An odd thing about Japan is that the people of this island country used to be horrified that there was a deep ocean all around them. (They have clearly gotten over it—today Japan’s navy is one of the five most powerful in the world.) Hundreds of years after the Polynesians had sailed to and settled impossibly distant islands, the Japanese were still mostly running rowboats not unlike the slave galleys from old Sinbad movies. A 1780s map from the voyages of French explorer La Pérouse shows the route his ship took to explore Japan: He’d get in close, map a few miles, the samurai would row out and he’d calmly sail back into deep water, popping in to map the shore again a few miles later.
This long-held fear makes Otaru all the more interesting: The city is where the Japanese began to venture further out to sea. Otaru grew and flourished on the cargo brought home by ships that had dipped below the horizon. The town was, for a while, Asia’s herring capital—herring on every plate for breakfast, tons of herring. Thus Otaru is where the foolhardy proved even the deep and scary ocean has its attractions. And just how snug you can make a home financed by fish.