Grandeur of nature, fresh air, wide-open spaces and delicious food beckon you.
Abashiri is a port town facing the Okhotsk Sea. It boasts beautiful drift ice in winter and is also famous for the picturesque scenery of Lake Abashiri and Lake Notori, as well as for Abashiri Prison, which is the northernmost prison in Japan.?
-Ryuhyo – Drift ice on the Okhotsk Sea
Drift ice can be seen at the sea of eastern Hokkaido from Shiretoko to Wakkanai, the only area in Japan where you can see such a spectacular sight. The Okhotsk Sea is a thin strip of ocean stretching about 2,000 km north and south. In winter, 80 percent of the water freezes over and the sea is full of drift ice. The Eastern Hokkaido area, which abuts the southernmost part of the Okhotsk Sea, is the lowest latitude place in the world where you can see drift ice.
The Amur River, which is a large river 4,300 km long in eastern Siberia, far north of Hokkaido, pours a lot of fresh water into the sea. As it is lighter than ocean water, fresh water stays above the salt water and starts to freeze at 1.7 degrees below zero. A thick ice slush is created, which changes into round ice floes, which in turn collide with each other and change shape into “pancake” ice. Driven by wind and riding on tides, they change into drift ice and come to eastern Hokkaido after a 1,000-km journey.
Abashiri and Monbetsu are famous places to see drift ice. Icebreakers “Garinko-go II” (accommodating 195 persons) from Monbetsu and “Aurora” (accommodating 450 persons) from Abashiri provide ice-viewing excursions for hearty travelers. They break the ice and navigate in the frozen Okhotsk Sea. Higashi Hokkaido Express Bus is convenient for sightseeing of the drift ice from along the shore.
-Abashiri Okhotsk Ryuhyo Matsuri (Drift Ice Festival)
A fantastic festival is held in Abashiri in mid February, the coldest month of the year. Huge snow statues are impressive and lit-up ice statues at night are fascinating.
-Abashiri Prison Museum
Abashiri Prison was built in the 1890s to house inmates who were forced to labor on construction of the central road in this area. Some 1,200 prisoners, including 69 serving life terms and 362 serving indefinite prison terms, were sent to Abashiri, a town which had a population of just 630 in those days. The construction was urgent because the road was planned to be used as a military road to counter Russia, which was seen as pushing aggressively southward. Assigned work quotas four times larger than normal, inmates were tied in a pair by chains at their legs and forced to work till about midnight. More than 200 died due to overwork, lack of sleep and poor food. Many other roads in Hokkaido were also constructed by prisoners. Big-name “thought criminals” were imprisoned at Abashiri before and during WWII, and many felons were sent to prison here for a time after the war, but now, most prisoners are convicts serving short-term sentences. Under the prison’s guiding principle of self-sufficiency, prisoners made commodities such as miso and soy sauce, cultivated fields and constructed for themselves the buildings in which they were imprisoned.
The original prison buildings, excluding some part, were burned down in a forest fire that spread to the prison. Subsequent to the fire, all buildings were reconstructed in 1973 because they had become decrepit.
About 20 buildings used in former days were moved to and are maintained in Abashiri Prison Museum, an outdoor museum. Life-size wax figures are displayed, which reproduce the life of prisoners in the prison at the time. When you cross Kagami Bridge, you find an imposing main gate made of red brick. Five buildings of the “Radial five wings prison house” lie in a radial shape centered around a watch tower. You can enter some cells to see what they were like. This is an interesting but perhaps unnerving experience for some visitors.
Lake Saroma is one of the most famous places in Japan for scallops and oysters. Rare alpine flora bloom all around. Walking, cycling and fishing are enjoyable.
Koshimizu Genseikaen is located in an eight-km narrow strip of hills sandwiched between the Okhotsk Sea and Lake Tofutsu. It is a natural flower garden full of wild flowers, next to JR Genseikaen station.
Shiretoko is the remotest area of Japan, with majestic and unspoiled natural beauty. This area was designated a World Natural Heritage Site in 2005.
