- Kita Market
- Wakkanai Koen Park
- Hyosetsu no Mon Gate
- Sakhalin Huskies in Antarctica
- Cape Noshappu
- Old Seto Residence
- Fukuko Market
- Russian Restaurant Pechka
- Getting To Wakkanai
- Going to Sakhalin
- Accommodation in Wakkanai
Wakkanai City 稚内市 北海道
Wakkanai Station in Wakkanai is Japan's northernmost train station and it is clearly marked as such by prominent signboards. Provided you have got the right amount of time and funds, you could travel from here by train all the way down to Ibusuki Station, Japan's southernmost station, south of Kagoshima. You would have to change trains a few times (how many times would depend on the type of train you use on Honshu and Kyushu) but it would certainly be an interesting trip.
Wakkanai Station as such is a modern glass-and-steel structure, resembling countless other train stations around the country. Besides its geographical location and the hype created with it, there is not much to get excited about the actual station. It is a very good place to pick up information materials on Wakkanai and its environs, though, including the newest flyers with schedule and details of the Sakhalin ferry.
Central Wakkanai seen from Wakkanai Koen Park, Wakkanai, Hokkaido.
Wakkanai Station, Japan's northernmost train station.
The North Breakwater Dome, one of Wakkanai's most prominent sight-seeing attractions, is a short walk from the station. Built in 1936, the Breakwater Dome was supposed to protect the old Wakkanai harbor from high waves. It serves as a breakwater wall towards the sea but the wall is bent towards the inland side and supported there by sturdy columns, thus forming a sort of large hall, open towards the inland.
As long as the old harbor was still in use, train tracks ran into the hall and fish was loaded onto the trains right there. But now, the harbor has moved and the Breakwater Dome serves mainly as tourist attraction. It is certainly a sight worth seeing, especially when considering that downtown Wakkanai has precious few other attractions.
The streets around Wakkanai Station and the hotels in its vicinity are deserted not only at night. They feel half-abandoned in daytime just as well.
The small restaurant district close to the station hardly deserves that name. Many of the restaurants advertised on the city maps still handed out have already gone out of business. Sure, you will still find a decent meal there but the busy restaurant rows are gone.
Northern Breakwater Dome, Wakkanai.
The Kita Market, next to Wakkanai Station, however, is a center of life. At least in the daytime. The Kita Market is Wakkanai's local fish and seafood market. That's the place where the locals buy their fresh supplies - and Wakkanai locals certainly know how to judge the quality of fresh sea products. The locally harvested uni (sea urchin) is of almost legendary quality.
From the Kita Market it's about a 10 minute walk to the ferry terminals. There are two of them, situated right next to each other.
Sakhalin Ferry Port, Wakkanai.
From the one to the left of the access road, the ferries to the nature park islands Rishiri and Rebun depart. Those ferries, operated by the Heartland Ferry Company, run several times per day, making the trip to the islands quite convenient.
To the right of the access road is the International Ferry Terminal. From there, the ferries for Korsakov, a harbor town in Sakhalin, depart. Those ferries run only twice a week and only between early August and mid-September. You would need a Russian visa to embark. So, a spontaneous hopping on that ferry is out of the question (except if you have a Russian passport, of course).
Kita Market, the local seafood market, Wakkanai.
Centennial Tower, Wakkanai Koen Park, Wakkanai, Hokkaido.
Wakkanai Koen Park
To the west of the city center is a group of hills, forming the Wakkanai Koen Park. It's easily possible to walk up to the top of the hills though many visitors prefer to drive the curvy road leading there.
Just as at Cape Soya, this park is also dotted with memorial monuments all over the place.
The most prominent of them is the Centennial Tower, an observation tower that offers on clear days a breathtaking view over the sea to Mount Rishiri, the mountain dominating Rishiri Island. The mountain is 1721 meter tall and it rises straight up from its narrow confines on small Rishiri Island.
Because of its dominance over the surrounding landscape and vaguely because of its shape, it's often called Rishiri Fuji. Rather flat and long Rebun Island is also clearly in view, weather permitting, of course. On really clear days, the Sakhalin coastline can also be spotted.
