Soya Hokkaido is among the northernmost regions in Japan. It’s an area of staggering natural beauty, with a duo of wildlife-rich islands – Rishiri and Rebun – to explore, as well as Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost city, and its enticing surrounds. Stupendous 360 vistas are seen from glorious viewpoints and walks in the area, including the famous Soya Hills White Path. Rough Guides brings you the perfect itinerary in Soya Hokkaido, Japan.
Though Hokkaido is the second largest of Japan’s islands, it’s also the least developed, which means pristine natural beauty, stellar outdoor activities, close-up encounters with wildlife and plenty of opportunity for meaningful cultural experiences and to meet the locals. Soya Hokkaido, at the island’s north, is a place of windswept capes and craggy coastlines, wonderful wildlife and vertiginous viewpoints. From epic mountain walks and glorious views to dazzling stargazing and getting that end-of-the-world feeling at Cape Soya, there’s plenty of fantastic things to do in Soya Hokkaido.
Trains to Wakkanai depart from Sapporo (5.5 hours), while flights service the city’s airport from both Sapporo (1 hour) and Tokyo (2 hours). From Wakkanai, ferries bring travellers to the islands of Rishiri and Rebun, and buses run to Cape Soya.
Start your itinerary in Soya Hokkaido, Japan on Rishiri Island, where there’s plenty of lovely scenery and colourful wildlife to admire. Begin with a visit to Himenuma Pond, a small lake with an easy and accessible walking trail along a decked path that traces the water’s edge (a 15–20-minute walk). As you stroll among the wildflowers and local plantlife, listen out for the calls of wild birds and pause at the viewpoint for incredible mountain vistas. The small gift shop sells prints of wildflowers by a local artist, which make the perfect souvenir.
Next, make your way to Otatomari Numa; though technically a swamp, it looks like a small lake, with plenty of greenery along its shores to recommend it. And though the views of Mount Rishiri from the front of the lake are sublime, the main draw for many is the small café selling local seafood (try the freshly grilled scallops) and intriguing ice-cream flavours including rosehip and bamboo grass, both of which grow along the fringes of Otatomari Numa. When in Rome…
Finish up your first day in Soya Hokkaido with a trip to the hill of Shiroi Koibito (Numaura Observatory), which offers glorious views of Mount Rishiri – especially in clear weather. The mountain itself is a Hokkaido icon, and well known across the country because it graces the packaging of the popular Shiroi Koibito biscuit, often given as an omiyage in Japan. (For those not in the know, an omiyage is a small, usually edible, gift brought back from a trip for coworkers or family at home.) There’s an information board dedicated to the beloved biscuit and its packaging at the observatory, while there’s a certificate available for any lovers who choose to get engaged here.
The start of Day 2 is all about the sea and its inhabitants. Begin with a morning trip to Senposhimisaki Park, where the jagged coastline, backed by a dramatic volcanic crater, makes an impressive sight. Buy your fish for 100-yen and head down to the seal area, passing local sea-urchin harvesters on the way, sharing jokes as they go about their work. Surrounded by buckets of shells, the workers are mesmerizing to watch, plucking the creatures from their spiky shells with deft movements of the hand. Two seals – orphans from a local aquarium – spend their summers in the waters here, eating fish from visitors who feed them using chopsticks or from their hands through the fence. Watching the seals swim around rocks dotted with bright purple and orange starfish is a magical experience.
For more watery fun, make for Kamui Kaigan, where the activity centre has plenty of memorable experiences on offer, including catching and preparing sea urchins (if the weather permits) and making seaweed souvenirs. The staff are friendly and helpful, and will show you how to hunt for urchins from fishing boats in the bay using conical black tubes and nets. Once you’ve snared your catch, you’ll be helped to extract the spiny urchins and their yellow flesh from their shells using a metal opener resembling a nutcracker. After a thorough rinse, you can feast on your ocean bounty: salty yet creamy, and the freshest thing you’re ever likely to eat. Next is the kombu seaweed experience. Following a presentation (in English), visitors turn one large piece of locally harvested kombu into three attractively packaged items: the ridged edges; the large central piece which is transformed into hanaori kombu for soup; and the remaining pieces which become a handy snack. The focus here is on a waste-free process (“Mottainai” in Japanese), and what better present to bring back for your loved ones at home.
Eat lunch at the ferry terminal before catching a boat to Rebun Island for the next part of your adventure.
