Cape Soya Wakkanai

Japan Geography: Soya Misaki

Cape Soya 宗谷岬

Mark Brazil

Though just one of Japan's four main islands, Hokkaido is the largest prefecture and the second largest island with superb landscapes and a pleasant seasonal climate; it can also boast of having both the northern and eastern most points of the entire country.

Hokkaido is a popular year round destination but summer visitors especially are often intent on 'beating the bounds' of the island, touring the entire coastline and taking in two of the country's geographical extremities. Cape Soya (Soya Misaki) forms the northernmost tip of Hokkaido.

Cape Soya is firmly on the tourist route and sees a steady stream of visitors arriving and departing by bus, car or motorcycle, braving the elements for obligatory souvenir photographs 'kinnen-shashin' before dashing into the local outlets for tasty soft icecream or souvenirs such as dried fish. Some are lucky, and on fine days they are able to see the ex-Japanese territory of Sakhalin on the horizon just 43 km away to the north.

Cape Soya, Wakkanai, Japan
Akebono Statue, Cape Soya, Hokkaido.

While most visitors take in the view in minutes, and perhaps spend longer over their shopping, those who linger longer find that the geographical novelty of Soya Misaki is just a small part of its significance. Hokkaido's Cape Soya (45°31'N; 141°56'E), the northernmost tip of Japan, could as well be dubbed the 'Cape of Monuments,' as it is rich in history much of which is commemorated there.

With more than a dozen monuments scattered around Cape Soya it is difficult to know where to begin exploring them. The cape has its fair share of sobering statues. After all, it was within sight of the cape that in 1943 that the USS Wahoo a submarine that had caused considerable losses amongst Japanese shipping was finally sunk by the imperial navy, and in 1945 that the Japanese naval vessel Soya Maru took an American torpedo to shield other vessels from attack.

It is also at Cape Soya that the tragedy of the shooting down of a commercial flight, Korean Airlines flight 007, on 1 September 1983 is remembered. All 269 on board were killed, when the Soviet airforce took down the flight from New York to Seoul via Anchorage with missiles off southern Sakhalin. As a reminder of that cold war era there is an enormous "Tower of Prayer" on top of the cape.

Cape Soya, Wakkanai, Japan
The approach to cape Soya from the southwest reveals a wild coastline, complete with turbines to take advantage of the frequent strong winds.
Cape Soya, Wakkanai, Hokkaido, Japan.
Korean Airlines Flight 007 Memorial.

Down at the road level there is a monument simply commemorating Japan's northernmost point, though this one is rather insignificant compared with several others.

The most baffling of the cluster of monuments up on the escarpment shows a happy couple, almost in ex-Soviet propaganda style depicting the near perfection of life's achievements. And what do they commemorate with their gentle embrace and fluttering banner?

You may well ask, because no one would ever guess from the sculpture itself. Called Akebono (meaning dawn or daybreak), this bizarre monument celebrates a 1971 milestone in Hokkaido's dairy agriculture, when the prefecture attained the lofty goal of farming half a million head of dairy cattle and producing a million tons of milk.

Less baffling, though in some senses just as frivolous, is the extraordinary musical monument not far from the northern tip monument. This black monolithic panel is a monument to…enka!

Here at Cape Soya one can stand before this monument, press a button in a stainless steel pillar and hear the refrains of the score and lyrics engraved on the stone. This traditional ballad style of Japanese music is especially significant here because back in 1976 the heart stirring song "Soya Misaki," written by local songwriter Yoshida Hiroshi and composed by enka composer Funamura Toru, achieved national fame as a hit after appearing in a television program.

It remains as a perennial favourite amongst visitors, and one can only wonder how many are humming or singing this song when they leave the cape.

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

From Soya Misaki the view northwards towards Sakhalin is across a rough passage a known locally as Soya Kaikyo. This channel, a mere 118 m deep is known internationally by a very different name - the La Pérouse Strait.

Its significance as a connection between the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk, and as a separator between Sakhalin and Hokkaido, is commemorated in a monument to the French naval explorer Jean-François de Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse (1741–1788), after whom it is named. It was he who sailed an expedition through the strait and charted it in 1787.

Although the greater name goes to Lapérouse, Japanese explorers are also remembered here. A striking monument of a man in 18th century garb is to the great Japanese explorer Mamiya Rinzo (1775–1844), who confirmed that Sakhalin was an island and that to its west there was a strait connecting the Sea of Japan northwards to the Sea of Okhotsk. That strait, though widely known as the Tartar Strait, is also known eponymously as the Mamiya Strait.

Soya Misaki might, at first sight, appear to be a mere geographic novelty, but a longer visit reveals that this "Cape of Monuments" is actually a history book in statuary.

Visiting Soya Misaki

The nearest city, Wakkanai, can be reached by road, rail and air. Trains start in Sapporo, and there are flights from both Sapporo and Tokyo. From Wakkanai, 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.

Cape Soya, Wakkanai, Japan
Mamiya Rinzo, for ever staring towards the ocean, is commemorated for his geographical explorations of the region.
Cape Soya, Hokkaido, Japan.
Expect rough seas and wild winds at the northernmost tip of Japan.

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The view from the escarpment above Cape Soya, Japan.
The view from the escarpment above Cape Soya

Text + images by Mark Brazil

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