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Towards the northernmost station of Wakkanai: A trip on the Soya Main Line

Towards the northernmost station of Wakkanai: A trip on the Soya Main Line

The northernmost city in Japan, Wakkanai (稚内), is a sacred place for travellers. It’s a filled with many spectacular views, history, and natural attractions that fascinate travellers.

 

Our trip to Wakkanai in August. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

To get to Wakkanai from Sapporo, it takes about 5 hours by train on the Limited Express Sōya (特急宗谷号 Tokkyū Sōya-gō). Back in August this year, we boarded the train and headed for the northernmost station, JR Wakkanai Station (JR稚内駅 Wakkanai-eki).

 

Hamanasu Formation. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

“What? A pink train? That’s a first!”, I exclaimed.

 

Those familiar with the railways of Hokkaido would wonder what this train is. On the day of our trip, we got on the special train Hamanasu Formation (はまなす編成 Hamanasu-hensei) that operates on the Limited Express Sōya.

 

Hamanasu, a representative flower of Hokkaido. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Hamanasu Formation is a new train that made its debut earlier this year, and is made up of five-car 261 series 5000s diesel cars. The pink train, which bears the image of the flower hamanasu (はまなす Japanese rose) that represents Hokkaido, looks amazing and so Instagram-worthy. The train has three cars for reserved seats, one car for non-reserved seats, and one open-space car. It runs for a limited time only, so catch it if you have the chance.

 

Our train journey from Sapporo to Wakkanai on Hamanasu Formation. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

The Limited Express Sōya, which departs from JR Sapporo Station (JR札幌駅 Sapporo-eki) at 7:30am, arrives at JR Wakkanai Station (JR稚内駅 Wakkanai-eki) at 12:40pm. It is a long journey that covers a total of 422 km in 5 hours 10 minutes. However, if you spend your time looking at the scenery from the train window, you will arrive in a blink of an eye. Let me introduce to you the wonderful sceneries from the train windows along the way.

 

Between Sapporo and Nayoro (名寄), you can see the entire countryside and now is the season when the rice fields change colour. No matter how much you look at the glittering golden rice fields, you will never get tired of it and you will want to take a lot of photos and videos on your phone. Hamanasu Formation has power outlets on all its seats for you to charge your phone, so you never have to worry about low battery.

 

Beautiful sceneries (left) and power outlets (right) await passengers on the Limited Express Sōya. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Shortly before arriving at JR Nayoro Station (JR名寄駅 Nayoro-eki), you will see a steam locomotive from the window on the right. It is the Kimaroki (キマロキ) that was used as a snow ploughing vehicle until around 1975. It's a train that can only be found here in Japan, and you can't see it anywhere else.

 

Kimaroki near JR Nayoro Station. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Kimaroki is an acronym for a snow-ploughing train, and the name derives from the combination of ‘ki’ from kikansha (機関車 locomotive), ‘ma’ from makkurēsha (マックレー車 McRae-type train car), ‘ro’ from rōtarīsha (ロータリー車 rotary train car), and ‘ki’ from kikansha again. In Hokkaido where there is a lot of snow, snow removal vehicles are used to remove snow from railway tracks by ploughing them on both sides. However, high snow walls gradually form on both sides of the tracks, making snow removal highly difficult. At that time, Kimaroki was dispatched to remove snow from the tracks.

 

As you go and see Kimaroki up close, you will notice that each car has a ladder which you can climb and see the inside. When you look at the machines in person, such as the aged pressure gauges and manometers in the steam locomotive car, you feel like you’ve travelled back in time and can experience the sheer size of the train. Anyone visiting here will surely be overwhelmed by the sheer power of steam locomotive.

 

JR Otoineppu Station. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

At 10:41, after passing JR Otoineppu Station (JR音威子府駅 Otoineppu-eki), turn your attention to the car window on the left and you will see the Teshio River (天塩川 Teshio-gawa), the fourth longest river in Japan. The river is wide and the water flows slowly, so you can enjoy the view with a sense of tranquillity.

