Only in Winter! Enjoy Drift Ice in Okhotsk Region of Hokkaido

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Only in Winter! Enjoy Drift Ice in Okhotsk Region of Hokkaido
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Tags: cruisedrifticehokkaidomuseumsokhotskwinterdestinations

Drift ice or in Japanese, ryuhyo 流氷 is one of the unique winter phenomena you can observe in Hokkaido. As the name suggests, drift ice is sea ice or ice floes floating in the sea. Hokkaido is the southernmost point in the northern hemisphere to see drift ice.

The ice actually originates from the Amu River in the Siberia. It drifts through the Sea of Okhotsk to Hokkaido with the help of winds and sea currents while growing larger and thicker along the way. By late January, the ice starts to appear on the eastern coast of Hokkaido, covering the open sea in the region with chunky ice floes.

The spectacle is a must-see for visitors coming to Hokkaido in winter. While drift ice is available for viewing from late January until late March, February is the best month to see the drift ice at its peak. Cities along the coast of the Okhotsk Sea become very happening with events and activities to celebrate the season.

In this article, I will suggest some popular ways to enjoy drift ice in Hokkaido.


See, Touch and Feel the Ice Yourself

Due to their locations along the coast of Sea of Okhotsk, Abashiri, Monbetsu, as well as Rausu and Utoro on the Shiretoko Peninsula are among the great places to catch drift ice. During drift ice season, you can see the floes right before your eyes – at the harbours, on the shores and also at the sea.

Besides looking at the floes from the shore, why not go down and have fun with the ice by walking on it and even taking a dip in the sea covered with ice? You can sign up for one of the guided tours packed with interesting drift ice activities for a memorable winter experience in Hokkaido. These seasonal tours are available in the towns famous for drift ice such as Shari/ Utoro, Rausu, and Abashiri.

These websites may be useful to you:

Hokkaido Experience | http://h-takarajima.com/?ml_lang=en
Yokoso Japan | http://www.yokoso-japan.jp/en/index.htm


Drift Ice Festivals

Drift ice festivals are held in Abashiri and Monbetsu in February around the same time every year. Featuring snow statues and ice sculptures projection mapping and illumination, food stalls offering delicious seafood, performances, and activities, these festivals provide a good opportunity for visitors to catch a glimpse of the local culture. If you’re planning a visit to the region during the season, be sure to check the event websites for exact dates and programs of the events.

Projection mapping at drift ice festival.

These websites may be useful to you:

Abashiri Drift Ice Festival | http://abashiri.jp/tabinavi/en/index.html
Monbetsu Drift Ice Festival | http://mombetsu.net/en/drift-ice-fes


Drift Ice Sightseeing Cruises

A popular and a good way to enjoy drift ice – not only see it but also hear the sound and feel the impact as the icebreaker ship crush the ice floes and making its way through the ice-covered Okhotsk Sea. During the cruise, you may see wildlife such as Steller’s sea eagles, white-tailed eagles and even seals lying adorably on the floes. Better yet, a sunrise or sunset cruise would allow you to catch the impressive scenery of drift ice tinted with an orange glow.

The two most popular cruises are Abashiri Drift Ice Cruise by icebreaker ship “Aurora” (3,300 yen, departing from Abashiri), and Monbetsu Drift Ice Cruise by icebreaker ship “Garinko-go II” (3,000 yen, departing from Monbetsu). There are also drift ice tours departing from other places such as those from Rausu provided by local tour operators, as well as those from Sapporo available on Yokoso Japan. Check the websites for cruise schedule as the drift ice season is approaching.

On icebreaker ship “Garinko-go II”.

These websites may be useful to you:

Abashiri Drift Ice Cruise by “Aurora” | https://www.ms-aurora.com/abashiri/en/
Monbetsu Drift Ice Cruise by “Garinko-go II” | http://www.garinko.com/winter/ (in Japanese only, so just translate the page)


Drift Ice Museums

Besides drift ice festivals, both Abashiri and Monbetsu also house a drift ice museum. Each of the museums, the Okhotsk Drift Ice Museum in Abashiri and Okhotsk Sea Ice Museum of Hokkaido GIZA in Monbetsu, has a subzero exhibition room where you can see and touch the actual drift ice even during summer.

Drift ice museum in Abashiri also housing Mt. Tento Observatory.

There are also hands-on activities, informative displays about drift ice and wildlife associated with it, as well as audio visual hall showing movies related to drift ice and natural beauty of the areas. Don’t miss the opportunity to see the adorable clione or “sea angels”, a type of mollusk that can be found underneath the sea ice.

Clione also known as sea angel

Okhotsk Drift Ice Museum オホーツク流氷館
Opening Hours | 8:30 AM – 6:00 PM (May to Oct), 9:00 AM – 4:30 PM (Nov to Apr)
Website | https://www.ryuhyokan.com/guide/en/home.html

Okhotsk Sea Ice Museum of Hokkaido GIZA 北海道立オホーツク流氷科学センター
Opening Hours | 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM (closed on Mondays)
Website | http://giza-ryuhyo.com/eng/index.html (multilingual brochures available)

Extra information that may be useful:

  • The amount of drift ice varies every day even in February. It is possible that on some days, you don’t see any ice floating at the sea at all.
  • Guided tours and drift ice cruises are popular and tend to fill up quickly during peak season. Always book in advance.
  • Still, the trips are subject to change or even cancellation due to weather conditions, the amount of drift ice available on the day, or the minimum participant count is not met. Check with the respective operators when making a reservation or before departure.
  • Reservations or inquiries about the tours and cruises can be made at tourist information centres, tour operators’ offices, and also hotels or ryokans. It is also possible to check it online, although some understanding of Japanese might be required.

Visiting Hokkaido in Winter

While Hokkaido in winter offers some of the most heavenly scenery, there are things to take note when traveling around the island during winter.

It gets dark early (around 4 PM) and getting to your destinations may take a longer time than expected. Take into account winter weather conditions when planning your journey. It would be good also to have a backup plan in case your itinerary is affected by bad weather.

Public transport especially bus services tend to be limited or not operating at all during winter. On the other hand, driving rental car in rather outback Eastern Hokkaido during harsh winter could be dangerous and not recommended, unless you have experience in winter driving.

Visitors can make good use of JR trains, guided tours, as well as special bus services such as the East Hokkaido Sightseeing Bus and East Hokkaido Express Bus which connect major winter sightseeing spots including the boarding points for icebreaker ships and areas providing accommodations.

These websites may be useful to you:

Eastern Hokkaido Sightseeing Bus (winter edition)
http://en.visit-eastern-hokkaido.jp/plan-your-trip-all/toursightseeingbus_winter/

East Hokkaido Express Bus (available in winter only)
http://en.visit-eastern-hokkaido.jp/plans/expressbus/

Kyla HS
Kyla HS
A student, part-time translator and writer. I like anime, Jpop and Jrock in general but ultimately, I love to travel and often spend most of my expenses on food.

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