The Okhotsk Subprefecture is located in the northeastern part of Japan’s northernmost island Hokkaido. The area faces the Sea of Okhotsk that is part of the Pacific Ocean. Besides East Hokkaido, the Sea of Okhotsk has shoreline with mainland Russia, Kamchatka Peninsula, Sakhalin and Kuril islands.
For travelers the most famous city in Hokkaido’s Okhotsk Subprefecture is probably Abashiri city with its infamous prison. Some other towns and municipalities in the area include Koshimizu, Kamiyubetsu, Takinoue and Engaru.
The Okhotsk Subprefecture is known for drift ice phenomena, that can be appreciated in locations such as Abashiri and Monbetsu. A less known, but absolutely stunning local attraction are the vivid flower fields of East Hokkaido. In this blog you can find travel inspiration for the Okhotsk region and information on our exclusive off the beaten path activities in East Hokkaido.
This blog column focuses on the northwestern area of the Okhotsk area. For stories about Shiretoko National Park, please check: Shiretoko: The peninsula at the end of the earth.
Unique activities in Abashiri, the city of drift ice
Before diving into the captivating flower scene of East Hokkaido, let us take a look at the subprefecture’s capital, Abashiri city. Abashiri city is a city surrounded by water. The city is located on the shore of the Sea of Okhotsk. Abashiri river flows through the city center. In the northwest direction the city is surrounded by two large lakes, Lake Notoro and Lake Abashiri. If you go along the coast towards Shiretoko peninsula, there are two smaller lakes: Lake Mokoto and Lake Tofutsu.
In fact, Abashiri is not the largest city in the area. Approximately 40 kilometers inland from Abashiri there is Kitami city that is the region’s commercial center and has more population than Abashiri.
The Sea of Okhotsk is famous for its drift ice (“ryuuhyou” in Japanese). Drift ice refers to ice rafts that are not attached to the shores. The sea currents of the Sea of Okhotsk bring a massive amount of Siberian Okhotsk drift ice to the shores of East Hokkaido around February. Hokkaido is the southernmost location in the Northern Hemisphere where drift ice can be appreciated before it melts away.
As unbelievable as it may sound, the ice rafts arrive all the way from Amur River at the border of Russia and China. There is almost 1000 kilometers between their starting point and the coast of Hokkaido, where the ice eventually melts! Abashiri city’s ice breaker Aurora is a popular tourist attraction. On the boat, you can take amazing photos and feel how the powerful boat crashes through the rafts of drift ice. On the top of drift ice cruises we can also arrange for you other drift ice related activities such as drift ice diving and walking on the top of drift ice with a dry suit.
Many international travelers have heard of Sapporo Snow Festival. Sometimes tourists come to Hokkaido in hope of experiencing the famous snow festival and drift ice of East Hokkaido without realizing there is over 300 kilometers between the prefecture’s capital Sapporo and East Hokkaido. Luckily, in early February, around the same time the world-famous Sapporo Snow Festival is held one can enjoy The Abashiri Okhotsk Drift Ice Festival in Abashiri city. Much like at Sapporo Snow Festival, at Abashiri Okhotsk Drift Ice Festival there are huge snow and ice sculptures to be enjoyed alongside interesting performances.
Abashiri city is famous for crab, such as horsehair crab, king crab and snow crab. There is a good reason for this. The drift ice is full of minerals that attract plankton. Plankton on the other hand is the favorite treat of many sea creatures that are eaten by sea birds such as Steller’s sea eagle. Under the rafts of ice, there are crabs that have grown fat and delicious with the nutrition they get from the drifting ice. When the ice melts, the minerals, plankton and animals that have arrived with the drift ice are set free to the sea. If you are interested in diving deeper into the crab culture of Abashiri, Hokkaido, we can arrange you a crab cooking session with the locals or a visit to a local crab food factory!
