By Koichi Saijo / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterOTARU, Hokkaido — A square near the Asakusabashi bridge at the southern edge of the Otaru Canal in Otaru, Hokkaido, was crowded with tourists one weekend amid great autumn weather.
Against the canal and a cluster of retro-looking stone warehouses, groups on tours took picture after picture. There were many foreign tourists from China, South Korea and other countries.
“The canal is beautiful, and sushi is delicious,” a Chinese tour guide cheerfully said. “There are many sightseeing spots, so I can enjoy this place no matter how many times I visit.”
I myself had visited the place several times. Since I had the impression that Otaru is a popular sightseeing destination for domestic tourists, I could not help feeling that times have changed.
The city had around 3 million tourists a year about 30 years ago, but there have been nearly 8 million in recent years, according to the Otaru municipal government. Of the 730,000 tourists who stayed at least one night in the city last fiscal year, nearly a quarter were foreigners. The scenery around the square has changed.
Canal cruising is popular not only during daytime hours, but also in the evening when the canal is lit by gas lamps.
In addition, many people ride on rickshaws along the canal. Every February, the canal and the footpaths are illuminated, with the snow-covered warehouses contributing to a different landscape from the usual one.
From spring to summer, the cruise tour that departs from and returns to Otaru Port to take passengers to observe the blue water in a cave is popular.
“I think the city has many repeat tourists because the scenery and charms of it change with the seasons,” said Daisuke Watanabe, 66, a radio personality who emcees an information program on FM Otaru.
Before World War II, Otaru Port was the base for the shipment of coal produced in Hokkaido and herring fishing. Since the port was also an international trading port, many banks, including the Bank of Japan, had branches in the city, which was called the “northern Wall Street.” Today, Otaru has become a major sightseeing area thanks to the beautiful sea and mountains nearby, as well as abundant seafood.
“It seems to me that people outside Hokkaido and foreigners understand the charms of Otaru better than local people do,” Watanabe said with a smile.
Meanwhile, a large number of stores run by companies outside Hokkaido are lined up to lure tourists.
“In some regards, [the popularity] does not lead to regional development,” the radio personality said. He said achieving cooperation between the local government and residents in tourism is a challenge.
It became increasingly windy as I walked north along the canal. Despite visiting Otaru in mid-October, it felt a lot more like winter.
The Otaru Canal has a long history and complex background. To put it simply, in 1923, the sea area off Otaru Port was reclaimed, and the 1,300-meter-long, 40-meter-wide “canal” was created by leaving an area of seawater running between the reclaimed land and the original shore.
Later, use of the canal declined, so the municipal government planned to reclaim the canal and build a road over it. However, citizens launched a movement calling for the canal’s preservation.
After a decadelong debate on the issue, the southern half of the canal was split down the middle. One side was reclaimed and turned into a paved road with a walking path beside what is now a 20-meter-wide waterway. The northern half (called the North Canal today) remained untouched.
“If the canal had been reclaimed, as planned, Otaru would not have become the sightseeing destination it is now,” said Yukina Yamamoto, 28, an official of the Otaru Museum Unga-kan.
As I walked along the North Canal, I did not see large restaurants or so many tourists. However, I was impressed by the fact the scenery was preserved thanks to the citizens.
Local seafood specialty
Large squilla crustacean, a genus of matis shrimp, are a local specialty of Otaru in autumn. On Nov. 12, a festival featuring squillas was held at the Otaru Marine Square, with local fishing cooperatives, restaurants and others offering dishes using squillas. I entered a local sushi restaurant to eat the local specialty during my visit to the city, but it was one day before squilla fishing season opened. After returning to Tokyo, I read a blog written by staff at the Otaru tourist information center. I felt that the squillas that got away from my dinner plate loomed large.
It takes 1.5 hours by airplane from Haneda Airport to New Chitose Airport. It then takes 70 minutes by a JR rapid train from the New Chitose Airport Station to Otaru Station through Sapporo Station. There is also an expressway bus connecting Sapporo and Otaru.
Inquiry: Otaru Tourism Association at (0134) 33-2510
To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&d