The port city of Otaru, in the western side of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, has a long history connected to fisheries. The location, on the shores of Ishikari Bay, facing the Sea of Japan, was occupied as a fishing village by the Ainu indigenous people
of northern Japan and Russia since the beginning of the 17 Century.
During the Meiji Period (1868 - 1912), along with the port of Hakodate
in the southern tip of Hokkaido, Otaru became an important fishery landing place. While Hakodate fishermen dedicated most of their efforts to salmon, the industrial fishery of Otaru concentrated on herring. Over the years, both salmon and herring fisheries had become symbols of the cultural history of this region.
Herring is still an important resource in the waters of Ishikari Bay and the Sea of Japan. However, the heyday of the herring fishery has become a thing of the past
. Nonetheless, signs of the times when great fortunes were made by the Aoyama, Ibaraki, and Shiratori families, still remain. They are represented by the great mansions built in Otaru by the fishing tycoons, which are known today as the “Herring Mansions”
Other remnants of the lucrative herring fishery are the old brick and stone warehouses near the port, and the long canal used by fishing boats and barges to bring the catches to the processing plants. These historic structures are no longer linked to the fishing industry, but have been renovated and converted into charming cafes, restaurants, shops, museums, and also a restaurant belonging to the successful micro-brewery Otaru Beer
The Otaru Canal is now the symbol of this city. Old style gaslights, stone stairs and a beautiful canal-side promenade were built. The gaslights have been converted to electricity, but the beautiful illuminated walkways have a nostalgic, romantic atmosphere very popular with young couples. Additional illumination highlights the vegetation covering the old stone warehouses, and pretty flower containers along the canal produce a beautiful nightscape inviting to a delightful evening stroll along the canal. Terraces, bridges and shops lining the old waterway, plus the offer of rickshaw rides through the most interesting sights, make this an interesting section of the city attracting Japanese, Russian and international visitors year-around.
A wide range of fresh, high quality seafood is available in Otaru. There are many fish and shellfish markets, which not only sell live crabs, oysters and scallops to cook at home, but also bake or grill seafood by the sidewalk for consumption at narrow stalls right on the street. Several restaurants offer the famous Hokkaido Ramen, a delicious noodle miso soup. Sushi bars are also plentiful, particularly on Sushi-ya Street, close to the Japan Railway Station.
Besides the beautiful canal area, not far from the railway station is Sakaimachi Street. This is another section of the town which has been carefully preserved and includes several historic buildings such as the Museum of Money in the old Otaru Branch of the Bank of Japan, The Museum of Venetian Art displaying Venetian glassware, clothing and traditional furniture, and the Music Box Museum
, which has in its front a steam clock designed by Canadian clockmaker Raymond Saunders
who also created and built the steam clock in Gastown, Vancouver, BC.
About half-way along Sakaimachi Street, one comes across “Rokkatei
”, a highly regarded Hokkaido sweets’ shop
selling, among many other treats, the famous “Marusei
” Butter Cookies, a confection made with a mix of Hokkaido butter, California raisins, and white chocolate, sandwiched with butter biscuits.
Otaru decorative glassware
has become highly regarded in Japan. Many glass workshops can be found throughout the city. The tradition started with the manufacturing of oil lamps. During the peak period of the herring fishery, the production switched to making glass buoys used to hold the long fishing nets. Later on, when the fishery declined, the emphasis turned into the production of glass ornaments of exceptionally refined craftsmanship.
Another important commercial activity of the town is the manufacturing of beautiful music boxes. There are several shops along Sakaimachi Street selling glassware decorations, Tiffany lamps, and an incredible assortment of music boxes. They come in every size and shape one can imagine. The variety is immense; from stylish piano-shaped cases or romantic porcelain-covered jewel chests, to a wide range of Nigiri-sushi forms. Walking along picturesque Sakaimachi-dori is a real pleasure, since the melodies coming from the music boxes can be heard everywhere reaching a peak inside the fantastic Otaru Music Box Museum
Otaru has a population of about 145,000 people. It is about 35 minutes by train from Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. A visit to Otaru may be done within a hectic day-trip from Sapporo, but taking a couple of days allows a more leisurely and thorough visit to this enchanting town. It’s well worth it.