Rebun Island should be high on the list of anyone wondering what to do in Hokkaido, and you can see much of what it has to offer in a relatively short time frame. Embarking from the short ferry ride just after lunch, your first stop is Cape Sukai, where a series of steps leads over the crest of a hill to a stunning, tropical-looking cove. The turquoise waters are reminiscent of the famous seas of Ishigaki on the opposite side of Japan, and if you follow the curve anticlockwise, you’ll come to a small red torii gate perched on top of a rock. The main observation deck has lovely views out to sea.
Further north, at the island’s tip, is Cape Sukoton, where it feels as if you are walking to the very edge of the world to reach the windswept viewing platform – where on clear days you can see as far as the Russian island of Sakhalin, which once belonged to Japan. En route, as you wind down a narrow trail, you’ll spy a cute wooden guest house nestled between the rocks. Keep on to the platform and you’ll be rewarded with long views out to Todo Island, home to a seal colony. The sense of wilderness here is intense – conjuring images of shipwrecks and stormy seas – in sharp contrast to the calm bays found elsewhere on the island. Prepare to be blown away.
Even if you haven’t seen the film, A Chorus of Angels (2012) – the tale of a schoolteacher who revisits the disappearance of a young student decades before – Kitano Kanaria Park, site of the original film set, is a fun place to explore. You’ll find fully kitted-out classrooms and informative displays on the filming process, characters, and even real students from the island. Taking one of the classroom seats is a surreal experience, as is viewing the projection of heralded lead actress Sayuri Yoshinaga. The park’s contemporary café benefits from pale wood and natural light, and serves extravagant sundaes, homemade scones and other treats made using local ingredients. Tuck in.
Next, hike or drive to Momoiwa Observatory, where stellar views take in a volcanic landscape with some unusual formations. The main rock – simply called Momoiwa – is shaped just like a peach; out at sea, meanwhile, look out for Nekoiwa, a rock resembling a cat, complete with ears and an arched back. Small red houses dot the lush, green countryside, which is speckled with alpine wildflowers.
Count your lucky stars: when night falls, Rebun Island’s last spectacle is one worth waiting for. The stargazing here is truly incredible; with no light pollution, the Milky Way can be seen clearly with the naked eye. Professional photographs and amateurs alike will have fun taking skyward snaps, while the sounds of the sea and the shelter of the rock formations make this one of the world’s most enjoyable stargazing spots.
Spend the night on Rebun Island before taking the ferry over to Wakkanai the following morning.
Your final days will be spent in the Wakkanai area, on Hokkaido island proper. After disembarking the ferry, head for Cape Soya, which enjoys fame as Japan’s northernmost point. The world’s-end feel is heightened by the winds and waves that batter the cape, though there’s also a collection of tourist facilities and monuments that give it the air of a vaguely forgotten holiday resort. Beyond the gift shop and café in the new tourism centre there’s a scattering of unusual monuments that make a walk around Cape Soya feel like a treasure hunt. Bikers and families pose before the pointed marker heralding Japan’s northernmost point (based on the North Star), while up the hill there’s a peace bell, a memorial to the victims of the Korean Airlines Flight 007 plane crash and even a statue dedicated to the year one million litres of milk were produced here in Hokkaido. Together, the memorials piece together the history of a quiet but significant area that has witnessed both tragedy and success on a great and everyday scale. A trip to the Watchtower is one for the brave, while you can pause at the nearby Mamiyado Ramen shop for the most northerly ramen in Japan.
Enjoying a seared scallop in a fine-dining restaurant is one thing, but for a real experience you must try opening, shucking and preparing one yourself. At Sarufutsu Marugoto Kan in Sarufutsu Village, you can do just that, with the entire process explained by helpful staff. Once you’ve freed your scallop from its shell and cleaned it, you can cook it on the central griddle and watch it bubble. The lunch sets available here are all beautifully presented; choose from glistening fresh scallop, crab and cod roe (ikura). All donburi (rice bowls topped with seafood) come with soup and bright-purple pickled aubergine.
Leaving with bellies full, drive along the Enusaka Line, a straight-as-an-arrow road that will delight bikers and motorheads of all persuasions. In fact, the area has many long, straight roads that evoke those depicted in US films – unending and almost unreal, flanked by green fields occasionally dotted with hay bales or grazing cows.