Other examples of our exclusive activities in the Abashiri city include fascinating smelt ice fishing with the locals on the frozen surface of Lake Abashiri, a guided horseback riding tour by the Sea of Okhotsk, canoeing in Abashiri river or scenic cycling. On the top of activities, Abashiri city has interesting cultural attractions to visit.
Hokkaidō Museum of Northern Peoples and Abashiri Prison Museum
The drift ice has been part of the lives of not only the animals, but also the people who have lived at the coasts of the Sea of Okhotsk including Hokkaido. In Abashiri city you can find Hokkaidō Museum of Northern Peoples (in Japanese Hoppo Minzoku Hakubutsukan). This museum is dedicated for the indigenous people of the northern and subarctic regions. You can learn not only about Ainu, the indigenous people of Japan and Russia, but also about Inuit, Sami and other inspiring cultures of the north.
Besides cultures that still exist around the world, in the Hokkaidō Museum of Northern Peoples you can also get to know the culture of the Okhotsk people that used to live in Hokkaido. Learning about the historical roots of Hokkaido, you can enjoy your stay on a deeper level. Another famous museum of Abashiri is the Abashiri Prison Museum that is in fact located just 5 minutes drive from Hokkaidō Museum of Northern Peoples.
You may have heard of Abashiri Prison in popular culture such as movies and anime. The original notorious prison was built in 1890 when the Meiji government decided to send 1000 political prisoners to the far east of Hokkaido. Hokkaido had officially been made part of the state of Japan after the Meiji Restoration that restored the imperial rule in 1868. The inmates were made to build roads as well as the some of the wooden buildings of the prison.
The actual prison is still in business, but parts of it were relocated in 1983 for the Abashiri Prison Museum. The historical buildings of Abashiri Prison Museum have been designed as nationally important cultural property. Probably the most famous of the buildings is the fan-shaped Prison House and Central Guard House. This interesting-shaped building was designed so that all the cells in the long hallways could be seen at the same time from one guard room in the center of the fan. You can also find buildings such as the old Lecture Hall and Administration Building of the original Abashiri Prison.
The prison museum is at the base of Mount Tento. From Mount Tento observation deck at the top of the mountain, it is possible to enjoy panoramic view of the Abashiri city, Sea of Okhotsk and Shiretoko Peninsula. Abashiri city is just one of the intriguing travel destinations in the area. Next, let us get off the beaten path to the less known, but absolutely stunning locations in the Okhotsk Subprefecture of Hokkaido, North Japan.
Recommended winter itinerary in East Hokkaido: Full Course of Epic Winter Activities in East Hokkaido
Takinoue: Pink Moss Phlox
The vibrant lavender fields of Central Hokkaido are famous among international travelers, but the brilliant flowers of East Hokkaido in early spring are less known. The “sakura” cherry blossom season of Hokkaido is later than in other parts of Japan. The bloom peak is around last week of April. After cherry blossoms have wilted, it is the turn for other flowers of late spring and early summer in Hokkaido.
May is the season of brilliant spring flowers such as tulips and pink moss phlox. Pink moss phlox is called “shibazakura” or “lawn cherry blossoms” in Japanese. There are several pink moss phlox parks and gardens in East Hokkaido. Besides Takinoue, there is Higashimokoto Shibazakura Park in Ozora town.
Shibazakura Takinoue Park is in Takinoue town of East Hokkaido. Takinoue is an inland town located around 135 kilometers northwest from Abashiri city. Takinoue Park Shibazakura Festival is held from early May until early June. The peak bloom of shibazakura is around mid-May. The Takinoue park is approzimately 100,000 square meters wide and it is said the flowers take more space every year. On the top of visiting the beautiful pink moss phlox park, we recommend getting to know the locals and their lifestyle in Takinoue.
Local lifestyle in Takinoue: Cow parade
In Takinoue, can join a local farmer when he goes to fetch his cows for their daily milking. The cows spend their time at the green pasture with mountains on the background, but stroll back to the cowshed with the farmer. You can ride to the top of the hill in an open truck.
