Hokkaido’s Most Photogenic City! Otaru's Top 8 Picturesque Places
Romantic, fairytale-like views framed by towering mountains and a cityscape inspired by European architecture, Otaru is a city that's equal parts familiar and unique. This charming city, located 30-45 minutes from Sapporo by train, is one of Hokkaido's most photogenic destinations.
Otaru in winter is an experience in itself, but no matter what time of year you visit Otaru's night views, picture-perfect canal, and laid-back elegance will have you enthralled. It's an accessible day trip from the region's capital and an excellent weekend vacation destination, making it a popular spot for domestic tourists looking for a little international inspiration.
However, its grand stone buildings and unparalleled scenic beauty make it a worthy destination for all types of travelers. From landscapes to cafes, here's a guide to eight of the town's most spectacular and photogenic destinations.
1. Otaru Canal
The unofficial icon of Otaru is the Otaru Canal. Running through the city like a main artery, this body of water essentially formed the Otaru we see today. During the 20th century, Otaru rose to prominence as one of Hokkaido's key economic and trade hubs thanks to this body of water.
The canal was built in the 1920s (completed in 1923) as a key mode of transport for merchants, who erected impressive Western-style warehouses – which today admittedly may look quaint – that were at the time remarkable symbols of the city and its population's wealth.
Although Otaru Canal is no longer a trade hub, it's still one of the city's most important destinations. Today flocks of tourists from all over come to this corner of Hokkaido to admire its European architecture and stroll under the twinkling street lamps.
When in town, be sure to put aside an evening to walk along the canal's path and bathe in the bright colors of an Otaru sunset reflected spectacularly off the water. If you want to explore in a little more depth, cruising down the canal in one of the sightseeing boats is a great way to see the city; visit the nearby information center for details on cruise bookings in English.
The best location to capture the Otaru Canal in a photo is from one of the bridges; you’ll be able to take a beautiful picture of the entire area along the canal. As for the time of the day, we suggest coming at dusk, before the sky gets completely dark, when the street lights are turned on. You’ll be able to capture the warm, romantic atmosphere of the city in a bright picture of the canal and the lights reflecting in its waters.
2. Otaru Music Box Museum Main Building
Another landmark of Otaru's elegant history is the Otaru Music Box Museum. The Main Building of this facility is housed in an attention-commanding red brick building, designed with European flair. This store handles almost 80,000 music boxes that visitors can buy as souvenirs.
The building was built in 1915 as the main office for one of Hokkaido's most powerful grain and rice merchants. With its mezzanine flooring, warm lighting, and delicate music box soundtrack, it's a space filled with a fairytale-like appeal.
The second floor has an exhibition room with antique music boxes and objects on display. If you wish to see an even larger collection of antique and historical objects, visit the nearby Otaru Music Box Museum Hall Number 2 Antique Museum.
In Otaru, music boxes have become popular souvenirs; they were first introduced to Japan by a Dutch trader in 1852 – something you'll learn when you visit the museum's history display – but they soon were adopted, reinvented, and improved by local Japanese artisans.
The Main Building of the Otaru Music Box Museum handles a staggering array of music boxes. Here you'll find boxes that play J-Pop hits, sushi-shaped boxes, and some that cost as much as a house!
The Main Building of the Otaru Music Box Museum is very beautiful inside making the perfect material for great photos. However, we also recommend taking close-ups of the charming music boxes in all shapes and sizes. The sushi-shaped music boxes or the ones with cute character motifs will inspire unique photos that convey the atmosphere and culture of Otaru.
3. Kitaichi Glass and Kitaichi Hall
Kitaichi Hall. Picture courtesy of Kitaichi Hall
Otaru's affinity with glass is connected to the local fishing industry and with the history of Kitaichi Glass. The company standing at the roots of Kitaichi Glass was producing kerosene lamps from 1901 and later started making glass balls for the area's herring fishermen. In 1971, that company was renamed “Kitaichi Glass.”
