” from late Taisho to early Showa era (1920s to 1930s). The place has since been transformed and now there are many things to do in Otaru for the tourists.
45 mins away from Sapporo by JR train, Otaru is a popular destination for a day trip from Sapporo or a pleasant en route stop to or from Niseko. We belonged to the latter group as we travelled from Niseko to stay for a night at Dormy Inn Premium Otaru and tour Otaru the next day.
You can travel around Otaru City by foot or you can take the local buses. See the three different bus routes in the map above. Zoom in on higher resolution map. The blue line is for travel around the shown map area of Otaru, and also where I will be covering in this post.
- Fare per ride: Adults ¥220 (S$2.80), Children ¥110 (S$1.40)
- One-day pass: Adults ¥750 (S$9.50), Children ¥380 (S$4.80)
Getting to Otaru
You can either alight at JR Otaru or JR Minami-Otaru Station. But which station is better? That depends on what’s on your itinerary. So if you are taking the local bus to travel around, you should alight at JR Otaru. If you are only going to Otaru Canal and Sakimachi street, then JR Minami-Otaru station might be a more convenient choice. As for us, we alighted and stayed near to JR Otaru station.
Things to do in Otaru: The following one-day itinerary will start from JR Otaru Station.
Sankaku Fish Market
Start your day early with a hearty breakfast of sashimi and seafood bowls! After you step out of JR Otaru Station, turn left and you will find Sankaku Fish Market. The entrance is quite hidden, so you might have to search for it a bit.
Along with shops for you to buy fresh seafood home and cook, there are also a few restaurants which cook them for you. Other than the tourists, the Japanese also eat and buy fresh seafood in this market. Additionally if the timing is right, you might even get a great bargain on the sea creatures, like a deeply discounted price of ¥10,000 for a 2kg live king crab.
Compared to the Tsukiji Fish Market, this fish market is really small, with only a short stretch of shops. However, it’s worth going for fresh seafood that’s value for money! Especially if you consider the overpriced bowls in Tsukiji Fish Market. Our friend told us they ate a similar bowl as us at Tsukiji for double the price, about S$50.
So what did we eat? And was our fresh seafood breakfast so nice that you shouldn’t miss it? Moreover, which restaurant did we choose to eat in Sankaku Fish Market? Find out in the “5 Places to Eat in Otaru“! :)
*Hint: Sushi is famous in Otaru because of its freshness, then wouldn’t a sashimi bowl be...
Chuo Dori street
After you are done with your morning tour or/and breakfast at Sankaku, head to Chuo Dori street (a main street directly in front of JR Otaru station). Walk down the gentle slope towards the Otaru Canal in 10 minutes. To locate the Chuo Dori on the map, spot these words, “Dormy Inn Premium Otaru” and “Smile Hotel Honkan”. That’s the street that leads you all the way to Otaru Canal.
As you walk down this street, you will notice many small alleys sprouting to the left and right. The buildings in these small alleys are slightly different from the preserved historical architecture along Otaru canal or Sakaimachi street. More retro than historical.
In one alley, we ate Naruto fried chicken for our day 1 dinner and in another alley we ate Yabuhan Soba for our day 2 dinner. And also along Chuo Dori, we had our pre-dinner snack of milk soft serve at Yamanaka Dairy Farm Otaru.
I know with the snow and cold this makes sense, but still I thought it’s fascinating that Pizza Hut delivery drivers travel in cars instead of motorbikes. Much safer than delivering in motorbikes in Singapore.
A petrol station with advertising flags and I thought it’s an eye-catching and innovative concept.
Then as we walked towards the canal, traces of modernisation in Otaru slowly disappeared into a nostalgic atmosphere.
Former Japan National Railways Temiya Line
According to the map, if we keep walking down Chuo Dori, we will pass by the Former Japan National Railways Temiya Line. The Temiya railway line was used to transport coal and marine products, and then in 1880, the Temiya to Sapporo interval opened as part of Horonai Railway, the first railway in Hokkaido. However, as industrial energy changed from coal to oil, the railway closed in 1985.
