Otaru, Japan – The Carmel of northern Japan?

Rickshaw in passing mode, Otaru

I was totally charmed by Otaru. The old buildings of Sakaimachihondori Street, the main shopping area, are almost achingly picturesque…reminding me, in some ways, of a Japanese Carmel. We began our explore of the area at the Otaru Music Box Museum in a 3-story wooden building across from the towered post office. The “museum” is really more of a large souvenir shop selling every kind of music box imaginable. A tall clock outside the music box museum surprised us when it blew the half-hour on a train-like whistle, emitting a gray puff of smoke.

Otaru Music Box Museum

It’s an easy stroll from the music box museum down Sakaimachihondori Street toward Otaru Canal. Vendors on both sides of the street offer free samples: chocolate, sweet cakes and cookies, sake and other more exotic spirits like kelp “wine.” I found the seafood shops especially intriguing with all sorts of live and dead offerings, many of which I couldn’t identify. “Hairy crab” is a local specialty.

Sakaimachihondori Street



Kimono for sale just off Sakaimachihondori Street

At the end of Sakaimachihondori Street, we crossed a small canal and–after procuring some yen at the post office ATM–headed toward the main Otaru Canal and the sushi restaurant I’d booked for my birthday celebration. Otaru is famous for sushi and I wanted to be sure to get a seat at Mazasushi as it got great reviews, but I’d read that there were often long lines and that little English was spoken there. I booked through Savor Japan, the only service I could find that made booking in English in Otaru doable. https://savorjapan.com/ Although the maitre d’ had a little trouble finding the reservation, he did eventually locate it and we were seated at a window overlooking the canal across the street, just as I’d requested. Yay for Savor Japan! [There wasn’t a line, though, so we might have been alright without.]

Sushi lunch at Masazushi Zenan

The sushi was excellent and we had fun trying a new dish of squid, sea urchin and raw egg. To eat, we mixed the uni (sea urchin) into the raw egg, then dipped the squid in that. The “noodles” were cold and crunchy and made a really good accompaniment. I found the uni surprisingly mild, not at all fishy. This dish made me a convert.


We took a post-lunch stroll along the canal which is lined down one side with restored old warehouses. Otaru’s fortunes were built on the herring fishing industry before the fish left for different waters.

Otaru Canal

Leaving the canal, we walked a few blocks to the Otaru Train station to catch the #9 bus (220 yen pp one-way, about $2.15) to Mt. Tengu (Tenguyama) where we rode a gondola to the summit for a sweeping view of the city and harbor. A beautiful little meditation path leads past Shinto shrines through the woods to another overlook.

Mt. Tengu gondola


Mt. Tengu meditation path and Shinto shrine


The city bus picks up and drops off in the parking lot across from the base gondola station. There’s a glass shop across the parking lot with windows where we watched glass blowing going on in a downstairs workroom before catching the bus back to Canal Station. (You pay the driver via a machine when you exit the bus.)

On the bus from Mt. Tengu. I love the white gloves!

Because David always wants to try local beer, we made a quick stop at the Otaru “Brewery” and Restaurant which is really a German-style beer hall (kind of weird) with big brass beer tanks in the center of communal tables. The beer was nothing special, but we enjoyed sitting outside at a small table on the canal (which had the added benefit of letting us escape the pervading odor of smoked sausage inside–not exactly unpleasant, but we didn’t want to end up smelling the same way).

With David’s beer stop out of the way, it was time for my sake stop. The Tanaka Sake Brewery Kikkogura sits just north of the cruise port terminal so it made a convenient stop on our way back to the ship. A very friendly, giggling young woman poured 4 sakes and 3 fruit wines (blueberry, plum, and peach) for us to taste. Instructing us in the Japanese version of “Cheers!” she wrote out “KANPAI” to be sure we got it right. After purchasing a bottle of the really delicious plum wine, we toured the working brewery with the aid of an English self-tour handout. It was all very interesting and fun. Both the tasting and the tour are free.

Many little cups later
Overlooking the working part of Tanaka Sake Brewery Kikkogura


Cruise port details:

The city of Otaru set up information tables with maps and staff perfectly fluent in English.

Stalls selling food an souvenirs were also set up just off the ship.

A stall with free wi-fi was also provided.

It’s about a 20-minute walk from the ship to the Music Box Museum. It’s an easy walk with no hills, but several intersections. It’s not particularly scenic, but seemed perfectly safe. The guest information people were happy to mark the route on our map and point out ATM machines, points of interest, etc.

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