Iwanai: the town of blue ocean and delicious seafood



 Iwanai town is located by the Sea of Japan on the western side of the Shakotan Peninsula in Hokkaido, Japan—about 90 kilometers to the west from Sapporo city. Together with Kyowa town, Kamoenai village, and Tomari village it belongs to an area called Gan-wu (or Ganwu, Gan’wu, or Ganu, depending on the spelling).

 The sea around Iwanai is blessed with a bounty of seafood and it makes fishing one of Iwanai town and its vicinity’s main industries. The town is especially famous for its delicious summer seafood: squid and sea urchin. Also Kyowa town, Tomari village, and Kamoenai village get their living from the sea and fishery is an important industrial sector also for them.

 In this blog column you can read all about Iwanai town and the picturesque countryside spreading along the beautiful sea close to Shakotan blue–the breathtakingly beautiful sapphire-blue sea around Shakotan peninsula–and last but not least, what to do there during your trip.

 This blog column deals with summer activities in Gan-wu, but if you are curious what to do during your trip in the Gan-wu area in the winter, take a look at our earlier blog column The Gan-wu area: the backyard of Niseko to get some travel inspiration.

Introducing the Gan-wu area

 Gan-wu area spreads along the coast of Sea of Japan, in the western side of Shakotan peninsula. Located in between the Sea of Japan and the Niseko mountain range, Gan-wu is blessed with both fruits of the sea and fruits of the mountain. Locals harvest from the sea an abundance of different fish—especially cod, salmon, trout, and herring—and a sortiment of molluscs, such as squid, sea urchin, and abalone. The area is rather unknown for the larger tourist masses and that is why it can offer many tailor-made, unique travel experiences for the people who want to go off the beaten path.

 The area comprises four towns and villages: Iwanai town, Kyowa town, Tomari village, and Kamoenai village. There are currently altogether about 20,000 people living in the area. All the neighboring towns and villages in Gan-wu area are in really warm relations and cooperate in many areas of business and culture. This goes for tourism as well, so even if this blog post is mainly about Iwanai, we cannot help but talk about the neighboring towns and villages, too.

 What comes to the local produce in Gan-wu area, Kyowa town, located in the northeastern side of Iwanai, besides the seafood, is known for its tasty melons. Moving further to north along the coast, tiny Tomari village is famed for its seafood and various products made of delicious blue honeysuckle berries (haskap in indigenous Ainu language and hasukappu in Japanese). It is also the only location in Hokkaido with a nuclear power plant (which is currently offline like most of the other nuclear power plants in Japan after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and Fukujima nuclear power plant accident). Even further to north lies Kamoenai village which is a leading producer of various fish and shellfish, such as cod, Okhotsk atka mackerel (hokke in Japanese) and scallops. You can read more about the specialty products of Iwanai below.

 If you are a seafood fan, you might also find our blog column Toyoura: The scallop town interesting.

Iwanai town essentials

 The town of Iwanai (an outbound link, in Japanese only) is tucked between a narrow land strip between the mountains and the sea. It has a longer history than most of the cities, towns, and villages in Hokkaido, because unlike the others, Iwanai was established already before Japan annexed Hokkaido in 1869. The history of the town goes back as far as in the 1450’s when there was a seasonal fisher’s village on the location. Also the Japanese trading ships stopped at Iwanai harbor when traveling further up to north. The official founding year of Iwanai is 1751 but in reality the village gained permanent residents about a hundred years later. If you compare this with, for example, Sapporo that was established in 1868, you can see that the history of Iwanai really goes a long way back in time. Now the town has a little less than 12,000 inhabitants, making it the largest town in Gan-wu area.

 The name of the town, Iwanai, comes from the indigenous Ainu language. There are many interpretations for the origin. One of them is iwaw nay which means ‘a sulphur stream’ in English. There are indeed many mountains around the town that have major sulphur deposits and mountain streams flowing down from the mountains carry some of that sulphur in their waters. There also used to be some sulphur mines in the mountains. Mount Iwanai or Iwaw nupuri in the Ainu language (Iwanaiyama in Japanese) is one of those sulphuric mountains. Another interpretation is that the name originates simply from iwa nay or ‘mountain stream’ in English.

