Why, oh why, are we in Wakkanai?
Welcome to Wakkanai, blog fans! “Where on Earth is Wakkanai?” I hear you ask. Think Siberia, then look just a little to the East. This is the northernmost city in Japan and it’s windy, cold and very very isolated. It’s also very small by Japanese standards (population: 37,000), and inhabited mainly by fishermen, kelp farmers and seals. What would bring us to such a place? Well, Wakkanai is also the point of departure for ferries to Rebun Island and Rishiri Island and we’re bound for these tiny islands tomorrow. For today, however, we got to explore Wakkanai and see a facet of Japan neither of us have ever seen before.
Wakkanai represents a side of Japan we didn’t get to see last time; this small fishing port feels quite desolate and very exposed to the elements. The winds that blast across the Siberian tundra drive straight across the Sea of Japan and don’t stop until they hit Wakkanai – hence the “Windy City” moniker that’s often bestowed upon this tiny town. Those same Sinerbian winds also bring with them lots of COLD, which is why the mean summer daytime temperature here a not-so-balmy 6°C. We knew it would be chilly here, but the ferocity of the “wind chill factor” caught us a bit by surprise today.
We left Sapporo this morning on the first of just two daily services to Wakkanai and spent the next 5 hours watching the emptiness of the Hokkaido landscape roll past our window. Hokkaido is still relatively untamed, especially compared to Honshu (Japan’s main island); on our train journey today we we passed through vast tracts of pristine forest, acres of rice paddies, and pastures full of sheep and cows*.
*Hokkaido produces most of Japan’s dairy, beef and lamb. Being volcanic the soil here is very fertile so that, even though the growing season is short, farms are sill incredibly productive.
By the time our train arrived in Wakkanai we were starving and headed straight out to find something hot and tasty for lunch. As usual, when it comes to food, Japan did not disappoint: we found Harunaie – a noodle shop that specialses in handmade soba noodles and brands itself as “the northernmost soba shop in Japan“. They even have their own organic farm for growing the buckwheat they use to make their noodles! Freshly made soba noodles, dark miso soup, tempura prawns – what’s not to love?!
After our late lunch we set out to explore a bit of Wakkanai. First stop: the port. Wakkanai is renown in Japan for its fishing hauls – some of the Japanese tourists on the train with us today were coming here especially to partake in a feast of Wakkanai crab, prawns, sea urchin, welk and scallops. Full of soba noodles as we were the thought of more food did not appeal, so we quickly headed inland and away from the fishy, fishy smell of Wakkanai’s main port.
Not far from the port we came across the Breakwater Dome. Built in 1936, this 400m long arched hallway rises 13m up in the air and is designed to provide some protection from the huge winter seas and strong winds that buffet the town. Looking up at the enormous structure it was terrifying to think of the kinds of waves they must get here during the worst of the winter storms!
From there we headed up into the hills behind Wakkanai, into Wakkanai Koen (translation = Wakkanai Park). This large park is home to Wakkanai Jinga (translation = Wakkanai Shrine), Wakkanai cemetery, lots of forest and flowers, and a herd of semi-tame deer. We spent most of our afternoon hiking around through the park, startling the deer and enjoying the views. At the summit of one of the hills we came across the Hyosetsunomon memorial, which was built to honour the people who were displaced from Sakhalin Island, which became a Russian territory after World War II, and were never able to return. The subject of Russian ownership of Sakhalin Island, and the smaller Kuril Islands nearby, is apparently still somewhat of a touchy subject in Jaapn, however, with some of the islands being disputed territories.
Interestingly as we were exploring Wakkanai we kept seeing signs in Japanese AND Russian. Turns out Wakkanai is also a gateway into Japan for Russian traders and trawlers, and vice versa for Japanese seeking access to Russia. There are ferries that depart Wakkanai daily for Russia and historically there have always been Russians (especially sailors) visiting this part of Japan. This has left an interesting legacy in Wakkanai: not only are the street signs in Russian as well as Japanese, but there are also Russian restaurants in town. We also heard that some of the Japanese bars and restaurants have signs out the front (in Russian) which seem to indicate that Russians are not welcome within. Reason being that Russian sailors have been known to cause so much trouble when they’re town that many establishments have effectively implemented their own “No Russians Allowed” policy. Seems a little harsh perhaps, but from our experiences in Russia we can see how there could be significant “cultural clashes” between Russians and Japanese.
After an afternoon exploring Wakkanai we headed out to a local izakaya (translation = Japanese-style pub) for dinner. There were a few local guys in there watching baseball on the giant TV, drinking beer and enjoying their dinner. What could we do but join them? And so ended another day Hiking in Hokkaido…