Rinzo Mamiya was tasked by the Edo government in the early 19th century to find out if Karafuto, now known as Sakhalin, was an island or part of the Asian continent. He found out that it was indeed an island, inhabited by Ainu. Mamiya also made excursions into the upper Amur region of Siberia and found Chinese settlements there.
Those travels are well documented at the museum, including a great number of drawings Mamiya made of the landscapes he visited and people he encountered.
Hyosetsu-no-Mon Gate, Wakkanai Koen Park, Hokkaido.
Hyosetsu no Mon Gate
Overlooking the sea a little further downhill is the Hyosetsu no Mon Gate, a memorial to the Japanese who died in Sakhalin at the end of World War II or who were forcefully evicted from there.
Japan and Russia agreed in 1875, that Sakhalin would become Russian territory while the Kuril Islands off the northeast of Hokkaido would go to Japan. That agreement became a worthless piece of paper at the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-1905. The Japanese sank a large part of the powerful Baltic Fleet of Russia and dictated the terms of peace. Among them was the handing over of the southern half of Sakhalin to Japan.
Large coal deposits were discovered in southern Sakhalin and many Japanese migrated there. The colony thrived. Additional Korean miners had to be hired to help in excavating the coal. Later, during World War II, many Koreans were forcefully conscripted to work in the mines.
On August 9th 1945, the Soviet Union joined the war and attacked Japan. Southern Sakhalin was soon overrun by Russian tanks. Following the war, all Japanese were expelled from the island, about 420,000 according to historical records.
The Koreans however had to stay: they had to work for the Soviets now. Sakhalin still has a large Korean minority from those days.
Close to the Hyosetsu no Mon, another monument memorializes the nine female telephone operators working at a Sakhalin post office who kept the phone lines active during the most heated days of the Soviet invasion. Just moments before the Soviets took over their building, they collectively poisoned themselves. On August 20th 1945, five days after the Japanese Emperor had announced Japan's capitulation.
In fact, in late August 1945, the Soviet Union was set to conquer all of Hokkaido. Weeks after the war had ended. U.S. president Harry Truman sternly warned Joseph Stalin that that would immediately lead to conflict between the victorious parties. For once, Stalin blinked and stopped the operation.
The Soviets took over the Kuril Islands northeast of Hokkaido, however, and expelled all Japanese inhabitants from there. Frictions over those islands still mar diplomatic relations between Japan and Russia to this day.
Monument for the two Sakhalin husky dogs surviving a year in Antarctica on their own, Wakkanai Koen Park, Hokkaido.
Sakhalin Huskies in Antarctica
It's not all death and defeat here, though. Besides of the beauty of the landscape you also find here some quite life-affirming monuments. For example the monument dedicated to the miraculous survival of two Sakhalin huskies being left alone for a year in the ice of Antarctica.
Wakkanai is the home port of the ships of the Japanese Antarctic exploration teams. Winter conditions in the vicinity have proved to be a perfect training ground for survival in Antarctica.
For the first Japanese Antarctic expedition in 1956, 15 sledge dogs were trained here. They were all Sakhalin huskies, a dog breed that can handle freezing temperatures particularly well.
The dogs went to Antarctica with the expedition and were loved by the whole expedition crew. When however, in early 1958, the second expedition was supposed to replace the first, extremely poor weather conditions prevented them from landing in Antarctica. The team of the first expedition was evacuated by helicopter but the dogs had to be left behind.
Further dog rescue attempts failed because of fuel shortages. The dogs were left for dead and the researchers returned to Japan. On their next trip to Antarctica a year later, they were, to their big surprise, greeted by the two surviving dogs, Taro and Jiro.
The story was turned into a very successful movie, Antarctica, in 1983. (Original title Nankyoku Monogatari, directed by Koreyoshi Kurahara, starring Ken Takakura.)
Cape Noshappu, Wakkanai, Hokkaido.