Kitaichi Glass. Picture courtesy of Kitaichi Glass
As the city's population of wealthy merchants and fishermen grew, it's fair to say that Otaru became a city with sophisticated taste, and Kitaichi Glass and Kitaichi Hall are perfect examples of that.
Kitaichi Hall, built in 1891, was once a warehouse used to store dried herring, one of Otaru's key food exports. Over time, the city's economic scene changed, and with it did this spectacular building, which in 1983 was renovated and transformed into a space that embodies reverence, and tranquility, punctuated by the soothing warm glow of hundreds of glittering kerosene-powered lamps.
Picture courtesy of Kitaichi Hall
The hall's cafe offers a kissaten-inspired menu, with European-Japanese sweets, tea, coffee, and light meals. Kitaichi Hall also hosts free 30-minute live piano performances at 11:00 and 15:00 daily.
The time spent here listening to smooth piano music and enjoying a cup of coffee in the magical atmosphere of Kitaichi Hall will surely become a precious memory.
The interior of Kitaichi Hall lit up by the warm light of countless kerosene lamps is extremely photogenic. When taking pictures, please remember not to disturb other customers.
4. Otaru Candle Workshop
Just behind Otaru Canal is Otaru Candle Workshop, a charming little building covered in lush green vines. This workshop is home to a rather impressive selection of candles both locally produced and imported from abroad. It's a great place for gift shopping. However, we'd suggest making a special memory by creating your very own candle when you get here.
At the back of the store is the workshop, where you can sign up for a class. It's easy, it doesn't take long, from start to finish you'll need just 45 minutes to an hour, and at the end, you'll have your very own piece of Otaru-inspired art to take home.
There are various candle types to choose from, but the most popular is the beautiful two-colored scented pillar candles. Simply select your colors, pour wax, browse the store's incredible selection while you wait for your candle to set, and you are done!
The countless colorful candles on display in the shop look very beautiful in pictures. On the other hand, consider taking photos of the candles that you made or bought at this shop at home, after lighting them up.
5. Le Quatrieme Otaru Canal
Picture courtesy of Le Quatrieme
You'll quickly learn about Otaru when you get here that this is a town mad about sweets. The main streets are lined with stores selling everything from luxury parfaits and soft cream to one-of-a-kind snacks not available outside the area. But it's the town's cafe culture that's the true talking point.
Picture courtesy of Le Quatrieme
Visit Le Quatrieme, located right by Otaru Canal, for a dessert delight that will satisfy all the senses, culinary and visual. It's a sweets shop on the first floor and a restaurant-cafe on the second floor, serving up treats, lunch, and wonderful views of Otaru Canal.
The team behind Le Quatrieme likes to focus on showcasing local cuisines, so no matter what you get, it's sure to be fresh, delicious, and an authentic showcase of the town's culinary excellence.
The sweets made by Le Quatrieme are not only delicious but also gorgeous and look wonderful in pictures! As a shooting tip, try to place the piece of confectionery in such a way that the sunlight comes from behind it; the color will be vibrant and the dessert will look appetizing. To create an atmosphere that is even more colorful and exciting, try using flowers or fruit as background decoration items.
Blending modern-minimalistic style with Otaru's charming history, CafeWhite is one of the most unique cafes. This contemporary hangout, also known as 'Okagawa Pharmacy' was built inside the town's old pharmacy, saved from demolition by a locally born, Tokyo-educated architect who fell in love with the building.
Look closely and you can still find the building's history written in its design walls, with its mezzanine-style flooring and sliding glass windows that separate the kitchen (once lab) from the main dining space.
The pharmacy was opened in 1930 and finished business in 2005, after four generations. The new owners of the cafe wanted to retain the history of the building while offering a sense of modernity and injecting a feeling of life and energy to the neighborhood. The team behind the cafe also runs regular cultural events at CafeWhite and a guesthouse welcoming local and international travelers.
