In this 14th installment of the multipart series on my favourite Japanese moorage ports, I introduce three ports in northeastern Hokkaido.
As noted in the past several “Kirk’s Take” articles, Hokkaido is the most challenging place to cruise in Japan. And the northeastern part of the island is the most challenging place to cruise in Hokkaido. VERY thick fog blankets the area for days at a time. Going around the end of Shiretoko Peninsula can involve battling powerful headwinds and standing waves, even when conditions are calm just five NMs away.
In addition, there are many extensive fixed-net areas extending a mile or two out from the coastline, and they are often only marked by one or two yellow buoys at the outer end or at the corners, difficult to see in waves and impossible to see at night. There are also thousands of flags marking underwater gill nets – one can safely sail between the flags (i.e., over the nets), but in Hokkaido the nets are often marked by buoys connected to the base of the flag, sometimes three or four buoys in a row, so if one passes too close to a flag the string of buoys can go under the boat and snag the propeller (as happened to a friend). Nerve-wracking, to say the least.
But the reward for dealing with these challenges is seeing and experiencing some of the rawest, most unspoiled nature in Japan. With virgin forests, waterfalls tumbling down to the beach, natural hot-spring pools on the shore, and much more, Shiretoko Peninsula is a nature-lover’s dream. And for that reason it is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site.
The largest city on Hokkaido’s north coast, Abashiri is the administrative hub of the region and also a major fishing port (famous for its crabs and salmon) and tourist destination. Among the sights to see are an excellent Meiji Era prison museum and the Hokkaido Museum of Natural Peoples, which introduces native Ainu culture. The most popular time to visit Abashiri, though, is in the winter, when expansive sheets of drift ice from the Sea of Okhotsk collide with the shore.
Approaching Abashiri, take care to avoid the many fixed-net areas (shown on the map as hatched purple rectangles; the diagonal lines mark scallop beds, so not a danger to boats). Most cruisers moor on the south side of the Abashiri River (red dot), near the Road Station, which has a Tourist Information Center, shops, a restaurant, a café, and washrooms. Note, though, that the wall is high, so prepare to use your ladder. (44°01'20.2"N 144°16'25.9"E)
Some cruisers, however, prefer to moor in the small fishing port near the mouth of the river, especially as the wall is lower and it doesn’t have the river current that sometimes makes mooring near the Road Station tricky. Friends have moored at the locations marked by blue dots.
At the far northwestern end of Shiretoko Peninsula is the tiny port of Bunkichi. It’s an outport of Utoro, about 40NMs to the south, and used as a summer base by Utoro’s fishermen. It’s a wonderfully peaceful spot, with no road connection to the outside world. Fox and bears often come by to say hello.
The coast south of Bunkichi is stunning, with numerous waterfalls crashing down to the beach. Dolphins and whales can often be seen in the area. But be careful not to go too close to the shore because there are many fixed fishing nets stretching out about a mile from shore (including just to the south of Bunkichi).
Entering Bunkichi can be a bit tricky, especially in lively conditions. Approaching the port, favour the port side of the entrance as there are shallows and reefs on the starboard side. Moor anywhere along the southern wall, preferably toward the western end to get away from waves that can enter the port during strong westerlies. (44°20'05.9"N 145°19'02.3"E)
In addition to enjoying the peace and quiet, a major reason to spend a night at Bunkichi is to get an early start for rounding Cape Shiretoko (assuming one is doing the standard, clockwise circumnavigation of Hokkaido). The wind and waves at the Cape tend to increase during the day, so a morning passage is highly recommended.
The fishing port of Rausu is the largest town on the eastern side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. It is an excellent base for taking hiking tours in nearby Shiretoko National Park, joining nature cruises, and visiting the many hot spring baths in the mountains and along the shore (including several outdoor baths right at the water’s edge, so best to arrive at low tide when the water is hot!).
Moorage can be found at the northern end of the fishing port’s southern basin (red dot; 44°01'15.2"N 145°11'59.3"E).
A five-minute walk away is the Isarabi Hotel (blue star), which has a hot-spring bath that can be used even by those who are not guests of the hotel. It is popular among local fishermen, and when I was there I chatted with a fisherman who, an hour later, dropped by with a pile of fresh seafood. I made a delicious bouillabaisse that kept me going for a week!
And ten minutes away is a Road Station (orange star) that has a large seafood market and an excellent seafood restaurant.