 There was a fire in 1954 in Iwanai in which 80% of the town’s old wooden buildings were destroyed but the town was rebuilt, so now the town’s architecture is more modern. A popular place to start to get to know the town is Michi no eki (an outbound link)—a facility that hosts the town’s information center and also sells some local products—where it is easy to reach the other spots in the town also by foot. Several small family run shops that specialize in all kinds of products from handmade seaweed sheets to Japanese sweets and from saké to handmade bags dot the townscape. There are also several beautiful Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the town. Especially famous is Kikoin temple—a Pure Land sect Buddhist temple—with the largest wooden Buddha statue north from Tokyo. The temple was moved to its current location in 1890 and the building of the almost 7-metre-tall statue was finished in 1921.

 As Iwanai was established as a fisher’s village, there is a long tradition of fishing and also catching other kinds of seafood. Herring used to be the main catch around Iwanai but today the town is especially famed for its summer squid and sea urchin. The season for squid is early summer to late fall and for the sea urchin June to September, so gourmands should schedule their trip plan accordingly. Fresh seafood in Japan means of course sushi, and Iwanai is no exception to this rule. Visitors to the town can enjoy these seafood delicacies in the sushi shops and other seafood restaurants around the town or take part in a cooking experience to learn how to prepare these delicacies themselves. In addition to seafood, Iwanai is known as the place that introduced asparagus farming in Japan, and asparagus is still one of the main agricultural products in the town.

Fun on the land and at the sea

 What comes to the activities to do in these towns and villages during your travel, there are plenty to choose from. Here we introduce four of them; one for each town and village: 


  • ・ learning how to cook local home food in Iwanai town,
  • ・ participating to fun traditional Hobiki string pull game in Kamoenai village, 
  • ・ hiking at Shinsennuma marsh in Kyowa town, and 
  • ・ enjoying the Shakotan blue on the sea with a SUP (standup paddleboarding) experience in Tomari.

 In the local cooking experience program at Iwanai you will join the neighborhood’s housewives and learn how to cook Iwanai cuisine using freshly caught seafood and of course get to taste the delicacies you cooked together. You will learn how to make makizushi sushi rolls and mouth watering salmon dishes and many other dishes, too, depending on what is in season. This is a special opportunity to really get to know the local people and their culture and also enjoy a hearty meal together. Nourish both your body and soul with this unique travel experience!

 In Kamoenai village, you can dive deep into local traditions in a fun way by taking part in a Hobiki string pull game. The game was originally born as entertainment for the fishermen’s wives to amuse themselves while waiting for their husbands to return from the sea. The rules of the game are simple: The players will sit in a circle on a tatami floor and a bunch of ropes is thrown in the middle of the circle. The players will jump at the ropes and try to catch the one with a ball attached to it. The one who catches the rope with the ball is the winner of the round. What would be a lovelier way to bond with the locals than a super fun game like this?

 It is also nice to spend some time outdoors and in the wild during your trip. One of the amazing opportunities to do so is to hike at Shinsennuma marsh (an outbound link) close to Kyowa town. Shinsennuma is located on a plateau about 750 meters (2460 feet) above sea level and is a home to numerous beautiful alpine plants, such as a bogbean species called mitsugashiwa in Japanese. You will be joined by a local guide in your hiking tour and with the guide’s thorough knowledge of the area, you can get the most out of your hiking tour.

 Another exciting outdoor activity to try is SUP or standup paddleboarding in Tomari village. In this activity you will stand on a paddleboard and use a paddle to move along the sea coast. SUP is the best way to admire the sceneries of the rocky coastline from the sea but also enjoy the mesmerizing beauty of the sea from closeup. Experience Shakotan blue in a unique and unforgettable way and add SUP experience to your trip plan.

An unforgettable travel experience in the countryside

 Memorable travel experience in the Iwanai countryside and nature is just a few hours away from Sapporo. Depending on the route and means of transportation you take, it takes between 2 to 3 hours by car to reach Iwanai; about 1 hour and 45 minutes by a private car and about 2 hours 30 minutes by a Sapporo–Iwanai express bus.

 Iwanai is definitely not your typical tourist trap. The tourism in the town has been developed by and with the locals. Instead of plastic tourist souvenir shops and crowded attractions you can feel the authentic countryside lifestyle with the locals, sample the local products and get amazing experiences exploring the local nature both in the mountains and at the sea. Together we can come up with the perfect tour plan in Iwanai, will it be more inclined towards activities in nature or cultural activities with the locals.

 Whether you are planning a short or a longer trip, located close to Sapporo City—the main hub of Hokkaido—Iwanai is your perfect countryside travel destination in Hokkaido, Japan. If you like the idea of adding Iwanai to your next travel bucket list, let us know when you contact us!