We didn’t see any railway track but there’s a beautiful stretch of pine trees leading our path to the canal. I think they are pine trees. Anyway, I reckon the snow has buried the railway track. So if you are at Otaru in other seasons, you should see it easily!
Otaru Canal (小樽運河) took 9 years of construction and was completed in 1923 for the transportation of coal and marine goods. Barges sailed along this canal to transport goods from the larger vessels at the port to the stone warehouses along the canal. The canal became obsolete when modern dock facilities were built for direct unloading.
As the canal fell into disuse, water became stale and smelly. The city planned to fill the entire canal and build a road over it, but the citizens opposed and 10 years later in 1986, the city agreed to preserve the canal and only part of it was reclaimed. The canal was beautifully restored and walking paths and 63 gas lamps were built alongside the canal, emitting a romantic atmosphere at night as the lamps lit up. In addition, the old stone warehouses along the canal have become shops, restaurants and museums.
Otaru canal and the former Temiya Line are the main venues for the annual Otaru Snow Light Path Festival. This festival is usually held ten days during the winter month of February and coincide with the Sapporo Snow Festival. In 2016, the festival was from 6 to 15 Feb. We missed it… by 3 weeks!
When we were there, Otaru canal is already a spot to take instagram, pinterest-worthy photos. Hence with ball candles floating on Otaru Canal’s waters, and lanterns and snow sculptures lighting up the snow blanketed city daily from 5:00 pm to 8:00pm, I can so imagine the romantic atmosphere and picturesque scenery to be up a notch! Also at the Temiya Line where there are snow candles and snow slide, there are also sushi, sweets and other food vendors to add to the festive mood.
If you are at Otaru Canal on normal days, the crowd wouldn’t get as bad as during the festival, especially when you are there earlier in the day. That’s why we didn’t think the rickshaw business was good when we were one of the few tourists around. They had to stand in the cold hopping and rubbing their hands as they waited and solicited for business. I pity them, having to do such manual labour in the cold. p.s. You do need to pay a fee for a rickshaw ride.
Beer Tour: In Otaru warehouse No.1 (小樽倉庫 No.1) along Otaru canal, you can join Otaru Beer Brewery’s tour of its brewing process, from milling to fermenting. 20 minutes and free, you just need to pay for the beer you order to drink, from ¥490 (S$6.20) to ¥1,300 (S$16.30). www.otarubeer.com | Otaru Beer Otaru Soko No. 1 (5-4 Minato Machi Otaru, Hokkaido 047-0007) | 11:00 am – 11:00 pm
Bank of Japan Otaru Museum
As you walk towards the end of the Otaru Canal (the end that’s nearer to Sakaimachi Street), you can either continue on straight to Kamaei for fishcakes or turn right to Bank of Japan Financial Museum. We went for food and not money! :P But if you are heading to Bank of Japan Financial Museum, here’s some fun facts for you!
“Bank of Japan’s Otaru Branch was at the heart of a busy financial district that was often called the “Wall Street of northern Japan.” The old Otaru Branch building with its history now displays the bank’s history, its operations, and the development of Otaru City. Stop by the museum to feel the weight of a package containing 100 million yen in imitation banknotes and see the anti-counterfeiting techniques used for Bank of Japan notes.” – quoted from BOJ’s website
- Free admission. Guided tours in Japanese only.
- 9:30pm to 5:00am (Apr-Nov), 10:00am to 5:00pm (Dec-Mar). Last admission is at 16:30.
- 1-11-16 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan
Sakaimachi Street (General)
Whether you went for Kamaei’s fishcakes or Bank of Japan’s museum, head to the nearby Sakaimachi Street after that. It’s a popular stretch for tourists to shop and eat. You will find all sorts of buildings with a whiff of history.
