The Hokkaido port of Otaru is less than an hour by train from downtown Sapporo. Same neighborhood, different world.
Sapporo is big and growing. Otaru is small and shrinking. The future, no doubt, is with Sapporo. But the past is with Otaru. And the past, as all travelers in Japan know, is no small thing.
Hundred-year-old stone banks and warehouses are to Otaru what 1,000- year-old temples and shrines are to Kyoto. Step out of JR Otaru Station and walk south; you’ll soon see (on your left) the former Otaru Branch of the Yasuda Bank. Spare it a glance, it’s worth it. It’s one of 71 “designated historic landmarks” scattered around town, each fronted by a purple explanatory sign (in no fewer than five languages: Japanese, English, Chinese, Korean and Russian — such is the international attention Otaru attracts).
The bank, we learn, was built in 1930 of reinforced concrete. “Its Grecian architectural style is typical of bank construction in the early Showa Period (1926-89) and its massive columns are a primary feature.” It’s now a sushi restaurant. It must be popular — a handwritten notice says no admission without a reservation.
The signs are a good introduction to the distinctive Otaru atmosphere. Here’s one, for example, identifying the former Tsukamoto store. Built in 1920 of reinforced concrete on wooden framing, now no longer in use, the shop looks as ancient as anything you’ll see in Kyoto. Having been “originally built as a store for a dry-goods merchant from Omi, Shiga Prefecture, it is an example of the fire-resistant architecture that became widespread after the great Inaho-cho Fire of 1904 ravaged the city.”
A few steps away, in a little stone atelier that was once a canned-goods warehouse, master weaver Kazuko Teraoka sits at her hand loom, weaving a winter coat strand by silken strand. Kazu is the name she’s given the establishment. Otaru-born (in 1939), she’s been weaving, she says, for 53 years. The little shop above the studio overflows with everything that cloth, dye and skilled hands at a loom can produce — T-shirts, skirts, handkerchiefs, sweaters, shawls. Kazu sells them not only to local customers and sightseers but to department stores across the country.
What is that uncanny harmonica riff? It’s familiar, decidedly familiar. It issues from a little souvenir shop called Kamuy. Kamuy means “god” in the language of the Ainu, a Hokkaido aboriginal people who preserved their hunter-gatherer culture well into the 19th century. Their pantheism is encapsulated on a black wooden signboard: “Fire, mountains, valleys, the ocean, animals, plants, even tools and clothing the Ainu make and use, all are Kamuy.”
The riff — of course: The singer’s voice puts the matter beyond doubt. Bob Dylan. “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”
Let’s pause for a moment to get our bearings, geographically and historically. Geographically we are in the Ironai district bordering the famous Otaru Canal — symbol both of Otaru’s vigorous commercial past and its reincarnation, some two decades ago, as a picturesque little sightseeing city. Most of the places we will visit in the course of the short walking tour that follows are concentrated here, though in fact Ironai is only a very, very small part of the city.
First impressions to the contrary, Otaru is vast, considering its population of only 150,000 or so. The city stretches 40 km east to west, from the formerly independent fishing village of Zenibako to another old fishing village, Oshoro.
About Oshoro a word must be said. Its isolation belies its significance; for here, on a bluff overlooking the Sea of Japan, stands an arrangement of rocks, 22 meters east to west, 33 meters north to south, known as the Stone Circle. This is one of Japan’s oldest monuments, a living link to its prehistoric past — the remains, theorizes Naoaki Ishikawa, chief curator of Otaru Museum, of a burial ground and market that flourished around 1500 B.C., when Japan’s very long Stone Age, its Jomon Period (c. 10,000-300 B.C.), was in a late and migratory phase.
The museum, located across from the canal in the former Otaru Warehouse (stone on wood framing, constructed 1890-94), gets less attention from visitors than it deserves. On display, among much else, is a splendid collection of restored Jomon Period pottery, the shards having been excavated at Oshoro.
When the canal was built in 1923, Otaru’s population was twice what it is now; its port, one of the nation’s busiest, was the hub of Japan’s grain trade with Europe and Russia. Ironai back then was thronged with textile and grain wholesalers, hard-driving no-nonsense people who surely never dreamed that within three generations their warehouses and banks would be transformed into stylish boutiques and trendy restaurants.
