Approximately 30 km to the west of Sapporo, Otaru is a port city with a canal and well-preserved architectures of early modern Japan in the Meiji era. Most of the attractions are found in the city center surrounding the Otaru port.
Otaru’s original name in the local Ainu language was “Otarunai” or “Ota-or-nai”, meaning “river flowing through sand”. The area’s recorded history goes back to the 16th century, when an explorer from the Honshu island reported settlement. Otaru’s early modern history as a port city started in 1871, when Japan’s Meiji government opened a colonization office in Sapporo. Rapid development followed with expanding trades, especially after a railway was built in 1880 between Otaru and Sapporo, as the first railway in Hokkaido. Once busy with exporting coal and trades with Russia, today’s Otaru has a thriving tourism industry.
Winter in Otaru is less severe than in most other cities in Hokkaido; the yearly average temperature is 8.6 degrees Celsius.
Otaru is a major station on the JR Hakodate Line from Sapporo, with very frequent train runs. At a cost of ¥620, there are at least five trains per hour; the fastest service, the Airport Rapid, reaches Otaru in 30 minutes. The complete journey on the Airport Rapid from New Chitose Airport to Otaru takes 70 minutes.
Otaru is 25 minutes away from Sapporo by car.
Otaru is one of Hokkaido’s key ferry ports, and the closest to Sapporo. Shin-Nihonkai Ferry(+81 6-6348-1120) operates a daily service between Otaru and Niigata (18 hours, ¥6,200+) and between Otaru and Maizuru near Kyoto (20 hours, ¥9,600+). Both services are overnight, and private cabins are available for a higher fare (the base fare buys sleeping space on the floor).
Many of its historical buildings, restaurants and shops are within easy walking distance so walking is a very easy (and cheap) means of getting around. A suggested walking itinerary begins from the Otaru Music Box Museum at one end of Sakaimachihondori Street, follow the street until it crosses a small canal, walk up the street until the Museum of the Money, and then follow the canal down and then keep following the canal when it turns left and widens up.
- 1 Otaru Canal (小樽運河), 色内１丁目, ☎+81 134 32-4111. The canal was completed in 1923. The canal has been developed as a walkway. It is lit at night by gas lamps and walkway lights. Located 10 minutes walk from Otaru Station. Free.
- 1 Otaru Music Box Museum (小樽オルゴール堂), 1-2-3 Irifune, ☎+81 134 22-1108, fax: +81 134 21-2531, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 9AM-7PM. A museum that contains exhibits about the development of music boxes, a collection of several notable music boxes, as well as an extensive store that carries many different types. For a fee, customers can build their own music boxes. The museum is also part of a larger complex of buildings in the surrounding area, which include a stuffed animal collection as well as an antiques museum. Free.
- 1 Steam Clock (蒸気時計 jōgi tokei) (at the “meruhen” intersection (メルヘン交差点, meruhen kōsaten)). Outside of the music box museum, the steam clock was a gift from Vancouver to Otaru. Powered entirely by steam, the clock plays a chime every 15 minutes, and features the main steam whistle on the hour.
- 1 Otaru Snow Light Festival (小樽雪あかりの路 Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi). held annually in February. Called “Yuki Akari no Michi”, this Winter festival features paths illuminated with lanterns made of ice. The most scenic view is from the Otaru canal. You can also view many ice lanterns clustered along the abandoned railway a few blocks away from the canal. The festival runs in the first-second week of February.