The food at CafeWhite is excellent! The cafe serves a range of lunch favorites with a local and thoughtful consideration. Think delicious locally-inspired curries, light, fluffy sandwiches, excellently brewed coffee, and mouth watering cakes. It's the perfect spot for a bright brunch, leisurely lunch, or quick afternoon pick-me-up.
With white as its base color, CafeWhite has a charming atmosphere that you’ll surely want to capture in pictures. We suggest shooting from the second floor in order to take a beautiful picture of the interior.
7. Otaru Art Base
Taking the city's love of glass to a whole new level is Otaru Art Base operated by the Nitori Culture Foundation. This facility is home to one of arguably the world's most impressive collections of stained glassworks.
The museum occupies several buildings. However, the Nitori Museum of Art headquarters is located in the Former Hokkaido Takushoku Bank Otaru Branch, making it the best place to start.
You'll find the Louis Comfort Tiffany Stained Glass Gallery on the first floor, a selection of moving works influenced by Christian motifs dedicated to the American artist, designer, and glasswork pioneer Louis Comfort Tiffany.
The building's basement level is another highlight; a spectacular collection of art nouveau and art deco glass pieces are painstakingly sourced from across the globe and artfully created in the soothingly dimly lit floor, allowing the illuminated pieces to shine.
After, head over to the Stained Glass Museum located in the Former Takahashi Warehouse to dive deeper into the regal stained glass collection of Otaru Art Base. Lined floor to ceiling with imposingly beautiful stained glass works, most of which were sourced from shut down churches from the UK, it's a fascinating look at the religious institution's influence on art and craftsmanship.
Many of the pieces you'll find here were saved from extinction by Otaru Art Base. Without their help, these works may have ended up in storage or, worse, thrown out, never to be enjoyed again.
All the exhibition rooms at Otaru Art Base are very beautiful and you’ll definitely want to take pictures wherever you go. If you want to capture the atmosphere of a whole room with several stained glass art pieces, choose your favorite angle and shoot; your digital camera will automatically adjust the light settings and you’ll get a picture showing the gentle light in the room filtered by the glass. On the other hand, if you’re aiming for a picture that shows the details of stained glass art, please focus on one single work and shoot only after fixing your camera using a tripod; this is the only way to obtain a clear image showing the finest details of stained glass artwork.
8. Otaru Snow Light Path Festival
Photo by Pixta
We mentioned it briefly earlier, but this event held every February is well worth some extra attention. If you're in town in winter or near Otaru, a visit to Otaru Canal for Otaru Snow Light Path Festival (Otaru Yukiakari no Michi) is a must-do experience!
Photo by Pixta
The festival is a celebration of the city's scenic beauty. The locals decorate the city, most prominently the pathways that run along the canal with small snow sculptures and 'kamakura' tiny igloos housing candles, illuminating the area with a warm, hypnotic glow. During the festival, the two main spots which are lit daily (between 17:00 to 21:00) are the Unga Kaijo area and the Temiyasen Kaijo areas; however, many local businesses and residents also get into the spirit of the festivities, decorating their shops and homes in a similar fashion.
The days of the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival typically coincide with the famous Sapporo Snow Festival, making it a great chance for travelers to see both on the same trip. In 2022, the Otaru Snow Light Festival is planned to be held February 5 - 12; do visit during this time if you have the chance. It’s an unforgettable experience!
In order to take beautiful pictures at the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival, we suggest shooting from a low angle so that you capture the reflection of the light into the snow.
How to get to Otaru
If you're traveling internationally or from mainland Japan, the best way to reach Otaru is to take a flight to New Chitose Airport, just outside Sapporo city.
From Sapporo, there are multiple trains that travel between the cities daily, running along the JR Hakodate Main Line. The trip takes 30 minutes by rapid train or 45 minutes by local train.
Alternatively, there are trains that also continue on to New Chitose Airport! Otaru is compact in size, so getting there and getting around by public transport is very easy.