Abashiri astounds with its ice and convict connections
by Kris Kosaka
Special The The Japan Times
Mar 24, 2013
In April 1890, the Japanese government shipped more than 1,200 political prisoners from all over the country, including samurai insurgents from the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion against the government of Emperor Meiji. Nine years before, more than 250 years of rule by the Tokugawa shoguns had finally ended.
Spared death, those rebels and other miscreants were instead taken literally to the end of their world — a small fishing village called Abashiri on the frigid shore of the Sea of Okhotsk in northeastern Hokkaido.
Most of those men probably never glimpsed the great drift-ice floes Abashiri is currently famous for, but their forced labor as road-builders linking this outpost to the more populous South made possible the tourist industry that now dominates this area of wild, primeval beauty. Abashiri also honors the Northern Peoples — primarily the Ainu, Niukh and Orok — who first settled the land, taming the wilderness with their ingenuity, profound love of nature and powerful appreciation of life’s beauty.
Standing on the upper deck of the ice-breaking ship Aurora II as it plows through the floes with its cargo of visitors, biting winds straight from Siberia or Kamchatka in the Russian Far East pierce through my wool cap. Nonetheless, the surreal arctic magnificence drives away all thoughts of those convicts, the stink of diesel and even environmental twinges that had pricked my conscience while waiting in the lobby for departure.
The ice floes attract more than 100,000 tourists each year when they come down from the North between mid-January and the end of March; one glimpse of their stunning grace and I see why.