【Column】The hard and soft faces of ‘cool’ Otaru

April 19
Written by Carolus Praet; Professor of International Marketing at Otaru University of Commerce from the Netherlands. He has worked in Otaru for 23 years.

The word ‘cool’ seems like an appropriate term to describe Otaru as a destination. In English, ‘cool’ has multiple meanings and here we will focus on two of them: the first meaning of ‘cool’ might be used to refer to the city’s ‘hard’ tourism resources, whereas the second meaning might be used in association to its ‘soft’ tourism resources.

The first meaning of ‘cool’ is: “sophisticated, cosmopolitan, elegant, stylish”. Otaru’s ‘hard’ tourism resources are its European-style architecture such as its famous canal, the old warehouses, and majestic former bank buildings from the days of its Golden Age when Otaru was referred to as the “Wall Street of the North”. Most of these buildings have been transformed into arguably sophisticated shops, hotels, restaurants, bars, and museums. Other ‘hard’ resources include music boxes, glass craft, and cuisine, especially sushi. These ‘hard’ tourism resources are Otaru’s strength and for many years they have drawn in visitors from Japan and overseas –especially from other Asian countries– who want a taste of the exotic European architecture mixed with Japanese flavors. These attractions make Otaru a ‘cool’ place to visit. The problem here is that it is possible to visit most of Otaru’s main architectural and cultural attractions in a day, and once you have seen them there is no real reason to want to visit Otaru again.

In contrast, the welcoming attitude of the residents and those working in the service industry is what make visitors want to come back, again and again. In tourism, this is also referred to as the ‘soft’ or ‘human’ resources of a destination. In this context the word ‘hospitality’ is often used: the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers. The Japanese term for hospitality is omotenashi, which so prominently featured in Tokyo’s recent successful Olympics and Paralympics bid. The term ‘hospitality industry’ comprises a broad category of fields within the service industry that includes lodging, food and drink service, event planning, theme parks, and transportation. It includes hotels, restaurants, and bars. The provision of hospitality however, is by no means limited to the professionals working in the hospitality industry, but also includes a destination’s residents. Unfortunately, ‘hospitality’ –the welcoming attitude towards visitors and strangers– is the area in which Otaru has a less-than-stellar reputation. This is where the second meaning of ‘cool’ for describing Otaru comes into play: “showing no friendliness toward a person, unwelcoming, inhospitable, unresponsive, uninterested”.

Over the years, I have heard many stories about Otaru’s hospitality industry not making much effort to provide friendly service to tourists because the attitude of many stakeholders is that tourists will keep coming to see the famous sights anyway, so why bother providing them with good and friendly service? This attitude may be a left-over from the days when Otaru was primarily catering to packaged group tours, though the tourism market has been shifting away from organized group tours to independent travelers who look for personalized service and experiences. Otaru would be wise to catch up to this new trend and cater to the needs of these independent travelers.

This general attitude towards tourists among Otaru’s hospitality industry stakeholders not only applies to visitors from overseas, but also to Japanese tourists, and indeed there are quite a few comments on the Internet by Japanese from other parts of Japan complaining about the cold attitude and poor service they have received in Hokkaido, so this may not be unique to Otaru. In fact, a running joke among people from other parts of Japan about Hokkaido having “first-rate nature, second-rate facilities, third class cuisine, fourth-rate service, and fifth-rate awareness among stakeholders” may be debatable as to how valid this description –and indeed the ranking– is for the current state of Hokkaido’s tourism industry, but the fact that a special committee on improving hospitality set up by Hokkaido’s prefectural government quoted this joke as being not entirely without merit in a 2003 report suggests that there might be some truth to this. In a 2018 report, Hokkaido’s prefectural government still listed the provision of high-quality service in Hokkaido’s tourism industry as an urgent problem. As for Otaru, the keynote speaker at a symposium hosted by the city at the end of 2020 included the need for improving the level of hospitality towards visitors in the title of his speech. A document published in October 2020 on Otaru’s official website also mentions the need for the city to improve its level of service and hospitality towards visitors from outside the city.

I would like to end this column on a positive and optimistic note, and to do so I will share a recent experience with you. In January and February of this year I had the pleasure to welcome Hiroyuki Nakagen, the Otaru-born and -raised chef and owner of ‘STONE and IRON’ to my online undergraduate seminar as a special guest. He learned his trade in Tokyo, Niseko, Singapore, and Australia and recently returned to Otaru to start his own restaurant/bar/guesthouse in a former warehouse. Two of my undergraduate seminar students also work part-time at the restaurant and they introduced Hiroyuki to me. He told me that he also employs some of our foreign exchange students as part-time staff to better cater to foreign guests. Hiroyuki makes it a point to use local ingredients and wine for his restaurant and has a mixed clientele of Otaru locals, visitors from other parts of Japan, and guests from abroad. He also collaborates with other local business owners to promote Otaru’s local food and drink. People like him will become the driving force for improving the level of service and omotenashi hospitality of Otaru’s tourism industry. If more people in the local hospitality industry and among the city’s residents embrace this kind of cosmopolitan, inclusive hospitality mentality, Otaru will be transformed into a tourism package that is hard to beat: ‘Cool’ artifacts and ‘warm’ hospitality.