If you are visiting other spots on the island of Hokkaido such as Sapporo then you may as well also swing by some of the smaller towns in the area. One of these that is not to be missed is Otaru which is not well known outside of Japan but which is famous on the domestic circuit as it is the home of a fantastic arts scene which also features a glass blowing industry.
This town is also located on the harbor so seafood is a staple here and this means that you can feast on some of the most delicious sushi in the region.
You can also check out how the fishing industry would have helped to build the town in the days of old by visiting spots such as former merchants’ homes and as the town is located on a series of canals this is also one of the best places to go for a walking tour in Hokkaido.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Otaru…
1. Try the ice cream
Otaru, and wider Hokkaido for that matter, is known for its delicious ice cream.
If you are in Otaru then one of the best places to find some is at Kita-no Aisukurimu-ya-san which is located inside a warehouse which dates back to 1892. This ice cream parlor is known for its amazing ice cream, particularly its unique flavors which many visitors may have never tried before.
These include the ika-sumi ice cream which is made with squid ink and is black in color, making it look rather shocking on first sight, although it is also sweet in flavor.
If you are feeling brave you can also try the sea urchin flavor which is called uni or, if you want to go for something equally traditional but perhaps more palatable then you can try the sweet melon flavor.
2. Walk along Otaru Canal
Otaru Canal is the main attraction in Otaru and was built in 1923. The canal is bordered by a walkway so that you can stroll along the banks of the waterway and if you can make sure to come here in the evening as this is when the promenade is illuminated with ancient oil lamps giving it an old world feel.
You can also take a tour along the canal or take to the water on a canal boat if you want to see the city from a different vantage point.
Tours on the water start in the west and take around 40 minutes.
3. Check out the glass ware
Otaru is one of the main glass producing parts of Japan and it was particularly famous for its oil lamps and glass balls that would have been used in the fishing industry.
The glass industry now however also produces a range of decorative items and there are glass workshops dotted around the town which make great places to shop for souvenirs.
You can also attend a class here and learn how to blow your own glass pieces.
One of the most famous spots in town for glass pieces is Kitaichi Glass which has handmade crystals which are sold all over Japan.
4. Explore Otaru Museum
There are several sections to Otaru Museum but the main part is called Ungakan and it is here that you will find some interesting dioramas relating to the city’s history.
The museum is located in a warehouse which would have been built in 1893 and sits close to the famous Otaru Canal and you can find out how the city would have got its start as a result of its prolific herring trade which would have blossomed in the 20th century.
All in all if you want to know more about Otaru then this is a good place to start.
5. Walk through Nichigin-dori
Nichigin-dori translates as the ‘Wall Street of the North’ in English.
As you can perhaps guess from the name, this would have been the financial district of the city in the days of old and many of the buildings here still look much as they would have done in previous years.
For that reason this makes a great place to come in the afternoon and go for a stroll to enjoy a historical walking tour of Otaru.
6. Try the local beer
If you are looking for a drink in Otaru then look no further than Otaru Beer which is a famous beer hall in the city.
Not only can you get the local brew here, but the entire hall is decorated in a Bavarian theme.
To that end you will find staff in Bavarian garb and they also play polka music in the evenings.
They make their own beer here so you will know that you are getting the real deal and one of the freshest tipples in the city.
7. Visit the Otaru Music Box Museum
Otaru is widely known as a holiday destination on the domestic scene although far less visited by international tourists.
With that in mind, many people may not know that Otaru is home to one of the main music box industries in Japan and one of the best places to learn more about this is at the Otaru Music Box Museum.
Here you can see a range of different historical pieces and you can even have a go at designing one of your own.
Of course there is also a shop here where you can buy the boxes as souvenirs of your trip to Otaru.
8. Tour the Herring Mansion
Otaru is known as one of the main fishing ports in Japan and throughout the ages the fishing industry has flourished here.
The main item that is fished in the waters around Otaru is herring and with that in mind this is how the city rose to prominence in the days of old.
Many of the elegant mansions that dot Otaru were built as a result of the riches that came with this industry and you can see one of the these ornate buildings which is also known as the ‘Herring Mansion’. The building would have been built in the 19th century and now you can come for a visit and check out some galleries with items such as fishing antiques as well as dioramas that explain the history of the herring industry in this part of Hokkaido.
9. Go on a cruise
Otaru is located next to the water and this means that some of the main activities that you can enjoy here take place on the water.
One thing that many visitors sign up for is a cruise along the canal, but if you want to get out onto the open water then you can opt for a cruise around Otaru Harbor.
There are a number of cruise companies that will take you out on a cruise boat and you can listen to an English commentary that will fill you in on all the points of interest along the way.
Most cruises also include a stop off so that you can feed the myriad water birds that live in the harbor.
10. Check out the Steam Clock
One of the signature attractions in Otaru is the Steam Clock which has pride of place in the city and is also one of its most iconic sights that you absolutely shouldn’t miss.
The clock actually came to Otaru by way of Canada when it was offered to the city as a gift from Vancouver and it is unusual as it is still powered by steam.
As a result, people gather in front of the clock on the hour to watch as a steam whistle is activated and it also chimes ever 15 minutes.
11. Shop for antiques
Otaru is famous in Japan for its antique shops and you can find a range of fascinating emporiums all over the city.
Many of these are located in the center of town and you can spend hours browsing here and searching for items such as period kimonos, hair pins and other ornaments and antiques.
One of the most famous antique shops in Otaru is called Shichifuku which is known for selling period sake cups, some of which are said to be up to 100 years old.
One thing to note in these shops is that it is standard practice to negotiate so don’t be shy about haggling!
12. Go on a self guided walking tour
One of the great charms of Otaru is that it is relatively small and this means that many of the most important historical buildings here as well as shops and eateries are located conveniently close to each other.
To take in all the sights you can go on a self-guided walking tour which will take you from Otaru Music Box Museum and then down Sakaimachihondori Street.
From there you can then walk along the banks of one of Otaru’s canals and then end your tour at the Museum of Money.
This is one of the best ways to see Otaru and get in a bit of exercise at the same time.
13. Visit the Former Nihon Yusen Building
The Former Nihon Yusen Building would have been one of the most important buildings in Otaru in the days of old as it would have been the place where trade orders were completed.
The building dates from 1906 and you can see how architecture has changed in Otaru over the years here.
Some of the signature features to look out for include the wallpaper which is actually made out of rice paper and is covered in gold etchings.
14. Try the sushi
Otaru is widely said to have one of the best sushi scenes in all of Hokkaido and you can sample this at places such as Otaru Sushi-ko which is known for using only the freshest local ingredients.
As Otaru is on the water this means that the menu features a range of sushi topped with seafood such as salmon, sea urchin and delicious crab.
Otaru is also known for its kaisen-don which are bowls of rice when are then served with toothsome sashimi on the top.
15. Tour the Bank of Japan Otaru Museum
The Bank of Japan Otaru Museum would once have been the Bank of Japan offices in Otaru.
The building dates from 1912 and it was also designed by the same firm that also designed the Tokyo Station.
Some of the signature features to look out for here include the keystones which are in the shape of owls on the front of the building and which are actually a nod to a famous Ainu deity.
The owls are now said to guard the building and you can also learn more about all things money related in Otaru here.