Cape Noshappu is the western cape of Wakkanai, stretching out northwest towards the northern reaches of the Sea of Japan. It features a cute dolphin statue and is famous for its sunsets with an impressive view of Mount Rishiri in the not-too-far distance. Weather permitting, of course.
Cape Noshappu is also home to a large cold water aquarium, displaying a great variety of local aquamarine life.
Not mentioned in most tourist brochures is the big-scale radar / electronic surveillance facility run by the Japanese Self Defense Forces on the hill overlooking Cape Noshappu. The huge ball-shaped surveillance apparatuses are clearly visible from the cape when looking inland. It's a relic from the Cold War when the La Perouse Strait separating Hokkaido from Sakhalin also separated the American-allied "free world" from the Soviet-dominated part of the world. It is still in operation today. Wakkanai remains borderland.
Old Seto Residence, Wakkanai.
Old Seto Residence
Wakkanai is not exactly famous for its historic buildings. One old building definitely worth a visit however is the Old Seto Residence close to Wakkanai Station. It was built by local fishing magnate Tsunezo Seto in 1952.
Free tours of the residence are offered by a resident tour guide, although only in Japanese. If the guide is busy with another tour group, you can just walk around the building by yourself but it is worth listening to his explanations once he is available.
Besides its interesting architecture, combining elements of Western and Japanese architectural styles with a strong Hokkaido influence, meant to accommodate comfortable life during the heavy, snowy winters, the Old Seto Residence offers a window to a very interesting part of Wakkanai history. The history of herring fishing.
Herring fishing was an important part of the Wakkanai economy from early on and it became central once the fishing methods became industrialized in the early 20th century. Huge bottom trawler fleets set out from Wakkanai, taking in thousands of tons of herring per season. Wakkanai was a herring spawning ground and the herrings came close to the shore in their millions.
The last time they arrived was in 1953. Their sudden change of spawning grounds was a shock to the city. Still, catches were good further out in the sea.
Vintage photos from the 1960's and 1970's show the Wakkanai fishing harbor as an incredibly busy place. At the time, about 64 bottom trawling ships went out to sea, the photos show large numbers of them unloading their catch at the harbor and big fleets of trucks picking up the freshly caught fish for delivery all across the country.
By the late 1970's, the herring supply was exhausted and new international fishing regulations (particularly the introduction of the 200 mile fishing zone as a world standard) meant a sharp decline for the Wakkanai fishing industry.
This large-scale exodus of talented young people resulted eventually in Central Wakkanai being the half-deserted area it is today.
Fukuko Market, Wakkanai.
Today, tourism is one of Wakkanai's most important industries. With its easy access to Rishiri and Rebun Islands, Cape Soya, the northernmost cape of Japan, the Sarobetsu Wilderness Area in close proximity as well as the scenic Soya Hills just outside the city, Wakkanai has certainly a lot to offer in its vicinity.
In the city itself, the Fukuko Market might be the center of modern tourism.
The Fukuko Market is situated about 1km south of Wakkanai Station, right at the old Wakkanai Fishing Port. The port is still active today though only six fishing trawlers are licensed to harbor there, significantly down from the 64 ships a few decades ago.
Wakkanai fishing harbor.
The market itself is divided into several parts. The largest is a local product market aimed to a good part at tourists looking to buy presents and souvenirs to take home. It offers a lot of worthwhile goods, though. Fresh seafood like sea urchin, crab and shellfish can be purchased and shipped in refrigerated form all over Japan. There is a large variety of local seaweed, locally produced sea salt and the like. Clustered around that part of the market are restaurants serving local seafood.
Another, adjoined, part of the market is more like a nostalgia exhibition. Vintage pre-war designs of Wakkanai Train Station and the old Sakhalin ferry port are recreated here.
On the second floor of the market is an onsen hot spring bath. It offers an outdoor area with a view over the harbor. Surprisingly, the onsen water here smells a little like oil. That's because the hot spring brings oil residuals with it from deep underground. Supposedly, the oil is good for your skin.
(In fact, in the onsen hot spring town of Toyotomi a little south of Wakkanai, the oil content of the hot spring water is much stronger, making for a very unique bathing experience.)
