Since the early 1700’s to around 1950, Otaru has had a major fishing industry comprising mainly of herring. That industry remains, but is now coupled heavily with tourism to help support the town.
Our first tour stop in Otaru will be near the top of Mount Tengu. As we make our way through this small city, the passing sights reveal typical urban life in Japan. Narrow streets, many multi-family homes and a multitude of businesses all vying for a piece of land at least big enough to carve out a living. Cleanliness and order remain the norm and the contentment that brings, while not boring, is becoming commonplace. If there were just some way to infuse this back home.
The bus has now reached the parking lot and we make our way to the ropeway (gondola) that will take us further up the small mountain.
Today is a rare day for us in that we have both warmth and clarity. Not a cloud in the sky which finally affords excellent viewing opportunities. The entire city is visible and our ship looks almost toy-like in the distance. Pathways abound leading to viewpoints that highlight different angles to enjoy the panoramic spread. Interestingly enough, despite the still unseen public garbage cans anywhere, the grounds, walkways and public buildings are amazingly clean. The only ‘refuse’ that can can be seen on the grass or pavement are leaves that have fallen from the trees.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, the Aoyama family fortune was built up over the course of two generations, Tomekichi Aoyama and his son Masakichi. It was Masakichi Aoyama’s daughter, Masae, that spurred the building of the famous mansion. She had visited another mansion in Sakata (Yamagata Prefecture in Northern Honshu) and thought, as marvelous as it was, her family should have a nicer one.
In 1917 it was started. Some 6 years and almost 310,000 yen later, it was completed. Fortunately the millions her father, Masakichi, had made herring fishing provided the funds necessary for its completion. Her and her father both enjoyed Japanese painting (nihonga) and calligraphy (sho) which was certainly reflected in the artistry that filled the home and the gardens surrounding it. The Baxian Room, for instance, shows the famous Chinese tale of the Eight Immortals. There is a 13 panel Fusuma (paper walls) painting that covers the walls of this room.
The gardens that lay outside the buildings do so in such fashion as to allow for quiet reflection almost anywhere on the premises. In one area is a wonderful waterfall cascading down to a pond replete with goldfish of a size that suggests a meal could easily be made from any of them. The front yard has large stepping stones leading through a raked gravel area where we would normally put grass. The trees are shaped and manicured in such fashion as to be immediately recognizable as Japanese.
Could I live here? Yes, quite comfortably and not even feel closed in by the lower ceiling height.
Our last stop was one block from Sakaimachihondori Street to allow us time to wander through the shops and stores that cover both sides of this one-way tourist promenade. Without doubt there are certain buildings worth spending time in like the Kitaichi Venetian Art Museum. But there are also the requisite stores that seek to draw you in with the trinkets that you know you don’t want, but are likely to buy anyway. However, the store owners at least don’t grab your arm to physically drag you in and, more often than not, you actually will see things that you haven’t seen before. Are they a bargain? Some are and some aren’t. Commercialism doesn’t change anywhere in the world.
Oh…a small word about parking in the area. Generally it is 300 yen for the first hour and 100 yen per 20 minutes thereafter. However, shopping at Kitaichi stores will get you 2 hours free if you have spent more than 2,000 yen. Rather affordable after seeing 1 cantelope for 1,500 yen or 1 cob of corn for 400 yen.
Back to the ship and we will soon be on our way to our last stop on this leg – Hakodate.