In this 13th installment of the multipart series on my favourite Japanese moorage ports, I introduce three ports in northern Hokkaido as well as briefly mention another that has been recommended by cruising friends.
Northern Hokkaido is probably the most challenging place to cruise in Japan. Even in summer, it can be bone-chillingly cold (although it can also be lovely and warm!). Strong winds can blow non-stop for many days. There are uncountable fishing nets and aquaculture areas to avoid. Going around the Shiretoko Peninsula can be challenging at the best of times (when I went, the forecast was for north winds of 10-15 knots, so I expected a relaxing beam reach, but as soon as I poked my bow past the northern tip of the Peninsula I found myself battling 40+ knot headwinds and three meter waves – it took me four hours to go five nautical miles, with my GPS sometimes showing me going backward to Russia!).* Heavy fog, especially east of the Shiretoko Peninsula, makes it likely that one will have to navigate 100% by radar for several days.
Despite the challenges, some of the best memories of my three-year Japan circumnavigation are from the two weeks I spent in northern Hokkaido. The friendly, interesting people, impressive fishing industry, and feisty pioneer culture make it a truly unique cruising area, certainly very different from the rest of Japan.
*Just a few weeks before writing this “Kirk’s Take,” a tourist boat with 27 people aboard sank in heavy seas off the west coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula, with all lives lost.
Funadomari, Rebun Island
Off Hokkaido’s northwest coast is the island of Rebun and on the north end of that island is the small fishing port of Funadomari.
As I was approaching Rebun, I recall being buzzed by a Japanese Coast Guard plane that called me on VHF and asked, in a rather stern voice, if I was going to Russia. When I said that I was just going to Funadomari they relaxed, saying that that was good because otherwise I would enter an area in which the Russian and Chinese navies were doing a joint training exercise, to which I said that my boat lacked the speed and firepower to join the exercise. They laughed and wished me a pleasant, safe voyage.
Funadomari is Japan’s second-most northerly town (Soya, on the outer tip of the Soya Peninsula on Hokkaido, is just slightly further north). I was there in the summer, on a relatively warm, sunny day, but walking around the town one can sense how the bitterly cold winds blasting down from Siberia in the winter make life there a battle for survival. Anybody living there is, by definition, “hardy.”
While relaxing on my boat, an elderly gentleman came by and sat down to have a chat. He told me that he was born on the island of Sakhalin (now part of Russia, it was a spoil-of-war Japanese colony from 1905 to 1945), and he recounted his childhood memories of playing on the beaches, of his father going whaling, and more. And he recalled the Soviet invasion in 1945, with his mother and five siblings wading into the ocean to board a tender that would take them to a rescue boat offshore while his father stayed to fight…and was never heard from again. The rescue boat deposited the family on Rebun and there they all stayed, not wanting to move to mainland Japan for fear that the father might return some day and not be able to find his family. He was the last surviving sibling.
Strolling around town, I was impressed by the very nice seaside playground, chatted with fishermen sorting freshly harvested sea cucumbers (most dried and shipped to China, but with the best packed in ice and sent to Tokyo for the next morning’s fish auction), and a very well-stocked Fishing Co-op supermarket (including a surprisingly good international wine selection).
Moorage can be found in the port’s northern basin, at 45°27'07.1"N, 141°02'05.0"E. Wall tie, free.
Wakkanai is Japan’s northernmost city, so it is home to the northern terminus of the Japanese railway system. It is a good place to do provisioning and to sit out weather (quite common as Wakkanai has the dubious distinction of being one of the country’s windiest cities; #1 windiest city in the winter).
The city is also an Open Port, which means that cruisers going to or coming from the Aleutian Islands can clear in/out of Japan at Wakkanai (for a variety of reasons, I think that is preferable to clearing out from Kushiro, which is what most Alaska-bound cruisers do).
Approaching Wakkanai, one passes by several massive breakwaters (one of which used to double as a submarine repair facility during World War II). If, as I did, you arrive during very “lively” conditions, you will breathe a sigh of relief when you enter the protected harbor.
