In this 11th installment of the multipart series on my favourite Japanese moorage ports, I introduce three ports in southwestern Hokkaido.
After doing my solo Pacific crossing, I entered Japan at Hakodate, in southeastern Hokkaido. I chose that as my first port of call because, for my Japan circumnavigation plan, I wanted to start in the north and work my way south so as to spend the winter somewhere warm (or at least warmish). As a result, the first leg of the Japan circumnavigation was going around Hokkaido (which would take me on the outside of Japan’s northernmost and easternmost points, part of the requirements for completing a true circumnavigation).
Hokkaido was therefore where I first learned the unique aspects of cruising Japan, including how to pick out moorage spots in fishing ports, how to distinguish between dangerous and benign fishing nets, how to evaluate various Japanese weather forecasts, how to moor along high concrete walls (and the importance of big fenders, a ladder, and chains on the docklines), and much more. It was also where I first started to appreciate the many wonders of cruising Japan, including the friendly people, the rich history and culture, the beautiful scenery, and the delicious food.
After finishing my Hokkaido circumnavigation and preparing to head south, I was a bit sad, saying to myself “there can’t be any place better than Hokkaido!”…. but then I said the same thing about the Sea of Japan coast….and then Kyushu….and then the Ryukyu Islands….and so on. The reality is that every part of Japan is special and unique, which is why I encourage cruisers to spend several years in Japan so that they can experience not just Japan’s wonders but also its diversity.
Although I loved Hokkaido, in retrospect it’s probably the most challenging place to cruise in Japan. The local fishing industry is very active and so the ports are quite full (unlike in most of Japan, where the dying fishing industry means more moorage options for cruisers) and the nets are uncountable; it can be very cold and windy for long periods, even in mid-summer; eastern Hokkaido is often covered in thick fog; and most of the towns are rather barren and bleak. Despite all that, I have many fond memories and many strong friendships from my time in Hokkaido.
Before introducing three ports in southwestern Hokkaido, let me give a brief summary of Hokkaido history, which is very different from the history of mainland Japan. Hokkaido was long inhabited by the Ainu (how long is a matter of some debate, but probably going back about a thousand years), with Japan simply considering it a rather forbidding and backward frontier. Japanese mainlanders started establishing trading and settlement outposts in the 14th century. In 1590, the Matsumae Clan was given the right to oversee Hokkaido by the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi (even though it really wasn’t his right to give!), although effectively that meant overseeing just southwestern Hokkaido; the Ainu continued to control most of Hokkaido. Japan gained international recognition of its sovereignty over Hokkaido in 1855, with Hokkaido formally made part of Japan only in 1869. With the widespread economic and political reforms that came with Japan’s Meiji Restoration (1868), tens of thousands of displaced peasants and defrocked samurai were sent to Hokkaido to develop the island, imitating the frontier development policies of the United States and Canada. Hokkaido today still has a bit of a frontier feel, with the people typically being more easy-going than Japanese mainlanders.
As noted above, the Matsumae Clan was the first (Japanese) ruler of Hokkaido, so its namesake town can be considered the island’s first capital. Located at the southwestern tip of Hokkaido, it is the first port that cruisers reach after leaving western Honshu and heading toward Alaska via Hokkaido’s west coast (vs. the more common route via the east coast).
One can spend a very enjoyable day exploring Matsumae and getting a feel for its history and culture. The focal point of exploration is Matsumae Castle, the only castle in Hokkaido, and surrounding Matsumae Park (especially impressive during cherry-blossom season). Around the park are many temples and shrines, and to the northwest is Matsumaehan Yashiki, a small but very well done historical theme park that includes original buildings from the Edo Period (1603-1868). To the southeast are a lovely onsen (hot spring bath) and several restaurants.
Moorage can be found in the outer basin of Matsumae Fishing Port. The eastern wall (41°25'14.4"N, 140°05'20.5"E; red dot) is recommended because it is slightly lower, but the northern (blue dot) and southern (orange dot) walls are also fine. It can get very windy in this area, so picking the wall based on forecast wind direction is advisable. Unusual for a Japanese fishing port, cruisers are sometimes asked to pay a visitor moorage fee (¥800, about $7.00).
Taking the road up from the port, one reaches a highway. At that intersection, on the opposite side of the highway, is an excellent supermarket. To the left are a large hardware store, a convenience store, and a gas station that will deliver diesel fuel to your boat. Turning to the right takes one to town (about a 15-minute bicyle ride).
If Matsumae was Hokkaido’s first political center, then Esashi was Hokkaido’s first economic center. In the Edo and Meiji (1868-1912) eras, Esashi became very wealthy because of the herring fish industry. It was therefore the terminus for Kitamae boats (see previous Kirk’s Take). The herring catch petered out in the early 19th century and with that Esashi’s economic fortunes tumbled, although it still has an active fishing industry (especially for squid).
Several Meiji Era merchant houses are open to visitors and give a fascinating insight into the lives and businesses of Esashi residents 150 years ago. There is also an interesting museum dedicated to Esashi’s unique “Oiwake” musical tradition, which is considered the forerunner of modern Japanese folk songs.
Moorage can be found on the western side of the Esashi Fishing Port, either on the east side of a long concrete pier (41°52'02.7"N, 140°07'05.5"E; red dot; better) or along the nearby wall (blue dot; a bit rough). (There is a small marina on the south side of town, but it does not accept visitors, even though it is a registered Umi no Eki [Sea Station].)
About 33NMs northwest of Esashi is Okushiri, a lovely, rugged island that is a great place to chill out for a few days.
Exploring the island by rental car or bicycle is highly recommended. Going around the island takes one past some magnificent, stunning coastal scenery. On the west coast, one can make stops to have a leisurely soak at an outdoor hot spring bath and to buy some surprisingly good wine (the pinot gris has won some international competitions). One can also go hiking, camping, swimming, kayaking, and diving. And be sure to enjoy the fantastic seafood, notably abalone and sea urchin.
One can tie up wherever one sees an empty spot on the wall in the fishing port, preferably past the ferry dock so that one is away from the ferry’s wake and the surge that comes into the port during strong north/east winds. The two places marked with red dots are good (42°10'23.7"N, 139°31'02.8"E marks southern dot).