By the mid-1930s, the teeming herring that underpinned Otaru’s early prosperity were gone, spawning patterns having apparently changed. Commerce shifted to the rising city of Sapporo 40 km to the east. The port was overshadowed by bigger and more modern facilities at Kobe and Yokohama. The canal fell into disuse. It became an eyesore.
An acrimonious clash in the 1970s pitted citizens wanting it filled in for a road against those calling for its preservation as a historical site. It ended in compromise. Part of the waterway was filled in and part of it preserved. Today, tourists stroll along the preserved part, cameras, guidebooks and soft ice cream in hand — pausing briefly, one hopes, to imagine what it would have looked like in its heyday.
A fascinating figure walked these streets back then. His ghost walks them today. He is Takiji Kobayashi — novelist, Communist, martyr. Born in Otaru in 1903, he took a job in 1924 with the Hokkaido Takushoku Bank, hiding his Marxist views beneath a cloak of respectability. In 1929 he wrote the novel on which his fame rests — “Kani Kosen” (“The Factory Ship”) — about a failed uprising against appalling working conditions aboard a crab fishing and canning boat. At the Otaru Museum of Literature you can see several early editions of the novel, the text marked here and there with the “xxxx” of government censors.
On Feb. 20, 1933, Kobayashi was arrested in Tokyo as a member of the outlawed Communist Party. He died that same day — of heart failure, said the newspapers at the time; in fact under police torture. Both he and “Kani Kosen” have lately undergone an unexpected resurrection, the novel once more a bestseller as young victims of current economic hardship see in it a reflection of their plight.
Otaru’s rebirth was not easy. Being a host to visiting guests requires a certain refinement that is not native to the place. Developing it took time. There is the famous story, for example, of a Tokyo journalist and sushi buff who one day in 1992 came to savor Otaru’s famed sushi. There are some 100 sushi restaurants here, about 20 of them concentrated on one street southeast of Ironai called Sushiya Dori. The rude service at one restaurant so incensed this Tokyo journalist that he wrote it up in a national weekly magazine, fuming in print, “Please urinate in front of this outrageous restaurant. I will take full responsibility.”
Well, that’s all water under the bridge, and Otaru is rather more gracious now. We will wind up our all too brief and by no means comprehensive tour, therefore, with two symbols of Otaru’s distinctive, newly acquired grace — music boxes and glass.
Oddly enough, glass culture came to Otaru via fishing — the glass floats used by fishermen inspired one local glassblower, a century or so ago, to try his hand at more ornamental work. Today there are numerous glass studios and emporia purveying glassware and glass sculpture of the most delicate craftsmanship.
Not to be missed are the Kitaichi Glass chain of outlets along the canal (ranging from stone warehouses to a mock Venetian palace), and The Glass Studio In Otaru, some distance to the south at the foot of the city’s highest peak, Mount Tengu (Bus No. 3 from Otaru Station will get you there.)
Music boxes — a fitting note on which to conclude. We have been proceeding slowly eastward all this time, and at the easternmost boundary of the city’s core sightseeing area, roughly a half-hour walk from the main station, you’ll come to what is surely one of the most unusual shops in all Hokkaido, if not in all Japan.
This is the Orgel Hall. Orgel is Dutch for “organ,” and the name stuck, music boxes having been first introduced into Japan by a Dutch trader in 1852. It’s in a three-story building (brick on wood frame, erected in 1912) that belonged originally to the former Kyosei Co., (“one of Hokkaido’s eminent rice millers and dealers,” graciously explains the sign). And what a sound greets you as you push open the door! Some 3,000 tiny music devices — pill boxes, miniature grand pianos, glass figurines of various descriptions, emitting chime-like renditions of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Material Girl,” the latest J-Pop — whatever; does it matter? They all come together into a weird harmony that the establishment’s pamphlet describes, not altogether absurdly, as “music from the heavens.”
Would Takiji Kobayashi recognize his native city today?
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