The Venice of the wild North.
Elegantly picturesque with its old-fashioned street lanterns and European-style buildings, Otaru is a charming port city flush with nostalgia that is also known as a top culinary destination.
Once a major international trading port, Otaru’s carefully preserved streets are filled with architectural gems. Old warehouses, now covered in gently creeping ivy and some transformed into stylish restaurants, line the canal crowned as Otaru’s most famous sight. Stroll along the other side, where artists sketch portraits and sell handcrafted knick-knacks.
It’s no surprise that this historically rich city has some great museums. Those interested in the area’s history should visit the Otaru Museum or the Herring Mansion, a former wealthy fisherman’s residence that doubled as workspace and home. The Venetian Museum of Art both exhibits and sells beautiful glassworks. Feeling inspired? There are also studios in town that offer glass blowing workshops, giving you a completely unique souvenir to take home.
The loveliest by far though is the Music Box Museum and its attached shop.
Browsing this warmly lit two-story emporium feels like wandering through your childhood attic full of old and well-loved treasures, the wooden floorboards creaking softly underfoot.
There’s no chance of going hungry for even a second, especially on Sakaimachi Street, where souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes fight cheerfully for your attention. The city is known for its mouthwateringly fresh seafood, which can be sampled in endless combinations of sashimi-don (sashimi over rice).
Follow your nose—and the trail of free samples—to LeTAO, Otaru’s most renowned local confectionery. The cheesecakes are made with Hokkaido’s finest dairy products, and they taste just like happiness.
In February, the city holds a snow festival called the Otaru Snow Light Path. Coinciding with the better known Sapporo Snow Festival, Otaru’s festival is a much cozier affair, illuminated by flickering candles set in lanterns made of snow. These little lights dance over the canal and thick snow blankets, creating a space that feels safe and serene in the midst of Hokkaido’s harsh winter.
During the summer, Otaru is a perfect base for picking up a rental car and exploring some rugged coastal sites, including the spectacular Shakotan Peninsula.