Otaru: Hokkaido’s Charming Port City

Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Otaru was once a prosperous trading port. It is now a historical town frozen in time.
Otaru was once a prosperous trading port. It is now a historical town frozen in time.

In 1899, the government designated Otaru as Japan’s northernmost international trading port. Its vibrant coastal economy was at the time known as Japan’s “Northern Wall Street.”

In the northwestern edge of Hokkaido lies a small port city named Otaru. Officially recognised as a village by the Tokugawa government in 1865, Otaru only started to develop in earnest after the Meiji Restoration.

The Japanese government at the time wanted to strengthen its control over the entire island of Hokkaido and its waters to deter encroaching influence from the Russians. As part of the plan, Otaru was designated as the terminus of Hokkaido’s first railway line in 1880.

In 1899, the government designated Otaru as Japan’s northernmost international trading port, trading mainly with the United States and United Kingdom. This enhanced Otaru’s status among the rest of Hokkaido as commercial activities begin to flourish.

Its strategic location eventually led Otaru to become the financial and economic centre of Hokkaido, complete with banks, canals, and a vibrant coastal economy. In fact, Otaru was at the time known as the “Northern Wall Street.”

Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Otaru's railway station and platforms covered in snow in the winter. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Otaru train station platform. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Otaru train station in the winter.

After World War II, Otaru’s fishing and coal industry was overshadowed by more plentiful regions. Its financial industry went along and relocated to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital city.

After World War II, Otaru’s fishing and coal production was overtaken by more plentiful regions. Its financial industry went along and relocated to Sapporo, Hokkaido’s capital city. As a result, Otaru experienced a long decline that only saw its reversal in recent decades as a tourist destination.

This is why nearly all significant architectures in Otaru were built in the early twentieth century, the zenith of Otaru’s influence. Those buildings, like the old Bank of Japan Otaru branch, were heavily influenced by European construction techniques at the time. Most were built with steel and reinforced concrete featuring a blend of Neoclassical and Georgian architectural style.

Today’s Otaru resembles a historical town frozen in time. Many of the buildings and infrastructures that once facilitated Oatru’s economic dominance have been refurbished into museums and landmarks. The Victorian-style Otaru Canal, for example, was restored in the 1980s after sitting obsolete for decades.

The brick warehouses that lined the canal, too, have been transformed into shops, museums, and restaurants. They once served as storage for goods coming in and going out of Oatru’s port. Their location enables the barges to load cargoes efficiently. These warehouses, cobblestone sidewalks, and Victorian street lamps encapsulate the memory of Otaru’s golden era.

Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Otaru Canal in the winter. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. A sidewalk in Otaru. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Snow covering streets of Otaru in the winter. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Rickshaw pullers roaming the streets of Otaru in Winter.

Sankaku Fish Market sits on a gentle slope beside the Otaru train station. It is a long stretch of stalls selling fresh seafood. This market is filled with friendly shopkeepers offering samples of raw seafood.

While Otaru is fast becoming a popular tourism destination, it does not lack local characteristics. Sankaku Fish Market, for one, is a local indoor fish market frequented by tourists and locals alike.

Sankaku Fish Market sits on a gentle slope beside the Otaru train station. It is a long stretch of stalls selling fresh seafood and local produce. This market is filled with colourful displays and friendly shopkeepers offering fresh samples.

Depending on the season, one can sample a variety of the catch of the day. Uni (sea urchin), shako (mantis prawn), ikura (salmon roe), hotate (scallop), and kani (crabs) are the most well-known in Otaru. They are locally caught and are incredibly fresh and sweet.

In between the narrow stalls are tiny eateries that offer a wide range of seafood donburi. Some of them would even prepare the seafood visitors purchased in the market.

Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Sankaku Fish Market is an indoor fish market sitting on a gentle slope beside the Otaru train station. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Narrow seafood eateries inside the Sanakau Fish Market. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Sankaku Fish Market is vibrant and filled with friendly shopkeepers offering samples of raw seafood. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Depending on the season, one can sample a variety of the catch of the day.

In winter, Otaru residents gather along the edges of the port to fish for herrings in its deep waters. These men in their Gore-Tex outfits paint a sensational picture of Otaru not seen on the postcards.

The northern coast along Otaru’s port area is another place frequented by locals. Unlike the Sankaku Fish Market, however, this area does not see tourists, especially during the winter season. They offer a more down-to-earth glimpse of local lives.

In winter, Otaru residents gather along the edges of the port to fish for herrings in its deep waters. They set up folding chairs on the snow and power portable heaters from cables connected to their cars. Beside them are cooler boxes for the baits and catch. What is especially interesting is the way they fish.

They hook multiple rods on diesel-powered machines that move the rods in a programmed rhythm. This creates movement of the bait and increases the chance of a catch. Those machines are loud and move in an awkward, fragmented motion.

Their noise blends with the chatters of the fishermen and seagulls’ squawks. This continues into the night as the sun sets over Otaru’s coastal snowscape. Together with the lamps and cooler boxes, these men in their Gore-Tex outfits paint a sensational picture of Otaru not seen on the postcards.

Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Mooring fish boat in Otaru's small port. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Otaru residents gather alongside the edges of the port to fish for herrings in its deep waters. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Locals set up folding chairs on the frozen ground and power portable heaters through electricity connected from their cars. Beside them are cooler boxes for the baits and their catch. Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Locals hook multiple rods on diesel-powered machines that move the rods up and down in a programmed rhythm. This simulates the natural movement of the bait and increase the chance of a catch Otaru: Hokkaido's Charming Port City. Otaru men fishing in the night.

 

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