Once known as the “Wall Street of the North”, the town of Otaru has been Hokkaido’s gateway to the sea for over a hundred years.

Photo by Bjorn

A mini history of Otaru

During the shogunate era, Japanese settlers came to Hokkaido (the original inhabitants of the island were the Ainu) for the island’s wealth of resources. The coal mines in the hills surrounding Otaru and its natural harbor were the two main factors in the city becoming a hub for trade, banking and industry. Many banking and trading firms had offices along Otaru’s main street. Some of these brick- and stone-built buildings still remain today.

Photo by Bjorn


The town, however, is most famous for its canal district, lined with warehouses stocked with goods to be loaded on to ships headed for Japan’s major cities and perhaps even foreign lands. While its commercial character has largely disappeared, the nostalgic atmosphere of the Victorian-style architecture that has been left behind is something quite unique to experience. Some of the warehouses have been converted in stylish shops and cafes.

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Photo by Bjorn

But don’t spend your daily budget all in one place because just a few hundred meters from Otaru’s canals is Sakaimachi. When it comes to speciality shopping, this long street leading up to Otaru’s Music Box Museum (which exhibits over 1500 music boxes) has it all. Dozens of glasswork shops are scattered along the street. Otaru glassworking tradition goes back to its early days of fabricating kerosene lamps and small balls used to fish herring off the shore. Nowadays the glassworkers use their craft to fabricate intricate accessories and adorned glassware.

Photo by Bjorn

Sakaimachi is a foodie’s paradise too! You will find all kinds of Hokkaido specialty foods in its many cafes and shops. From delicious cheesecake by the renowned local delicacy maker LeTAO to rich Hokkaido wine, and of course fresh seafood.

See our full Otaru day trip guide for more things to do and places to eat.

If you’re visiting in winter, don’t miss the annual Otaru Snow Light Path Festival.

Getting to Otaru

Otaru is easily accessed from Sapporo by taking the JR Hakodate Main Line. There are multiple trains every hour. The trip takes about 30 (rapid train) to 45 minutes (local train) taking you through Hokkaido’s endless fields and along its rugged eastern coast.

A one-way trip costs around ¥750. A JR Pass can also be used to make the journey.

Getting around once in Otaru can easily be done by foot, but there is also a bus that runs between the major sightseeing spots and Otaru Station at a flat rate of ¥220 per ride or ¥750 for a one-day pass.

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