If you are visiting the island of Hokkaido then you should definitely think about taking a trip to Abashiri which is a city that is located in one of the most northerly parts of Japan. This means that Abashiri has a different feel and culture compared to many other spots in Hokkaido and it is also known for its very cold winters which led to it being used as a penal colony in the days of old.
Criminals were shipped off here as punishment for a range of crimes and they would have been used to build much of the town and also some of the infrastructure around Hokkaido such as the railway lines.
In the winter months you can enjoy a series of activities such as ice fishing and riding on an amazing icebreaker boat, and if you come in the summer then you also won’t be disappointed.
This part of Japan is also covered in a range of rolling hills and fields which are filled with flowers of every hue, and you can see these on a cycling trip of Abashiri or on a romantic horseback ride.
Here are the 15 best things to do in Abashiri…
1. Tour Abashiri Prison Museum
By far the most famous attraction in Abashiri is the Abashiri Prison Museum.
This used to be the place where criminals were sent to perform hard labor, and many of the inmates here actually helped to build the foundations on which Hokkaido now sits.
The buildings here date from the Meiji Period and you can walk through them and check out a range of models who are chained up in the original shackles that the prisoners would have been made to wear.
There are also other galleries that also tell the historical background of the buildings and contain ancient prison relics, but bear in mind that some of the exhibits are a little gruesome so they may not be suitable for very young children.
2. Visit Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples
Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples is known for telling the story of the people who live in the far northern territories of the world such as the Ainu indigenous group in Japan.
The Ainu culture is one of the less well known cultures in Japan, which makes it well worth a visit to the museum alone, but you will also find galleries dedicated to other groups such as the Canadian Inuit and the Sami who hail from Scandinavia.
As you walk around the museum you will find pictures of these communities as well as curios and memorabilia such as hunting equipment and even some seal intestines.
3. Check out Lake Notoro
Lake Notoro is one of the signature attractions in Abashiri and most people come here in September.
The reason for this is that at this time the lake is covered in glasswort which blooms and turns the whole surface of the lake crimson.
The lake is around 33 kilometers wide and it is actually a salt water lake as it has a channel that leads out to the Okhotsk Sea.
As a result, you will find a range of tasty seafood in the lake and you can go digging for clams here from April to September.
4. Explore the Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum
The Okhotsk Ryuhyo Museum is dedicated to telling the story of pack ice which is found in the Okhotsk Sea.
If you want to know more about this amazing phenomenon then this is the place to do it and one of the main highlights of the museum is the chance to get hands on with some of the exhibits.
One of these is a kind of freezer room where you will get to don a large winter coat and can touch some pack ice which is kept cool as the temperature in the room is -15°C.
5. Check out Lake Abashiri
Lake Abashiri is part of the wider Abashiri Quasi National Park and is also said to be one of the prettiest lakes in all of Hokkaido.
The reason that this lake is so famous is that it has a number of resident swans who dot the surface of the water and swim around regally taking in the scenery.
In the winter months from December to April the lake freezes over and the ice can be up to a meter thick in some places, but if you happen to visit at this time then you can also try your hand at ice fishing.
6. Walk around Flower Garden Hana Tento
Flower garden Hana Tento sits at the summit of the splendid Mount Tento which is also located inside the wider Abashiri Quasi National Park.
In the winter months the garden also operates as the Abashiri Lake View Ski Station, but the best time to visit is in the summer when the flowers bloom and you can take in 3.5 hectares of land which are covered in more than 80,000 plants and flowers including marigolds, cosmos and salvia.
7. Try smelt fishing
If you are in the Abashiri area in winter, or the wider Hokkaido region for that matter, then one of the famous activities in the area that you need to try is called smelt fishing.
This consists of making a hole in the ice on one of the many frozen lakes around Abashiri and then fishing directly through the hole.
Once you catch a fish you can then rent a small cooker and either barbecue the fish or even buy a tempura set and cook your own tempura for one of the freshest meals you will find in Abashiri.
8. Take a trip on Icebreaker Aurora
Abashiri is known for its pack ice that surrounds the harbor here in the winter months making it impassible – were it not for a handy ice breaker to steam through the frozen waters.
Luckily the Icebreaker Aurora is one such vessel that can slice through the ice in no time and you can climb aboard and enjoy a one hour tour of the harbor where you can watch as the ice splinters in front of you and also take in the views across the bay at the same time.
9. Shop at the Morning Market
As you would expect from a town located on a bay, Abashiri is known for its delicious seafood which features on many menus across town.
Fishing boats haul in huge amounts of free seafood every day which you can view firsthand at the lively Morning Market, but the big draw here is really the succulent crab that is found in the waters off Abashiri.
Make sure to get to the market as early as possible if you want to take in all the action as it is all over before noon.
10. Have a drink at Abashiri Biru-kan
Abashiri, as it is so cold, is known for its alcoholic beverages which will keep you warm through the long winter nights.
These include the ubiquitous sake as well as beer, and if you want to try this then you need to head to the local brewery known as Abashiri Beer.
Here you will be able to try the signature tipple which is called Ryuhyo and is made with drift ice which has been melted and mixed with sea algae that makes it a rather shocking shade of blue.
As you would expect from a Japanese beer hall they also sell snacks like grilled skewers of meat and squid.
11. Go horseback riding
If you want to do something a little more off beat in Abashiri then you may want to try horseback riding.
If you are in Abashiri in the winter months then you can actually trek on a horse over the frozen Sea of Okhotsk which for many visitors is the experience of a lifetime.
In the summer you can ride over the rolling hills for which this part of Japan is so famous and check out the flower gardens which are resplendent with marigolds and other colorful plants.
12. Attend the Okhotsk Drift Ice Festival
If you are in town at the right time then make sure to visit one of the main events in the social calendar which is the Okhotsk Drift Ice Festival which takes place every February.
Here you will be able to take in a number of amazing sights such as ice sculptures which are crafted by professional ice sculptors from all over the world and which are illuminated at night by twinkling rainbow lights.
As well as the statues you can also enjoy other perks of the festival such as local food and drinks including plenty of Japanese rice wine called sake which is sure to warm your cockles.
13. Go bird watching at Lake Tofutsu
Another of Abashiri’s famous lakes is Lake Tofutsu which is part of the Ramsat Convention wetlands.
Here you will a huge number of birds if you are interested in bird watching and it is said that there are some 250 species that live in these wetlands.
In the spring time many people come here to check out the graceful swans that swim on the surface of the water and you can also see cows and horses grazing on the lush banks of Lake Tofutsu.
14. Bathe in the onsen in Utoro
If you want to get out of Abashiri for the day and also want to keep warm at the same time then you may want to head to the village of Utoro which is located in neighboring Shari and is known for its cute local onsen.
These are traditional Japanese baths which are fed by hot springs, so if you have been enjoying activities such as skiing in the winter then these offer you the perfect way to relax and unwind after a cold day on the slopes.
15. Go cycling at Lake Saroma
Lake Saroma is part of the Abashiri Quasi National Park and is one of the prettiest lakes in the region.
The best way to get here is to take a scenic bike ride to the lake and it is around 25 kilometers from Abashiri to the shores of Lake Saroma.
As you cycle along the banks of the lake you will pass lush woodlands as well as spectacular fields filled with flowers and local produce such as pumpkins.
This lake also has the claim to fame of being the largest of its kind in Hokkaido and like many of the lakes in the region is known for its seafood, in particular its juicy scallops.
You can have a go at fishing for these in lake and you can also dine in the nearby local restaurants to sample all the seafood and fish that comes out of Lake Saroma.