History of Hokkaido: Herring Catching and Spectacular Sunsets in Rumoi City



 Rumoi city (留萌市) is a small city located on the northwestern coast of Hokkaido, Japan, at the mouth of River Rumoi by the Sea of Japan. It is the capital of the Rumoi subprefecture that traces the northwestern Hokkaido coastline. In the late 19th century, Rumoi was one of the important herring fishing places in Hokkaido that produced herring fertilizer to be used on the cotton and mulberry tree fields of Japan’s main island Honshu. It can be said that the city was born because of the herring. The huge herring shoals are now gone but the city is still known for its herring products, especially herring roe.

 In this blog post, you can read about Rumoi city and its intriguing history with herring fishing but also about how to spend your dream Hokkaido holiday in Rumoi.

 There is so much to tell about Rumoi and the area surrounding it that we decided to make not just one but two blog posts about it. The blog post you are reading right now is the first part and the second part will be about the Rumoi area in general. You can find the second part here: The Rumoi Area: Savory Sake, Rare Seabirds, and Wonderful Sunsets.

 This blog post is one of the posts in our series of blog posts about Hokkaido’s history. You can read the other posts in the History of Hokkaido series here: Get to Know Otaru City through its Historical Buildings, ​Hokkaido: Home to the Indigenous Ainu People and their Ancestors for over 10,000 Years, Crafts and Trade at Otaru City, Kitamaebune Cargo Vessels in Matsumae and Esashi, and The War of the Last Samurai in Hakodate.

What kind of place is Rumoi city?

 Rumoi city (留萌市) is a relatively small city by the Sea of Japan, in the northwestern part of Hokkaido. It’s the capital of the Rumoi subprefecture/area and is located in the southern part of the area. The city’s main industries are commerce and fishing. The population of the city was at the end of 2022 about 19,200 people and is declining like in most of the other small and remote towns and cities in Hokkaido. There are two thing Rumoi city is especially known for: its awe-inspiring sunsets and herring products.

 The demographic change has had an impact also on the accessibility to the city. The train connection operating on the JR Hokkaido Rumoi Main Line was stopped in 2016 due to the declining number of passengers. However, Rumoi is nevertheless decently accessible: The distance to Sapporo (the main hub of Hokkaido) is 144 km (89 miles) and it takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes to drive with a private car. So, Rumoi city makes a great day trip from Sapporo or you can stay for the night, too. Asahikawa, the second largest city in Hokkaido, is only 72 km (45 miles) or a one-and-a-half-hour-long drive away. Rumoi city is a good spot for those looking for a quiet and natural getaway, with easy access to outdoor activities such as hiking and fishing. There also are some buses connecting Rumoi and the larger cities in Hokkaido.

 The city’s name comes from the language of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan and Russia. The original Ainu name is rur mo ot pe which means ‘the thing (= river) where the tide enters peacefully,’ or rur mo pe, ‘the thing (= river) where the tide is peaceful’ in English. Like many other place names in Hokkaido, the name is actually the name of a river running through the place. In this case, the name refers to the mouth of the Rumoi River and it tells us that the salty sea water rises up the river when the tide is high. Many Ainu names are based on this kind of indigenous knowledge of the characteristics of the place. By the way, the Japanese first called the place Rurumoppe, which is closer to the original name, but in 1869 the name was changed to the current name Rumoi.

 The nature surrounding Rumoi is characterized by the ever-present sea, its rough waves, sharp cliffs, and sandy beaches. To balance out the rugged coastline, there are some nice beaches. One of the most famous beaches in Hokkaido—Golden Beach Rumoi—is located in Rumoi.

 The north, east, and south sides of the city are hugged by mountains and forests. The city is located in the river valley of Rumoi River (留萌川) that flows to the city from the southeast. There are many other rivers in Rumoi, too. The mountains around Rumoi are not very high and the highest peak is Mt. Poroshiri (Poroshiriyama/ポロシリ山 in Japanese) (730.5m / 2396 ft). By the way, there are several mountains called ‘Poroshiri’ in Hokkaido, because poro siri means ‘a big mountain’ in the Ainu language and you can probably imagine that it is an easy name to give for any big mountain you see around. The most famous Mt. Poroshiri (written in Japanese as 幌尻岳 and read as Poroshiritake) is located deep in the vast Hidaka mountain range, not here in Rumoi city.)

