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The wonders of Northern Hokkaido: Exploring the Northern Soya area

The wonders of Northern Hokkaido: Exploring the Northern Soya area

Singaporeans love Japan, especially Hokkaido (北海道)—come December to February, the island is thronged with locals and foreign tourists alike who are there to get some ski action or to simply enjoy the cold and snow, and you can tell when your friends and colleagues have been to Hokkaido when you receive the famed Shiroi Koibito (白い恋人) cookies as souvenirs. Given the size of Hokkaido, there is so much to see, explore and experience beyond Sapporo! Apart from the well-known cities like Asahikawa (旭川市 Asahikawa-shi), Obihiro (帯広市 Obihiro-shi), and Furano (富良野市 Furano-shi), the northern and eastern sides of Hokkaido are treasure troves waiting to be explored. One of such area is the Northern Soya Area (北宗谷地域 Kita-Sōya chiiki).

 

About Northern Soya

A map of Hokkaido showing the Northern Soya area. (Image credit: Hokkaido Prefecture)

 

Northern Soya comprises of Wakkanai City (稚内市Wakkanai-shi), the northernmost city in Hokkaido, and the surrounding regions of Sarufutsu Village (猿払村 Sarufutsu-mura) and Toyotomi Town (豊富町 Toyotomi-chō), as well as Rebun Island (礼文島 Rebun-tō) and Rishiri Island (利尻島 Rishiri-tō), two offshore islands rich with flora and fauna. As Singaporeans, we are always complaining about the heat and wanting to escape to somewhere cooler—with the highest temperatures in summer within a very cool and comfortable range of 22–28°C, the weather in Northern Soya definitely scores points!


With her vast expanses of natural scenery, fresh seafood and delicious dairy products, Northern Soya offers many activities and experiences for the uninitiated—have a look below to find out what they are!

 

Trekking on the White Path at Soya Hills

A view of the windfarm on the Soya Hills. (Image credit: Wakkanai Tourism Association)

 

The Soya Hills (宗谷丘陵 Sōya-kyūryō), a series of gently undulating slopes ranging from 20m to 400m in height, can be found near Cape Soya (宗谷岬 Sōya-misaki), the northernmost point of Japan. The hills were formed approximately 10,000 years ago through periglaciation, where the ground thaws and refreezes, the rain and rivers further sculpting the land. So special are these hills that they were registered as a Hokkaido Heritage in 2004.

 

The Soya Hills are also home to Japan’s largest windfarm with 57 wind turbines—the sight of all the wind turbines standing atop the grasslands, their blades slowly turning in the wind, is quite a grand spectacle!

 

Trekking on the White Path, with Mount Rishiri in the background. (Image credit: Wakkanai Tourism Association)

 

While the Soya Hills Footpath Course (宗谷丘陵フットパスコース Sōya-kyūryō futtopasu kōsu) offers visitors an 11km trek winding through the hills, perhaps the most visually stunning section would be the last 3km near the goal. Called the White Path (白い道 Shiroi Michi), it gained its moniker from the whiteness of the crushed scallop shells used to line it, and is now a popular tourist spot. The path is especially beautiful when contrasted against the green hills and the blue sky, and many tourists have visited it since 2011 when it was first unveiled.

 

White Path (白い道)
Address: Soya, Soya-mura, Wakkanai, Hokkaido, 097-0000
Nearest station: JR Wakkanai Station (JR稚内駅)
Tel: +81-16-224-1216

Writer’s note: The Soya Hills Footpath Course is a 40-minute bus ride from Wakkanai Station. Alight at the Soya bus stop, from where it is a 5-minute walk to the White Path.

 

Scallop shelling at Sarufutsu

A Sarufutsu scallop, grilled and ready for eating. (Image credit: Wakkanai Tourism Association)

 

Sarufutsu is well-known for her scallops, boasting one of the greatest harvests in Japan every year. What sets the shellfish harvested here apart from other places is their size and texture—left to grow for five years before harvesting, Sarufutsu scallops are large and juicy, and meatier than those from elsewhere.

 

While one can enjoy the scallops at various eateries, it is always more fun to prepare your own food—the Sarufutsu Marugoto-kan (さるふつまるごと館), within the Sarufutsu Park Roadside Rest Area (道の駅さるふつ公園 Michi-no-eki Sarufutsu-kōen), allows visitors to experience scallop shelling for themselves! Experienced staff will guide you through the process, and you even get to take the blade, adorned with an image of Saruppu (さるっぷ), the local mascot character, home as a souvenir!