 

Teshio River. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Afterwards, although only in an instant, keep a lookout for the monument of Hokkaidō Meimei-no-chi (北海道命名之地 The Place where Hokkaido was Named). We also spotted some people on the riverbank. In the word “Hokkaido”, which we know today as the name of the northern region in Japan, “kai” actually came from the language of Ainu!

 

It is said that when Matsuura Takeshiro (松浦武四郎), an active explorer who founded modern Hokkaido, went to explore the Teshio River basin, an Ainu elder taught him that a person born on this land is called “kai” (加伊). In 1869, when the Japanese government wanted to change the name of Hokkaido's old name “Ezochi” (蝦夷地), Takeshiro proposed six candidate names, one of which was “Hokkaido” (北加伊道), and this is said to be the origin of the region’s name before it was formalised to “Hokkaido” (北海道).

 

Based on this story, the place where Takeshiro learned the meaning of “kai” became Hokkaido Meimei-no-chi.

 

Hokkaido Meimei-no-chi. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

At 11:13, we arrived at JR Teshio-Nakagawa Station (JR天塩中川駅 Teshio-Nakagawa-eki). The station’s wooden building is actually a restoration of the original building, and the retro atmosphere here is the same as it used to be, with a nostalgic potbelly stove and an adorable pink phone. We couldn’t help ourselves from snapping photos of them.

 

JR Teshio-Nakagawa Station. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

We would highly recommend cycling in the town of Nakagawa (中川町), where Teshio-Nakagawa Station is located. There are several cycling courses here, and you can rent a bicycle at a campsite, which is about a 20-minute walk from the station. When cycling in the town, you can enjoy the scenery along the Teshio River as you feel the breeze blowing against you. It’s the perfect way to relieve stress, by opening yourself and be one with nature!

 

Cycling in Nakagawa (top), and along the Teshio River (bottom). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

After passing by JR Teshio-Nakagawa Station, you will witness an idyllic landscape. Time passes by leisurely, with pastures filled with grazing cows stretching across the grasslands.

 

Horonobe’s green pastures. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

At 11:45, after passing JR Horonobe Station (JR幌延駅 Horonobe-eki), you can see the magnificent wilderness of Sarobetsu (サロベツ), and the majestic Mount Rishiri (利尻岳), which is one of the “100 Famous Japanese Mountains" (日本百名山 Nihon Hyaku-meizan)”.

 

Mount Rishiri in the distance. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

And about 10 minutes before arriving at JR Wakkanai Station (JR稚内駅), there is a spectacular viewpoint between Bakkai (抜海) and Minami-Wakkanai (南稚内)! If you turn your attention to the car window on your left, you will see the view suddenly opening up to the open sea. The appearance of Mount Rishiri floating on the sea is incredibly beautiful! Mount Rishiri is located on Rishiri Island (利尻島), about 50km away from Wakkanai, and is also called “Rishiri-fuji” (利尻富士) because of its resemblance to Mount Fuji.

 

JR Bakkai Station. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

By the way, JR Bakkai Station (JR抜海駅 Bakkai-eki) is also the northernmost unmanned station in Japan, and is visited by many railway fans as a secluded station (秘境駅 hikyō-eki).

 

Finally, at 12:40, we arrived at JR Wakkanai Station! As we expected, there are signs all around here indicating that this is the northernmost station in Japan, and information boards on the platform showing the distances between major cities and this station. JR Wakkanai Station is 1,547.9km away from Tokyo Station (東京駅 Tōkyō-eki), and 3,057.4km away from JR Ibusuki Station (JR指宿駅 Ibusuki-eki) in Kagoshima. It's a wonderful place to snap photos away.

 

Next time, let's take a train trip from Japan’s southernmost station Nishi-Oyama (西大山駅 Nishi-Ōyama-eki) to the northernmost station of Wakkanai!

 

Arriving at JR Wakkanai Station. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

When you exit the station ticket gate, you will see a sign that says “the northernmost railway track”, as this is the northernmost end of Japan’s railway tracks. In addition, in front of the station, there is a Pokémon manhole, “Poke Lid” (ポケふた Poke-futa), which can be found all over the country.

