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Cruising Hokkaido: The rough beauty of northern Japan

Best known to Hong Kong travellers for its skiing, Hokkaido offers cruising sailors and visiting superyachts some fascinating stops and sights along its coastline, despite occasionally having to dodge the Russian navy

author icon By Kirk Patterson | 29 July 2021

Cape Kamui, Shakotan Peninsula, Hokkaido

Cape Kamui, Shakotan Peninsula, Hokkaido

Say Japan and most people think of ancient temples and shrines, samurai castles dotting the landscape, or perhaps the vast urban agglomeration that stretches from Tokyo to Osaka, with robot-driven factories and breathtaking nightlife. 

 

But one part of Japan fits none of the stereotypes, and that is the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Occupied by the Ainu aboriginal people since time immemorial, Hokkaido was only incorporated into Japan in 1869, and its development in the late 19th century imitated the settlement and land-use patterns typical in frontier countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia. 

 

Today, Hokkaido’s economy is based primarily on farming, fishing, forestry and now, tourism. The island, Japan’s second-largest, welcomes visitors from “mainland Japan” attracted by its cool summers (and lack of rainy season), wide-open spaces (by Japanese standards), and unique history and culture. 

 

The number of foreign tourist arrivals to Hokkaido has exploded in the past ten years, driven primarily by the skiing in Niseko. In 2020, Sapporo became a candidate city to host the 2030 Winter Olympics. 

 

Very few foreign cruisers visit Hokkaido, and those that do use it as a jumping-off point for going to Alaska. But cruising sailors and superyachts making the journey across the Pacific should consider spending some time on this intriguing island. After a ten-week circumnavigation of Hokkaido, I think it is a marvellous cruising ground. 

 

After a ten-week circumnavigation of Hokkaido, I think it is a marvellous cruising ground

Matsumae Castle, the northernmost castle in Japan

Matsumae Castle, the northernmost castle in Japan

Cruising Hokkaido does present challenges. The eastern part of the prefecture is often blanketed in thick fog, and it can be quite cold, even in summer. Most of the fishing ports are rather rough.

 

Heading toward Hokkaido from the south, it is best to go along the Sea of Japan coast rather than the Pacific Ocean coast. There are better mooring opportunities, more interesting history and culture, more favourable currents, less fog, less shipping traffic, and of course, better sake! If one wants to circumnavigate Hokkaido, it is better to go clockwise (as I discuss here), and so approaching from the Sea of Japan makes sense.

 

Heading north along the western coast, the first port one comes to is Matsumae, home of the Matsumae clan, which controlled Hokkaido on behalf of the national government from the 16th century to the 18th century. For a nominal fee, one can moor in the fishing port. Although the port is rather far from town, it is worth visiting the beautiful castle and other reminders of Matsumae’s role as Hokkaido’s first capital.

 

A bit further north is the fishing port of Esashi, which prospered from the herring trade in the 16th to early 19th centuries. Many of the houses of the wealthy merchants from that era are now tourist sites open to the public.

 

It is best to go along the Sea of Japan coast rather than the Pacific Ocean coast. There are better mooring opportunities, more interesting history and culture, more favourable currents, less fog, less shipping traffic, and of course, better sake!

The Otaru canal

The Otaru canal

 

Off the southwest coast of Hokkaido is the island of Okushiri. It offers good, free moorage and is a wonderful place to explore by rental scooter. A road runs around the perimeter of this ruggedly beautiful island, and along the way you will pass a winery, a nine-hole golf course, and a hot-spring bath.

 

From Okushiri, you can harbour-hop north, going around Shakotan Peninsula (very windy at times) to Otaru Marina, the largest and best marina in Hokkaido and, in fact, anywhere north of Tokyo. Otaru was Hokkaido’s business and financial centre for the first half of the 20th century, with vibrant trading, fishing, and coal-mining industries.

 

Today, with many well-preserved buildings and facilities from that era, tourism is the city’s main industry. The Otaru train station is only a ten-minute walk from the marina, so you can leave your boat there while you visit the capital city of Sapporo and explore other parts of inland Hokkaido.

