Traditional Japanese architecture meets old European style in this charming port city of Otaru in Hokkaido. Most of its museums and cafes were repurposed from their original structures, keeping the nostalgic vibe alive even today.
From its long-running glass blowing industry and magical music box creations to seafood delicacies and wacky ice cream flavors, you will never run out of things to do and eat in this quiet city with a rich history.
Here are 10 activities to make your trip in Otaru worthwhile:
1. Walk Along the Nostalgic Streets of Otaru Canal
Or take a romantic night cruise along the canal, warmed by the twinkling gas lamps lined up on the streets.
Built in 1923, the canal has had a long history before turning into the symbol of Otaru that it is at present. In fact, it was almost landfilled if not for local preservationists’ efforts to restore it in the 1980s. And now, with the city’s ongoing efforts, it truly feels like being transported back in time, whether you choose to see the canal on foot or aboard a cruise.
If you get the timing right, you may even get to see the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival which runs for 10 days every February. During this time, the city turns into a winter wonderland with more than 100,000 ice candles lighting up the cobbled streets, snow sculptures adorning the place, and floating candles illuminating the canal.
Surely, it is an event anyone would brave the freezing cold for.
Address: 5 Minatomachi, Otaru, Hokkaido
2. Learn the Town’s History at Otaru City General Museum
Otaru City General Museum is actually two separate buildings—Canal Hall and the Main Building.
Canal Hall occupies one of the old-fashioned warehouses along the canal. With more than 20,000 exhibits inside, the museum is where one can learn more about the Ainu, the original inhabitants of Hokkaido.
About a 20-minute walk west of Canal Hall is Otaru City General Museum Main Building, which stands at the former terminal of Hokkaido’s first railway line. Train enthusiasts will enjoy the full-sized trains and dioramas from different eras, including the Iron Horse, which is the oldest dynamic steam locomotive in Hokkaido.
Opening Hours: 9:30-17:00
Address: 1-20-2, Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido
Opening Hours: 9:30-17:00
Address: 1-3-6, Temiya, Otaru, Hokkaido
3. Taste Hokkaido’s Version of Karaage – Zangi Chicken
Zangi is Hokkaido-style fried chicken, seasoned with salt, pepper and ginger. It is a staple dish that anyone should try at least once while visiting the prefecture. You can get this juicy dish from a chain of restaurants in Otaru called Naruto Ya.
For a list of branches around the city, check out their website below.
Opening Hours: Depends on the branch
4. Step Into a Fairytale at Otaru Music Box Museum
The Otaru Music Box Museum is one of the largest music box museums in Japan and dates back to 1989, when it was officially designated as a historical building by the city. With thousands of music boxes in store, these magical pieces are sure to wow anyone.
From sushi-shaped music boxes to stuffed toy music boxes, the choices seem endless. The view of the shop from the second floor is also the perfect vantage point for people who want to take photos of these glittering pieces. Guests can also purchase customized music boxes on the third floor. Just pick a song and a music box, and have the staff do it for you.
But if you want a more hands-on customization, visit Otaru Orgel Doh Group Music Box and Handicrafts Studio You-Kobo. They offer courses with varying difficulty in music box crafting. You can choose from more than a hundred songs and decorations for your personalized music box.
Before you leave, don’t forget to take a picture with the steam clock as it chimes and releases steam. Located just outside the museum, the Otaru Orgel Doh’s steam clock was a gift from Canada and is the world’s largest of its kind.
Hours: 9:00-18:00 (Closes at 19:00 on Fridays, Saturdays and days before national holidays in the summer)
Address: 4-1, Sumiyoshicho, Otaru, Hokkaido
Otaru Orgel Doh Group Music Box and Handicrafts Studio You-Kobo
Opening Hours: 9:00-18:00
Address: 1-1-5, Irifune, Otaru, Hokkaido
5. Design Your Own Glassware at Kitaichi Glass Hanazono
Since the early days of Otaru’s development, glass has always been one of its major productions due to its herring industry—fishermen used glass floats as fishing nets then. Formerly known as Asahara Glass, Kitaichi Glass is a company pioneering in glass, particularly oil lamps and glass floats, since 1901. Now, the company has a total of 18 stores in the city like the Kitaichi Glass Sangokan, considered to be the headquarters of the company, Kitaichi Hall, a cafe that is illuminated by 167 oil lamps, and Kitaichi Venetian Art Museum, a piece of Italy in Japan.
And of course, because glass products are one of the most sought-after souvenirs in the city, there’s no better way to get one than to decorate it yourself at Kitaichi Glass Hanazono Store. Here you can decorate your choice of glassware (excluding some products that are not for processing) with patterns using the sand blasting technique.
Memorialize your trip and have the dates, or your own message, printed on the glassware.
By Phone – (0134) 33-1991
By Fax – (0134) 29-0691
By Email – firstname.lastname@example.org
6. Indulge in Mouthwatering Double Fromage Cheesecake and Other Sweet Delights in Any (or All) Six LeTAO Stores
LeTAO is an acronym for the French phrase, “La Tour Amitie Otaru,” meaning “Beloved Otaru Tower.” No visit to Otaru is complete without visiting at least one of the six stores around town, each with their own concept and specialty.
Home of the famous Double Fromage Cheesecake, LeTAO Honten is a two-story shop that lets customers enjoy their heavenly cheesecake overlooking the fairytale-like Marchen intersection from the second floor, while the first floor is filled with freshly baked pastries.
