Otaru is a quaint Japanese port city full of charm and character. A mere 30 minutes away from Sapporo in Hokkaido, it’s a perfect day trip destination. Otaru has an attractive small town vibe, famous for its picturesque canal, beer and arts and crafts. From the unmissable things to do in Otaru to the delicious sweet treats to eat (I know how to prioritise), this guide will help plan an awesome Otaru day trip.
Is Otaru apart of your larger Hokkaido holiday? Don’t forget to check out my complete Hokkaido itinerary for first-time visitors:
When to visit Otaru
The weather in Otaru is generally comfortable throughout the year besides winter, when it becomes frigid cold. However, the main Otaru attractions don’t depend on seasonality so I wouldn’t hesitate to travel here on a day trip year round.
I visited Otaru in May and experienced pleasant, mild weather with no rain. Trying to catch the cherry blossom season can be tricky when you’re planning several months in advance. You’ll almost be as accurate as Karen trying to predict the weather on Mean Girls. However, to give yourself the best chance of seeing beautiful pink blooms scattering the town, head to Otaru in late April to early May.
How to get from Sapporo to Otaru
One of the main reasons Otaru makes a great day trip is that it’s so close to Sapporo, the largest city in Hokkaido.
The journey from Sapporo to Otaru only takes 30 minutes on the rapid train and 45 minutes on the local train, city centre to city centre. There are several trains every hour from Sapporo to Otaru and vice versa on the JR Hakodate Main Line. The cost of a single adult ticket for this ride is 640 yen. You can reserve your seat for extra, but I didn’t find any need to reserve or pre-book when I was there. You can find the train timetable for the date of your Otaru day trip by searching here.
Getting around Otaru
What I love about Otaru is that it’s a walkable city. You can set off on foot from the main train station and hit up most of the prominent attractions yourself. A higher step count = more calories burned = more calories to eat… Right?
If you can’t walk for long or need transport to get around Otaru, then there’s also a local bus service called the Otaru Sansaku Bus. It leaves Otaru Station at regular intervals and stops at popular attractions such as the Otaru Canal. A single trip on the bus costs 220 yen and a one-day pass is 750 yen.
Best Things to do in Otaru
Tour Otaru’s Sankaku Market (Fish Market)
Right next to Otaru Station is Sankaku Market, where fresh seafood is found in abundance. Not as large as the likes of Nijo Market in Sapporo, this market only has a couple of alleyways full of vendors hawking fresh seafood. I have a tough time deciding what to eat at the best of times (my friends laugh at me for exploring Instagram geotags at restaurants every time we go out to eat), so my indecisiveness appreciates the narrow selection.
My partner and I settled on eating delicious kaisen don (mixed sashimi on a bed of rice) at a stall we randomly picked. In my experience, it’s hard to have a bad meal in Japan. If you want to treat yo’self (yes 2015 is calling and wants its meme back), then Otaru is famous for its uni (sea urchin) and hairy crab, which are both available here.
Admire the beauty of Otaru Canal
Built in 1923, Otaru Canal was once used as a base for trade in Hokkaido. Unfortunately made redundant after larger shipping docks were built, it languished for years. However, it’s arguably become Otaru’s most popular tourist attraction after being revitalised in the 1980s and reworked as a promenade. The surrounding original warehouses give you a sense of an era gone by, and have been turned into museums, restaurants and storefronts.
You can cruise along Otaru Canal, but this is targeted towards domestic visitors since the tour is conducted in Japanese. If you’re not afraid of joining in though, then there are audio guides available on board, including in English, Mandarin and Korean.
Be amazed by the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
As I mentioned, Otaru is unforgivably icy in the winter months. The pay-off for withstanding the bitter cold though is the popular Otaru Snow Light Path Festival. This festival is held every year for 10 days in February, so you’ll be extremely lucky to catch it. An astonishing array of candles and lanterns are lit up along the canal and around town. I’m from Western Australia where the closest thing to snow are the ice shards building up in the freezer. So this sounds amazing to me. If I were to visit during the winter season, this would be at the top of my list of things to do in Otaru.
Shop along Sakaimachi Street
A short distance away from Otaru Canal lies Sakaimachi Street, a long shopping strip. You’ll find many restaurants, boutiques and souvenir shops here to keep you occupied for at least a couple of hours (or if you’re like me and can’t pass by an enticing dessert, then the whole day).
If a bespoke and unique gift to bring back home is what you’re after, then you’re at the right place. The Music Box Museum is spread out across several buildings in this quaint town, but the main store front is on Sakaimachi Street. A two storey extravaganza, it houses beautiful and intricate music boxes for display and sale.
Take photos at Temiya Railway Line
A Tripadvisor review sums it up hilariously as “an old bit of railway line”. And to be honest, they weren’t wrong. It deserves an honourable mention for being a convenient and charming place to take pictures in front of (unless you’re a train and railway history enthusiast, in which case you’ll be all over this place).
We stumbled upon the Temiya Railway Line walking between other attractions, and ended up taking a few nice photos here.
Visit Kitaichi Glass
Otaru is famous for its crafts, with one of their predominant industries being glasswork. Kitaichi is a handmade glassware company based in Otaru, producing some beautiful and intricate pieces. If you aren’t afraid of breakage, then visit here for a unique souvenir to bring back home. The store also has an attached cafe. It’s an atmospheric and Instagram worthy sight, with the moody room lit entirely by lamps.
Eat delicious treats in Otaru
As I’ve mentioned, the biggest draw of Sakaimachi Street for me is the massive amount of dessert and pastry shops lining the strip. My partner and I weaved through each and every one of them. We tested free samples, snacked on best-selling desserts and bought food souvenirs to bring home.
LeTao is a famous sweets brand originating from Otaru. They have several stores, but their main one is on Sakaimachi Street. Here, you will find a shop on the ground floor and a cafe on the level above. Their iconic pastry is the double fromage cheesecake. A deliciously rich and milky dessert, it’s a lovely take on the Japanese cheesecake.
Kitakaro are well known for their delectable cream puffs, an affordable and tasty snack to satisfy our dessert stomachs. The cream puffs are so light and airy, I could eat multiple without feeling sick. They’re ‘not too sweet‘, a term popularised by Asian Aunties, bestowed only to the best and most delicious treats.
It’s also worth mentioning Rokkatei, a delightful cafe and souvenir shop in Otaru. We bought some of their classic Marutei butter sandwich biscuits to take home as souvenirs. Since Hokkaido is known for fresh dairy products, we also indulged in Rokkatei’s icecream (think of it as a Mcdonald’s soft serve, but better).
Take the ropeway up Mount Tengu
Mount Tengu is a fair distance away from the city centre, so transport here is a must. If you’re relying on public transport, then you can catch a bus from Otaru Station. The journey should last 15 – 20 minutes. Get off at the last stop ‘Tenguyama’.
My partner and I didn’t go up the 532m of Mount Tengu on our Otaru day trip, having done a similar activity in Sapporo. However, Mount Tengu seems like a great option to soak up beautiful panoramic views of the city.
Tickets for the ropeway are 1200 yen or 600 yen round trip for adults and children respectively. Open from 09:30 to 21:00, besides from the observatory there’s also a cafe and gift shop at the top to round off a nice pit stop.
Otaru day trip: an underrated destination
Otaru is an underrated day trip destination. A humble, nostalgic city with plenty of things to do. It doesn’t receive as much attention as its larger neighbour Sapporo, but Otaru’s cosy charm and serenity is one of its biggest selling points. Sometimes the best experiences are simply soaking up local flavour and ambience.
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