 

Mount Rishiri, one of Japan’s many volcanoes

Mount Rishiri, one of Japan’s many volcanoes

 

Continuing north, there are many interesting and lovely places to stop, including Mashike (home of Japan’s northernmost sake brewery), Teuri Island, Rishiri Island (with its impressive Mt Fuji-like volcano) and Rebun Island, before arriving at Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost city. The Wakkanai Umi no Eki (Sea Station, or mini marina) has excellent facilities for visiting cruisers.

 

From Wakkanai heading east, one rounds Cape Soya, Japan’s northernmost point, and then goes along the Okhotsk Sea coast. One must keep an eye out for the numerous scallop-harvesting and fishing boats in this region, as well as for the many fixed-net aquaculture areas. Fog and strong winds can also make it challenging. 

 

Abashiri is a nice little town and a good place to relax after the passage from Wakkanai. Here, one can wait for a weather window to round the Shiretoko Peninsula, a stunning Unesco World Heritage Site with towering forest-clad peaks, waterfalls plunging to the ocean, and natural hot springs. Brown bears and wolves inhabit the forests, and 14 species of whales live in the nearby waters. 

 

A red fox in the Shiretoko Peninsula

A red fox in the Shiretoko Peninsula

Having safely rounded Shiretoko Peninsula, head for the small port town of Rausu. It has excellent fish markets and fish restaurants and is a convenient base from which to arrange Shiretoko sightseeing tours.

 

From Rausu, the next major stop is Nemuro, but you must be very careful to avoid straying into Russian waters. A direct course between Rausu and Nemuro would quickly make you a “guest” of the Russian navy, as it patrols the waters between Hokkaido and Kunashiri, a Russian island that comes to within 30 kilometres of the Hokkaido coast. 

 

Kunashiri is the southernmost island in the Kuril Islands, a chain of volcanic islands that runs 1,300 kilometres from Hokkaido up to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Japan and Russia have been tangled up in a dispute over control of the southern Kuril Islands for decades. 

 

Hakodate is, in my opinion, the nicest and most liveable city in Hokkaido. And it has a dedicated downtown moorage area for visiting cruisers, operated by the friendly members of the Hakodate Yacht Club

 

A summer day in Hakodate port

A summer day in Hakodate port

After Nemuro, you round Cape Nosappu, Japan’s easternmost point. Once again, you must avoid straying into Russian waters, which is especially challenging as thick fog means navigation in this area is almost always by radar.

 

Next is Kushiro, the largest city in northeast Hokkaido and where most foreign cruisers prepare for their crossing to Alaska and beyond. Wakkanai and Hakodate are also possible departure ports. There is a limited weather window, from late May to mid-June, for doing that passage. 

 

To complete the Hokkaido circumnavigation, harbour-hop along the coast, taking care to go around Cape Erimo in calm conditions. From Erimo, one can make a beeline toward Hakodate or continue along the coast to Tomakomai and Muroran, both of which have marinas (the latter being an excellent full-service facility). Alternatively, if one is planning on heading south, you could forego the stop in Hakodate and set course for Hachinohe on Honshu, which is 115 nautical miles from Erimo.

Shiretoko Goko Five Lakes area in Shiretoko National Park

Shiretoko Goko Five Lakes area in Shiretoko National Park

 

Hakodate is, in my opinion, the nicest and most liveable city in Hokkaido. And it has a dedicated downtown moorage area for visiting cruisers, operated by the friendly members of the Hakodate Yacht Club.

 

This Hokkaido circumnavigation is about one thousand nautical miles and involves about 30 stops, which works out to roughly 35 nautical miles covered per day. One could do it in fewer stops by making longer daily passages, but I strongly advise against cruising at night in these waters. There are too many aquaculture areas along the coast and too many fishing boats offshore. It should be done in June-August and, allowing time for weather and sightseeing, it would take eight to ten weeks. 

 

A Hokkaido circumnavigation would be a most memorable and unique adventure, one that only a handful of sailors have done. I strongly recommend it.

 

About the author

Kirk Patterson is the founder of Konpira Consulting, which provides yacht support services to cruising sailors and visiting superyachts to Japan