A daytrip to Otaru seems like the natural thing to do when you go to Sapporo. It’s a mere 30 minutes away from the Hokkaido capital, but the moment you arrive you are automatically transported to a city with a completely different vibe. Otaru feels exactly like a traditional port city, like the sort you see in the movies. It has a compact and historical feel, ships can constantly be seen floating around the Ishikari Bay, and the breeze feels a little different too. Otaru is such a picture-perfect harbor city I was half-expecting a sudden song and dance number to break out like in a musical.
Walking down certain streets in Otaru makes you feel like you’re walking back into the late 1800’s. Otaru used to be a major trading and fishing port, frequented by American and European merchants. You can see the Western influences especially in the downtown area, where the buildings are a mixture of traditional Japanese wooden houses and Western stone and brick structures. There are a handful of colorful, modern-looking stores sandwiched in between that are mostly character cafes. There’s a picturesque abandoned railway running through the city as well.
This combination gives the city such a unique character, and you will see what I mean once you get to scroll through the enormous number of photos I have for this post. (Sorry not sorry, though I hope you enjoy the photos!)
Our visit to Otaru this time around came in the heels of the Hokkaido earthquake, so it was a little strange to see the normally bustling streets and stores so empty. I was a little nervous that famous Otaru pastry stores like Le Tao would be closed altogether, but thankfully majority were easing back to normal operations by the time we arrived. In most senses of the word, it felt like we were the only tourists in Otaru for the day! That earthquake experience does have its benefits.
In this particular article, we’re concentrating on the downtown area of Otaru. It’s really the only place you can properly explore on a day trip, but there’s actually plenty to do. You will notice how my video focuses on four major locations to visit when you come to Otaru, but in this post I will talk more in detail about the specific things you can and must do in those places. So let’s get to it!
First, how to get here
There are several ways to get to Otaru from Sapporo but for me the most convenient is by train on the JR Hakodate Main Line. The round trip fare costs 1,280 yen (640 yen one-way) and you can take either the rapid train or the local train. The rapid is of course faster as it allows you to arrive at Otaru in 30 minutes, while the local train takes 45 minutes. Several trains take trips to Otaru every hour from Sapporo Station so remember to check the online timetables for the schedule that’s most convenient for you.
I highly recommend doing the same thing we did, which is to alight the train at the stop before Otaru Station itself. The stop is called Minami-Otaru Station, and from here it’s a pleasant downhill walk towards the downtown area, which is the perfect place for a walking tour. (Don’t forget to look out the window and enjoy the tranquil ocean views after Zenibako Station!)
You can also get to Otaru via bus from the Sapporo Station Bus Terminal (Parking Spot No. 1). As far as I know, both the JR Hokkaido bus and the Chuo Bus make trips to Otaru frequently. The bus isn’t my number one choice because it takes over an hour to arrive at Otaru this way and the fare is not really that much cheaper compared to taking the train. Less time spent in transit means more time on the ground exploring, so I was more than willing to pay the small price difference between bus and train fare.
The last option to get to Otaru is by driving, but this only makes sense if you rented a car for a road-trip style exploration of Hokkaido in the first place. Actually, going on a road-trip in a rented car is said to be one of the best ways to explore Hokkaido, but I can’t give you the details until I do it myself. For now, I highly advise taking the train from Sapporo wearing your comfiest walking shoes.
1. Enjoy the sparkles and sounds at the Otaru Music Box Museum.
Otaru is well-known for their music boxes, or the orgel as the Dutch introduced them as. It is one of the handicrafts they specialize in aside from glassworks, and if you are one of those people obsessed with music boxes, it’s pretty much impossible not to find one you’ll like here. Over 15,000 music boxes stretch as far as the eyes can see inside the main building of the Museum– in every shape, size, and material you can imagine.
Most of these music boxes are of course made of breakable material like glass and ceramic, so be very careful when you handle them. I imagine you will be though, since they look so precious!
Being here brings to mind the song from ‘The Little Mermaid’. There are whozits and whatzits and over twenty thingamabobs everywhere you turn! It’s just a stunning collection really.
Aside from traditional and dainty kinds of music boxes, there are truly unique ones as well. You want a lucky cat music box?
What about a scarily true-to-life sushi music box?
The building of the Otaru Music Box Museum is quite noteworthy in itself. It looks like something sprung from a fairytale, because the atmosphere inside reminds you of a magical trinkets shop. The creaking floorboards add just the right touch! You can easily spend half an hour or more just looking around in here.
There’s a second level where many of the antique music boxes are carefully stored. There, you will find a little room that features a miniature timeline of the introduction of the music box to Otaru’s shores. Seeing those little figurines only made me think about how fascinating it would be if you got to see how they actually made these things!