 

Japan’s northernmost railway track (top), and Poké Lid (bottom). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Now, let me introduce to you some of the sightseeing spots in the city of Wakkanai.

 

Hokumon Shrine

Hokumon Shrine. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Hokumon Shrine (北門神社 Hokumon-jinja), which stands on a hill overlooking Wakkanai Port, is located in the northernmost part of Japan as a shrine where Shintō priests reside. What’s unusual about this shrine is that there are statues of guardian dogs with children here. Take a closer at the foot of the guardian dog on the left side of the main shrine, and you will notice a child sitting between the legs of the guardian dog. It is said that it’s beneficial for people who want to be blessed with children to worship at Hokumon Shrine, and even families with babies who have just been born would come here to worship at the shrine.

 

After visiting, we headed to the amulet presentation office (神符授与所shinpu juyo-sho), a place where you can receive red seals (御朱印 go-shuin), amulets (お守り omamori), and fortune slips (おみくじ omikuji). The red stamp on the red seal says, “Japan's northernmost shrine”. Cool, don’t you think?

 

Ezo Mikuji. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

What’s interesting is the fortune slip called ezo mikuji (えぞみくじ). In a styrofoam container, which usually should contain seafood, there are crabs that are actually fortune slips instead. When I picked one up, I saw a fortune slip inside that says “kichi” (吉 good fortune). The explanation states “If you act calmly, you will discover something new”, which I knew that by calming down, I would be discovering new sightseeing spots on my trip. The contents of the fortune slips are also written in Hokkaido dialect.

 

On top of Hokumon Shrine, there are 11 other shrines in Hokkaido where you can find this ezo mikuji, and each shrine has a different design. If you visit a shrine and find an ezo mikuji, why not try to learn about your fortune?

 

Hokumon Shrine (北門神社)
Address: 1-1-21 Chuo, Wakkanai, Hokkaido 097-0022
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Wakkanai Station
Operating hours: Open all day
Admission fee: None

 

Wakkanai Park

View from Wakkanai Park (left) and Gate of Ice and Snow (right). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

If you go up farther from Hokumon Shrine, you will find Wakkanai Park (稚内公園 Wakkanai-Kōen), which offers a scenery of the whole city. The air here is clear, and it feels amazing. On this open space, there are monuments representing Wakkanai such as the Gate of Ice and Snow (氷雪の門 Hyōsetsu-no-Mon) and the Sakhalin Husky Memorial (樺太犬記念碑 karafutoinu kinenhi).

 

Sakhalin Husky Memorial (left) and Mount Rishiri seen in the distance (right). (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

In addition, the Wakkanai Centennial Memorial Tower (稚内市開基百年記念塔 Wakkanai-shi kaiki hyakunen kinentō), which was built in 1978 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the city of Wakkanai, has a 70m observatory that not only overlooks the city of Wakkanai but even the island of Rishiri. It offers a 360-degree panoramic view where you can also see Rebun and even Sakhalin!

 

Wakkanai Park (稚内公園)
Address: 1 Chuo, Wakkanai-shi, Hokkaido 097-0022
Access: 10-minute taxi ride from JR Wakkanai Station
Operating hours: Open all day
Admission fee: None

 

Wakkanai North Breakwater Dome

Wakkanai North Breakwater Dome. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

The northern pier of Wakkanai Port, which is about a 5-minute walk north of Wakkanai Station, was once used as a departure and arrival point for the Sakhalin sea route, and breakwaters were built between 1931 and 1936. Breakwaters that feature a semi-arched structure with thick columns reminiscent of ancient Roman buildings and gently curved are extremely rare, and they attract attention as a unique architecture from all over the world.

 

When we visited the breakwater, there were some renovation works taking place due to the structure’s aging, but people can still have a pleasant time here nevertheless, such as people walking their dogs in the dome or parents playing catch with their children. You can take many interesting photos of the breakwater just by changing the angle and standing position, so go try it out. Also, if you go up the stairs next to the breakwater dome, you can see the beautiful sea right in front of you.

