Otaru – Hokkaido's City of Culture

From whiskey distilleries, music box and glassware shops to the annual Snow Light Path Festival, there’s plenty of attractions in Otaru.

Otaru Canal (小樽運河, Otaru Unga)

Once a major trade and fishing port, the city of Otaru is now a melting pot of culture and history, renowned for its glassworks, music boxes and distilleries. Located on Ishikairi Bay, just 30 minutes northwest of Sapporo and easily accessible from Niseko (only a 1.5-hour drive away), this small harbour city offers visitors plenty of things to see and do.

The Otaru Snow Light Path Festival (小樽雪あかりの路, Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi)

Held in February each year, this 10-day festival sees the city’s canal and the streets illuminate by candlelight. From 5:00pm – 9:00pm the two main festival areas - Unga Kaijo and TemiyasenKaijo – are lit up with ice sculptures and art which cradle glowing candles.

The Unga Kaijo area, the most famous of the two, is located along Otaru’s Canal. Overlooked by the iconic restored warehouses, the canal itself is covered with small glass buoys holding candles which float on the icy water, whilst the canal path is lined with beautiful handmade snow and art ice sculptures. Visitors can buy paper holders and decorate their own lantern to add to the twinkling display.

Niseko Photography Otaru Canal Candle Festival 3
Unga Kaijo - Otaru's Canal - lit up at the Snow Light Path Festival

A former railway line site, TemiyasenKaijo is a peaceful area which weaves about half a kilometer along the disused track line, paved with glowing ice art scupltures, lanterns and even a few food stalls.

Many locals all put lanterns and ice art along the streets of Otaru, so you can expect all your wanders through the city to be illuminated with charming snow and ice creations.

Otaru Canal (小樽運河, Otaru Unga)

Aside from the Snow Light Path Festival, the Otaru Canal is worth visiting year-round. Just a 10-minute walk from the station, this former industrial area was beautifully restored in the 1980’s and now offers visitors a variety of museums, shops and restaurants housed in the converted warehouses.

Nikka Whiskey Distillery

One of Japan’s top whiskey makers, Nikka Whiskey, has its main distillery in Yoichi (余市蒸溜所, Yoichi Jōryūsho) just outside of Otaru and well worth a visit if you’re in the area. The award-winning distillery was built in 1934, and it’s location chosen for its conditions which would be ideal for recreating Scotch whiskey. Learn about the whiskey-making process on a one-hour self-guided tour of the grounds, which culminates with sampling various Nikka whiskeys in the tasting room, and finish up in the restaurant and gift shop.

Japan 2013 Otaru Yoichi Nikka Whiskey 035
Sample amazing whiskey at Nikka Whiskey Distillery

Music Boxes

Unknown to many who reside outside of Japan, Otaru is one of the main music box industries in the country. Discover the history behind the manufacturing at the Otaru Music Box Museum. Here you can browse a range of historical pieces as well as souvenir boxes and contemporary designs (think Hello Kitty, Gudetama and Snoopy merch), or even design one of your own.

Glass Blowing

Otaru is one of the main areas in Japan which produces glassware, with oil lamps and glass used in the old fishing industry. Now the glass blowers here produce decorative items and offer vistors a chance to blow their own glass pieces. There are several glass workshops scattered around the town, perfect for buying souvenirs. Check out Kitaichi Glass, which is one of the most famous glassware shops in the city and makes handmade crystals sold all over Japan.

Top tip: Why not hire a car for the day and explore the city of Otaru and the Nikka Whiskey Distillery at leisure?

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