 

After all that hard work, it is time to feast on the fruits of your labour! While the scallops can be enjoyed in various ways, the best way is to grill and have them with locally-made butter. With the sweetness of the scallops melding with the faint saltiness and richness of the butter, this is definitely a treat you do not want to miss out on!

 

Sarufutsu Marugoto-kan (さるふつまるごと館)
Address: Hamaonishibetsu, Sarufutsu-mura, Soya-gun, Hokkaido, 098-6222
Nearest station: JR Wakkanai Station (JR稚内駅)
Tel: +81-16-354-7780

Writer’s note: Sarufutsu is a 2-hour bus ride from Wakkanai Station. Alight at the “Sarufutsu-kōen-mae” bus stop, which is right in front of the Sarufutsu Park Roadside Rest Area and Sarufutsu Marugoto-kan.

 

A luxurious stay at Kawashima Ryokan in Toyotomi Onsen

The waters of Toyotomi Onsen are said to be good for skin ailments. (Image credit: Kawashima Ryokan)

 

It is no secret that the Japanese love their hot springs—there are countless hot spring villages across the nation, but none are as unique as Toyotomi Onsen (豊富温泉) in Toyotomi. Not only is it the northernmost hot spring village in Japan, it is also one of the few where crude oil can be found in the waters itself. The waters of Toyotomi Onsen have been called a miracle cure for all injuries, and in recent years it has found popularity with those suffering from atopy, psoriasis, and other skin-related ailments.

 

The vegetables used at Kawashima Ryokan are all from farmers Matsumoto knows. (Image credit: Kawashima Ryokan)

 

There are a few places of lodging within Toyotomi Onsen, the oldest of them being Kawashima Ryokan (川島旅館). Founded in 1927, it recently underwent an extensive reform and reopened in 2016, and is now managed by the third-generation owner, Matsumoto Yasuhiro (松本康宏), and his wife, Miho (松本美穂). Matsumoto previously worked as a chef in Sapporo before returning back to Toyotomi in 1999, and his dedication to food shines through in the cuisine served at Kawashima Ryokan—featuring fresh Hokkaido produce, including locally grown seasonal vegetables, and fish and meat from neighbouring precincts. Each dish is crafted to bring out the potential of the ingredients used, and with every bite, a symphony of tastes in the mouth. 

 

In addition, Matsumoto’s love of sweets has brought about the creation of two famed local products of Toyotomi, Toyotomi Milk Pudding (とよとみミルクプリン) and Toyotomi Flavoured Butter (とよとみフレーバーバター). Made from the delicious milk of cows left to graze freely in a stress-free environment, it is no wonder that these dairy products taste phenomenal. The butter comes in different flavours such as miso, strawberry, and sea urchin, making it a feast for both the eyes and the palate!

 

Kawashima Ryokan (川島旅館)
Address: Aza-Onsen, Toyotomi-cho, Teshio-gun, Hokkaido, 098-4132
Nearest station: JR Toyotomi Station (JR豊富駅)
Tel: +81-16-282-1248

Writer’s note: JR Toyotomi Station is a few stations before the Wakkanai terminus on the Soya Main Line, between 40–50 minutes from JR Wakkanai Station via local or limited express trains. From Toyotomi Station, Toyotomi Onsen is a 10-minute bus ride. Alight at the “Toyotomi Onsen” bus stop.

 

Exploring a movie set at Kita-no-Kanaria Park on Rebun Island

The fictional school is set at the Kita-no-Kanaria Park, and Mount Rishiri in the background. (Image credit: Wakkanai Tourism Association)

 

“A Chorus of Angels” (北のカナリアたち Kita-no-kanaria-tachi), a movie released in 2012, was shot at Rebun Island over a year in winter and summer. For the movie, a school set was constructed—the set still remains today, now renamed as Kita-no-Kanaria Park (北のカナリアパーク) after the movie, and various props and costumes used in the movie are on display.

 

On a clear day, Mount Rishiri (利尻山 Rishiri-zan) on neighbouring Rishiri Island can be seen, which makes for a marvellous spectacle. In addition, a cafe, Kanaria Cafe (カナリアカフェ), opened next to the park in 2020. Offering freshly brewed coffee and home-made desserts, including a sundae containing jelly made with locally-produced agar, shiratama (白玉) mochi balls and red bean paste, the cafe is a good spot for one to enjoy scenic views while having a quick bite.