Russian Restaurant Pechka, Wakkanai.
Russian Restaurant Pechka
Right outside Fukuko Market you find the Russian Restaurant Pechka. After seeing all those monuments testifying to the often problematic history between Japan and Russia, you might finally want to get a taste of the other side.
And yes, the other side offers great dishes. Well, actually, the Pechka is all run by Japanese, but their food is as authentic Russian as it can get.
A variety of fixed menus is on offer and those offer perhaps the best deal here. They cover the classics of Russian cuisine while incorporating the best of local products. From pickled herring to pirozhki (meat-filled buns) to pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings), borscht (meat & vegetable stew) to steamed or fried local fish, it's all delicious. Wash it down with original Russian Baltika beer and finish the meal with a strong, sweet Russian coffee while glancing at the drawings of the Siberian Amur River wilderness displayed on the walls and the weird performances of Russian pop stars playing on the video set.
More information on Wakkanai:
Wakkanai Tourist Information website in English: http://www.welcome.wakkanai.hokkaido.jp/en/
Centennial Tower and Hoppo Memorial Museum
Wakkanai Koen Park
Open from April 29th to October 31st, opening times differing slightly according to season.
From April 29th to May 31st and from October 1st to October 31st open from 9 am to 5 pm; from June 1st to September 30th open from 9 am to 9 pm.
Admission: adults 400 yen, children 200 yen.
Tel: 0162 24 4019
Website: http://w-shinko.co.jp/hoppo-kinenkan/ (Japanese)
Wakkanai, Chuo, 4chome 8-27
Open from April to October 31st, open daily from 10 am to 6 pm.
Tel: 0162 23 5151
Wakkanai, Minato, 1-6-28
About 1km south of Wakkanai Station
Tel: 0162 29 0829
Website: http://www.wakkanai-fukukou.com (Japanese)
Russian Restaurant Pechka
Wakkanai, Minato, 1-6-28
Open daily from 5pm to 11pm
Tel: 0162 23 7070
Website: http://www.w-kenki.com/pechka (Japanese)
Getting to Wakkanai
It takes about 20 minutes by taxi from Wakkanai Airport to downtown Wakkanai. Connecting buses run every 30 minutes.
By train: From Sapporo: The JR Limited Express Super Soya (duration approximately 5 hours) and Limited Express Super Sarobetsu (duration 5 hours, 20 minutes) make three round-trips a day in total between Sapporo and Wakkanai. The fare is a little more than 10,000 yen one-way.
From Asahikawa: The train takes about 3 hours 35 minutes between Asahikawa and Wakkanai.
Going to Sakhalin
Ferries between Wakkanai and Korsakov, Sakhalin travel only from early August to mid-September, departing Wakkanai on Tuesday and Friday and Korsakov on Monday and Thursday. A round-trip ticket is 36,000 yen, a one-way ticket 18,000 yen.
The trip takes about 6 hours 30 minutes. (Note that there is a time difference of 2 hours between Japan and Sakhalin. In Sakhalin, it's 2 hours earlier. i.e. 11 am in Japan = 9 am in Sakhalin)
No meals are available on board, there are no vending machines either. Bring your own supplies.
You need a valid passport and a Russian visa to visit Sakhalin.
More ferry information here, mostly in Japanese.
Visiting Soya Misaki
From Wakkanai to Cape Soya there are buses, or it is a 31 km drive (or taxi ride) northeast along route 238. Minshuku accommodation is available at the cape, and a wider range of hotels can be found in Wakkanai.
Accommodation in Wakkanai
Wakkanai has a fair range of hotels, minshuku and ryokan (Japanese inns). Choose from a selection of hotels in Wakkanai of which recommended places include the Dormy Inn Wakkanai, the Hotel Kabe Shiosaitei, the Tabinoyado Ubukata and the Ryokan Iwaki, all close to JR Wakkanai Station.
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Wakkanai: read a guide to Japan's most northern city, Wakkanai and its attractions: Kita Market, Wakkanai Koen Park, Hyosetsu no Mon Gate and Cape Noshappu.