In this bustling street, you will find Otaru’s renowned glassworks, music boxes and dessert shops. There are the well-known brands and other smaller shops that have spun off as “replicas”. So after a while you will realise that the items along the street are different but same same – of music boxes and glass. But of course, there are a few shops that sell slightly different items, such as this retail shop selling chopsticks! So happy we stepped in and got a pretty set for our new house!
Other than my list of Otaru’s food, Sakaimachi street also has vendors selling fresh seafood dishes for your meals and dried seafood products for your souvenir shopping. If you don’t have the time to go Sankaku Fish Market for fresh seafood, you can always have your fix here. Purchase the seafood on display and have them cooked before you. Otaru has some of the freshest and tastiest seafood in the whole of Japan.
Sakaimachi Street (Popular Attractions)
Kitaichi Glass (“Kitaichi”) with a century-long history is the most famous and oldest place in Otaru to find high quality glassware. The pioneer of Otaru glass when it began in 1901, you can now find their shops and studios within walking distance along Sakaimachi Street. Among all its shops, Kitaichi Glass Sangokan (Emporium No.3) (北一硝子三号館) best represents Kitaichi Glass. In the same building you will find Kitaichi Hall, a cafe that sells jumbo sized cream puff and 6 or 12-layered soft serve.
If you find the glassware too expensive, don’t worry, there’s always a Kitaichi outlet store! If you are not looking to buy, you can find more exquisite glassware to view at Kitaichi Venetian Art Museum. Or if you are curious about behind the scenes of glass making, be sure to pop by Kitaichi Glass Studio and see skilled artisans at work. Otherwise, you can try your hand at glass making at Kitaichi Hanazono.
Phew that’s a lot of things right? If you want more details of any of the above, refer to my post “Kitaichi Glass Otaru“
They are also many other glassware shops along Sakaimachi street, one of which is Romakan (photo below) that’s located in the former building of Hyakujusan Bank Otaru Branch. You can still visit these other non-Kitaichi glass shops and judge for yourself to see if there’s any difference in the designs and quality between such shops and Kitaichi Glass.
Photo taken in Romakan
Otaru Music Box Museum
As you walk to the other end of Sakaimachi street, you will notice a vintage steam clock standing at the front of the main building of Music Box Museum. Get to hear the chimes and whistle every 15 minutes and on every hour. As you walked inside the music box museum (main) of nostalgic atmosphere, revel in its collection of more than 25,000 music boxes.
In the same umbrella group, there are a few more shops around Sakaimachi street to explore. Otaru Karakuri Dobutsuen and Yume no Oto “Character-House” are two themed shops of animals and cartoon characters respectively. And if you are a vintage lover, find some precious music boxes on display at No. 2 Antique Museum and listen to an Aeolian Pipe Organ performance. On the other end of Sakaimachi street from the main building, you can get limited editions boxes at Otaru Music Box Museum (Sakaimachi). If limited edition is still not limited enough for you, make your own one and only music box at Music Box & Handicrafts Studio: You-kobo!
That’s again a lot of things right? If you want more details of any of the above, refer to my post “Otaru Music Box Museum“
Rokkatei Otaru (六花亭) & Kitakaro Main Store (北菓楼)
These are two famous dessert and pastry stores in Hokkaido. You can be sure to find their outlets and products around the prefecture. So, if you don’t want to buy and carry much stuff around Otaru, you can still get them in Sapporo or at New Chitose Airport. These two shops are situated side by side along Sakaimachi Street as in the photo below. They’re just a short walk from Merchen intersection and Music Box Museum.
Find out more details about them and other dessert places in the post “What to Eat in Otaru? | Desserts Edition”
Another popular dessert place in Otaru is LeTao. There are 6 LeTAO stores in Otaru, and 5 of which are along Sakaimachi street: 1) LeTAO PATHOS, 2) Cheese Cake Lab, 3) Plus, 4) le chocolat and 5) main store. What’s the difference between all these shops?
