Wakkanai Travel

Japan Area Guides: Wakkanai, Hokkaido Part I

Cape Soya 宗谷岬 稚内 北海道

Johannes Schonherr

Wakkanai is the northernmost city in Japan, located at the northern tip of Hokkaido. Wakkanai houses Japan's northernmost railway station and airport and is thus the starting point of an endless succession of cross-country tours by people who want to experience the full length of Japan down to the southernmost points of Kyushu, travelling from here by rail, by car or hiking all the way.

Tri-ligual road sign, Wakkanai, Hokkaido
Tri-lingual road sign, Wakkanai, Hokkaido.
Typical Hokkaido road. The arrows point out the road shoulders in winter, Wakkanai, Hokkaido
Typical Hokkaido road. The arrows point out the road shoulders in winter.

More locally, Wakkanai is home to the ferry harbor for the nearby scenic nature islands Rishiri and Rebun. Another ferry connects Wakkanai with Korsakov City on Sakhalin Island, now part of Russia.

On clear days, the mountainous coast of Sakhalin Island can be seen from various points in Wakkanai. The history of Wakkanai is closely connected to Sakhalin, a closeness that is still strongly felt today in Wakkanai.

On a recent visit, I picked up my rental car at Wakkanai Airport, located about half-way between Wakkanai City and Cape Soya (Soya Misaki). Driving out of the rental car parking lot, I soon encountered the first direction sign. Wakkanai City was to the left, Cape Soya to the right, it said. In three languages: Japanese, English and Russian.

In fact, all road direction signs in Wakkanai are tri-lingual as I soon discovered. Trying to reach out to the neighbor up north seems to be official policy here and that for good reason.

Cape Soya

I took the turn to the right, towards Cape Soya. The road follows the coastline. On masts above the road hang arrows pointing out the shoulders of the road. In winter, when everything is heavily snowed under here, those markers are essential to help drivers staying on the road. They are not a specialty of Wakkanai, though, they are common all over Hokkaido.

It was a cloudy, windy day and I knew that there would be no way that I could see Sakhalin from Cape Soya. At the cape, I was greeted by a strong smell of kombu, the thick seaweed Hokkaido is famous for, the rocky coast was covered with loose kombu that had drifted on to the shore.

Cape Soya monument (right) and statue of Rinzo Mamiya.
Cape Soya monument (right) and statue of Rinzo Mamiya.
Old Japanese Naval Watchtower, Cape Soya, Hokkaido.
Old Japanese Naval Watchtower, Cape Soya, Hokkaido.

Rinzo Mamiya

Cape Soya itself was marked by a triangular monument. Next to it stood a statue of Rinzo Mamiya looking out over the sea, the Japanese geographer who had explored the coastline of Sakhalin in the early 19th century. His discovery that Sakhalin or Karafuto, to use the old Japanese expression, was indeed an island and not a peninsula edging out of Siberia would shape the history of the area for a long, long time.

Count Laperouse

Close to the cape are a few storm-beaten tourist shops and pensions. You can walk up to a hill overlooking the cape. There are more monuments to be found there. One of the monuments is dedicated to French explorer Count Laperouse. He was the first European to sail these waters in 1787, establishing for European map makers that Hokkaido and Sakhalin were separated by a strait just north of the cape. Today, the 43 km wide strait is named La Perouse Strait in his honor. At the time of his sailing, however, the authorities back in Edo didn't notice his movements.

Cape Soya, Wakkanai, Hokkaido, Japan
A monument to Lapérouse after whom the strait to the north is named.

During most of the Edo Period (1603-1868), foreigners were strictly forbidden to enter Japan, save for the small Dutch trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki. Japanese were equally strictly prohibited from leaving Japan.

While those laws were rigorously enforced in the mainland, Hokkaido was more of a gray area. Hokkaido was still largely populated by the Ainu, the original inhabitants of the area. The Japanese clan of the Matsumae was in charge of Hokkaido and the Matsumae had the exclusive trading rights with the Ainu. Slowly, they brought more and more of Hokkaido under their direct control while establishing a growing number of Japanese settlements.

Ezo Shika (Hokkaido deer) at Cape Soya, Hokkaido.
Ezo Shika (Hokkaido deer) at Cape Soya, Hokkaido.