You don’t need to buy anything to properly enjoy an experience here at the Otaru Music Box Museum, although as someone who has at one point in my life enjoyed such things, I found myself a little regretful that I did not buy a music box. Luckily, when my father visited this museum over a year later, he actually ended up buying two. One of them plays three songs from ‘Phantom of The Opera’ in a chillingly beautiful way.
2. Sample and hoard famous snacks at Sakaimichi Shopping Street.
One of my biggest priorities on any trip to Japan is eating and buying foodstuff to take home. Though Japan in general is pretty well-known for that, Otaru happens to have a slew of homegrown brands standing side by side on a street called Sakaimichi-dori. If your intention upon coming to Otaru is eating and buying sweets and pastries, the Sakaimichi Shopping Street is the only place you need to be.
Originally, this street was filled with producers of glass fishing buoys that supported the thriving Herring industry in Otaru. When the industry declined in the late 1950s, many of these craftsmen decided to produce fine glassware instead. There are a number of places along this street where you can go in and watch glassmakers do their craft, with some of them even allowing you to make your own glassware for a fee. As fascinating as that is, the main draw of Sakaimichi Street is definitely the multitude of shops selling food and sweets.
I had planned to go on a bit of a food trip here, but thanks to the earthquake, production had stalled and some of the stores didn’t have their full lineup of goods on display. There were many things on my list I did not get to try, but somehow I still ended up enjoying window-shopping, as well as checking out the options available on this long strip of restaurants and stores.
Of course we passed by the usual suspects, such as Kitakaro and Rokkatei. Disappointingly, their cafe areas were closed and we couldn’t sit down to enjoy a cup of coffee and fresh pastries. We did manage to purchase some famous Marusei Butter Cookies from Rokkatei though.
I have always been smitten by the Le Tao brand of cheesecakes and langue de chat cookies, so to be in the land where it comes from? Well, you can imagine my excitement. Considering how many versions of Le Tao cafes there are here, each selling a different specialty, I was practically jumping for joy. Unfortunately some of them were closed, but the big branch was open.
After nibbling on some samples, I nabbed some of their delicious cheese biscuits and the cheese-filled langue de chat cookies they make so well. I recommend the chocolate version of their langue de chat cookies too! The cheesecakes were sadly not in production at that time. (No worries, I still managed to buy them from Narita Airport!) The great thing about most of the stores here at Sakaimichi is that they allow you to sample their products and won’t take it against you if you decide not to buy.
Honestly though? Le Tao is a no-brainer. Remember that you can avail the tax-free rate once you hit 5,000 yen, so try to pool your purchases with your companions.
3. Feast on some fresh kaisendon.
As a port area, Otaru is known to have some of the freshest seafood in Japan. It only makes sense to sit down with a bowl of kaisendon here for lunch. A kaisendon is basically a type of donburi (a bowl of rice with toppings), in this case fresh sashimi. Since I love sashimi, any city in Japan close to a body of water is my friend.
If you’re not a fan of eating at the wet markets, you can select one of the many restaurants at Sakaimichi Street serving kaisendon. I suppose people have the impression that sit-down restaurants can be more expensive, but if you pick the right place, they can be totally affordable too! We went to this one, which was one of the few open after the earthquake.
To eat kaisendon, you actually mix the wasabi into the soy sauce and pour it over your sashimi instead of doing the dipping method. The sashimi catches the sauce very nicely, and the excess drips down into the rice. I actually really liked eating it this way!
If you’re not a fan of raw seafood, most of the restaurants serve other types of donburi as well so don’t worry!
4. Enjoy the iconic Otaru Rainbow Ice Cream for dessert.
Once you’re done with your meal, make your way to the Venetian Cafeteria for some of that Instagram-famous Rainbow Soft Serve. At first I wasn’t quite sure about this but THE HYPE IS REAL, ladies and gentlemen! This giant soft serve is as delicious as it looks!
The ice cream is made up of seven layers in different discernible flavors. You can taste the grape, the matcha, the strawberry, the lavender, and so on. And the amazing thing is the soft serve is so legit! Creamy, delicious, not too sweet, and super addictive! Even so, I think it’s best to buy one to share because it can be seriously heavy.
5. Mingle with the friendly locals.
This trip to Otaru was made more memorable largely because of our tour guide friend Aoki-san. He was the one who toured us around, and naturally, it was easy for him to strike up conversations with fellow Otaru locals. We met so many nice people during our day here in Otaru, and though the encounters were brief, I must say they made the experience even more vivid in my memory.
