Otaru is a charming city, located only half an hour by train from Sapporo. It is perfect for a day trip, but in reality, it has so much to offer that you can easily spend 2-3 days in the area. The city is particularly famous for musical boxes, glass items and fresh fish, which you can do in any season. Nevertheless, the winter time is the best to explore the city, as it brings something special. Let’s see together what!
Sakaimachi street is the heart of Otaru. Here is where you’ll find restaurants, cafes, souvenirs, museums, a fish market and more. And the best part is that many of them are located in historical buildings! As the most famous souvenirs in Otaru are the musical boxes and the glass, you’ll find several specialised shops to purchase your souvenirs. The city is also famous for the high quality fresh fish. So you can’t leave without trying some fresh sashimi or sushi, despite the high prices. If you’re looking for some good sweets stop by LeTao, a famous cheesecake and icrecream shop, with several shops across the town. The fruits are an option too, but you must rob a bank before buying a slice of melon or some strawberies.
Last but not least, admire the beautiful architecture of the well preserved historical buildings, including:
- Otaru Canal Terminal – Former Mitsubishi Bank, Otaru Branch
- Taisho Glass Main Store – Former Takasaburo Natori Store
- Romankan – Former Hyakujusan Bank, Otaru Branch
- Kaimeiro – Former Dai-Hyakujusan National Bank, Otaru Branch
- Taisho Glass Kuboya – Former Kubo Store
- Ruri Kobo – Former Motosaburo Kaneko Store
- Kitaichi Glass No.3 – Former Kimura Warehouse
- Souvenir Otarukan – Former Toide Commerce, Otaru Branch
- Gin-no-kane no.1 – Former Chuetsu Bank, Otaru Branch
- Main building of the Otaru box museum – Former Kyosei Company
- Yu-Kubo music box & handcrafts studio – Former Tomoyoshi Kamisei Store
- Music box museum Sakaimachi store – Former Iwanaga Clock Store
- Irodriya – Former Hokkai Millet Company.
Otaru Music Box Museum
The music box was first introduced to Japan by a Dutch trader in 1852. Today, the free museum on the first floor of Otaru Orgel Doh Sakaimachi has many artifacts on display dated since then.
The building is located in Iwanaga Watch Store on Sakaimachi Street, which dates from 1896. The red brick is gorgeous, and so is its two-story interior, built on a zelkova wooden frame. Over 25.000 musical boxes fill the space, including some unique designs to Otaru. That being said, there’s an option for any taste and budget.
On the second floor, you can find stuffed toys with musical boxes from Disney, Ghibli Studios and other famous brands. Outside the building, a steam clock chimes on the hour and the steam chimes play a five-tone melody every 15 minutes. Certainly, this is not just a symbol of the museum but a symbol of Otaru itself.
Open from 9am-6pm daily, this is a place you cannot miss. It’s more than a shop and museum, it’s a place where you can feel the Christmas atmosphere every day of the year. It’s just magical.
The Bank of Japan, Otaru Museum
The Otaru Branch building was designed by Kingo Tatsuno, the same architect who designed Tokyo station. It’s a distinctive structure, with the outside built in Renaissance style, a pioneer of the Western style architecture in Japan.
The museum opened in 2003 and it has various information on display related to the Bank of Japan. You can deepen your understanding about the history of the Bank of Japan and why Otaru used to be considered The Wall Street in Northern Japan. You can watch a banknote gallery and learn about anti-counterfeiting techniques, see how a real vault looks like, and even go inside it. It is also a great place to learn about the role of the Bank of Japan today and its great importance in our daily life.
The museum has free entrance and it’s open from 9.30am-5pm from April to November, 10am-5pm from December to March. The regular closing day is Wednesday. The required time for a full experience takes between 30 min to 1h.
Staind Glass Museum
This building used to be a storehouse for soybeans. It was built in 1923 by Naoji Takahashi, an entreprenour and politician in Otaru. It rests on a wooden frame and stone walls, providing great heat insulation and making it fireproof. Thereafter, other storehouses along Otaru Canal were built on the same principles, some of them still existing today.
100 year old British stained glass windows embellish the museum’s interior. As in the late 20th century numerous churches were torn down due to the decrease in people’s religious interest and cities redevelopment, these windows were relocated from the UK to Japan.
Despite the museum’s small size, it is a great collection to explore in about half an hour. The atmosphere is serene and it truly makes you feel like you are in an European church. The interior light is perfect to analyse even the smallest details of each window. A good ingredient for taking great pictures!
A single entry ticket costs 1000¥, but it’s better to purchase a combo. It gives you access to 4 museums (House of Western Art, Nitori Museum of Art, Stained Glass Museum and Former Mitsui Bank Otaru Branch) for 2900¥. They are all open from 9.30am-5pm May to October, 10am-4pm November to April.
House of Western Art
Located on the banks of Otaru Canal, this museum is the former Naniwa Warehouse. It has a large collection of various items, including an Art Nouveau and Art Deco glass exhibition, stained glass, furniture, paintings and several other Western items. The museum is divided into 6 sections, from A to F, each with its own theme: Art Nouveau & Art Deco sculpture / glass / furniture, Greek and Roman art, Stained Glasss & 19th century decorative arts and the meissen room. It can be entirely visited in about 1-1.5h. Nevertheless, if you need a break, go to the first floor. There is a resting space offering a beautiful view over the ground-floor exhibition. A single entrance ticket costs 1500¥.
Nitori Museum of Art
This museum is located in the former Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, Otaru Branch. The architecture is distinctive, with 6 impressive ancient columns that reaches up to the second floor. The exhibition is displayed on 4 floors, showcasing stained glass, paintings by Japanese and Westerner artists and sculptures. The required time to see the museum is about 1 hour and the single entry ticket costs 1500¥. There are restrictions on photos everywhere except the first floor.
Former Mitsui Bank Otaru Branch
This museum is located in the Former Mitsui Otaru Branch. It is one of the 25 banks that supported the financial state of Otaru during the late Meiji to early Showa period. It’s an impressive building from both sides, exterior and interior. Inside, there’s a high ceiling where projections are displayed several times per day. The show takes about 10 minutes and the theme is Japan’s seasonality.
The place is basic, with not much on display, easy to see in about 30 minutes. The entry fee is 700¥. P.S. Don’t miss the ground-floor where you can actually enter a real vault.
Otaru Snow Light Path
The best part of your visit to Otaru in winter is the Otaru Snow Light Path. This annual event takes place every February for a week along the city’s canals, with night illuminations from 5-9pm.
Join a boat tour or have a walk under the romantic gas lamps. During the festival, the atmosphere is even more magical, as snow sculptures and illuminations are entirely covering the area. At the end of the snow light path, you will find a small market selling local food and beverages near the fire, the ingredient for every Japanese festival.
Well, that’s it from my side. I hope you enjoyed the article and one day you’ll visit Otaru by yourself. Meanwhile, find inspiration from more articles across Japan and other destinations, here.
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