 

Wakkanai North Breakwater Dome (北防波堤ドーム)
Address: 1 Kaiun, Wakkanai, Hokkaido 097-0023
Access: 5-minute walk from JR Wakkanai Station
Operating hours: Open all day
Admission fee: None

 

Wakkanai Fukko Market

Wakkanai Fukko Market. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

About a 15-minute walk south of JR Wakkanai Station, and located next to the fishing port, is the Wakkanai Fukko Market (稚内副港市場 Wakkanai Fukkō-ichiba), a food complex that features stalls selling the freshest fish. When you enter the market, you will be greeted by a big fishing flag hung on the ceiling. There is also a space that recreates the Wakkanai shopping district of the Shōwa Period (1926–1989), so you can experience the retro atmosphere of the cityscape and enjoy taking photo to your heart’s content.

 

Wakkanai Fukko Market (稚内副港市場)
Address: 1-6-28 Minato, Wakkanai, Hokkaido 097-0021
Access: 15-minute walk from JR Wakkanai Station
Operating hours: 8am–6pm (differs according to stall)
Admission fee: None

 

McDonald's No. 40 Wakkanai store

McDonald’s No. 40 Wakkanai store. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

McDonald's No. 40 Wakkanai store is the northernmost McDonald's outlet in Japan, located along national highway No. 40 and about a 20-minute walk from JR Minami-Wakkanai Station (JR南稚内駅 Minami-Wakkanai-eki). In one corner of the parking lot, there is a monument that states “Japan's northernmost store”, and a bench where Ronald McDonald sits with his arms stretched out, so that you can take a commemorative photo with him. He’s bigger than I thought, and I couldn't get my arm around his shoulder!

 

The menu inside the store is the same as other McDonald's stores, but I thought it’s a good idea to have something to commemorate my arrival at the northernmost McDonald's store in Japan.

 

McDonald’s No. 40 Wakkanai store (マクドナルド40号稚内店)
Address: 3-5-17 Shiomi, Wakkanai, Hokkaido 097-0002
Access: 20-minute walk from JR Minami-Wakkanai Station (JR南稚内駅)
Operating hours: 7am–8pm (dine-in), 7am–11pm (drive-through)

 

Yuhigaoka Parking Lot

Yuhigaoka Parking. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Yūhigaoka Parking Lot (夕日が丘パーキング), which is less than 10 minutes by car from JR Minami-Wakkanai Station, is a popular spot in the local area with a magnificent view at dusk. This spot is on a hill facing the Sea of Japan, and you can get an unblocked view from here. Enjoy the sight of the sky as it turns orange in the setting sun over the blue sea.

 

You can also see Mount Rishiri floating on the sea changing colour every moment, and you will be fascinated by its majestic appearance. The sun sets very early, so it's best to arrive at least 30 minutes before sunset. Also, it can get a little chilly here, so it's a good idea to have extra clothing with you.

 

Yuhigaoka Parking Lot (夕日が丘パーキング)
Address: 4 Nishihama, Wakkanai, Hokkaido 097-0037
Access: 15-minute taxi ride from JR Wakkanai Station (JR南稚内駅)
Operating hours: Open all day
Admission rate: None

 

Wakkanai specialty: Octopus shabu-shabu

Octopus shabu-shabu. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

On top of sightseeing spots, we will also introduce to you some local gourmet food. Wakkanai's specialty is octopus shabu-shabu (タコしゃぶ tako-shabu), as the city boasts the largest production of Pacific octopus in Japan. Thirty years ago, the local people came up with the idea of making a specialty dish from Wakkanai's locally produced Pacific octopus, and this dish was tako-shabu. First, put ingredients such as mizuna (水菜 potherb mustard) and enoki mushrooms in a pot containing soup stock, and let it simmer for a while. Then, swish thinly sliced octopus through the soup stock 3–4 times, and it’s ready to eat.