We tried their vanilla-chocolate twist soft serve at le chocolate and signature Double Fromage Cheesecake in LeTAO main store’s cafe on the 2nd floor. What’s our verdict?!
After you’re done, don’t go just yet! Head up to the 3rd floor of LeTao’s main store and enjoy a 360 degrees lookout of Sakaimachi’s landscape and surroundings. From this vantage point, you can observe the bustle at Merchen intersection.
More information about LeTAO stores in the post “What to Eat in Otaru? | Desserts Edition“.
At one corner of Merchen intersection is the music box museum and at the other is the LeTAO main store. This is where you either start or end your tour of Sakaimachi street. And so if you end your tour here, you can take Otaru Stroller’s Bus back to the JR Otaru Station (blue line). Otherwise, you can U-turn and walk back to explore the other side of the street!
If you like to venture further away, here are a few places to consider for your itinerary. Sadly, we didn’t have the time for them.
Sake is alcohol made from fermented rice, and thus known as Japanese rice wine. It can be served in a wide temperature range of 5 to 55℃ (41-131 F), but with a subtle change in taste. With Hokkaido’s clear spring water and quality rice, there’s no surprise that there a lot of Sake breweries in and around Sapporo. Moreover, Otaru’s dry climate of crisp and cold air has superb conditions for making exquisite sake.
- Tanaka Sake Brewery, Kikkougura (田中酒造亀甲蔵)
- Tanaka Sake Brewery is the most famous local sake brewery in Otaru. Its building, Ishigura Warehouse, was built in 1905 and is now designated as a historical architecture of Otaru city. Take a 30 mins brewery tour and have a free taste of 10 kinds of sake, including their Shiboritate Namagenshu (fresh, unpasteurized sake). There are also cakes made with sake for non-drinkers and children.
- Information: 9:00am – 6:00pm, Tour: 9:00am – 5:30pm | Admission is free. | 0134-21-2390 | 2-2 Nobuka, Otaru City, Hokkaido | 10 mins walk from JR Minami-Otaru station or take “Otaru Sansaku Bus” and alight at “Tanaka Syuzou Kikkouzura Mae”| www.tanakashuzo.com
- Kita No Homare Sake Brewery, Shusenkan
- Kita No Homare Sake Brewery is one of the first breweries to successfully produce sake in Hokkaido. The brewery is also located at Okusawa where it is famous for clear water. Take a tour through its museum to learn the history of sake making. Thereafter, go for its brewery tour and tasting of exclusive sakes.
- Information: 9:00am – 5:00pm (Closed 1st & 2nd of January) | Admission is free. | 0134-22-2176 | 1-21-15 Okusawa, Otaru City, Hokkaido | 5 mins drive from JR Minami-Otaru station / 5 mins walk from Okusazaguchi bus stop
Mt. Tengu Ropeway
The summit of Mt. Tengu has a great view of Otaru day and night. Take the 30 passenger ropeway up to the summit in just four minutes. There’s also restaurant and bars to drink and eat with the beautiful view. It’s also a popular ski resort during winter.
www.ckk.chuo-bus.co.jp/tenguyama/en/winter | 9:00 am – 9:00 pm | Adult: ¥1,140 (S$14.30); Child: ¥570 (S$7.20) | 20 mins walk to the mountain foot, or take the pink bus route.
Otaru Canal (Night)
So if you u-turn at Merchen intersection and walk back down Sakaimachi street, do return to Otaru canal to catch the night view! Or you can also take a walk along the canal after your sushi dinner at Sushiya-dori street. We had soba instead at Yabuhan Soba!
However, we didn’t stay till the sky was completely dark. We took a quick photo when the street lamps lighted up and scooted off. We were too cold to wait any longer! Even though we were shivering bad in cold, the photo still feels so romantic! :P
Lastly, enjoy a meditative short clip I put together from the videos I took around Otaru — mainly the canal and Music Box Museum. :) Pardon my squinty eyes, the sun was glaring!