Exploring Otaru City and the nearby Shakotan District
No trip to Hokkaido is complete without exploring Otaru and Shakotan on the island’s west coast. Just forty kilometres from Sapporo, Otaru is a vibrant city full of historic architecture, charming walkways, talented artisans, and an iconic canal. The Shakotan district is a further sixty kilometres from Otaru, and features Hokkaido’s only national sea park. In addition to dolphins and other coastal life, there are rugged cliffs and dramatic capes to explore here. Otaru and the Shakotan district can be visited in a day, but for a more relaxing visit consider spending a night or two in the area.
1. Stroll the canal in Otaru
Otaru has long been a thriving port town and its historic canal was once critical to trade. Now the canal is used for pleasure cruises and the walkway alongside it, lit by old fashioned gas lights at night, has become iconic to the town’s romantic feel. The original warehouses along the canal have been converted to museums, shops, restaurants and other attractions. In winter the canal is decorated for the annual Snow Light Path Festival, held around the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival. The canal runs parallel to the sea shore and is located about one kilometre from Otaru station. Combine a stroll from the station with a pleasant walk along the canal to enjoy more of the town.
2. Ride the ropeway up Mt Tengu near Otaru
The Mt Tengu ropeway is a 20 minute bus ride from Otaru station and in clear weather the views are spectacular, night or day. From the top you can take in Otaru below, as well as Ishikari Bay and the beautiful Shakotan Peninsula. At the top of the ropeway, relax in the restaurant, observatory or skiing museum or explore the shrine and walking tracks in the green seasons. Tengu are mythical forest goblins, and there is a great display of spooky masks at the top of their eponymous mountain. Skiers might like to spend a few hours at Mt Tengu, which is mostly a community mountain offering a few runs, two chairlifts, and no crowds.
3. Make glass at one of many studios in Otaru
Otaru developed a reputation for quality glass products while providing the fishing industry with floats and today the city abounds with glass shops and studios. They are dotted along the canal and on nearby Sakaimachi Street, but you will find them in many more places if you explore. To book in for a lesson in glass blowing and other arts, either visit the information counter at Otaru Station on arrival or ask at the studios you like best. Due to the heat and delicacy of handcrafted glass, your blown glass will usually be shipped to your hotel, or in some cases can be shipped to your home country if you prefer. If you melt coloured glass to make beads, you should be able to collect them an hour later.
4. Hike to Cape Kamui on the Shakotan Peninsula
The Shakotan Peninsula is a natural wonder stretching far into the Sea of Japan. Walking out to the point of Cape Kamui, or the ‘peninsula of the gods’, takes you along a cobblestone path stretching about a kilometre from the carpark and bus stop, with spectacular views of the rocky coast and deep blue water throughout. If you have time and feel even more adventurous, try snorkeling, hiking, camping, cycling, and kayaking in the Shakotan district in the warmer months. The area is also beautiful in winter, but busses don’t go all the way to Cape Kamui then so your own transportation is required. Busses travelling to Cape Kamui also stop at the town of Shakotan, where there are great seafood restaurants and glass bottomed boat tours in summer heading off from Bikuni port.
5. Eat an uni-don sea urchin bowl in Shakotan
The Shakotan district’s signature dish of uni-don features the freshest sea urchin harvested locally and served on a bowlful of flavourful rice. The delicate, creamy texture and briney taste of Shakotan uni is favoured by gourmets worldwide. There is bountiful seafood all year in Shakotan, but for uni-don plan to visit between June and August, as that is when harvesting urchins is allowed. A simple uni-don costs around 3,000 yen at casual restaurants and this delicacy is well worth the price. Hokkaido is renowned for delicious seafood and Shakotan is widely considered to produce the best uni available in Japan.
Getting to Otaru
Train is the easiest method to get to Otaru from either Sapporo or New Chitose airport. Please check the information is current, but a sample timetable is here. If you hire a car, the drive to Otaru from Sapporo is about 40 minutes. Add about another 40 minutes if you will start your drive from New Chitose airport. Busses may be available but there is little information available in English. See below for information about sightseeing day trips by bus.
Getting to Shakotan’s Cape Kamui
You can reach Cape Kamui from Otaru by bus when the snow clears in late April or early May, through to late October. (Travel time is about two hours.) In addition to the busses that leave from Otaru station, there is also one bus per day that departs Sapporo station around 9am. Please check both departure and return bus times at one of the tourist information offices in Otaru to best plan your visit.
Contact number for the Otaru International Information Center: +81 0134-33-1661
There are also sightseeing busses available from Sapporo and Otaru which take you to the Shimamui Coast, Misaki no Yu Shakotan Hot Springs, and Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery, as well as Cape Kamui. These are subject to change, but you will find useful information about the tours here.
Lucy is a former journalist who has lived in Hokkaido with her family since 2015. In addition to writing, she works in her family businesses: Alpine Backcountry Rental in Furano and Journey into Japan bike tours in Shikoku and Hokkaido. Lucy also teaches English in the bucolic town of Bibaushi.
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Otaru official: otaru.hokkaido.japan
Shakotan official: shakotan.japan