How To Cruise An Icebreaker Ship In Hokkaido



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Even by Japan’s already impressively high standards, Hokkaido is beautiful. 

Taking a cruise on an icebreaker ship in Hokkaido is an unforgettable way to explore this wilderness. 

icebreaker ship in hokkaido The Real Japan Rob Dyer

How To Cruise An Icebreaker Ship In Hokkaido
by Rob Dyer

Japan's second-largest island

Hokkaido is the second largest island of Japan, and its largest prefecture. About 43 km north lies the Russian island of Sakhalin. Beyond that lies the coastline of Siberia. This most northerly of Japan’s islands is still largely untamed and wild.

It’s also the harshest and coldest, with average January temperatures ranging from −12 to −4 °C (10.4 to 24.8 °F). None of which puts off more brown bears making Hokkaido their home more than anywhere else in Asia, outside Russia.

hokkaido in winter The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Hokkaido in winter is a beautiful sight

Untamed and wild

Whilst it is rarely on the must-see list of people visiting Japan for the first time - that is an oversight. Hokkaido offers the explorer myriad opportunities for adventures that will get you closer to Japan’s natural landscape than few other places can.

If you have a taste for more unconventional modes of transportation, and rare opportunities, then joining an icebreaker ship off the coast of Hokkaido delivers on both counts.

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This most northerly of Japan’s islands is still largely untamed and wild

On my first trip to the island in 2001, my wife and I went on an icebreaker ship in Hokkaido, and to this day it remains an unforgettable experience. One I thoroughly recommend.

More on this, with photographic evidence (!) below.

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Ice floes in the Sea of Okhotsk

The Sea of Okhotsk lies between Hokkaido and the Russian island of Sakhalin. It is a forbidding landscape in winter, but affords ideal conditions for observing the massive annual ice floes.

During the midwinter ice floe season (typically between the end of January and end of March), it is possible to travel aboard icebreaker ships. It is sometimes possible to see the ice at the start of April but it’s best to check first and this can vary from year to year.

ice floes in hokkaido The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Ice Floes In The Sea of Okhotsk

A bird lovers paradise

As well as enabling you to experience first hand the thrill of cutting through the drift ice, it’s a chance to spot the local wildlife. The area is considered one of the richest northern temperate marine ecosystems in the world.

It is home to an abundance of fish, bird and marine mammal life. Known as a ‘bird lover's paradise’, the Okhotsk Sea's shores serve as a haven for large colonies of the common and thick-billed murres, tufted puffins and Steller’s sea eagle the world's largest raptor.

As well as the fish and mammals in the sea itself, it is possible to see the eagles, seals, and even Ezo Red foxes actually on the ice flows.

Stellers eagle in hokkaido The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Steller's Sea Eagle / Photo: by Michael Pinczolits, CC BY 2.0

Icebreaker ship cruises

A few companies offer prearranged icebreaker trips. This is one of those times when joining a prearranged tour really is the easiest way to marvel at this spectacle. Tours operate out of two main harbours in the region: Abashiri and Shiretoko.

Located near Hokkaido's eastern tip, in Abashiri the sea remains an important part of the community as well as the economy, as fishing, oysters, and seaweed are still an important means of livelihood for many people living here.

Shiretoko is derived from the Ainu word sir etok, meaning "the end of the Earth"

A further 90 minutes east by train from Abashiri, the Shiretoko peninsula is home to the Shiretoko National Park. The name Shiretoko is derived from the Ainu word sir etok, meaning "the end of the Earth".

Abashiri harbour in hokkaido The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Fishing boats mored at Abashiri Harbour

The white-capped mountains of the Shiretoko Peninsula

Whichever harbour you choose to cruise from, whilst the ship you’ll likely join is geared towards carrying tourists, nevertheless, they were built for their main purpose - breaking ice. So don’t expect too much in the way of luxuries.

The ship we took (the Aurora II in the photo) sailed out of the harbour in Abashiri. The white capped mountain ranges of the Shiretoko Peninsula can be seen on the horizon as you head out into the Sea of Okhotsk, providing an impressive backdrop to the start of the journey.

Temperatures will always be cold when the ice is flowing. Add to that any wind chill factor, and to keep the worst of the freezing atmosphere out, you'll need to wrap up in the warmest clothing you have with you.

Aurora icebreaker ship in hokkaido The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Icebreaker ship Aurora II

But that bracing wind is all part of the experience, only serving to make it all the more impressive that Hokkaido's impressive array of wildlife can survive out here on the ice - even in the deepest of winters.

However, if you're lucky, you may have one of those ideal Japanese winter days, when warm sunshine and clear blue skies temper the worst of the ambient temperatures, and afford the perfect conditions for taking in the awesome views.


The local landscape

One thing worth considering if you are thinking of taking a icebreaker ship in Hokkaido is if you want to factor in travelling around the neighbouring landscape, taking in the local landscape as well.

There are some, lasting from as little as 4 hours, to as long as 14 days tours that include both cruise and sightseeing.

icebreaker ship in hokkaido The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Your's truly with my wife (circled in yellow) at Abashiri Harbour

We did this with our tour. A coach took us up to Lake Mashū in the Akan Mashū National Park. Lake Mashū is a volcanic crater lake surrounded by steep walls 200 metres (660 ft) high. It lays claim to being the clearest lake in the world with visibility down as far as 41 meters.