Shiretoko is a 63-km-long peninsula in northeastern Hokkaido, jutting out between the Okhorsk Sea and the Pacific Ocean. Mountain ranges, including Mount Onnebetsu-dake, Mount Rausu-dake, Mount Io-zan and Mount Shiretoko-dake, stretch along the center of the peninsula and skirts of the mountains form bluffs along the coast. The name Shiretoko derives from the Ainu word “Shirietoku,” meaning “end of the earth.” Unspoiled nature, such as waterfalls, primeval forests, beautiful lakes and numerous wild birds as well as a myriad of flowers, still exits in this only wild part of Japan.
You may see wild animals. Car collisions with yezo-shika deer sometimes occur. Signs reading “Caution?Brown bears” stand here and there along roads. The brown bear is the biggest land-dwelling mammal in Japan. It runs fast, swims in rivers and climbs trees. It is omnivorous, but prefers eating flesh. In addition to fish, such as salmon and trout, it attacks deer, sheep, poultry, horses and other farm animals, sometimes even people. If you encounter one, it may attack you to protect itself. Thus, you should try to avoid encountering one, but if by any chance you do so, stay calm and step back, keeping your eyes on it, and not raising your voice or running in surprise is important. There are also Steller’s sea eagles, which have a full wing span of 2.5 meters and are Japan’s largest birds of prey, and a white-tailed eagle that is smaller.?
As no roads circle around the peninsula, seeing Shiretoko from the sea is an enjoyable option. Boats from Utoro port bring you to Cape Shiretoko in about three hours. Beautiful scenery, such as the sea itself, waterfalls, primeval forests, bluffs and rocky stretches, spread out before you. Steller’s sea eagles and brown bears might be seen near the shore.
-Shiretoko-go-ko (Five lakes in Shiretoko)
These are five small, mysterious lakes surrounded by primeval forests. They have no rivers that flow in or flow out. It is said that water springs from the bottom of the lakes and leaks out of the bluffs of the peninsula via rocks in the bottom of the lakes. It takes about one hour to walk through a 2.8-km trail around the five lakes. Yezo-shika deer might be seen quite close at hand. You should keep in mind that the area around the lakes is a bear habitat. As a bear sometimes appears, you should avoid walking alone.?
-Oshin-Koshin-no-taki (Oshin-koshin Waterfall)
This waterfall is near Route 334 and is the largest waterfall in the Shiretoko Peninsula. Water cascades in majestic fashion down an 80-meter cliff towards the sea.
A magnificent aurora shimmers in the night sky of Shiretoko. A huge aurora appeared in Shiretoko in 1957. Locals tried somehow to reproduce this aurora. After a process of trial and error, they succeeded in producing a dynamic and fantastic aurora, making a screen with smoke from burning straw in the night sky and projecting laser beams onto it. The Fantasia from early February to early March features various types of events and a photo contest, as well as display of drift ice.
-Shiretoko Sightseeing Boat Aurora
The Shiretoko Peninsula has bluffs 200 meters high along the coast. You can enjoy views of the coastline from the sea.
Kushiro, a port town at the mouth of the Kushiro River, is a hub city of eastern Hokkaido. It is a commercial port and also Japan’s biggest fishing port.
Kushiro Marsh is Japan’s largest marsh, spreading over 29,000 hectares, which is about half the combined size of the 23 wards of Tokyo. The Kushiro River and several other rivers slowly snake their way through the marsh. With its pristine nature, it is home to many wild animals. Especially, it is famous for the red-crowned crane. As it is a habitat for more than 10 kinds of waterfowls, such as the whooper swan, duck and wild goose, it was registered as a designated district of the Ramsar Convention in 1980.?
Kushiro City Marsh Observatory is located at the west end of the marsh. There is a 2.5-km wooden trail near the observatory. Hosooka Observatory at the east side is famous for offering the best view among observatories in the marsh. The Kushiro River winds through the marsh in front of you. Mountains of the Akan range can be seen in the distance and the sunset view is gorgeous.
When you want to go to the Hosooka Observatory and the eastern side of the marsh, taking the special train “Norokko-go” is convenient. It runs slowly at a speed of 30 km/hour. As the large windows of its observatory cars can be opened upward, you can enjoy looking at the panoramic scenery of the marsh right in front of your eyes. Hosooka Observatory is close to Kushiro Shitsugen station.???
The Kushiro River runs southward from Lake Kussharo, winds through Kushiro Marsh, and pours into the Pacific Ocean. The 154-km river without dams is popular among canoeists.