At the summit, the farmer will show you how to call the friendly animals. The cows seem to be quite far away, but slowly and steadily they will answer to their master’s call. Then, you will begun the relaxing walk down the hill with the cows. Jokingly this activity is called “cow parade”.
This is a great chance to chat with the local farmer while enjoying the serene summer scenery. If you are in Takinoue in May, during the bloom season of pink moss phlox, you can see from the cow path all the way to the pink hills!
Takinoue is also famous for mint farming. The town produces approximately 95% of mint in Japan. Mint can be used for oils and aromas, as well as sweets or spices. We can arrange a private tour behind the scenes of a local mint farm. If the weather allows you can have a scenic lunch picnic surrounded by the green mint fields!
Pink moss phlox is not the only flower of early summer in East Hokkaido. Tulips are also at their peak from early May until early June, much like pink moss phlox. Kamiyubetsu Tulip Park is in Yubetsu town that faces the Sea of Okhotsk.
Kamiyubetsu is like little Holland: There are seven hectares of bright colored tulip rows and even picturesque windmills. There are 120 different tulip varieties to be enjoyed! Kamiyubetsu Tulip Fair is held at the time of the flower peak, so there are various events that take place in the tulip park.
Recommended spring itinerary in East Hokkaido: Four National Parks and Wildlife in Late Spring East Hokkaido
Late summer and autumn flowers in East Hokkaido
The season of tulips and pink moss phlox is around May to early June, which makes East Hokkaido an excellent spring destination (please note that cherry blossoms bloom in Hokkaido around the last week of April and the first week of May).
Another great timing for flower fans is late summer: 10 hectares wide Taiyo-no-Oka Engaru Park is full of cosmos from middle August until early September. “Taiyo-no-Oka” means “the Sunny Hill” or “the Hill of the Sun” in Japanese. Taiyo-no-Oka Engaru Park is taken care of by local volunteers of Engaru. Engaru is also known for hot springs.
During the same season you can also enjoy endless sunflower fields in Ozora town. Ozora is Abashiri’s southern neighbor. The sunflowers can be appreciated in three locations: Asahigaoka Park, Tomappugawa Park and on a field in the vicinity of Memanbetsu Airport. The sunflowers of Ozora are planted so that they bloom twice; Even if you miss the flowers of late August, there is another bloom season in late October!
Koshimizu: the town of adventures
East Hokkaido is not that often associated with agriculture, but in Koshimizu town you can witness scenic farm lands. Koshimizu is around 15 kilometers east from Abashiri.
Koshimizu is a popular stopping point between Abashiri city and Shiretoko National Park because of the area’s wild flowers that can be enjoyed at Koshimizu Genseikaen Wildflower Park (also known as Koshimizu Primeval Flower Garden). The 275 hectares big wildflower park is located on an area between Lake Tofutsu and the Sea of Okhotsk. Besides flowers, you may spot horse wandering around in the fields of wild flowers!
In the town you can take part in harvesting activities and get to know the local people. Koshimizu town is also an excellent location for scenic cycling in the middle of vast fields or some light birdwatching at Lake Tofutsu with a local tour guide. Lake Tofutsu is a popular resting point for migrating birds especially in autumn time.
From Koshimizu it is also convenient trip to Mt. Mokoto at the edge of Lake Kussharo, the largest caldera lake in Japan. Mt. Mokoto is close to the famous scenic spot Bihoro pass: During a guided hiking tour with a local you can enjoy the popular scenery from an angle many tourists will never experience.
Do you want to read more about Lake Kussharo? Feel free to check out our column: Akan-Mashu National Park: Hot springs and caldera lakes
If you like the idea of adding the Okhotsk region to your next travel itinerary, let us know when you make your inquiry.
You might enjoy reading our blog post about yet another intriguing village in the Okhotsk district Nishiokoppe: The deer village
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