Otaru city is located by the Sea of Japan in western Hokkaido—the northernmost island of Japan. The city is close to Sapporo and it takes about 30 minutes by car to reach Otaru from Sapporo and about the same time by a train. Otaru is sandwiched between the mountains, such as Mt. Tenguyama and Mt. Kenashiyama, and the Otaru bay, which forms a natural harbor for the city.
The city is famous for its glass products, music boxes, and alcohol beverages—especially beer and wine—but it has a long history of being a hub for herring trade and finance in the late 19th century. The city is still an important fishing port for Japan and some title it as the city of sushi because of the numerous sushi shops that dot the cityscape.
In this blog post you can read the fascinating history of Otaru and activities to engage there during your trip. If you’d also like to read more about Sapporo, take a look at our earlier blog columns Sapporo: A metropolis close to nature and Sapporo: the capital city of Hokkaido.
A short introduction to Otaru
Otaru is a port city in Shiribeshi subprefecture and one of the main ports in Japan. Even though it is the largest city in the subprefecture, it is not the capital of the subprefecture. That title is reserved to Kutchan town with a more central location. The total area of the city is 243.13 square kilometers (93.87 square miles) and because of the location between the steep mountains and the sea, almost all the flat land area of the city has been taken into use for buildings, roads etc.
There were about 111,000 inhabitants in the city in September 2021. Many people living in Otaru commute to Sapporo because of the cheaper housing prices in Otaru. Of course, there are many companies and educational institutions also in such a big city as Otaru.
Otaru is especially known for its historical buildings and arts and crafts. When you say crafts and Otaru, the first thing that comes to your mind is glasswork. In the olden times, glass was used to make floats for fishnets and oil lamps but now the art of glass making is used mostly to create glassware and decorative items. The longest tradition of glass making is glass blowing used to create bottles, lamps and the glass balls used as fishnet marks mentioned earlier, but more recent techniques used are stained glass and different fusing techniques.
Another type of art craft Otaru is famed for are music boxes. There is even a music box museum at Otaru, which is, to be honest, more like a large music box shop, but an interesting place to see anyway. Music boxes have been made in Japan since 1830 but there doesn’t seem to be a very deep special connection between music boxes and Otaru. Rather, music boxes were deemed to have a certain kind of retro feeling in them, so there were people who thought it would be a good idea to introduce them as one of the crafts in Otaru. Today, the common history of music boxes and Otaru has lasted for about 110 years, so the position of the music boxes is now well established in the Otaru crafts scene.
The practice of doing crafts in Otaru does not only apply to works of art but also to alcoholic beverages. Beer making has a long history in Hokkaido, and Sapporo beer established in 1867 is the first brewery in Japan. Otaru beer, however, is a newcomer and was established in 1995 but it has gained a strong foothold in the Japanese beer making world because the beer is made following German traditions with no additives used in the brewing and that’s why the beer is also of very high quality. The brewery also has a cozy German style beer house or pub in one of the old warehouses lining the Otaru canal, which is worth paying a visit during your Otaru trip. The warehouse pub has also a microbrewery that produces beer for the needs of the pub while the Zenibako brewery at the outskirts of Otaru produces bottled beer for wholesale.
There is also wine production in Otaru. Hokkaido wine (an outbound link) established in 1975 is the largest winery in Hokkaido and its delicious wines can be tasted and purchased at Otaru wine gallery. Wine and beer making are western imports but also Japanese brewing tradition lives strong in Otaru. Established in 1899, Tanaka Sake Brewery (an outbound link), has two breweries in Otaru, the main brewery and Kikkogura brewery. Here you can get yourself familiarized with sake making and also taste different kinds of sake, plum wines, and sweet sake.
If you are interested in reading about other Hokkaido local wineries, here is one of our earlier blog columns that you might find interesting: Yoichi: The town of wine and fruit orchards.
Exploring the historical Otaru
Otaru has one of the longest histories of Japanese settlers in Hokkaido with the first settlers landing as early as 1596. After that, more and more Japanese settlers slowly started to move in and built the city of Otaru. The city became an especially important center for herring fishing and finance in Hokkaido after the mid-19th century after Hokkaido was annexed as part of Japan.
According to the archaeological findings, there has been human settlement at least for 8,000 years around the area where the current Otaru stands. During that time the people of Jomon culture lived in the area. Jomon are considered to be the ancestors of Ainu, whose culture started to appear during the 12th century. Otaru, like the other places in Hokkaido, was inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people before the Japanese started to move into the island. And like about 80% of the other place names in Hokkaido, also name of Otaru comes from the Ainu language: it is a shortened form of ota or nay, that is ‘a river (nay) that flows through (or) a sandy beach (ota)’.
