An easy day trip from Hokkaido's capital city of Sapporo is Otaru, a port city with beautifully quaint streets and views of the Otaru Canal which has adorned many a Hokkaido travel brochure for years.
Otaru was one of my favourite cities / towns I visited in Hokkaido, chiefly for how beautiful and relaxing it was.
Otaru is nice enough to spend a day, and you can cover all the highlights with a day trip, though I would be hard pressed to find more to do in the town itself if I was staying overnight.
However, if you are, you can always reserve one of the days for the beautiful Shakotan Peninsula further northwest of Otaru, and take in some truly beautiful views as you drive along the coast of Hokkaido to eventually reach the stunning Cape Kamui, a 25 minute (easy) hike from the parking lot to the end of the Cape.
You’ll get to enjoy the deep blues of Hokkaido’s colour palette there, especially on a day of great weather.
But first, Otaru.
Getting to Otaru
Located 38 kilometres northwest of Sapporo, it takes about 45 minutes to drive or about 40 by the JR trains.
You can get tickets via the ticketing machines outside the gantries, and you can opt for either non-reserved seats (¥640) where you do not get a designated seat or reserved seats (¥1160) where you’re given a designated seat number and carriage.
Outside of the peak season, sticking to the non-reserved seats is fine.
If you’re driving, the drive will take you on to the smooth and easy to drive highways, and there’s not much special to report here.
Once in Otaru, you will have to look for a parking lot.
Just behind the canals are some industrial looking buildings which are actually covered car parks.
These will probably be the most expensive, and there are quite a number of bigger open air carparks behind the canal.
Just keep driving along and you’re bound to find one.
What to See & Do in Otaru
Sakamachi Street is a pretty street in Otaru’s city centre of historical importance.
When Otaru was opened as a port city in the late 1800s, development in this area thrived, therefore bringing many trading and shipping merchants and retailers, constructing Western style buildings in this area.
Hence why you’ll find the architecture here to not be atypically Japanese, likewise with Hokkaido’s southern city of Hakodate.
Luckily, this street has been designated as a historical street and the buildings have been preserved, many of them converted into retail stores, restaurants, cafes, ice cream parlours, pastry shops, museums and souvenir shops.
You’ll find many places focusing on glassmaking as it is an industry in Otaru.
Famous on the street are places like the Otaru Music Box Museum where you can shop all kinds of music boxes, as well as LeTAO’s famous pastries which are unmissable.
If you’d like, you can even take a rickshaw tour of the city! They have several courses to choose from of various durations and budgets.
Ah yes, the famous Otaru Canal.
Back in the heydays of trading, large ships would dock at the port, where goods would be dropped off into smaller vessels to the warehouses lining the canal.
Of course, with modern infrastructure, larger vessels were then able to unload goods directly at the port, making the canal obsolete.
That gave rise to the Otaru Canal we know and see today.
The warehouses were converted into many cute restaurants and cafes, and you can even take an Otaru Canal Cruise, which operates from Spring to Autumn yearly. You can choose between day or night cruises.
In the winter, the canal and warehouses are covered in a blanket of snow, and the Hokkaido Snow Light Path Festival takes place here, where 140, 000 candles are lit and sent down the canal.
Stuff Yourself on Hokkaido’s Sweets
Many pastry shops and bakeries can be found in Otaru, housed in similarly stunning brick buildings.
Rokkatei Otaru Canal Shop is famous for it’s Marusei Butter Sandwich. The cafe on the second floor is known for the Yukiya Konkon Majirikke Nashi, a cup of soft serve ice cream topped off with a black cocoa biscuit.
Then, there is Kitakaro Otaru Main Shop, renowned for the jumbo (literally) cream puffs, as well as it’s sponge cakes.
You might be able to find LeTAO pastries everywhere in Hokkaido, but some items are only available at their flagship store in Otaru. Try their richly baked cheesecake or the soft milky one called the Double Fromage.
Not many know of this, but you can even head into the cafe and head to the top floor of LeTAO to take in some beautiful cityscape views.
Of course, if Sapporo wasn’t already your base, you can head to Hokkaido’s capital city where you can explore the nightlife area of Susukino, breathe some fresh air and visit temples in Nakajima Koen (Nakajima Park) District, enjoy seasonal festivals and events at Odori Park, and spot interesting historic buildings in the city centre.
As mentioned above, Cape Kamui is a stunning area of natural scenery which draws many visitors.
From there, you’ll get to enjoy stunning views of the sea, as well as enjoy a spot of hiking to get to the tip of the cape.
The hiking path is well maintained, with handrails and steps to aid your hike.
It will only take about 25 minutes or so; more if you stop to take pictures at every scenic viewpoint, of which there will be many.