The views from up here down into the lake are said to be impressive. Unfortunately, on the day we visited there was a lot of low cloud interrupting our view.

Nevertheless, as Akan is an area of volcanic craters, crystal clear lakes, hot springs and forests, it was still worth it for what we did see enroute.


Booking icebreaker cruise tickets

Prices are very reasonable. Cruises like ours on the Aurora II out of Abashiri cost typically less than 3,500yen per adult, and about half that for children. Tickets are available, priced for adults and elementary school-aged children (infants can ride the ship for free).

A discount on the standard adult fare is available for group bookings. Check with individual tour operators for confirmation of details.

At the busiest times of the season ships can get fully booked more than a month in advance. Therefore, to be guaranteed a cruise on a day that suits you, it is best to book your tickets in advance.

Everything you need to know about the trips available and book tickets your ship can be found here:


Regional sightseeing tours and experiences

If you want to make the most of your time in Hokkaido and factor in some local sightseeing as well as an icebreaker cruise (as we did, and I recommend you do), then there are a few options.

Sapporo: Private Customized Guided Tour

Explore the best of Sapporo with a private guide on a 4 or 6-hour tour. Discover both the modern and traditional sides of this dynamic, ancient city.

View Details on this Tour HERE.


9-Day Hokkaido Snow Festival Tour - includes onsen visits both in Abashiri and Shiretoko

Start in Sapporo and end in Akan National Park! With this adventure tour you have a 9 day package taking you through Sapporo, and 8 other destinations. This is a small group tour that includes hotel accommodation as well as an expert guide, meals, transport and more.

View Details on this Tour HERE.


14-Day Highlights of Hokkaido Cycling Tour - includes Abashiri, Shiretoko, Lake Mashu and Akan National Park

Start in Sapporo and end in Abashiri! With the bicycle tour Highlights of Hokkaido, you have a 14 day tour package taking you through Sapporo, Japan and 6 other destinations in Japan. Highlights of Hokkaido includes hotel and hostel accommodation as well as an expert guide, meals, transport and more.

View Details of this Tour HERE

Getting Here

By Air

There are multiple direct flights from Tokyo (Haneda airport) to Memanbetsu Airport, taking 100 minutes. Options via either flag carrier Japan Airlines (JAL) or low cost airline Air Do. Abashiri is 30 minutes by bus from Memanbetsu Airport.

Check flight options via Skyscanner.

Check flight availability to Sapporo

By Train

Since the opening of the Seikan Tunnel connecting Hokkaido to the main island of Honshu it has been possible to catch a train to the island.

JR's Tohoku/Hokkaido shinkansen runs between Tokyo to Hokkaido's capital Sapporo - where you'll need to change for services to Abashiri. The Japan Rail Pass can be used for this trip.

By Car

Sapporo > Abashiri - The quickest drive from Sapporo to Abashiri is 334km, taking around 4hr and 30mins via Routes 12 and 40. Note: Route 40 is a toll road.
See the Route on Google Maps.

Sapporo > Shiretoko - The quickest drive from Sapporo to Shiretoko is 421km, taking around 6hrs via Routes 12 and 40. Note: Route 40 is a toll road.
See the Route on Google Maps.



Abashiri - has 18 properties in Abashiri.
See the list of accommodation in Abashiri. has 7 properties in Shiretoko.
See the list of accommodation in Shiretoko.

Sapporo - has 184 properties in Sapporo.
See the list of accommodation in Sapporo.

Check Hokkaido accommodation availability

The island of Hokkaido is justifiably known as Japan’s largest wilderness and for being the coldest part of the country.

A cruise on an icebreaker ship in Hokkaido into the Sea of Okhotsk is an unforgettable experience. One I can completely recommend.

Just be sure to pack your thermals!

Abashiri Port Location Map

Rob Dyer The Real Japan

About the Author

A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of

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  • Jessica Schorr says:

    This requires your immediate attention and action!
    A pod of orcas is currently stuck in an ice drift off the northern coast of Japan.
    Heartbreaking drone footage shows the animals struggling in vain to free themselves, and a witness reportedly stated that they “seemed to be struggling to breathe.”
    A similar catastrophe occurred in the same area in 2005—and tragically, most of the orcas involved died after no intervention was made.
    Please deploy undertake all possible measures to free the orcas, including sending in an icebreaker boat immediately if needed.
    Time is of the essence, as the animals are at high risk of being frozen over!
    The world is waiting for you to do the right thing and save these orcas!
    Thank you,

    • Hi Jessica, thanks for your message. I too saw this story on the news and it was indeed sad to see. Nature can be tough.

      Unfortunately, I’m not in any position to be able to do anything to help them. I do not own a boat, I’m not even in Japan at the moment.

      I saw an update on the news this morning that said there has been no sight of the whales for some hours. Hopefully they have managed to find their way back to open waters.

  • Japan is my favorite place to visit. You mention lovely places in Japan. Thanks for writing such a good blog.

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