On the northeast tip of the island of Hokkaido, Abashiri is one of the most northerly parts of Japan. It’s cold harsh winters made this remote outpost a notorious penal colony – home to the hardest of Japan’s criminals. Abashiri is as synonymous with its prison to Japanese people as Alcatraz is to Americans.
The prison, built in the Meiji period, still stands and today is a museum that explains why this was Japan’s most feared prison, with models of prisons chained to the walls and exhibitions explaining some of the gruesome punishments meted out on the criminals that ended up here. Prisoners were subject to hard labour and helped lay the groundwork for much of the infrastructure of Hokkaido such as the railway lines, as well as many of the older buildings in Abashiri.
Abishiri’s other claim to fame is its drift ice, visible through the winter months rolling across the Okhotsk Sea. Japan’s northerly most point is the world’s southerly most point to see drift ice and it can be seen from the winter months of mid-January to early April. The drift ice is visible along much of the northeast coast and the nostalgic Ryuhyo Norokko train that runs down the coast between Abashiri and Shiretoko-Shari Station sometimes can provide stunning views of the frozen seas from along the railway route.
But it is at Abashiri that the ice is thickest and most visible. The thickness of the ice has been decreasing since the 1980s due to global warming and is not always visible from the land so the best way to see the ice is to get out in to the sea. Sightseeing tours on icebreakers depart several times a day from Abashiri port and allow a real experience of getting among the icebergs in these frozen seas.
Back on land, the Okhotsk Ice Drift Museum on Mount Tento in Abashiri is a great place to learn about the sea ice with videos, and introductions showing the science behind this natural phenomenon. Fish tanks hold some of the weird and wonderful creatures that live beneath the ice such as the kurione (sea angel), Abashiri's mascot. A rooftop observatory also offers good views of the ice in the right conditions, and the museum even has a freezer room where visitors can experience the sub-zero temperatures of the ice for themselves.
This remote northern quarter of Japan has a distinctly different culture too much of the rest of the country. In the Hokkaidō Museum of Northern Peoples, examples of traditional dress, hunting implements, and musical instruments of the indigenous people such as the Ainu indigenous group can be seen.
A tradition that still stands today though, is ice fishing – known as smelt fishing. Keen fishermen can drill a hole in the ice on one of the many beautiful frozen lakes in the area, and if they are lucky enough to make a catch, they can rent a barbeque or steamer to cook it and eat there on the ice. Barbecued fish is washed down with Okhotsk Blue Ryuho Draft beer. Made from water from the icebergs and coloured ice blue with natural gardenia pigments it fits in perfectly to this frozen landscape.
Outside of the cold winter months, this northern part of Japan is filled with beautiful rolling fields of brightly colour flowers and is a jumping-off point for the Shiretoko and Akan National Parks [LINK THRO TO KUSHIRO]. Bike or horseback is the best way to explore this area in these months.
In September the surroundings of Lake Notoro comes alive with bright crimson coral grass, or glasswort, as it is sometimes known. Walkways and viewing spots allow great angles for photographers to snap this sea of lush-red marsh plant.
The saltwater lake also provides a wide bounty of seafood that is sold in restaurants in the town and locals can be seen in the summer months hunting for clams in the shallows of the lake.