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When in Hokkaido’s biggest city of Sapporo, Richard Farmer thinks it would be amiss to overlook a stay in the pretty town of Otaru.
The port city of Otaru is located about 30 minutes northwest of Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, by train. As such, it’s usually visited as a day-trip, but I think the city deserves an overnight stay. Maybe even two! Here are my reasons why.
1. The Yoichi Whisky Distillery
I extolled the virtues of this wonderful little half-day trip out from Otaru in my last blog. To avoid sounding like a repetitive whisky-fuelled lush, I won’t go into too much detail again here, except to say that it’s a great place to pop out to on your first half-day in Otaru.
After a visit to the Yoichi Distillery, you may be in need of a hearty meal to soak up the alcohol. I recommend hunting down a restaurant that specialises in Jingisukan, a dish famous throughout Hokkaido.
This barbeque style cuisine, which you cook yourself on a dome shaped grill, isn’t exclusively lamb and mutton, unlike the standard yaki-niku barbeque popular throughout the rest of Japan. The dish is named after Genghis Khan because lamb was believed to be the mainstay of the great warrior ruler’s Mongolian hordes; the grill is also in the shape of the metal helmets that the soldiers purportedly used to cook their meat!
3. The Bank of Japan
Staying overnight in Otaru means you can get an early start for a full day in the city. I recommend starting by checking out the Bank of Japan museum; it was established in 1912 and turned into a museum in 2003. There’s a lot of great information in English about Japan’s financial systems and the history of yen as the national currency. Despite the focus on yen, you won’t actually need any to enter – admission is free!
4. Ice cream
All of that money may have gone to your head. How about an ice cream to calm yourself down? Otaru has some unique flavours that are representative of the region’s famous local produce. I recommend trying the lavender flavour; it’s wonderfully scented without being overpowering. If that doesn’t appeal, the local melon flavour went down very well with my father!
5. The Canal District
In the early 20th century, Otaru served as an important port city; the canal in the centre of town was used to transport goods from the port to the various warehouses in the area. Nowadays the canal has been rendered somewhat redundant due to modern unloading techniques. But the Victorian-esque gas lamps create a lovely nostalgic vibe as you walk among the warehouses, many of which have been converted into shops, cafes and restaurants.
6. Otaru Beer
One of the best warehouses to check out is the Otaru Beer Warehouse Number 1, a great place to chill out with a local beer and some German style beer snacks. The beer is brewed on site and it’s even possible to do a 20-minute tour of the brewing facilities at set times throughout the day.
7. Nishin Goten Herring House
In the afternoon, I highly recommend heading out of the city centre by public bus to the headland that juts out into Ishikari Bay. The 25-minute bus journey takes you to this promontory with fantastic ocean views and interesting sights.
I recommend eschewing the aquarium in favour of the Nishin Goten Herring House (closed in winter). Herring fishing was historically a major industry in Otaru, and the wealthy owners of fishing companies built mansions such as this one for their families and workers. At the Nishin Goten House you can learn about the history of commercial fishing in the area, but the real highlight for me are the great views out over the bay.
8. The Former Aoyama Villa
Also in the area is the Former Aoyama Villa, belonging to another wealthy herring fishing family. While not commanding such spectacular views as the Nishin Goten House, the Aoyama villa is incredibly luxurious inside, and more reminiscent of a Shogun’s palace than a fishing family’s residence.
9. The Best Bus Stop in Japan
After hearing about herring you’ll be hankering to head home. It’s an easy bus ride back to the centre of the city, although there are only a couple of buses each hour.
Despite spending nearly half a year of my life training in Buddhist monasteries, patience has yet to become one of my virtues; waiting for buses wouldn’t usually be described as my favourite activity. In my mind, though, the bus stop between the Nishin Goten House and the Aoyama Villa is a contender for the most scenic bus stop in Japan; located right by the bay where waves lap the shore.
Not a bad place to while away the minutes while awaiting your chariot home!
After all of your herring-related adventures this afternoon, you may find yourself with a fancy for a fishy on a little dishy for dinner. It just so happens that Otaru is perfect for that! Hokkaido is famous throughout Japan for deliciously fresh seafood, and Otaru in particular is renowned for the quality of its produce. I recommend visiting a conveyor belt sushi restaurant; watch the various offerings going around and grab whatever you fancy.
Don’t miss the fluorescent orange ‘uni’ sea urchin – my favourite!
Otaru is an easy destination to include in any self-guided Hokkaido itinerary and definitely warrants an overnight stay. If you’re interested in visiting Otaru on your trip, contact our expert travel consultants. They’re looking forward to herring from you soon!