Wakkanai (Japanese: 稚内) is the northernmost city in Japan. It has a population of about 37,000, and is in the subdistrict of Soya in northern Hokkaido. It is Japan's gateway to Russia's Sakhalin Island.
HistoryThe city was established in the 17th century as a frontier trading post to the aboriginal Ainu people who originally inhabited much of Hokkaido. It prospered through trade and as a strategic outpost in the far flung northern reaches of the empire, in the century that followed. The modern city was established in 1900, and when Japan recaptured parts of Sakhalin Island after the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, it became the main transit point to the Karafuto prefecture established there with regular steam-liner operations to Otomari (today Korsakov), a status that only increased when the Sōya railway was finally extended here in 1926. With the loss of Sakhalin in the aftermath of WWII, the town's fortunes faded; it reverted to being little more than a military post during the Cold War, home to some American troops.
While the population is still dwindling, the end of the Cold War might change Wakkanai's fortunes once more: a regular ferry route to Sakhalin was reopened in the 1990s, and trade and ties with Russia are slowly but steadily increasing.
The average summer temperature is around 20°C (68°F), but it can get cold at night, so you may need to bring more than a summer jacket. It's temperate enough that you don't see many air-conditioning units around town, and the ones that are there are rarely put into use. In the depth of winter the thermometer frequently drops below zero, but the −20°C (-4°F) you see inland or across the Okhotsk bay in Russia are extreme occurrences here, as the air is heated by sea currents. The very strong winds can make it feel like Siberia, though.
Wakkanai Airportfields regular flights to Sapporo and Tokyo (Haneda), with additional summer-only services to Nagoya and Kansai. All flights to the airport are operated by ANA - All Nippon Airways. The airport is 20 minutes away from Wakkanai station by bus.
By trainThe JR Soya Main Line (Soya Honsen) connects Wakkanai to Asahikawa. There are two stations within the city limits, Wakkanai itself (station code W80) as well as Minami-Wakkanai (W79) to the south.
Train service to/from Wakkanai is very sparse, with only six arrivals and seven departures per day. Of these, three round-trips are limited express services: The once-daily Soya which runs to/from Sapporo (5 hr 15 min, ¥10450), and the twice-daily Sarobetsu to/from Asahikawa (2 hr 45 min, ¥8300, change at Asahikawa for Sapporo). There is no charge to use these trains with the Japan Rail Pass.
By busSeveral buses operated by Soya Bus run between Wakkanai and Sapporo daily: the journey takes around 6 hours and costs ¥6000, advance ticket purchase or reservation is (at least in theory) necessary, call +81 011 241-0241 (Sapporo) or +81 0162 22-3114 (Wakkanai) to make your reservation. One of the departures is a red-eye service, which might be a useful way to save some money if you're one of those who can sleep anywhere. There is also a single daily round trip to Asahikawa. Keep in mind that while this is a cheap and convenient option in summer, during the winter suspension or delays are commonplace, and snowstorms frequently close the highway altogether.
By boatThe spanking new ferry terminal, directly east of the train station, hosts frequent (in summer) connections to the National Park islands of Rebun and Rishiri; there are also a few shops and restaurants and a tourist information desk in the building.
All ferries out of Wakkanai are operated by the Heartland Ferry Company.
International ferriesRight across from the new domestic terminal is the international terminal. Heartland Ferry has biweekly departures for Korsakov, on Sakhalin Island, Russia (5.5 hours, ¥24,000 one way). You will need a Russian visa before you buy the ticket. You must also buy your ticket at least two days prior to departure: you will not be allowed to purchase a ticket the day of departure. Service is suspended Oct–Apr due to sea ice. See our Russia to Japan via Sakhalin itinerary.
To purchase a seat on the ferry to Russia:
#Go to the domestic terminal, across the street from the international terminal.
#Ask at the front desk for an English speaker, there may be someone. To be sure of being understood, have Sakhalin written in as many ways as possible: 樺太 (kanji), からふと (hiragana), サハリン (katakana), Сахалин (Russian).
