Otaru is a small coastal city that is about a 30 minute train ride from Sapporo. It is a famous destination for tourists and can be visited in a single day. Otaru can be summed up as a nice quite town and a good place to get away from the hustle and bustle of Sapporo. It is also small enough that you can easily get around the town on foot, without the use of a bus or taxi.
Heading to Otaru from Sapporo is a very nice train ride. As you approach Otaru, you will be gifted with a beautiful view of the ocean. The train travels along the seashore allowing you to see a beautiful beach, snow covered in the winter, on one side, and mountains on the other. Once you arrive at Otaru station, the first thing that you will notice is how nice the station is. If you arrive in the daytime, the station will have a slight heritage feel to it. Unfortunately, the building itself is slightly obscured by the traffic lights and overhead wires, but it’s still a quaint little station. Outside the station, you’ll see the typical buildings that are close to almost any station in Japan. Large buildings with cookie cutter style shops and restaurants. In all honesty, it’s best to head straight for the action, which is located towards the waterfront.
Otaru’s best known sight is its canal. Also known as Otaru Unga, the canal is very picturesque, and a great place for a stroll during the day. I have heard that you can see many artists selling various goods during the summer months, but I visited Otaru in the middle of winter, so there wasn’t much to see in terms of buskers. At night, the canal is lit with hundreds of gas lamps. It provides a very beautiful, romantic, sight for everyone to see. Along the canal, there are several old warehouses. These have been converted into various shops and restaurants. The most famous of these is Otaru Beer Hall. Located right on the canal, the entrance can be tricky to find, but once you find it, you won’t be disappointed. The beer hall is fairly large, and seating makes you feel as if you are in a traditional German/European beer hall. There are long tables where strangers can sit side by side. The beer from Otaru Beer is actually very good, and the food is even better. If you order prosciutto, they will cut it right in front of you. Both the beer hall and main factory, also located in Otaru, are open for tours. You should check their website for information.
The second thing to do in Otaru is to enjoy the shopping street. While the shopping arcades, easily found close to the station, are nice, they aren’t very interesting. They only have the typical shops that every other shopping arcade in Japan has. You are better to head towards Sakai-machi Street. It’s a nice small street that is a short walk from the main canal. The street itself is simple with many shops. Otaru is known for its glass and music box shops. This street has many tourist friendly shops where you can buy typical Japanese souvenirs, like cell phone straps, to glass products. Most shops have similar goods, but the quality and look of each piece is very beautiful. It can be a little expensive, but well worth the price. You can buy everything from standard glasses to vases and even a beautiful sake set. If you feel adventurous, a shop called “K’s Blowing” will let you create your own glass mug, for a price of course.
Along Sakai-machi Street, you will also be able to visit a beautiful music box shop that is at the end of the street. In front of the music box shop is a large steam clock. It is fairly modern, but modeled after an older version in Vancouver, Canada. Both clocks are the same and every hour on the hour, you can enjoy a nice little show. The music box shop is very large and you can get almost any song to be played in a music box. They even have contemporary J-pop music. If you have money to spare, these music boxes are a very nice gift for friends and family.
Overall, Otaru is a quaint little town to visit. It’s a short trip from Otaru to Niseko, Japan’s most famous ski resort. You can enjoy the peace and quiet this town offers, and buy almost any souvenir at the same time. If you need to get away from the city, yet have the convenience of a city, Otaru is a nice place to consider. I may not stay more than a couple days, but I would definitely like to return again, someday.
This post was originally written in 2009. An updated version was written in 2010. Please continue to read more about Otaru in Otaru – Redux.