Otaru is a small port city, about half an hour northwest of Sapporo by JR Rapid Airport train and fifty minutes by local train. The city is considered one of the best day trips from downtown Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido.
It’s mostly famous for its old buildings, glass items, seafood, music boxes and the picturesque Otaru Canal. Delicious sake and sweets are also popular here. In fact, there are many things you can see and do in Otaru including enjoying the night views of Otaru from Mt. Tengu.
Whether you like walking along the streets or have a tendency to explore history of a place and traditions, this guide highlights some amazing places you will love to explore.
In this article, I have excluded the point of interests that are part of a guided tour, such as Blue Cave Cruising, Walking & Street Food tour, and other private tours done by a professional Licensed-Guide.
1. Mount Tengu
Located in the southwestern part of Otaru city, Mt. Tengu (Tenguyama) offers visitors to enjoy the panoramic view of Otaru City, Otaru Port, Ishikari Bay, and the Sea of Japan. On a clear day you can even see Mt. Shokanbetsu.
The height of the mountain is 533 meters and it’s accessible via Otaru Tenguyama Ropeway.
There are two ropeway stations- lower and upper station. The one way journey from lower station to the upper station takes about 4 minutes by gondola.
You will find a gift shop, restaurant and café with panoramic views when you reach the upper station and enjoy some dishes and drinks. Besides, there you will see Japanese vending machines to get some drinks of your choice!
There are some great observatories on the mountaintop from where you can enjoy surrounding vistas. Gondola station’s rooftop observatory is the perfect spot when it comes to viewing the night views overlooking Otaru city.
You can visit Otaru Ski Museum to learn about the history of skiing in Japan. Here you will find about 400 artifacts on display relating to skiing. Your next stop is Tengu Hall; there are approximately 700 varieties of Tengu masks that have been collected from all over Japan.
Besides, you can touch the long-nose of Tengu Goblin to make your wishes come true. It’s located right outside the ropeway station at the summit of Mt. Tengu. Tenguyama Shrine looks stunning in winter when the white snow blankets the ground. It takes a short walk to reach the shrine from the statue of the Tengu Goblin.
Please note night view from Mt. Tengu is considered one of the top three in Hokkaido. For visitors who want to experience the night views should end their trip at Otaru Tenguyama Ropeway and then head over to Otaru Station to get back to Sapporo by train.
If hiking is in your blood, I would highly recommend you to hike up the mountain, it’s literally easy to climb up but make sure you have a water bottle with you. Climbing the mountain on foot is a different feeling than reaching the mountaintop by gondola.
There are so many mountains in Hokkaido that you can climb and this one is relatively one of the easiest hiking destinations. Considering this, you should give it a try, no special hiking gear or accessories are needed.
If you visit Tenguayma in winter, try skiing on one of its slopes. Are you afraid of skiing? Still you can make your trip a great adventure by staring the snowy landscapes from its observatories.
Take the Chuo Bus #9 from Otaru Station Bus Terminal or Otaru Canal Terminal, and then get off at Tenguyama (last stop of the route). The bus ride is about 15 minutes. Fare 220 yen for adult and 110 children.
2. Otaru Canal
No matter what time of year you want to visit Otaru, walking along the Otaru Canal is one of the best things to do in the city.
Built in 1923, this historic canal is an interesting landmark that you can’t ignore exploring once you step into the city. In the late 19th century during the Hokkaido’s colonization, Otaru was a major port for trading and fishing on the island.
The canal has a total length of 1140m, and 40m in width with 63 gas lamps along the canal promenade. Every day, these gas lamps are lit up in the evening, creating a different atmosphere for pedestrians.
The canal was build to provide small ships to transport goods to the stone warehouses owned by shipping companies. These warehouses are lined up along the canal.
Later, the canal became obsolete and useless due to infrastructure development as new docking facilities were built.
In 1986, one part of the canal was reclaimed for land, which later redeveloped into promenade and riverside garden.
The old stone-walled warehouses that you see now have been renovated into museums, restaurants and shops where you can buy souvenirs and try local cuisine and drink Otaru beer.
Besides walking along the canal and sitting on the benches you find there, you can enjoy the canal from a boat. The “Otaru Canal Cruise” makes it possible for you.
This interesting landmark is a symbol of Otaru city and hosts one of the most popular winter festivals of Japan called Otaru Snow Light Path Festival.
The canal is a 10-minute walk from JR Otaru Station.
3. Kitaichi Glass
What is the best souvenir that you can buy in Otaru to take home?
Handmade glassware of Otaru is the best souvenir to bring for your family and friends. They are the authentic products in the town dating back to Meiji Era of Japan. To buy these you have to visit one of Kitaichi Glass stores in the city, especially along the famous Sakaimachi Street.
Kitaichi Glass was founded in 1901. The first president of this company was Hisakchi Asahara. He began to produce kerosene lamps in Otaru as electricity supply at the time was unfamiliar.
In 1910, he decided to produce floating glass balls for fishing. Over time, the company’s products have shifted to tableware to enrich people’s lives.
When you visit Otaru, take a trip to Kitaichi Glass Sangokan building (No. 3). This historic building itself is a warehouse, and headquarters of Kitaichi Glass, built as timber-frame and stone exterior warehouse in 1891. At that time, it stored fish products including dried herring and other things.
In 1983, the building was converted into Kitaichi Glass sales outlet and café. Here you will find a wide range of handmade glass products produced by skilled craftsmen.
At Sangokan, you can find thousands of high quality glass items ranging from dinnerware to many kinds of home decoration items made out of glass. The building has three floors; therefore you must check each floor to discover something extraordinary.
