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Otaru Is The Underrated Japanese City Hardly Anyone Visits

Otaru might just be one of Japan’s most underrated destinations. Most first timers visiting Hokkaido from our part of the woods usually tend to congregate in one of two places: the frosty capital of Sapporo, and Niseko, which has basically become a little Australia (pretty much cold Bali with snowboards instead of scooters). That’s not a dig on Niseko or Bali. Both are sick. But that’s not the point. The point is you’re all forgetting about Otaru.

Well maybe not all of you. Maybe I’m just writing this because I know the first time I went to Hokkaido I had my sights set firmly on Sapporo (and the Sapporo beer museum). But I’m here to tell you that if you’re thinking of heading up to Nippon’s far north, then you should most definitely add at least a day-long pit-stop at Sapporo’s forgotten little sister.

Otaru? Where?

 

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I wouldn’t lie to you, friend. Visit for yourself and you’ll quickly see that Otaru is a town as beautiful as it is historically significant. You can almost taste the nostalgia in the air. Fresh breeze, old town scenery, warm hearts… what kind of trip will you have in this town? Asks a pamphlet I picked up from the central tourist information office. That’s a good question. There’s so much to see and do, but let’s start with the money shot.

The canal

otaru japan

Image: Reginald Pentinio / Flickr

Not just a pretty face, this absolutely stunning piece of waterway was once an integral part of the city’s bustling port a century ago. Though in recent times she ain’t as busy as she used to be. Back in the ‘80s there was even talk of parts of the canal being landfilled, but this was stopped by local residents who rallied heavily in favour of restoring the canal, with many obsolete warehouses lining it being turned into museums, shops, and restaurants.

It’s a good thing they did, as today the canal, lined with its gorgeous Victorian style street lamps, is a bustling spot, filled with locals and tourists alike, all basking in what has become one of Hokkaido’s prettiest tourist destinations. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, this canal – during the day it’s full of intriguing buskers and street artists showcasing their works, and at night when the gas lamps are lit, it transforms into the perfect spot to take your special someone (or your latest right swipe). The winter nights are extra special, as the canal is the star of Otaru’s Snow Light Path Festival.

Head out on main street

 

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Bored of the canal? (weird but ok) That’s cool, the main street is a fun way to spend the afternoon. Or morning. Or 2am. You do you. The main street is fun, is what I’m trying to say.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Otaru was a thriving port city, which meant that a heap of trading and shipping companies built impressive western style buildings throughout the city centre. Much like those found lining the canal, these have now turned into attractive looking boutiques, cafes, and glass workshops and retailers.

Otaru Glass is famous throughout Japan, and it’s the perfect spot to pick up a souvenir for mum or some nice tableware for when the lads come round for a spot of earl grey. The “Kitaichi Glass Three Building” is especially popular, and is seen as the symbol of the city’s glass production. Mostly because it’s so damn pleasing on the eye. Each floor of this behemoth has an ally of glassware with a distinctive theme.

Fill up

 

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Hokkaido is famous for its cuisine, and Otaru is no exception. You could smash some niikuraya hanazono dango (sweet dumplings made from mochiko), or fill up on a plate of dondo yakisoba, an Otaru staple and comfort food for anyone who grew up in the area. But honestly? What I really recommend is chicken from Naruto Honten.

I’d heard rumours of this chicken. But I never believed the hype. Chicken so good that it’s regularly sent to all parts of Japan via post from locals who are so desperate to have their family and friends in on the magic? It’s the shit. Strong recommend.

The signature dish is a whole half chicken fried in Naruto’s special “golden formula” and served up with some tasty sides. The skin is light, crispy, and full of flavour, whilst the meat inside is tender and oh so juicy. By now the simple recipe has been perfected, as they’ve been serving up this bad boy since 1965.

How to get to Otaru, Japan

A Street view of Otaru in Hokkaido, Japan

Otaru is located about a half hour north west of Sapporo by car and by train, with multiple connections available per hour. Once you’re there, most of the city’s attractions are easily reached on foot, with most within 30 minutes of Otaru station.

(All images: Courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organisation unless otherwise stated)