Hokkaido is known around the world for its natural beauty, delicious food, and famous Yuki Matsuri (snow festival). If you are perhaps planning on visiting Sapporo or snowboarding in the nearby mountains of Hokkaido, there is one town you don’t want to miss during your stay: Otaru.
Otaru is a port-town in western Hokkaido, about 30 minutes by train from Sapporo. Interestingly, most of the city’s architecture is designed with a Western-style in mind, which is unusual compared to other architecture throughout Japan. In the 19th and 20th century, Otaru was an important business and trade center for this northern island, but in recent years has shifted to a more touristic setting.
However, while visiting Otaru, you won’t feel like you are in just another Japanese tourist town. Otaru is a city of hidden treasures that will make memories to last a lifetime. Here are some of the many sights, tastes, and places you can experience in Otaru.
Otaru Music Box Museum
Just a few minutes walk from JR Minami-Otaru station is the historic Otaru Music Box Museum. The building was built in 1912, and perfectly showcases the Western-style design of the city. After walking into the old building, our jaws begin to drop. The main room opens to the ceiling that is two stories high, with aged wooden staircases and antique furniture.
Much of the building is devoted to the museum portion, which displays items from Otaru’s past. In addition, there are hundreds of hand-made music boxes for sale, from ones that fit in the palm of your hand to others that need an entire room for display. The intricate design of each music box is nothing short of Japan’s well-known craftsmanship, making a great souvenir and conversation piece.
If you’re in the mood to do some shopping or perhaps hungry for a hot lunch, Sakaimachi is the place to go. It is lined with numerous souvenir shops, museums, restaurants, and Otaru’s famous glassware shops. Most of the glassware is handmade, and showcases some of Hokkaido’s finest artistry. You can find drinking glasses, tea and sake sets, dinnerware, and artistic pieces for your home in any glass shop, and probably spend a few hours looking in the process.
If art isn’t your thing, it’s fun to collect and try all of Hokkaido’s famous chocolates in the stores along the Sakaimachi. They sell Royce chocolate potato chips and Shiroi Koibito cookies alongside other famous treats.
As for lunch, dinner, and everything in between, you can’t leave Otaru before having some of the ramen. Hokkaido is known throughout Japan and other parts of the world for its hearty ramen dishes. Usually with a thick miso base, you’ll find it hard to beat the ramen you’ll find in Otaru.
Walking along the canal
When you’ve gotten your fill of chocolate and ramen, the perfect ending to your snowy day awaits you along the Otaru Canal. Each year, this scenic waterway is lined with lanterns and candles throughout the snowy banks during the Snow Light Path Festival. It’s hard to describe the aura that’s created by the combination of the deep snow and flickering pathway under the night sky. If you have the chance to see it with your lover, it’s the perfect romantic atmosphere. Even if romantic lighting isn’t for you, it’s hard to pass up this view.
The Snow Light Path Festival is held each year around the same time of the Sapporo Snow Festival, which gives you the perfect excuse to see it during your trip to Hokkaido. This year it will be from February 6-15 starting at 1700 each day.
Towns that are off the beaten path often make the best memories, and Otaru is no exception. It offers character and scenery that you can’t find anywhere else, and is definitely worth the side trip during your stay in Hokkaido.
From Sapporo station to Minami-Otaru (near Music Box Museum): ¥640
From Sapporo station to Otaru: ¥640, 46 minutes
Photo: Victor Wong