Abashiri is a small city of almost 35,000 inhabitants, located on the northeneastern coast of Hokkaido, Japan second biggest island. However, despite its size, it’s a great place to spend a few days exploring the city and its surrounding, which won’t disappoint in any season. And if you want to see something really special, come during winter. You’ll have the chance to feel like you’re in Antarctica for ~2 months per year.
The city itself doesn’t have anything to impress in particular. However, during winter it looks spectacular covered in white. The river is partially frozen, the boats are on break waiting for the winter to pass and a sense of calmness is surrounding the entire area. Have a walk along the river and hear the sounds of nature. Walk on fresh snow, watch the seagulls flying around, hear the drift ice movement. Abashiri is a place where all your senses are stimulated. And if you get cold, there is a shopping street with souvenirs, cafes and restaurants, majority of them very local.
Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples
Opened in 1991, it’s Japan’s only ethnologic museum that focuses on the Northern civilizations including Ainu, Inuit, Sami. Use the free audio guide to learn more about their unique aspects of life, including food, hunting methods, dwellings, clothing, religion, transportation, celebrations and more. There are interactive screens as well, with English options. You can easily spend 2-3 hours learning about this incredible civilization. The entrance ticket costs 550¥ per adult and the opening hours are 9am-5pm (July to Sept) and 9.30am-4.30pm (October to June) with the regular closing day on Monday.
Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum
Visiting this tiny museum is a great way to learn about the drift ice, which is one of the most famous things Abashiri is known for. You will have the chance to experience a short 3D movie introducing the drift ice and the Sea of Okhotsk and see some of the sea inhabitants like cliones (the sea angels), fusenuo, namedango in tanks. The best part of the museum is entering a -15C room where you can actually touch the drift ice. And that’s not all! You’ll be given a small hot towel before entering, which will quickly freeze once inside. All these experiences for only 750¥ per adult and 1h of your time. The opening hours are 8.30am-6pm (May to October) and 9am-4.30pm (November to April), open all year-round.
View from the top
Once you finish with the museum, get on the roof for a panoramic view. As the museum is located on Mt.Tento, it serves as well as an observatory. If the weather is good and the drift ice is close to the city, you can actually see it from here.
And last but not least, make a final stop at the cafe before leaving the place. They serve ice cream with sea sal, a strange but interesting combination. Give it a try!
Abashiri Prison Museum
Abashiri prison was established in 1890, as a response to Meiji government to fortify Japan’s Northern area due to the Russian empire’s southward expansion. The idea behind was to send long sentenced men, mainly criminals, to execute the hard labor which regular people wouldn’t do.
A series of prisons were established all around Hokkaido including Kabato, Sorachi, Kushiro, Abashiri, Obihiro. Their prisoners built roads, erected houses, cleared virgin forest into farmland, cultivated farmlands, mined coal and sulfur.
For Abashiri prison itself, the main task was to support the construction of the Chuo-Dori Highway. This was a 220 kilometers road, stretching from Abashiri to Kitami, a key part of Japan’s defence strategy. Because of the required fast pace to finish the road in harsh conditions, 211 prisoners lost their lifes, including guards.
Today, Abashiri prison museum is an open air museum consisting of 25 buildings, reconstructing the prison from the old days. Apart from being a museum, is a way of expressing gratitude to all the prisoners work which was the foundation for today’s modern Hokkaido.
You will have the possibility to learn about their daily life, including food, bathing, clothes, sleeping conditions, but also how it progressed in becoming a farm prison. Today, a few km away from the museum the real Abashiri prison is still functioning. Of course, the norms today are totally different from its beginning, but the past should never be forgoten.
The entry ticket costs 1080¥ and you need about 3h to see everything. The museum is open all year-round from 8.30am-6pm May to September and 9am-5pm October to April.
Abashiri Drift Ice
Last but not least, the best experience you can have in Abashiri, the drift ice experience. Board the Aurora icebreaker and have a lifetime experience. For about 1h of cruise, you will be able to fully enjoy this natural beauty. Admire the big chunks of ice floating on the sea and hear them clashing as the boat moves on (called “ryuhyonari”, the cry of the drift ice). The cruise operates from late January till early April, with 2-6 cruises available per day depending to the season. The boarding place is Ryuhyokaido Abashiri Michi no Eki, where the tickets can be purchased for 3300¥ per adult. While waiting, try the local speciality at the 2nd floor restaurant, called “Abashiri chanpon”, a noodle fish dish.
The Drift Ice Story
Any experience is more valuable when you go on-board with some knowledge, as you can better appreciate what you see. In this case, how much do you know about the drift ice?
Abashiri is the southernmost area where the ice drift can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere except for the coastal freezing areas. However, as it’s located at the same latitude as Venice – Italy, how is this actually possible? The coldest region in the Northern Hemisphere is the Northeastern Siberia, situated upstream of winter monsoon blowing over the northernwestern part of the Sea of Okhotsk. This leads to large production amounts of sea ice.
The drift ice we see in Abashiri originates around November in Shantarsky Bay, at the estuary of the Amur river, which acts as a natural border between China and Russia. The river water freezes and forms ice floes which expand towards the Sea of Okhotsk. And it’s worth mentioning that in this area is located the coldest city on the planet, Oymyakon – Russia, with a record of -70C for the Northen Hemisphere.
For us, the drift ice is a limited time gift from nature. Every year, it first appears in Abashiri around mid to end January. This event is called “ryuhyo shonichi” (the first day of ice drift seen with a naked eye). Based on the same principle, the last day the drift ice can be seen is called “umiake” (meaning opening of the sea). This normally happens at the beginning of March.
However, the best time to see the drift ice is from end of January till end of February, when the ice is thick and abundant. So if you have the chance to be in the area, don’t miss this wonder of the world.
Other places of interest in the town are Moyoro Kaizuka-Kan (Ruins) Museum, Ryu-hyo glass museum, Abashiri Kyodo (hometown) city folk museum and the Abashiri Museum of Art. They are mainly all closed on Mondays.
Some popular day trips outside the city are Shiretoko National Park, Cape and Lake Notoro, Lake Tofutsu and Lake Tofutsu wetland center.
In terms of activities, you can experience canoeing, bird watching, clamming, fat bike ride, skiing or showboarding, fishing, snow trekking, nature cruise, pond smelt fishing, horseback riding, harvest experience or fruit picking – of course, according to the season.
Well, that’s it from my side. I hope you enjoyed the article and one day you’ll visit Abashiri by yourself. Meanwhile, get inspired from more articles across Japan and not only, here.
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