Actually, there is no such a river as Ota or nay/Otarunay in Otaru but the name rather refers to the lower reaches of the River Hoshioki (Hoshiokigawa) that marks the border between Sapporo city and Otaru city. The Matsumae clan controlling trade between Japanese and Ainu in Hokkaido, established a trading post at the mouth of the river in the 17th century. The winter weather conditions at the mouth of River Otarunay were very harsh with freezing northern winds blowing, so the trading post was moved to a more sheltered place, that is, to a place where the current Otaru city stands right now. The name followed the trading post and so Otaru city was born.
During the latter half of the 19th century, Otaru became one of the most important harbor cities in Japan and was a main hub for herring fishing and finance. Kitamaebune—literally ‘north-bound ships’, that is, trading cargo vessels bound to the north—travelled all the way from Osaka up to Otaru to be loaded with herring and other local goods. It was also that time, in 1880 to be precise, when the first railroad in Hokkaido was built. The line connected Otaru to Horonai via Sapporo, which also gave the economy and development of Sapporo a great boost and made it the metropolis it is today. There were numerous coal mines in Horonai and from the mines the coal was first transported by train to Otaru and then shipped to the Japan mainland.
The famous Otaru canal near the harbor and the warehouses lining it were built in 1923 to support the thriving trade. The trade brought along an increasing wealth and Otaru became the financial center of Hokkaido. The trading company offices and the banks—including the Bank of Japan’s Otaru branch—were lined up on ‘the Wall Street of the North’ a couple of blocks away from the warehouses. Now the former building of the Bank of Japan is converted into a museum (an outbound link) where the visitors can learn about the history of banking in Japan.
Historical Otaru also is a frequently seen setting in a historical manga series Golden Kamuy (an outbound link) and the anime based on the manga. The story of the manga is set in Hokkaido after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–1905 and since one of the protagonists is a young Ainu woman, there is a lot of information about the Ainu and Ainu culture in the manga, too, so it is also a great way to get to know about history of Otaru and the Ainu.
If you are interested in the Ainu and their culture, be sure also to read our earlier blog post Shiraoi: The town of the Ainu.
Eat and drink in Otaru
Otaru is a paradise for gourmands, especially for the ones that are into seafood. Being located right next to the Sea of Japan, Otaru’s food scene can offer all kinds of seafood freshly caught and mouth wateringly delicious. The best way to enjoy the blessings of the sea is of course sushi but also kaisendon (a rice bowl topped with sashimi, that is, uncooked seafood) is a popular option.
A popular place to eat out in Otaru is Sakaimachi Street (Sakaimachi dori), a merchant street with old preserved buildings that have been converted to shops and restaurants. There are many sushi shops on the street but also other restaurants, such as ramen noodle shops, yakiniku grilled meat restaurants, and jingisukan (grilled mouton and vegetables) restaurants. After having your meal, there is an excellent chance to look around the crafts shops of Sakaimachi street where you can buy some local souvenirs if you wish.
On Sakaimachi street you can also find several shops specializing in desserts. There are shops that offer cakes, ice cream, and Japanese confectionery. So, if you crave for some sugary yumminess, Sakaimachi street is the place to go.
What to do at Otaru?
Otaru is an especially famous travel destination among Japanese travelers. Domestic tourists are attracted to Otaru because of its historical atmosphere and thriving food culture. There is plenty to see and experience and it is easy to reach from Sapporo.
Being close to the sea, Otaru is an ideal spot to go and experience the sea itself. Riding a private motorboat on a tour along the coastline of Otaru is a fun way to see the city from a bit different perspective and also some breathtakingly beautiful nature and landscapes along the coastline. A must see place during your trip is the Blue cave, which you can only reach by a boat. The pictures don’t do justice to the beauty of the cave, it is definitely something you have to experience yourself! After the boat tour, it is a good time to feast with freshly caught local seafood of all sorts.
Otaru is known for its artisans and crafts and there are several hands-on craft experience workshops around the city. One fun way to try your own artisan skills is to participate in a class making workshop. You can try your hand at for example blowing your own glass, making a stained glass artwork or decorate some glassware with sandblasting. Some of the glass making experiences are also suitable for children, for example the glass blowing workshop. What would be a better souvenir from Otaru than a glass you have made yourself?
Visitors can immerse themselves in the history of Otaru just by walking around the city centre. If you would like to get a bit more thorough introduction to the history of the city, you should head to Otaru General Museum. The museum is divided into two buildings: the general history museum at the Otaru Canal and the railway museum at the railway yard. At the Canal Building you can learn about the history of Otaru and Japanese settlement in Hokkaido. The Railway museum is the main building of the museum and it displays some of the trains used at Otaru railway during its 140-year-long history as well as offers detailed explanation of the history of railway in Otaru. If you are into history, these both museums are worth visiting.
Brimming with history, Otaru is conveniently close to Sapporo city and full of interesting things to see and experience. If you think Otaru should be on your travel bucket list, let us know through the inquiry form!