The beautiful coastal city of Otaru is just over an hour’s train ride from Sapporo station. Otaru is one of the easiest day trips from Sapporo, even during winter, when Hokkaido is thick with snow.
The train journey from Sapporo is absolutely spectacular and almost worthy of the trip alone. Make the journey in winter, as the train nestles up against the snowy sea, and you could easily be forgiven for thinking you’re in a scene from a Hokusai print.
Sakaimachi Dōri and Sushiya-dori Street, Otaru.
In the early 20th century Otaru became a major trading and financial centre, and trade and fishing brought great wealth and prosperity.
Today many of the historic Western inspired buildings from those boom years still stand, most notably the grand former Bank of Japan building.
What were once banks and warehouses during the port’s financial and shipping days are now home to sushi restaurants, cafes and craft shops, most notably glassware.
The main shopping street of Sakaimachi Dōriserves as a great reminder to the town’s 20th century heyday and is reason alone why many people take a day trip from Sapporo to Otaru.
Several historic and elegant, Western-style buildings still stand, now repurposed and enjoying a new lease of life along Otaru’s bustling main street.
Many resemble a mix and match of old fashioned Western buildings with hints of typical Japanese design.
The once industrial canal that winds its way near the port is today one of Otaru’s main attractions. At night the canal is lit by old street lights and is wonderfully atmospheric.
The former warehouses that run along the canal have been repurposed and today house a mixture of modern museums, restaurants and a variety of shops.
Another speciality of Otaru is seafood, especially sushi. There’s even a street named Sushiya-dori Street, where over 20 sushi restaurants compete for hungry customers.
Being so close to the sea the fish and seafood are phenomenally fresh in Otaru. Herring roe, a local speciality, is something of an acquired taste however.
A little to the west of the main town of Otaru are further reminders of the wealth that came to the city by way of the sea.
A few miles along the coast are the Herring Mansions that were built by the fishermen who made vast fortunes from fishing. Built as places of work as well as a place of residence, one still stands and is open to visitors.
The former herring Mansion of Otaru Nishin Goten is perched on a hill overlooking the sea below as if drawn from a Studio Ghibli film. Several other grand wooden former storehouse from the same period remain along the coast road.
The entrance and exterior of Aoyama Villa, Otaru.
The spectacular Aoyama Villa is the highlight of this rugged stretch of the coastline. A typically beautiful traditional Japanese design runs throughout the grand former home of the extravagantly wealthy Aoyama family.
Painstakingly built over a number of years at eye-watering expense the villa consists of beautiful rooms decorated with intricately painted screens and exquisite antique furniture.
A grand staircase lead up to the second floor of bedrooms, a tea room and, slightly surprisingly, Western styled tiled bathrooms.
Attached to the house is a marvelous hall with dozens of beautifully painted roof panels of flowers, as well as a very good restaurant.
There are frequent direct trains from Sapporo to Otaru, making it one of the easiest day trips from Sapporo.
The journey from Sapporo to Otaru station takes between 30 and 50 minutes, depending on the number of stops en route, and there are three to four trains an hour.
A single ticket from Sapporo to Otaru costs 640 yen. You can search for train times at the excellent Hyperdia website, though you’ll need to buy tickets at Sapporo station.
To get to the Herring Mansions and the Aoyama Villa take either number 10 or 11 bus from Otaru station.
Sapica cards used for public transport in Sapporo can also be used on buses in Otaru. Alternatively a taxi from the Otaru station to the Aoyama Villa is around ¥1700.
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