Your last stop on Day 3 is Sarobetsu Wetland Centre in Toyotomi Town. The light and airy visitor hall is packed with interactive displays that will delight kids and adults alike. Videos – in multiple languages – explore the natural history of the wetlands and the impact humans have had on the area. A guided walk is highly recommended: engaging resident biologists give a fantastic overview, with photos of the different flowers, the area in different seasons and a vast knowledge of the plant life and animals that call the wetlands home. It’s all very hands on, and guides will reveal nature’s secrets, like small seed pods that explode when touched. If you choose to wander without a guide, there are easy boardwalk trails to follow, with information boards and occasional observation decks.
After a good night’s rest, it’s time for something a little bit different: taking a curling lesson at Wakkanai’s newly opened curling hall. Inside, everything is very smart and modern, while players both young and old – some instructors are pushing eighty! – help create a buzzing atmosphere. First, you’ll be kitted out with plastic boots, a helmet and warm jacket, then it’s time for some stretches before heading out onto the ice. Curling is not an easy skill to master: with only one shoe gripped, you have to master a shuffle-slide; learning to launch is a feat of balance and patience; and sliding the 20kg stones means understanding how much force you need to push them. The whole thing is buckets of fun, even if you’re not a natural, and the local instructors are armed with both patience and a sense of humour.
Despite being in a good state of repair, Wakkanai’s impressive North Breakwater Dome retains the feel of an abandoned ruin. In a past life, the breakwater served as a station, as well as being the landing point for ferry boats that once transported people between Wakkanai and Sakhalin island – now part of Russia. It’s a striking piece of architecture, where footsteps reverberate and light casts hauntingly beautiful patterns; listed as part of the Hokkaido Heritage Project, the breakwater gives a sense of drama to the waterside and has featured in multiple films. Breathe it in.
Round off the day with a trip to Cape Noshappu for a sunset to remember. It’s famous for its spectacular panoramic views, which spread from Rishiri and Rebun islands to Cape Soya and out to the Russian island of Sakhalin, as well as for its resident dolphins. Fittingly there’s a dolphin monument inside Esandomari Fishing Park, which is a popular photo spot – try to catch the dolphins kissing the setting sun. You’ll also find the iconic Wakkanai Lighthouse on Cape Noshappu, resplendent in helter-skelter red-and-white stripes to help it stand out in the winter snow. At 42.7 metres, it’s the tallest lighthouse in Hokkaido and the second tallest in all Japan.
Day 5 of your itinerary in Soya Hokkaido, Japan begins at Wakkanai Park. It’s another tremendous viewpoint that offers long views out across the ocean, as well as over the town below. Look out for the breakwater, the station and the islands in the distance. The park itself has a series of monuments that trace the history of the area, including a memorial to the huskies of Sakhalin and the Nine Maidens Monument which commemorates the nine call operatives who remained at their post during the Soviet Union invasion of Sakhalin. The Hyosetsu Gate, meanwhile, remembers those who lost their lives during the evacuation of Sakhain, giving comfort to them and their fellow countrymen who died on the island. This area is particularly striking against the backdrop of the sea, the ghostly figure proving a haunting silhouette between the two posts that flank it.
Last but not least on your itinerary is the Soya Hills White Path, one of the most popular things to do in Soya Hokkaido. The glacial landscape of the Soya Hills was formed towards the end of the Ulm Ice Age – the last glacial period on Earth, some 10,000 to 20,000 years ago; the gently sloping periglacial features are a product of the ground repeatedly freezing and thawing. Until the middle of the Meiji era (1868–1912), forests carpeted the hills, but when a succession of forest fires destroyed most of the trees, the unique terrain was revealed beneath. Today, around 2800 cattle graze the vast expanse of Cape Soya Farm, while the 57 windmills of Cape Soya Wind Farm harness Wakkanai’s strong winds. Walking the footpath is the best way to take in the gorgeous surroundings – the latter section is known as the “White Path”, coloured by scallop shells that line its 3km length. The whole area is a Hokkaido Heritage Site, recognized for its natural splendour.
Soya Hokkaido is one of the most rewarding regions to visit in Japan. Pristine landscapes, authentic culture and plenty of once-in-a-lifetime experiences will guarantee you a trip to remember.
Header image: Soya Hills White Path © Lily Crossley-Baxter
This article is supported by the Japan Tourism Agency’s ‘Tourism Promotion Program for Foreign Visitors to Japan’