Karafuto

By the early 19th century, Karafuto, today known as Sakhalin, also came into their focus for expansion. But it was not clear at the time if Sakhalin was an island or part of the Asian continent.

In 1808, the Edo government sent Rinzo Mamiya to find out.

Mamiya made two trips. Sakhalin was indeed an island, he discovered. An island populated by Ainu. He also made excursions into the Siberian mainland and found Chinese settlements there.

The Edo government had no interest in any conflict with the Chinese but an Ainu-inhabited island just north of Hokkaido sounded like a natural addition to the Japanese archipelago and the first Japanese settlements in Sakhalin were soon founded.

At the same time, the Russian empire pushed eastwards, taking over the old Chinese settlements on the Siberian mainland and claiming Sakhalin for themselves.

In 1875, the new Meiji government (1868-1912) made a deal with the Russian czar: Sakhalin would go to the Russians, it was agreed, while the Kuril Islands off the northeast of Hokkaido would go to Japan.

Though the agreement helped reduce tensions in the area for a few years, it couldn't prevent violent turmoil to eventually erupt. (More on that in Part II)

With the agreement, Cape Soya became borderland and a Japanese Navy watchtower was erected on the hill over Cape Soya to observe Russian navy movements. Suspicions between the two sides were running deep. The watchtower is still there but is today in a dilapidated state and can't be entered.

I strolled around the historic ground a little further. Suddenly, a herd of about six or eight Ezo shika appeared seemingly out nowhere, feeding on the grass and flowers in front of the monuments. Ezo shika are Hokkaido deer (Ezo being the old name for Hokkaido). They are tall and have impressive antlers and obviously had come here from the larger plains of the Soya Hills further inland. They didn't mind the presence of the foreigner at their feeding ground at all. I kept my distance, though. Some deer in the herd were rather young and I didn't want to provoke their antler-wearing elders.

At the same time, a Kita Kitsune, a Northern fox, a variety found only in Hokkaido, slowly made his way across the monument-littered area. He was much more shy than the deer and soon disappeared in the surrounding shrubbery. 

Read more on Wakkanai in Part II: Wakkanai City

More information on Wakkanai:

Wakkanai Tourist Information website in English: http://www.welcome.wakkanai.hokkaido.jp/en/

Getting to Wakkanai

By air: Wakkanai Airport is served by frequent, year-round flights from Tokyo Haneda and New Chitose (Sapporo) Airports.

It takes about 20 minutes by taxi from Wakkanai Airport to downtown Wakkanai. Connecting buses run every 30 minutes.

By train: From Sapporo: The JR Limited Express Super Soya (duration approximately 5 hours) and Limited Express Super Sarobetsu (duration 5 hours, 20 minutes) make three round-trips a day in total between Sapporo and Wakkanai. The fare is a little more than 10,000 yen one-way.

From Asahikawa: The train takes about 3 hours 35 minutes between Asahikawa and Wakkanai.

By bus: Highway bus services are available both from Sapporo and Asahikawa. For more detailed information, including timetables and ticket prices, see the website of the Soya Bus Corporation.

Going to Sakhalin

Ferries between Wakkanai and Korsakov, Sakhalin travel only from early August to mid-September, departing Wakkanai on Tuesday and Friday and Korsakov on Monday and Thursday. A round-trip ticket is 36,000 yen, a one-way ticket 18,000 yen.

The trip takes about 6 hours 30 minutes. (Note that there is a time difference of 2 hours between Japan and Sakhalin. In Sakhalin, it's 2 hours earlier. I.e. 11am in Japan = 9am in Sakhalin)

No meals are available on board, there are no vending machines either. Bring your own supplies.

You need a valid passport and a Russian visa to visit Sakhalin.
More ferry information here, mostly in Japanese.

Visiting Soya Misaki

From Wakkanai to Cape Soya there are buses, or it is a 31 km drive (or taxi ride) northeast along route 238. Minshuku accommodation is available at the cape, and a wider range of hotels can be found in Wakkanai.

Accommodation in Wakkanai

Wakkanai has a fair range of hotels, minshuku and ryokan (Japanese inns). Choose from a selection of hotels in Wakkanai of which recommended places include the Dormy Inn Wakkanai, the Hotel Kabe Shiosaitei, the Tabinoyado Ubukata and the Ryokan Iwaki, all close to JR Wakkanai Station.

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The view from the escarpment above Cape Soya, Japan.
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