We met this group right here as we were wandering about Sakaimichi Street. As luck would have it, they had just opened their manju shop so they were giving away free introductory samples to prospective customers. Aoki-san told them I was a blogger from the Philippines, and they all started gamely posing for pictures, which was adorable of them! I suppose you could say the pastries were made even more delicious because of the bright attitude they had towards us. 🙂
Their pastries are quite a delight when warm. Do pass by this stall when you visit Otaru!
6. Get a view of the town from up top.
Although Otaru doesn’t have a formal observatory, there is a place where you can go up and appreciate the view from a higher vantage point. The Otaru Denuki Koji’s “observation deck” is located at the corner of Asakusabashi Bridge and the canal street. It stands at the entrance of a popular restaurant row, where over 15 establishments serve various kinds of Japanese specialties. Just take the stairs and you’ll find yourself standing on a narrow deck.
The space is actually quite small and it can get pretty crowded easily, but it’s a nice place to stop for a bit and see the city from a different angle.
7. Walk along the romantic Otaru Canal.
If you’d rather be on the ground and walking through the actual canal than just viewing it, then simply cross the street from the Denuki Koji and you’ll soon be at the Otaru Canal. This is probably what people know to represent Otaru the best.
This canal used to be widely used to carry cargo into warehouses, but now it’s much smaller than it used to be as the roads were widened to accommodate modernization and the addition of cars running around the city. The canal had actually become abandoned at some point, but in 1980, the citizens of Otaru joined forces to push for the restoration of the canal. Look at it now! I would actually love to see the winter lights festival here someday.
You can spend a lovely summer afternoon strolling around this area, but of course, one must not forget to snap the all-important photo with the most iconic symbol of Otaru!
8. Learn new things at the Otaru City General Museum.
It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed my time in a museum as much as I did here in the Otaru City General Museum. Where most museums only have exhibits you cannot even touch, this one has a lot of interactive ones scattered all around. Not to be confused with the Otaru City Museum, the GENERAL Museum is located along the Otaru Canal and was built inside one of the old warehouses as part of the restoration efforts.
The museum is divided into two main parts: the first showing the history of Otaru, the second showcasing more of the plants and animals native to Otaru. If you ask me, there is a third part, and that is the “free play area”.
Here I will show you one of the interactive things I was talking about above. In this specific part of the museum, they have some paraphernalia that allows you to attempt to “start a fire” in the way the natives used to. You will realize it’s actually quite difficult and requires some technique!
Once you exit one part of the museum to go to the other, you will come upon this little plaza where you can play some traditional games like spinning tops and tossing rings. I think all of us probably used to play these kinds of games as kids, back when computers and iPads weren’t the norm yet, so we all appreciated this little moment to let our inner child out.
9. Explore Otaru’s old railways.
I am discovering that I may have a thing for abandoned overgrown railways, because I really love the aesthetic of the old Temiya Railway as much as I did the High Line. Maybe the Temiya Railway even more because of all the natural greenery.
There have been talks about reviving this railway, but I think it’s also nice as a sightseeing spot because it has a lot of personality. I love how they continue to maintain specific parts of it for visitors like me to appreciate. Historically, the Temiya Line was part of the very first railway in Hokkaido. After almost a century of bringing passengers and cargo back and forth, it was formally closed in 1985. The remains of the railway is being maintained by the Otaru Memorial Museum.
Occasionally, they have exhibitions along certain parts of the old Temiya Railway. During this time, it was a photography exhibit. Ya’ll know I’m a photography nerd so I really enjoyed looking through this exhibit. I also really enjoyed the landscaping they did in this area, because there are some truly beautiful flowers growing here.
10. Take it slow and just appreciate the charming port-town feels.
It’s hard not to enjoy your time here in Otaru. The downtown area is compact enough to explore by foot, and you can do anything from sightsee to museum hop to eat! There’s plenty of fine architecture to be seen, and lots of beautiful nature to be appreciated. I don’t mind wandering randomly down the streets of downtown Otaru. I don’t mind it at all. In fact, if summer is this lovely, I can’t imagine what Otaru looks like during spring.
Well, I hope this post and all my photos have given you a case of Otaru wanderlust. I myself am looking forward to my next visit to this lovely little city and eating all the food I didn’t get to during this round!
Other posts from my Summer in Sapporo 2018 Series:
- Sapporo 2018 Earthquake Diary
- Food-hopping in Sapporo, Summer 2018 Edition
- Finding zen at the Hokkaido Shrine
- Sumio Goto Museum, Blue Pond, & Shikisai No Oka Tour with Chuo Bus
- Sapporo Summer 2018 Snack Haul