Experience the Mighty Garinko-go Icebreaker Ship
In Japan, drift ice can be seen floating across the Okhotsk Sea, which is located in the northeastern part of Japan. Drift ice season is from January to March, with its peak in February. Drift ice-watching tours start at Abashiri and Monbetsu. Abashiri can be reached in forty minutes by direct bus from Memanbetsu Airport to “Drift Ice Breaker Terminal”. By flying to Okhotsk Monbetsu Airport and taking a twelve-minute ride on a shuttle bus, you will be within the city limits of Monbetsu.
Get onboard a special sightseeing ship for watching drift ice. Hokkaido is the southernmost spot in the northern hemisphere where drift ice appears. If you are lucky, you might see animals that come from the seas of the far north such as Steller’s sea eagles and spotted seals. The average temperature in February is -10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit). Protection from the cold is a must as it gets even colder at night and the sea breeze hits you directly on the deck of the ship.
Board the Garinko-go II icebreaker ship at Monbetsu Port when viewing drift ice in Monbetsu. There is a bus that goes directly from the bus terminal in the city to the boarding point in the winter. Advanced reservations are a must. Passengers can call the office to make reservations by the day before departure or reserve directly at the boarding point. Reservations can be made in English and the fare is 3,000 yen (3,000 yen per adult and half off for children). Many people make reservations via tour companies in their home country or from Sapporo before coming.
When there is a lot of drift ice, the Garinko-go II uses its huge drill, which is its greatest feature. It is an exciting cruise where the ship crushes the ice as it pushes its way through. The forecabin on the first floor gives you a closer view of the ice being crushed away.
Drift ice cruises can be enjoyed from January 20 to March 31 every year with ships departing at 9:00 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 12:00 p.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. In February, which is the best month to see the drift ice, there are also departures at 6:00 a.m. for a special sunrise view and at 4:10 p.m. for a sunset view.
Okhotsk Garinko Tower
Address: 1 Kaiyokoen, Monbetsu-shi, Hokkaido (in Kaiyo Koryukan)
Tel: 0158-24-8000 (English spoken)
12 mins. by shuttle bus from Okhotsk Monbetsu Airport.
Aurora – The Special Icebreaker Ship for Viewing Drift Ice
Climb aboard the Aurora icebreaker ship when viewing drift ice in Abashiri. The boarding point is the roadside station “Drift Ice Highway Abashiri”, which is located at the mouth of the Abashiri River. Reservations can be made on the ship’s webpage and the fare is 3,300 yen (3,300 yen per adult, and half off for children).
The Aurora breaks through ice gorges with its force of its own weight. On the deck, passengers can enjoy the sounds and impact of the ice being crushed. Drift ice cruises can be enjoyed from January 20 to March 31 every year. There are also tickets for hotels in the city and cruises at discount prices.
Doutou Kanko Kaihatsu (Corporation)
Address: Minami 3, Higashi 4-5-1, Abashiri city, Hokkaido
Access: 10 mins. by bus from Abashiri Station
Enjoying Drift Ice More Freely
Visitors can enjoy drift ice facilities and festivals in Monbetsu and Abashiri. Monbetsu and Abashiri are about 120 kilometers apart and in the winter you can travel between them by the East Hokkaido Express Bus in about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
A recommended drift ice attraction is the Okhotsk Ryu-hyo Museum. It is located fifteen minutes from Abashiri Station and admission is 540 yen for adults, 430 yen for high school students, and 320 yen for junior high school students and younger children. The highlight of the museum is the 120 tons of real drift ice on display at the “Hands-on Drift Ice Activity Room”, which is set to -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). Visitors can touch and feel the real thing, and try freezing wet towels.
Adorable cliones, which are a type of mollusk also known as “sea angels”, are also bred and on display here. The observation deck commands a magnificent 360-degree panoramic view across Lake Abashiri, Lake Notoro, the Okhotsk Sea, and the Shiretoko Peninsula, which is a World Heritage Site.
The Okhotsk Sea Ice Museum of Hokkaido – GIZA, is located in Monbetsu City. Its main attraction is the dome-shaped audio-visual hemisphere known as “Astrovision”. Astrovision presents you with beautiful images of Okhotsk such as piece of drift ice so large that they cover your entire field of view. There are plenty of other attractions here, including the Severe Cold Activity Room, which is set to -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), letting you see actual drift ice and creatures of Okhotsk frozen in ice as well as cliones on display, and bubbles that get frozen. The boarding point for the Garinko-go is also nearby so you can visit them on the same day.
Okhotsk Ryu-hyo Museum
Address: 245-1, Tentozan, Abashiri-shi, Hokkaido
Access: 15 mins. by bus from Abashiri Station
Adults: 540 yen, high school students: 430 yen, elementary / junior high school students: 320 yen, children below elementary school age: free
8:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m. (April – October), 9:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. (November – March)
December 29 – January 5 (only groups with advanced reservations are admitted from 10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.)
*Scheduled to be reopened at a nearby location in August 2015.
Okhotsk Sea Ice Museum of Hokkaido – GIZA
Address: 11-6, Motomonbetsu, Monbetsu-shi, Hokkaido
Access: 8 mins. by shuttle bus from Okhotsk Monbetsu Airport. 4 mins. by taxi from the Garinko-go II boarding point.
Drift ice festivals are held in Monbetsu and Abashiri every year in early February. Attractions such as statues made of snow and ice enliven the cold and local specialities highlight the favourite seafoods of the region. You can catch these events in Monbetsu and Abashiri from February 7 to 11 in 2015.