 The summers in Rumoi are mild. The warmest month is August with an average day temperature of about 20.3°C (68.5°F). The winters are cold as you would expect in northern Hokkaido, and the coldest month is January with an average day temperature of about −6.5°C (20.3°F). The western side of Hokkaido gets a larger snowfall than the eastern half of the island. It is also very snowy in Rumoi and the yearly amount of snowfall in the city is a whopping 1,127 m (443.7 inches) (of course all of the snow won’t be there is the same time but especially during the beginning and the end of the winter the snow falls, accumulates, and then melts away in repeated cycles).

The rise and fall of herring catching in Rumoi

 It is said that there have been Japanese fishers living somewhere around the area where today’s Rumoi city is located already in the Edo period (1603–1867). The current Rumoi city was founded in 1877 with only about 600 inhabitants. Rumoi got a road connection to inland Hokkaido in 1901 and the number of people living there started to grow.  Transportation became even better when a railway line was opened in 1910. The improved accessibility also spurred industrial development in Rumoi and especially a large coal mine that opened in 1905 benefitted from the better roads. Transporting coal by road required a lot of resources, so a development project for Rumoi port was started. The construction of the port began in 1910 and ended in 1933. The port was also used as a coal loading port for other coal mines in the vicinity, and the coal was shipped to Japan’s main island, Honshu. The demand for coal started to wane in the 1940s and the 1950s when the mines were closed.

 The Rumoi port was not a place for shipping coal only. Rumoi is famous for being a city for herring fishing. From what we know about history, there have been people fishing herring for centuries, and probably even longer. We also do know that Ainu have been catching herring in the area for a long time and there was even a place called heroki kar usi or ‘the place where people always catch herring.’ By the way, Ainu did not catch the herring so much for themselves but cut them open, dried them, and fed their dogs with the dried herring during the long Hokkaido winters.

 The herring arrived to lay their eggs in the early spring, in February and March, and that’s why they’re called the harbingers of spring. The herring came in so great numbers that the sea became white from the milt (herring sperm) rather than having its normal dark color. The phenomenon of herring coming to spawn in the shallows is called kuki (群来) in Japanese or literally ‘coming in swarms.’ The great herring fishing days are now gone because of over-catching and changes in the ecosystem but you can get an idea of what kuki looked like from the video below. In the white area by the shore, there is a massive school of herring spawning. The video is taken in Obira town, a bit north of Rumoi city.

 Japanese started herring catching in Rumoi in the late 19th century and the population of the city was doubled with migrant workers called yanshu (やん衆). Yanshu worked in herring fishing and processed the caught fish, too. In those days, Rumoi was called sengokubasho (千石場所) which means ‘a place where you can catch a 1,000 goku (about 180,000 liters/47,551 US gallons) of herring.’ The caught herring was processed and shipped to Japan’s main island Honshu by kitamaebune cargo ships. Most of the catch was used as fertilizers in the southern cotton fields and mulberry tree cultivations (mulberry leaves on their behalf were fed to silkworms to produce silk), but also kipper and dried herring roe were produced. The large-scale herring catching came to an end in 1954 when the herring shoals suddenly disappeared and it also marked the end of the sengokubasho period.

 The history of herring and Rumoi doesn’t end there. Even though the herring catch became much smaller, the city remained an important place to process herring, and frozen herring and herring roe was also imported from Russia, Canada, and the US to Rumoi. Rumoi started to specialize in particular to processing herring roe (kazunoko/数の子 or 鯑 in Japanese) and a lot of effort was put into improving the quality of the herring roe using traditional processing methods. Rumoi became the city that produces the highest volumes of salted herring roe (shiokazunoko/塩数の子) in Japan and the city is now especially known for its quality herring roe. The Rumoi herring roe is beautifully yellow and nice and crunchy to eat. Even the city’s cute mascot—Kazumo-chan (KAZUMOちゃん) (an outbound link. The page is in Japanese but there is a machine translation option at top right corner of the page)—is based on the shape of a herring roe!