 

Kita-no-Kanaria Park (北のカナリアパーク)
Address: 621 Funbenefu, Kafukamura, Rebun-cho, Rebun-gun, Hokkaido, 097-1201
Nearest station: JR Wakkanai Station (JR稚内駅)
Tel: +81-16-386-1001

Writer’s note: To access Rebun Island, take a ferry from Wakkanai Ferry Terminal (Approximately 2 hours one-way, 2–3 round trips a day). From the Kafuka Ferry Terminal, take the Kafuka~Shiretoko~Kafuka loop service bus (five round trips a day on weekdays only) and alight at the “Shiretoko” bus stop, from which it is a 10-minute walk to the park. The park is closed from November to end-April the following year.

 

Sea urchin picking experience on Rishiri Island

The taste of freshly caught sea urchin is unforgettable! (Image credit: Wakkanai Tourism Association)

 

Between the months of June to September, one can experience sea urchin (うに uni) picking at Kamui Beach Park (神居海岸パーク Kamui-kaigan Park) on Rishiri Island. You will get to take a boat out to the coast and view the sea bed with a glass-bottomed device, before scooping up the sea urchins, fat from gorging on Rishiri kelp (利尻昆布 Rishiri konbu), with a landing net, just like how local fishermen do.

 

Sea urchin hunting—note the equipment used. (Image credit: Wakkanai Tourism Association)

 

Once back on land, the staff will help you crack and clean up your catch—the sea urchin can be eaten as is, or you can purchase sushi rice bases from the shop and enjoy your sea urchin as gunkan-maki (軍艦巻き) sushi. Fresh sea urchin is bursting with sweetness—together with the brininess of the sea water it was washed in, the taste is absolutely divine. Do head over to Rishiri Island for an unforgettable experience!

 

Kamui Beach Park (神居海岸パーク)
Address: 149-2, Aza-Kamui, Kutsugata, Rishiri-cho, Rishiri-gun, Hokkaido, 097-0401
Nearest station: JR Wakkanai Station (JR稚内駅)
Tel: +81-16-384-3622

Writer’s Note: To access Rishiri Island, take a ferry from Wakkanai Ferry Terminal (Approximately 1 hour 40 minutes one-way, 2–3 round trips a day). From the Oshidomari Ferry Terminal, take the A Course bus (four buses a day) and alight at the “Daiichi Kamui” bus stop (approx. 70 minutes). Alternatively, from Kutsugata, take the B Course bus (four buses a day) and alight at the “Daiichi Kamui” bus stop (approx. 5 minutes). It is a 3-minute walk to the park from the bus stop. The park is open from 1st June to 30th September each year.

 

Accessing Wakkanai

The new JR Wakkanai Station building, with a portion of the old tracks extending outside the station. (Image credit: Kevin Koh)

The perfect base for exploring the Northern Soya area is none other than at the city of Wakkanai itself. Wakkanai is approximately 5 hours from JR Sapporo Station (札幌駅 Sapporo-eki) via the Limited Express Soya (特急宗谷 Tokkyū Sōya) (one round trip per day), or approximately 3 hours from JR Asahikawa Station (旭川駅 Asahikawa-eki) via the Limited Express Sarobetsu (特急サロベツ Tokkyū Sarobetsu) (two round trips per day). Limited Express Lilac (特急ライラック Tokkyū Lilac) trains connect Sapporo and Asahikawa Stations, so there is no need to worry about missing trains to Wakkanai.

A one-way trip from Sapporo, though, costs ¥10,560—it is highly recommended to purchase the JR Hokkaido Rail Pass in order to save on rail fare. Even for its most expensive version (the 7-day consecutive use version), the pass is ¥25,710 (as of March 2021), meaning a round trip between Sapporo and Wakkanai will almost recoup the cost of the pass! With the pass, you are also able to visit other parts of Hokkaido, so do take the chance to travel between cities and explore what Hokkaido has to offer! 

 

Closing

While most people like to visit Hokkaido in winter for the snow, summer is equally interesting, with many activities that can be done only during the short season before it gets cold again. Unlike the rest of Japan in summer, Northern Soya is cool—not just in terms of temperature, but also in what can be done there, so do head over for a memorable time!

 

Public transport is scarce in the area—for those who have an international license, driving is definitely an option, especially with all the scenic roads in Hokkaido. Northern Soya is no exception—click here for more information on the driving routes in Hokkaido, and bon voyage!

 

Header image credit: Kevin Koh

 

This article is written in collaboration with the Kita Soya Area Promotion Council.

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