Otaru, Japan

Otaru lies close to the city of Sapporo on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s islands. Hokkaido’s scenery comprises dense forest, mountains and marshlands, dotted with mineral-rich hot springs.

Hokkaido is seen as wild and rugged, where nature dominates. So it was only in the late 1800s that the population flourished. Much of Otaru’s industry at this time focused around the herring fishing industry, and the wealth it brought was reflected in its so-called “Herring Mansions.” One of these still stands nearby on a hill overlooking the sea and is open to visitors. Further inland is the Former Aoyama Villa, an even more lavish house owned by the Aoyama family who made their fortune from herring fishing.

The beautifully renovated Otaru Canal was once a vital part of this compact city’s role as a working harbor, as small boats would unload the cargo from the ships in port and carry them to the warehouses along its banks. The warehouse buildings are now shops, restaurants and museums, and it’s a lovely place for a stroll, or even a leisurely boat ride.

Another tradition that thrived here was glassmaking. Before electricity, glassmakers produced the oil-based lamps, and later created glass buoys for the herring fisherman. Now you can find all manner of locally produced glassware and, at some workshops, you could watch craftsmen showing off their skills at a traditional glass blowing demonstration.

As well as glassware, Otaru also gained a reputation for its music boxes and you can find a museum dedicated to these tuneful creations. For a city built on the fishing trade, it won’t surprise you to learn that Otaru is also considered an excellent place to sample sushi, and there are dozens of spots where you’ll find it on the menu.

Staying on the food and drink theme, you may wish to head over to the Nikka distillery in neighboring Yochi Town. The company’s founder was Taketsuru Masataka, considered the father of Japanese whisky, who spent several years in Scotland learning about single malts and blended whiskies.

Should you venture further afield, you might find yourself drawn to the relaxation of an ‘onsen,’ the hot spring water bath that is a part of Japanese culture.

Around 20 miles from Otaru, Sapporo is the largest city on Hokkaido and the fifth largest in the country. Odori Park stretches around a mile through its center and is well worth a stroll. At its eastern edge, stands the 490-foot high Sapporo TV Tower, whose observation deck gives an impressive city overview. The Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium, used when the city hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, provides another sweeping perspective, and an idea of the daunting view down the slope faced by daredevil ski jumpers.