THE 'WALL STREET OF THE NORTH' THAT WAS

Tourists are now the big catch for reborn Otaru

by Chris Bamforth

To think of a big city in Hokkaido is invariably to think of the place that fondly plants a prominent white, red or black star on the labels of the beers it brews. But back in the early part of the last century, the spot in Hokkaido that was top dog in terms of population and economic clout was not Sapporo, but the nearby port of Otaru.

In the latter third of the 19th century, the industries of Japan were busily making their great leap forward, and the fuel for that rapid industrialization was, as in the West, coal. Ishikari, in central Hokkaido, is where the largest, most productive coalfields in the country were located, and back then Otaru was the port that shipped the black stuff to other parts of Japan.

More than coal, though, the thing that brought real prosperity to Otaru came with fins. The waters around Hokkaido are rich fishing grounds, and it was the vast schools of herring that helped make Otaru into the economic hub of the region.

So rich did Otaru become that the many banks and finance businesses opening up in the town’s Ironai-cho area led to it becoming known as the “Wall Street of the North.”

All good times, of course, have to come to an end, and for Otaru that end came with overfishing and the depletion of herring stocks in the 1950s. Otaru went into economic decline, and Japan’s Gordon Gekkos looked to make money elsewhere. Many of the old stone banks and warehouses from Otaru’s days of prosperity can still be seen in the town today, and they lend a distinctive character to the cityscape in a solid, solemn sort of way. Those no-frills buildings these days, of course, have been given a modern makeover such that the old somber bank or fish warehouse now serves as a 7-Eleven or a store selling fluffy toys to tourists.

Another change that came with the slump in the herring fishery affected Otaru’s glass-blowers. Previously these artisans found ample work in fashioning the glass floats used for the fishing nets. As the herring fleets declined, the workers in glass realized that they had to turn their skills in new directions, and thus the production of ornamental glassware began to flourish in Otaru.

It is a little hard not to be aware of glass in the town today, especially on the main tourist drag of Sakai-machi, where the glass emporia are cheek by jowl. The designs of the various figures and ornaments tend not toward the quiet and subdued, so if your taste is for lurid color combinations and overly extravagant designs, you certainly won’t be disappointed. The grandest spot in town for the glass lover is the huge Kitachi Venetian Art Museum, which — as well as selling Venetian glassware and constantly playing Vivaldi — has a full-size gondola floating in its own pond.

Otaru has quite some affinity with the Italian city, one of the museum staff explained to me: Both are ports, both produce glassware, and both have canals. Venice is famously riddled with around 150 canals, while Otaru is less spectacularly riddled with just the one, which stretches for 1.3 km. And Otaru Canal is not really a canal at all so much as a wharf running parallel to the coastline to provide docking for boats. But, flanked by its old warehouses, the canal is an attractive enough spot and is the most romantic throwback to Otaru’s halcyon days. This is where, at dusk, visitors wait to catch the first lighting of the old-style street lamps. It is along here that the rickshawmen hang around trying to drum up custom, and here too that local artists sell their wares — of paintings, of glasswork and, combining the two, of paintings on glass.

For sheer ubiquity, the only rival for glass in Otaru is the music box. The sound of Sakai-machi is the rinky-dink sound of “Edelweiss” and “Home on the Range” and such other evergreen music-box classics. For some reason Otaru has decided to make itself the music-box capital of Japan, if not the world. With Otaru Orgel-do located near the melody-playing Steam Clock, the town has what is claimed to be the biggest music-box store in the world. As might be expected, there is absolutely no lack of elaboration on the music-box idea in Otaru Orgel-do. There are music boxes in the form of robots and sea-otter orchestras; there are sad-eyed clowns and paired rampant dolphins in a glass dome. If you can’t find the one music box of your heart’s desire in this store, you’re simply not trying. For those curious about the history of these devices, the nearby annex, Otaru Orgel-do II, has a museum with a great collection of antique music boxes, ranging in size from tiny matchbox things to ones as big as a Texan’s fridge.

This is also a place to stock up on CDs that have all your favorite music rendered in music-box style. And the range here is absolutely phenomenal, with all genres and styles and enough CD titles to fill a top-end iPod. The only thing I found missing was a music-box rendering of gangsta rap, but that too surely can only be a matter of time.

So successful has Otaru been as a tourist magnet that if you arrive on a busy summer weekend, you can find yourself wishing that you hadn’t bothered. But come on a quieter day and the interesting town and the open, direct manner of the people makes for an arresting combination.