 Rumoi has a 160-year-long history of herring processing and the history is also visible in the cityscape. There are for example old buildings dating back to the golden days of herring fishing and museums in which visitors can explore the city’s history. Read on to get to know more about these interesting spots.

Exploring the history of herring in Rumoi city

 A good place to start learning about the history of herring fishing in Rumoi is to visit the Rumoi City Umi-no-Furusato Hall (留萌市海のふるさと館) (Hometown of Sea Museum). The museum exhibits mainly two themes: The history of the Sea of Japan and the history of Rumoi. In the exhibition room about the history of Sea Japan, the visitors can learn about the birth of the sea and about the different sea animals living in the area. The other exhibition room focuses on the history of the city from the Jomon Period starting about 15,000 years ago to kitamaebune cargo vessels and of course the history of herring fishing in the city. You can see for example what kinds of tools the fishermen used to catch the herring and also replicas of the dishes that use herring or herring roe as the main ingredient.

 What comes to the old historical buildings related to herring fishing in Rumoi, the most famous is without a doubt Former Saga family fishing grounds (旧佐賀家漁場) (an outbound link, in Japanese only) established in 1844. This site consists of several buildings and preserves the Saga family’s herring fishing grounds just as they were in the past. So, the site is designated as a national historical site of Japan and a heritage of industrial modernization.

 The Saga family fishing grounds include facilities for everything from making the tools used in herring catching, the actual fishing, processing the catch, and providing accommodation for the yanshu fishermen. During the peak years of the herring boom in Rumoi, the Saga family operated 12 fishing boats and you can see the wealth they accumulated in the buildings, too. The large main housing for the builders, banya, could lodge all the workers and the owners as well. Banya (spelled as ban-ya, 番屋) in general means a workshop and lodging facility built by yanshu fishermen on the shoreline near their fishing grounds. There are still several old banyas left in Hokkaido along the coast of the Sea of Japan. In addition to the banya at the former Saga family fishing grounds, there is a temporary storage room for the fresh herring (roka/廊下), a storage room for the finished herring products (totagura/トタ倉), a boat shed (funagura/舟倉), net warehouse to dry the fishing nets (amigura/網倉), and even a shrine dedicated to Inari (Inarisha/稲荷社) for praying for a great herring catch. The buildings at the site are open to the general public for about a week a year, and otherwise, the visitors can only enter in groups by making a reservation beforehand. So, make your reservation or visit the place at the designated visiting time (usually in early August). You can also take a peek inside the buildings through the 360° video below.

 The former Hanada family banya (旧花田家番屋) is actually located in Obira town north of Rumoi city but I’ll introduce it here because it’s part of the herring history of the area. This banya was built in 1905 and it’s the largest banya in Hokkaido. That’s why it was also designated as a National Important Cultural Property in 1971. The banya has a huge dining hall lined by sleeping platforms that were able to sleep 200 yanshu workers. The manager’s and his family’s living quarters are located next to the workers’ living space. The Hanada family was once one of the most prominent herring fishing families in Hokkaido and they managed as many as 18 fixed herring nests in the peak era of herring fishing.

 All the places mentioned in this section are part of the so-called Rumoi’s herring road (留萌のニシン街道) (an outbound link, in Japanese only), a road that goes past the old banya and traces the shorelines of the whole Rumoi area but it can be understood more widely to cover the lifestyle and culture of herring fishing in the area extending from Rumoi city to Obira town. Herring road is one of the special routes on a longer route called the Ororon line (an outbound link) that stretches all the way from Otaru in the south to Wakkanai in the north following the coastline of the Sea of Japan. Despite its name, the Ororon line is not a railway line but a normal road. Another way to use the Ororon line is to follow it to find the most scenic spots in the Rumoi area. You can read about the scenic spots of the Ororon line in Rumoi city in the next section and more about in Ororon line in general in the next blog post in this series, The Rumoi Area: Savory Sake, Rare Seabirds, and Wonderful Sunsets. It just so happens that Rumoi has many of those, especially for sunset viewing!