You can taste soft-served ice cream, different kinds of sweets and drink coffee at Kitaichi Hall. The interior of the hall is absolutely mind blowing with its lighting of the lamps.
If you want to spend more time in the area, visit Kitachi Venetian Art Museum, Kitaichi Glass Studio, Kitaichi Plaza, Kitaichi Glass Outlet and Kitaichi Glass Hanazono Shop. Kitaichi Glass Studio is where you must go among these places, especially if you are curious about glass making processes.
Kitaichi Glass Sangokan is a 10-minute walk from Minami Otaru Station.
4. Sakaimachi Street & Music Box Museum
Sakaimachi Street is a well persevered merchant street in central Otaru. Both sides of the street are lined with shops and restaurants. There are plenty of sushi bars and sweet shops. Don’t forget to pay a visit to LeTAO, a perfect shop for cheesecake and sweet lovers.
Whether you are looking for the most delicious street food or goods, you can find them in the shops and restaurants located along the street.
To enjoy gourmet and shopping this place is highly recommended, especially for visitors coming to explore Otaru’s most popular sightseeing destinations.
The old Western style buildings you see here were built during the late 1880s and early 1900s as warehouses. They have been converted into restaurants, cafes, museums, souvenir shops, craft shops, glass workshops and boutiques.
One of the best things you can do besides shopping here is you can explore the Otaru Music Box Museum, Japan’s largest music box store. It is a historical building designated by Otaru City on 29 March 1989. It was constructed in 1912.
The museum consists of multiple buildings scattered around the southern end of Sakaimachi Street and I highly recommend you to explore its main building first. The main building highlights approximately 25,000 music boxes of different kinds.
You can spend hours exploring the first and second floors of the museum as they are packed with unique looking music boxes. Sometimes it’s very hard to decide which one to buy.
If visiting museums is your hobby and want to learn something interesting, visit The Bank of Japan Otaru Museum. Built in 1912, this historical building was in service until September 13, 2002. The bank was converted into a museum in 2003.
This two story building exhibits a number of things including the Bank’s history, Japanese money, its business operations, and the development of the city of Otaru. Admission is free!
The street is a 12-minute walk from Otaru Station and a few minutes’ walk from Otaru Canal.
5. Otaru Aquarium
What is the biggest Aquarium in Hokkaido?
The answer is Otaru Aquarium. People like visiting this place; especially with their little ones as in there are plenty of marine mammals to see. For a perfect weekend family gateway in Otaru, this aquarium is a top notch.
Built in 1959, the aquarium houses approximately 5,000 sea creatures of 250 different species. Explore the tanks filled with aquatic animal, enjoy the dolphin show and experience a fun penguin walk. In addition, you can also watch sea lion & seal shows. It takes place during their meal time.
If you are wondering where to meet walrus in Otaru, it’s also a good option, don’t you forget this.
The aquarium is worth exploring when you plan on visiting some of its must-see spots.
You can reach Otaru Aquarium by a local bus from JR Otaru Station. It’s a 20-minute ride and you can pay the fare by your IC card (if you have one).
Check out their official website to know about admission fees, opening time, parking and other info.
6. Tanaka Sake Brewery (KIKKOGURA)
A 5-minute walk from Minami-Otaru Station is Tanaka Sake Brewery. Founded in 1909, this is the only sake brewery in Otaru. The building itself is a historic stone warehouse.
Drinking sake for the first time can be a surprising experience and what if you do it at Takanaka Sake Brewery?
This famous sake brewery offers you free sake testing. And if you like it, I assume you would probably end up buying a bottle of sake to drink later.
All the ingredients needed to make delicious sake here are from Hokkaido. Alongside testing different kinds of sake, visitors can experience a traditional sake brewery processes experience. Please note the sake brewing takes place every day.
Whether you are a sake lover or not, a trip to this historic brewery will always impress you. The trip is not only educational but also satisfying, especially if you are a foodie traveler.
7. Sumiyoshi Shrine
If there is one shrine in Otaru that you want me to name that is worth exploring, I would say it is Sumiyoshi Shrine, a famous Shinto shrine.
To get here you can take a walk from the Sakaimachi Street or get off at Minami-Otaru Station. From the station, it’s less than 10 minute walk.
The location where the shrine sits is stunningly beautiful. The walkway that leads you to the main shrine compound is magical with staircase, statues, stone lanterns and giant trees.
Here, you can see cherry blossoms in the spring, lush green trees in the summer, gorgeous autumn foliage in the fall and piles of snow on the ground in the winter. Taking a stroll here is a relaxing experience and you would always love to do that.
Enjoy the architecture of each shrine buildings and take photographs of the surroundings. You will be blessed!
In conclusion, the above are the main highlights that you can experience once you have arrived in Otaru. And it does not matter when you visit the town, it could be in spring, summer, autumn or winter. You can always explore these amazing places.
There are some seasonal attractions, such as visitors can enjoy skiing at Otaru Tenguyama Ski Resort, Asarigawaonsen Ski Resort, and Snow Cruise Onze in winter.
Those who want to travel to Otaru in spring can experience spectacular cherry blossom displays in Temiya Park.
If you come to Otaru in summer, I can recommend you a beautiful flower garden called ONZE Harukayama Lily Garden, where you will see tons of lilies of different kinds. Even though lilies start to bloom in early-July, August is the best time to visit the garden.
To see autumn leaves in the city, you don’t have to go far, you can spot them while exploring the city around. For example, you can enjoy splendid autumn foliage from the observatories of Tenguyama. I also like visiting Temiya Park and Otaru Park in autumn to enjoy the fresh air and colorful leaves.