In 1880, the first railroad line on the island of Hokkaido connected Sapporo, the prefectural capital, with the important port city of Otaru. Indeed, for most of the 19th and much of the 20th centuries, Otaru outshone Sapporo in importance. The city was home to a thriving herring fleet. Ships regularly plied the waters between the port and the then Japanese island of Sakhalin. Coal was mined in the hills, and Otaru even won a reputation for producing fine music boxes. It was the island's industrial heart. Closure of coal mine in Hokkaido and downturn in demand of coal initiated a long decline that lasted into the 1950s. But Otaru survived - and has thrived. Japanese travelers discovered the city, drawn to its winter sports, its fine sushi, and its historic architecture. Otaru seemed like a portrait frozen in time. Today, international travelers have flocked to experience Otaru's charms - including the scenic beauty of Hokkaido's rugged west coast and its nearby national parks.
The vast wealth accumulated by Otaru's herring tycoons is displayed at their so-called "Herring Mansions." One, the Nishin Goten, built in 1897, amply illustrates the state of 19th century society: the sumptuous ground floor housed the family while as many as 120 workers lived in squalor upstairs.