#Ask for a ticket to Russia, point at your multi-lingual piece of paper, and give them your passport. You will fill out a form which will be sent to their offices in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. Then you just come back two days later to pick up your ticket. (While it may be possible to do the preliminary paperwork over the phone or by e-mail, don't count on it!)
Alternatively, have a Japanese speaker call and ask for availability. You will then fill out and fax an application form to 011-233-2783 or 0162-23-6730. They will then fax back a confirmation form, which is in Japanese and English.
While there are plenty of attractions on paper, few of them are really that interesting, and hardly anything is worth going out of your way to see. But since Wakkanai is en route to the fascinating Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park which is worth travelling for, you might want to check out the following sights, which will fill out a day or two if you are in the area waiting for a ferry. Ryuhyo (floating ice) is of some interest in winter, and occurs either in February or March. It is ice that drifts in from the sea. If you need to kill time waiting at the airport, the nearby Meguma Wilderness Garden (メグマ原生花園) is an option in spring when 300 different flowers are in bloom.
Wakkanai ParkWakkanai Kōen (稚内公園) is a large park spreading over the grassy hills west of the town, offering some commanding views over the area. The rope-way has been closed, but it is only a short walk to the top beginning at the Hokumon Shrine （北門神社). There are some nice walking trails to explore, and over 4,000 wild cherry trees grow in the park if you are here during Hanami (mid-May). To get an even better view you can ascend the 70 meter high Motoe Hiraku Centennial Memorial Tower (開基百年記念塔・北方記念館) 9AM-5PM (Jul-Sep until 9PM) for a 360° panoramic view of the cape, the expansive Sarobetsu Plain, the Rishiri Volcano and even sometimes to Sakhalin in Russia. Below is the two-story Northern Memorial Hall, which has a collection of documents relating to the local area and Sakhalin. In the weird, small Ice House (ゲストハウス氷雪) you can take a footbath in ice, if that tickles your fancy.
The park also has an eclectic collection of statues and monuments - none of them are particularly pretty, but they sometimes come with interesting stories: the Statue of Nine Women (九人の乙女の碑) is a memorial to the 9 women working at a Sakhalin telegraph station who committed suicide when they learned about the fall of Karafuto (Sakhalin) to Russian troops. Less dramatic is the Ice and Snow Gate (氷雪の門), a bronze statue of a woman facing the direction of Karafuto, longing for the home she was forced to leave behind. Without the nationalistic undertones is the Monument to Taro and Jiro (南極観測樺太犬記念碑), two Siberian huskies that an Antarctic expedition was forced to leave behind. When their trainer returned with another expedition the following year to bury his beloved dogs, much to everyone's surprise he was warmly greeted by the two dogs, who had survived a whole Antarctic winter. There are some more details of their story in the Youth Science Center, and their story is detailed in the 1983 film Nankyoku Monogatari.
In the hills behind the cape near the lighthouse, there are several additional monuments. The Tower of Prayer (大韓航空機撃墜事件の慰霊塔) is a memorial to those who lost their lives when Soviet fighters shot down Korean Air flight KL007 over Moneron Island in 1983. Fittingly right next to it, you find the Bell for World Peace (世界平和の鐘) a replica of a bell located in the garden opposite the United Nations Building in New York.
There is also the Wahoo Peace Memorial dedicated to the 1943 sinking of the famous American submarine USS Wahoo off the coast by Japanese air and sea forces. The memorial commemorates the Wahoo's crew who was entirely lost and to the Japanese who lost their lives as a result of her attacks.
address: 1-1 Kaiun (開運1丁目1)Built in the 1930s, this odd-looking breakwater is a 427 m (1,401 ft) arched hallway supported by 70 Roman-style pillars. It rises over 13 meters up in the air to provide some protection for the strong winds in the area. It looks entirely out of place, but makes for some good photographs. In the summer months (Jul-Aug) it's sometimes converted to a lively market with BBQ and karaoke.