 

If you lightly dip it in a sauce with vinegar and eat it, the succulent texture and refreshing taste of the octopus is indescribable. You will immediately want to have another slice of octopus! This dish uses frozen octopus because they are easier to slice thinly. This delicately sliced octopus is something that cannot be tasted anywhere else, so please try it out.

 

Wakkanai’s own ekiben

Ekiben from Wakkanai. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

And how about an ekiben (駅弁 train lunchbox) to accompany your train trip? You can get one at Wakkanai Select (ワッカナイセレクト) in Kitakara (キタカラ) adjacent to JR Wakkanai Station, and all the ekiben here use plenty of seafood such as sea urchin, crab, and salmon roe. There are seven to eight types of ekiben in total, but since we reached here in the afternoon, there were only two types left (with one or two of each type left), so we could see how popular they were.

 

The ekiben of our choice is Kobore-Ikura! Hotate-Chirashi (こぼれいくら!ほたてちらし). It’s a bento box with lots of salmon roe on top of vinegared rice sprinkled with shredded eggs, and it was overflowing with scallops. Of course, the scallops are fresh, and the salmon roe was bursting with flavour! Also, the vinegared rice has a firm and sweet taste! It was such a satisfying dish that I uttered “oishii” (おいしい delicious) many times!

 

Let's go farther from Wakkanai city, where we can visit two more wonderful sightseeing spots.

 

White Path

White Path, which is made with scallop shells. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

About 25km east of Wakkanai, there is a gentle hill called Soya Hills (宗谷丘陵 Sōya kyūryō), where Soya is the name of the area around Wakkanai. Here, there is a popular spot called White Path (白い道 Shiroi michi) that spans 3km. As the name suggests, it's a white road, but do you know what the white stuff is? It’s actually calcified shells of scallops, another specialty of Wakkanai, that have been crushed and laid on the path.

 

Soya Hills. (Image credit: Wakkanai Tourist Association)

 

Since it was first laid out in 2011, the path’s white shells contrast beautifully between the blue sky, the sea, and the green meadows, and this view has been talked about as a landscape that is unlike most other places in Japan. You can see windmills in the area, and Mount Rishiri and Sakhalin in the distance too, which makes for a magnificent scenery altogether. Take note that it’s not possible to walk on this path from November to the end of May.

 

White Path (白い道)
Address: Soya, Wakkanai, Hokkaido 097-0000
Access: 50-minute bus ride on the Tenpoku Soya Misaki Line from JR Wakkanai Station
Operating hours: None (out of bounds from November to end of May)
Admission fee: None

 

Cape Soya

Cape Soya. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Cape Soya (宗谷岬 Sōya-misaki) is the northernmost point of Japan, with a north latitude of 45 degrees. As you stand in front of the Monument of the Northernmost Land of Japan (日本最北端の地の碑 Nihon Saihokutan-no-ji-ishibumi) at the tip of the cape, you can feel like you’re on top of Japan, and this is one of the places you will definitely have to go when you visit Wakkanai.

 

Cape Soya (宗谷岬)
Address: Soya-misaki, Wakkanai, Hokkaido 098-6758
Access: 50-minute bus ride on the Tenpoku Soya Misaki Line from JR Wakkanai Station
Operating hours: Open all day
Admission fee: None

 

Check out the video below for more details on our trip to Wakkanai on the Sōya Line.

 

Sōya Line in Hokkaido. (Video credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

Hokkaido Rail Pass

FuranoLavender_HRP_Map.jpg (453 KB)

Hokkaido Rail Pass. (Image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company)

 

If you are travelling around more areas in Hokkaido, you can use the Hokkaido Rail Pass, which offers unlimited rides on both reserved and non-reserved seats on all JR Hokkaido lines (except Hokkaido Shinkansen). The Hokkaido Rail Pass is available for 5 consecutive days (¥19,000) or 7 consecutive days (¥25,000), and can be used for automatic ticket gates.

 

Header image credit: Hokkaido Railway Company

 

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