Ice breaker

Japan in Winter (2020): Day 1: Disappointment and Delight


Morning: Cruise to nowhere

Spoiler alert: the header image above is what we were MEANT to be doing this morning. We got up nice and early, had breakfast at the hotel, made sure we were dressed for the freezing weather and retraced the previous evening’s steps to the icebreaker terminal. Imagine our surprise and dismay when we learned that the cruise would not be operating today due to a lack of ice! The company offered a “harbour sightseeing cruise” as an alternative, at a considerably lower cost. Like many other people, we decided that – having come all this way – we might as well do that instead.

The “sightseeing cruise” turned out to be three tight circuits of the small harbour at very low speed, followed by a return to the ship’s berth. I said to Bruce after the first circuit that it felt like one of those fairground rides set aside for tiny tots – just gently turning around at ultra-low speed. We couldn’t believe that they repeated this dubious experience twice and then tied the vessel up. What a waste of time and money, albeit with a hefty discount compared to the normal ‘ice tour’ price. And how unusual to have such a breathtakingly bad experience in Japan!

As you can probably guess, the story of the main part of the trip was meant to begin with an exciting account of a fabulous first experience of an icebreaker journey, with the ship smashing its way forward through a mixture of liquid water and solid ice. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Probably as a result of climate change, Hokkaido was only getting a fraction of its usual ice this winter, much of which normally drifts down from Siberia. But I’d like to know whose idea it was to have a powerful icebreaker putt-putt round the tiny inner harbour three times and then return to the pier.

Afternoon: In the clink!

We then took a local bus to the Abashiri Prison Museum, which is the town’s second main attraction, after the icebreaker. The museum is based in the grounds of the former prison. This, in contrast to our morning experience, was excellent. With the sun now well and truly out, the largely outdoor site really was a winter wonderland. Indoors, the bathhouse exhibit was a little weird, with its naked wax figures sitting around. There were some excellent cellblock views, however, with the rows of cells stretching away into the distance. Back outside, the strong afternoon sunshine had raised the morning temperature of -15C (brrr!) to an almost balmy -5C, and was enough to cause unexpected snowfall from the occasional roof.

We had a late-ish lunch in the museum café before leaving: my own choice featured salmon and was very tasty. Interestingly, the café menu was made up of dishes served to contemporary prisoners in this facility’s replacement. We arrived back at the hotel around 3pm.

Evening: Menu lottery

After a good rest – we were still experiencing a degree of jet-lag at this stage – we headed out to a small and unassuming local restaurant that Bruce had found by searching ‘Abashiri best ramen’. The menu was only in Japanese, so we played ‘menu lottery’ by ordering something at random. This turned out to be a particularly hot and spicy ramen – not necessarily a bad choice in view of the once again frigid conditions outside.