Daisuke Matsuzaka Museumaddress: 1-6-33 Wakkanai Port (稚内市港1丁目6-33)Newly opened museum dedicated to the city's most famous offspring, Matsuzaka Daisuke, starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox - Baseball is huge in Japan, as this museum is a testament to. Videos, photos and other memorabilia. If you are not a fan, the interactive "Fastball LIVE" is probably the most interesting part, experience how it's like to have a 156 km/h ball thrown right at you.
address: Bakkai fishing port (抜海港)About 300 seals have decided that the concrete boulders of this small fishing port was a good home. Surprisingly, they seem to get along fine with the fishermen. The city administration has put up a small rudimentary observation hut with windows and a video feed, so the many guests now pouring in don't disturb the seals. Self service tea is provided free of charge, nice touch.
address: Koetoi Village (声問原野)Lake Onuma, a small lake east of the city, is a migratory stop for the Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus) on their way to or from Siberia, sometimes numbering tens of thousands. There is a Swan Festival (大沼白鳥まつり) held here in May. Other species that can be observed here include Herons and White-fronted Geese. The city has set up a log cabin with a large platform, an observation room and a small exhibition, and there are a free telescope and binoculars available to loan. Sometimes nature guides are present to answer questions, if you speak Japanese.
phone: +81 162 23-6278address: 2-2-17 Noshappu (ノシャップ 2丁目2-17)Located right next to the Science Center. Fittingly for Japan's northernmost aquarium, it's centered around 2 large outdoor tanks with seals and penguins. The indoor area is rather smallish with the two main tanks containing species from the oceans south and north ecosystems respectively - The balloon fish is kawaii! Feeding shows twice per day in the outdoor pools.
phone: +81 162 22-5100address: 2-2-16 Noshappu (ノシャップ2丁目2-16)Inadvertently cute museum, it opened in 1974 - and it shows - since many of the exhibits are really retro. The science section set up to teach kids about the "latest" progress in science you can skip, it's out of date, and any kids won't understand the Japanese anyway. More interesting is the Arctic section with details of Japanese exploration of Sakhalin and the Arctic regions. A whole hall is dedicated to the famous (in Japan) Taro and Jiro (See the Wakkanai park entry). Also of some interest is the Planetarium with shows 2-3 times per day.
address: 1-2-14 Chuō (中央1丁目2-14)A 16 lane bowling alley claiming to be the best in Northern Japan - but then again, they might not have much competition. In any case it's a good option for a cold or rainy day, and watching the normally introverted Japanese hit a strike is fun.
phone: +81 162-22-4564address: 4-1-14 Komadori (こまどり4丁目1-14)A small ski resort in the Wakkanai kōen makes use of the lift here - 3 relatively short runs with just 50 m elevation difference and the longest at 300 m (985 ft).
Tokkari Snowmobile Rentaladdress: Airport Park (空港公園)Naturally rents out snowmobiles. Also has a snowmobile course and offers free snowshoe walking.
address: 1-6-28 Wakkanai Port (稚内市港1丁目6-28)The most expensive and exclusive of the options, boasts some large open-air baths overlooking the sea.
address: 1-2-3 Chuō (中央1丁目2-3)Not so much an Onsen, more of a traditional indoor swimming pool under an impressive double domed roof. A 25 meter basin, waterslides, jacuzzi and a gym.
address: Fujimi (富士見4丁目1487番)The town's largest Onsen sits on the west coast and would have had some impressive unobstructed views of Rishiri Mountain, were it not for a huge blunder from the architect, though it is still visible from parts of the bath. A few indoor pools, and some outdoor ones which are unfortunately fenced in by hedges.
Events and festivals
- North Gate Shrine Festival (北門神社例大祭, Kitamon Jinja Reitaisai)
- Uma Soya Gourmet City (うま宗谷グルメ市, Uma Soya Gorume Shi)
address: 2-15-12 Chuō (中央2丁目15-12)
address: 3-6-34 Daikoku (大黒3丁目6-34)
Most of what you would want to buy here is seafood omiyage's, readily available, but if don't follow this Japanese tradition, there really isn't much shopping of any interest.
address: 1-6-28 Wakkanai Port (稚内市港1丁目6-28)Opened in 2007 this indoor market-mall hybrid, is lined with souvenir shops, food stores, restaurants - including a Russian one, izakayas, a small gallery that exhibits the history of Wakkanai and an Onsen (see do section).