For delectable Danish cheese pastries, visit Fromage Danish DaniI LeTAO. They also have soft-serve ice cream called Creme Glacee in Jersey Milk, CInq Fromage (cheese), and Mariage (a combination of the two) flavors.
Just a three-minute walk from LeTAO Honten is Noevelle Vague LeTAO Chocolatier Otaru Main Shop, which is ideal for chocolate lovers. Here you can get strips of hard chocolate with dried fruit and nuts as toppings called Sante Lien.
Out of the six, the largest LeTAO shop is LeTAO PATHOS, which is just across from Nouvelle Vague LeTAO Chocolatier. This is also a two-story shop: a shop full of LeTAO pastries on the first floor and a spacious cafe on the second floor where you can order savory dishes.
Next to LeTAO PATHOS is LeTAO Plus, perfect for those who don’t have time to spare but still want to take home their favorite LeTAO treats. They also sell soft-serve ice cream and their Fluffy Souffle Omelet is heavenly.
And in case you forget to stop by any of the stores in the town center, worry not, because the last LeTao shop, Ekimo LeTAO, is conveniently posted in front of Otaru Station so you can get your LeTAO products in pretty packages for your souvenir needs while waiting for your train.
Opening Hours: 9:00-18:00 (Cafe closes at 17:30)
Address: 7-16, Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido
Fromage Danish Dani LeTAO
Opening Hours: 9:00-18:00
Address: 6-6-13, Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido
Nouvelle Vague LeTAO Chocolatier Otaru Main Shop
Opening Hours: 9:00-18:00
Address: 4-19, Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido
Opening Hours: 9:00-18:00 (Shop); 10:30-15:30 (Cafe)
Address: 5-22. Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido
Opening Hours: 9:00-18:00
Address: 5-22, Sakaimachi, Otaru, Hokkaido
Address: Sunville Square 1F, 9-1 Inaho 3-chome, Otaru, Hokkaido
7. Challenge Your Taste Buds and Order a Scoop of Squid Ink Ice Cream at Kita no Aisu Ya San
Nestled in a small alley near Otaru Canal, Kita no Aisu Ya San or “Ice Cream Shop of the North,” is perfect for the courageous who are ready to go beyond the regular vanilla ice cream.
From local flavors like sea urchin and squid ink to beer and wasabi, this ice cream shop combines two products Hokkaido is known for—seafood and dairy. But worry not, if the wild selection is not your cup of tea, the store also serves conventional flavors like strawberry milk and melon.
Regardless if you choose to try a scoop of black-colored ice cream or stick with the usual, an ice cream cone is guaranteed to always make one’s day brighter.
Opening Hours: 9:30-19:00 (Subject to change)
Address: 1-2-18 Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido
8. Feel the Weight of 100 Million Yen Notes Inside The Vault of The Bank of Japan Otaru Museum
Designed by Architect Kingo Tatsuno, who is also behind Tokyo Station’s architecture, in 1912, The Bank of Japan Otaru Museum lets guests learn about the history of the bank and its operations for free. Yes, you read that right. Admission is free!
One opportunity to not miss out on is taking a picture while lifting a bundle of 100 million yen notes in The Vault of the Bank, located at the Business Operation Zone section of the museum. Unfortunately, due to safety measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the entire Business Operation Zone is currently closed.
Opening Hours: Summer (April-November) 9:30-17:00 / Winter (December-March) 10:00-17:00 / Closed on Wednesdays
Address: 1-11-16, Ironai, Otaru, Hokkaido
9. Fill Your Tummy With Freshly Caught Seafood
Being a port city and shaped by the herring industry since its early days of development, it comes as no surprise that Otaru is a go-to place for sushi in Hokkaido.
There is a wide selection of authentic sushi restaurants scattered all around the city, only offering freshly caught ingredients to make your taste buds tingle. 20 out of the 100 or so sushi bars in Otaru can be found along a famous street called Sushiya-dori (Sushi Restaurant Street).
Choose a seat by the counter and try not to drool as the sushi chef prepares your orders right in front of you.
Address: 1-1, Hanazono, Otaru, Hokkaido
10. End Your Trip on Top of Mt. Tengu
In addition to being a symbol of Otaru and having a one-star rating in Michelin Green Guide Japan, Mt. Tengu is also considered as one of the three major night views in Hokkaido. But there’s more to this mountain than its views. On top, there’s a gift shop, a restaurant where you can grab a cup of coffee, a hiking trail and the Tengu Hall, which is a small exhibit that displays Tengu masks. Don’t forget to touch the nose of the “Nausea’s Tengu” sculpture outside the Tengu Hall for it is believed that your wishes will come true if done so.
During winter, Mt. Tengu transforms to a go-to ski resort complete with six ski courses and ski lifts. Surely, seeing the mountain and the spectacular views of Otaru and the Sea of Japan at an altitude of 523 meters will make for a memorable finale to your trip.
Ropeway Operating Hours: 9:00-18:00
Opening Hours: 9:30-21:00
Address: 2. Tenguyama, Otaru, Hokkaido
Conclusion – Best things to do in Otaru
Although lesser known than its neighbor, Sapporo, the picturesque city of Otaru deserves a day or two on one’s itinerary when planning a trip to Hokkaido. You don’t only get to craft your own souvenirs and enjoy tasty meals, but you also get to learn years of history of this city—truly an experience that is one of a kind. So what are you waiting for?