Kushiro boasts Japan’s largest fish catch. Fresh seafood is sold at cheap prices in Washo Market, which is crowded with people from morning. Why don’t you try “katte-don” (free-style rice bowl)? After buying a bowl of rice, you select and buy your favorite seafood items in several fish shops. Finally, having a shop-keeper pour soy sauce over the bowl, you have completed and are ready to eat your “katte-don.” Ikura (salmon roes), sea urchin and many other fresh seafoods are available.
Lake Akan, Mount Oakan-dake, Mount Meakan-dake, and other pristine, majestic landscapes await the visitor. Climbing, walking or sightseeing boats are enjoyable. There is an Onsen hot spring town close to the lake.
Lake Akan was created by volcanic activities of Mount Oakan-dake. It is home to and well known for marimo, an unusual moss ball (aegagropila sauteri) designated as a special natural treasure. There are walking trails around the lake, which is surrounded by rich primeval forests. The lake starts to freeze at the end of December and is entirely frozen over before long. Though it is 20 degrees below zero everyday in winter, many people enjoy winter leisure on the ice. You can rent fishing rods, bait and tents for fishing of lake smelt. Fish you catch can be fried for you in tenpura batter on site and freshly-fried fish is delicious. You can also enjoy snowmobiles, four-wheel buggies, cross-country skiing and skating from January to the end of March.
Marimo Tenji Kansatsu Center, a facility displaying and introducing marimo, is on Churui Island in Lake Akan. You can go there by sightseeing boat.
-Akanko Ainu Kotan (The word Ainu means “human beings” and the word Kotan means “village” in Ainu language.)
Ainu people, who are indigenous people of Hokkaido, have lived in Hokkaido and also near Lake Akan since early times and there is an Ainu kotan in the spa town. This kotan is the largest kotan in Hokkaido. There are some 30 craft shops and each shop sells its original goods such as wood carvings of bear or owls, accessories, and embroidered fabric. Onnechise, meaning “huge house” in Ainu, is a theater in which traditional folk dances are performed throughout the year. An open-air event, Iomante Fire Ceremony, is held from October to the end of December, illuminated by fantastic bonfires.?
-Festivals on the Ice of Lake Akan
Events take place from early February to early March. You can enjoy going down the ice slide, drinking hot milk and eating fried lake smelts in daytime. At night, the site is lit up and shining diamond dust creates a fantastic, otherworldly atmosphere.?
Lake Mashu / Lake Kussharo
Lake Mashu is a caldera lake created by Mashu Volcano. No rivers flow in or out of the lake. As the lake is surrounded by steep cliffs, it is hard to get to it. This is one reason why it is very transparent. Its degree of transparency (visibility) was to a depth of 41.6 meters in 1931, which was the world’s record, but it has gradually declined to 22.5 meters as of 1999.?
It is also called Fog Lake, because fog often rises, which makes seeing the entire lake difficult. This only adds to the lake’s mysteriousness. On clear days, the transparent deep blue water offers a breathtakingly beautiful sight. You can enjoy views from the first and third observatories. A small island can be seen in the center of the lake rising only 31 meters high on the water, but this is actually the tip of a 243-meter volcano hidden under the water.
Lake Kussharo, with an area of 79.7 square kilometers, is the second largest lake in Hokkaido and the sixth largest in Japan. Scores of hot springs are located near the lake and also in the lake. As a part of the lake does not freeze, thanks to the hot springs in the lake, swans come here in winter. Because the acidity of the lake’s water is high, few fish live in it and few waterweeds grow.
Mount Io-zan (“Sulfur Mountain”) is an active volcano, as evidenced by its rough-looking, brown-colored surface. Gas belches out from innumerous solfataras and the area smells sulfurous. This is a different mountain from Mount Io-zan in the Shiretoko Peninsula.
Doto is a huge and hugely attractive place that you cannot fully tour in just a few days. You will always enjoy your travel there, no matter how many times you visit.
Air travel is most convenient to visit eastern Hokkaido. When you visit Abashiri, Akan, or Mashu, Memanbetsu airport is convenient. (Tokyo Haneda ? Memanbetsu: 1h 40 mins) When you visit Kushiro, Shiretoko, or Akan, Kushiro airport is convenient. (Tokyo Haneda ? Kushiro airport: 1h 30 mins) You can also visit eastern Hokkaido from the mainland by railway, including express train with sleeping berths, and ferry.