address: 2-8-7 Daikoku (大黒2丁目8-7)Nice place dishing up homey seafood, quirky decoration with wooden figures and Buddha watching over you so you don't choke on the fish bones.
address: 3-2-24 Suehiro (末広3丁目2-24)Soba shack with handmade noodles that brands itself as the northernmost soba shop in Japan, has its own organic farm for growing the buckwheat. Tasty!
address: 1-6-28 Wakkanai Port (稚内市港1丁目6-28)Part of a national chain, but it's actually quite nice, and the menu has pictures of nearly all the items. A good place if you are fed up with seafood. Western fare with a Japanese twist.
address: 2-9-31 Chuō (中央2丁目9-31)Good beef tongue sets is the specialty, try the charcoaled ones, or you could go for the liver? Also has a good selection of spirits to kill your own.
address: 2-2-33 Daikoku (大黒2丁目2-33)Another place near Minami-Wakkanai station. Small, cozy Izakaya style eatery, with a long desk to eat at and lots of wood everywhere. Freshly caught seafood from local fishermen. Try the sea urchin tofu "Hot-pot" or the miso marinated squid.
address: 2-7-37 Daikoku (大黒2丁目7-37)Has a nice poster outside with pictures of the dishes if the Kanji's are daunting. Mainly seafood but not exclusively.
Kamuiaddress: Daikoku (大黒2丁目2-22)Some nice casseroles and pots here with both seafood and meat, as well as a la carte fish and beef.
Pechkaaddress: Fukukou Ichiba (Minato 1chome/港1丁目)A Russian restaurant located outside of the Fukukou Ichiba complex. Offers generous set menus and a seasonal menu. If you're lucky, you'll get hear restaurant owner Nina sing in Japanese and Russian.
address: Chuo １-4-25 Arisu Bld. 1F (中央１丁目4-25 アリスビル1Ｆ)A small but very foreigner-friendly izakaya. The owners don't speak very much English but are very friendly. There is an outdated but helpful English menu.
BB Music Clubaddress: Daikoku 2-9-18 Marufuku Bd. 2F(大黒2-9-18マルフクビル2F)A small bar slash live music venue with a quirky design. The drinks are nothing special, but the staff are friendly and you can chance into performances by local musicians, including the owners.
Wakkanai Billiard Halladdress: 2-4-20 Chuō (中央2丁目4-20)
address: 2-7-12 Wakkanai port (稚内市港2丁目7-12)Cheap Minshuku by the port, if the two hostels are not your thing. A 15 minute walk from the ferry terminal. Clean rooms and wireless internet.
address: 3-9-1 Komadori (こまどり3丁目9-1)Up on a hill with views over the city, nice big bathtub to splash in and has recently built some private western and Japanese style rooms (¥4200). Coin laundry. Really nice and homey feel but it's far from the ferry terminal.
Dormy Innaddress: 2-7-13 Chuō (中央2丁目7-13)Fairly large business hotel, which has a nice spa on the top floor, both indoors and outdoors with views over Wakkanai, which are free for guests. Small rooms, but no smaller than usual in Japan, and a great breakfast buffet.
address: 2-13-11 Daikoku (大黒2丁目13−11)Definitely not a pretty hotel, but a large section is recently refurbished so it's not so bad on the inside. The hotel's private spa is nice, and they have a large restaurant and bar as well.
There are also 3 hotels out of town, one each at Cape Soya, Cape Noshappu, Fushimi. The two latter options provides great views over Rishiri if you get the right rooms.
address: 3-11 Cape Soya (宗谷岬3-11)
address: 2-2-8 Cape Noshappu (ノシャップ2丁目2‐8)
address: Fushimi (富士見5丁目)
address: 1-2-2 Kaiun (開運1丁目2-2)The most upscale hotel in town, and also the most expensive. But you pay for the very good facilities and common area's, not the rooms which are fairly standard, although some with nice views over the sea or Wakkanai koen. The main restaurant is very good, and so is the complementary breakfast.
address: 3-7-16 Chuō (中央3丁目7-16)Has free wifi in the lobby, however non-smokers be warned: every room is a smoking room.
There is also a small hospital with an emergency room.
address: 4-11-6 Chuō (中央4丁目11-6)