Wakkanai has an excellent Umi no Eki (Sea Station), although it is a wall tie, not a floating dock. The main moorage area (45°24'52.5"N, 141°40'45.6"E; red dot), is well protected from winds from all directions, walking distance to the train station, and located in front of the Wakkanai Port Service Center (which has washrooms, showers, washing machines, a lounge, and Internet). One can leave one’s boat there while exploring northern Hokkaido by train or rental car.
Within easy walking distance there are many restaurants (excellent sushi!) and shops, as well as two supermarkets and several convenience stores. The Coast Guard, Customs, Immigration, and Quarantine offices are just a five-minute walk away, so convenient when clearing in/out of Japan.
The back-up or overflow Umi-no-Eki moorage area is about 0.5NM further south (45°24'33.7"N, 141°40'38.1"E; blue dot). It’s less protected and less convenient to town, but there are several restaurants and convenience stores within a few minutes’ walk. There is also a large chandlery, which caters primarily to the commercial fishing industry but which can order almost any part or equipment that a cruiser might need. And an interesting local-history museum is nearby.
The moorage rate at the Umi-no-Eki is ¥12.32/ton, so for a 10-ton boat it would be about US$1/night (!).
From Wakkanai, the fishing port of Hamaonishibetsu is about 30NMs to the east. Along the way, one passes Point Soya, Japan’s northernmost point and an important milestone for anybody planning to do a full Japan circumnavigation.
There are quite a few fixed fishing nets and aquaculture areas off the coast and so one must keep a careful lookout to avoid running into them (they are poorly marked). Their locations are indicated on Japan’s NewPec charting software (but not on CMAP or Navionics) and on paper charts available through the Japan Hydrographic Association.
Hamaonishibetsu’s entire economy is based on the scallop industry. Scallop beds are seeded offshore and then the scallops are harvested by Fishing Co-op boats. About half of the harvest is dried and shipped to Taiwan, with the other half consumed locally (mainly Hokkaido, but with some going to Tokyo).
As a very busy fishing port, Hamaonishibetsu doesn't encourage cruisers to moor there. At the time, though, I was buddy sailing with an indefatigable Japanese cruiser – Sasa-san – who never took “no” for an answer and so, after some patient persistence, we were allowed to stay. Although we initially had a chilly reception (matching the weather), in the end everybody made us feel very welcome. The Co-op’s scallop researcher gave us a huge load of freshly shucked scallops (so we had scallops for breakfast and dinner every day for five days!)
It was fascinating watching the boats unload the scallops onto waiting trucks. Each truck is weighed when pulling into the port and then weighed again when leaving with its full load of scallops, and that’s how the Co-op knows exactly what the daily harvest is.
Finding a place to moor is tricky, but fortunately the port has been expanded so it’s not as crowded as it used to be. Basically, the best approach is to pull in, moor wherever one sees an empty space, and then wait for somebody to come to tell you it’s OK…or not. If the latter, ask where a better place might be. The northern and western walls of the northern basin (red dots) are probably best, with the two locations marked by blue dots also being possible. The black triangles mark areas that are definitely not OK – those are where most of the boats from the fishing fleet moor. (45°20'38.8"N, 142°10'11.0"E marks the entrance to the fishing port)
Oshidomari, Rishiri Island
Opened after I cruised the area, the Umi-no-Eki in Oshidomori on Rishiri Island has gotten positive reviews from several Japanese sailing friends. Wall tie. Moorage is ¥110/meter, so about US$10/night for a 40’ boat. (45°14'37.0"N, 141°13'44.6"E; orange dot.)
The Rishiri Marine Hotel in front of the Umi-no-Eki has a hot spring bath that it sometimes allows visitors to use. If not, there is a lovely hot spring bath about a 10-minute bicycle ride away.
Rishiri is best known for its towering Mt. Fuji-like volcanic mountain. With several mountain lakes, virgin forests, and many types of alpine flowers, it's a popular destination for keen hikers from throughout Japan. The less athletic can rent a car to drive around the island in a few hours.