The best sunsets in Hokkaido in Rumoi city

 Rumoi has several scenic spots along its coast. Because the city has an unrestricted view to the west towards the Sea of Japan, it gives of course an undisturbed view of the sunsets. And what sunset they are! You can watch the full sky slowly change its color from golden yellows and blazing oranges to soothing violets and blues while the sun goes down below the horizon.

 One of the best places to view the sunsets in Rumoi is Cape Ogon (Ogon misaki/黄金岬) with its uniquely shaped rocks. There used to be a lookout at Cape Ogon to see where the schools of herring are swimming at the moment. Now the visitors to the cape can pry for the sunsets instead. The Cape Ogon Seaside Park (Ogon misaki kaihin koen/黄金岬海浜公園) built on the cape offers easy to access the best sunsets in whole Japan.

 Another wonderful place to view the sunsets is Golden Beach Rumoi (ゴールデンビーチるもい). This is one of the largest beaches in Hokkaido, so in the summer it’s an optimal place to enjoy fun beach activities, too. For a birds-eye view of the sea and the sunsets, you can go to Senbodai Observation Deck (千望台). From Senbondai, you can a full view of Rumoi city as well as Amauri Island (天売島) and Yakishiri Island (焼尻島) on the horizon, and on fine weather, all the way to Mount Rishiri (利尻山) (sometimes also called Rishiri Fuji (利尻富士) because it has the same conical shape as Mount Fuji in Japan’s main island).

 In the Rumoi sea, there are curious phenomena that can be seen only in the winter. These are called sea foam/ocean foam/beach foam or spume (nami no hana / 波の花, literally ‘flowers of the waves’) and frost smoke (kearashi / 気嵐 or けあらし). Seafoam consists of organic matter that is churned into foam when the seawater is agitated. This phenomenon happens in the Sea of Japan, especially during the winter when the sea is rough and the waves are high and the foam is washed up to the beach. Frost smoke or sea smoke happens on a cold day when cool air mass flows on the surface of a (relatively) warm sea. It looks as if there was smoke coming out of the sea. So, even if Rumoi might only feel like a very cold and snowy place in the winter, there is something special to see in the winter, too!

 Besides the historical buildings and the lovely sunsets and sceneries, one of the best ways to enjoy the charms of Rumoi city is through Rumoi cuisine. The sea is just a stone’s throw away and it means that there is of course a lot of super fresh seafood available in the city. These delicious fish and shellfish can be enjoyed cooked in different methods or raw as sushi, sashimi, or kaisendon (a bowl of rice topped with sashimi). And of course, herring and herring roe play a big role in this culinary experience. One famous herring fish is nishinsoba or buckwheat noodles with herring. The famed salted herring roe of Rumoi differs for example from salmon roe or caviar in a way that in the herring roe, all the small eggs form one big yellow cluster of roe. Also, it’s not soft and slippery, but a bit hard and crunchy to bite on. All in all, Rumoi herring roe is a delicious and fun food to eat, so you should definitely try it out.

 There is so much more to say about the Rumoi area left, that I decided to publish another blog post about the Rumoi area in general. You can find the blog post in this link The Rumoi Area: Savory Sake, Rare Seabirds, and Wonderful Sunsets.

Come and enjoy the charms of Rumoi city

 Rumoi has a long and interesting history as one of the major cities for herring fishing in Hokkaido. By getting to know the historic sites you can get so much more out of your tour in Rumoi and the whole trip to Hokkaido. Rumoi is located surprisingly close to Sapporo; the trip between Sapporo and Rumoi takes about 2 and a half hours by car. Still, it’s one of the least touristy areas in Hokkaido. That is a kind of a pity because, in addition to the intriguing history of the city, there are plenty of other things to see and experience. And of course, let’s not forget about the mouth-watering Rumoi cuisine.

 Have you already been convinced that you need to add a trip to Rumoi to your next Hokkaido travel plan? So, what are you waiting for? Just press the ‘Contact Us’ button below and start to plan your wonderful trip to the amazing Rumoi!