Otaru Canal is the symbol of this city. The gaslights and stone warehouses along the canal producing a beautiful nightscape popular with young couples. There are many cafes, museums, restaurants & shops as well as the brewery restaurant belonging to Otaru Beer. Painters and other artists set up their easels etc. Its a good place to take a Japanese partner to for a date.
The canal zone boomed in the Meiji Period when Otaru was the only significant port on Hokkaido’s Sea of Japan coast and after the Hokkaido Development Office was established in nearby Sapporo in 1869. From the latter part of the 19th century to the late 1920s the city boomed as a commercial center, and the major firms and zaibatsu that played a large part in the development of Hokkaido (and the rest of Japan) such as Mitsui, Mitsubishi, Sumitomo, and Yasuda (now the Otaru News building) built their branch offices (usually impressive western-style edifices) around this area. At one stage Otaru was nicknamed the “Wall Street of the north”, probably by someone who hadn’t visited New York. Until the city practically destroyed its own economy through overfishing, it was incredibly prosperous. These buildings were designed by first-class architects of the period, reflecting the splendor of this city and its ambitions about this time. The most representative is the renaissance-style Bank of Japan building designed by the famous architect Tatsuno Kingo, who was also responsible for Tokyo Station. Most of these buildings have changed ownership – for example, the former Mitsui Bank Otaru branch office and the former Nippon Yusen Otaru Branch Office. The latter has been designated an important national cultural asset.
The canal zone is still the symbol of Otaru. During the most prosperous period, over 400 barges transported cargo from the ships to the warehouses. Old brick and stone warehouses, some used today as the Otaru City Museum, line both sides of the canal. Canals are fairly rare in Japan, with very few being built prior to the Meiji period. The construction of canals began in earnest in the last few years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, but transport economics was already favoring the use of larger ships, longer wharves and deeper ports, and most importantly railways. Ships no longer needed to be unloaded using small boats and barges, so most canals, including all of the extensive canals built at Hakodate were soon buried. The city paved a section along the canal and installed 32 gaslights (now electric). The warehouses have been refurbished into shops and museums, making this zone a new tourist area that is particularly popular with visiting bus tours. It is worth a look and in good weather is a nice stroll in any season, but the crowds can be a bit irritating and many of the shops are best described as tourist traps. Find out where the locals shop if you are looking for things that aren’t souvenirs.
If you walk along the canal in the opposite direction from the “gaslight” area, there are very few people. The canal here is wider, and the buildings in the background less photogenic than the old stone warehouses, but the area is interesting if you can read the kanji (the boats of the Japan coast guard, maritime school and others are moored here) or have an interest in the sea. This is the only section of the canal that is still “working”. From various point along the canal you can see the small harbour. Often you will be able to see small Russian fishing trawlers loaded to the gills with second hand cars and other items to trade in eastern Siberia. In the early 1990′s, it wasn’t unusual to see cars half dangling over the sides of the trawlers in ports such as Otaru and Wakkanai. Conditions have improved and now the cars are often placed on steel girders welded onto the vessels to create platforms. It is a little crude, but seems to work when the seas aren’t rough. Trade with Russians has helped rejuvenate the economies of local Hokkaido ports such as Otaru, sometimes not without a few problems on the way.