Once unimaginably far in the back of beyond, the name Abashiri used to strike terror into the hearts of suspected lawbreakers: it was the site of Japan's first maximum-security prison, built in 1890 when the enlightened Meiji era leaders decided to copy Western ways instead of simply executing convicted criminals. Enlightenment in this case, however, translated into backbreaking hard labor (mostly road construction) and, for difficult cases like political prisoners, unheated cells in a region where winter temperatures often fall below -20 degrees C (-4°F). The prison was finally closed in 1984, though a newly constructed prison continues the tradition.
Today's Abashiri is an unattractive modern town filled with the implements and smells of its largest industry, fishing.
Abashiri is the closest thing in northern Hokkaido to a transport hub.
The nearest airport is Memanbetsu, 16 km south of Abashiri. Buses connect to the train station before and after flights (25 minutes, ¥880).
Okhotsk Limited Express trains run from Sapporo to Abashiri. There are four daily departures, reaching Abashiri in 5 1/2 hours at a cost of ¥9440 each way. There is no charge for the service with the Japan Rail Pass.
Night buses from Sapporo (around ¥8000) are the cheapest way to get to Abashiri. Buses arrive and depart from Abashiri Bus Terminal, a short walk east from JR Abashiri Station.
Abashiri is fairly spread out. A network of buses radiates out from JR Abashiri Station.
Abashiri Prison Museum (網走監獄 Abashiri Kangoku), (Take a bus towards Mt. Tento.). 9AM-5PM daily. The original buildings of the infamous prison, but moved halfway up Mt. Tento to free up some real estate. Inside are wax dolls of prisoners and a hair-raising array of shackles and other prison paraphernalia.¥1050.
Museum of Northern Peoples (北方民族博物館 Hoppō minzoku hakubutsukan), (Take a bus towards Mt. Tento and get off at ''Hoppō-minzoku-hakubutsukan-mae''.), . Tu-Su 9AM-5PM. A modern and moderately interesting museum documenting the lives of northern peoples around the world, not just Japan's own Ainu, but Canadian Inuit, Scandinavian Lapps and many more. Most of the material is also in English and there are some fairly bizarre exhibits involving, among other things, seal intestines.¥450.
Okhotsk Ryūhyō Museum (オホーツク流氷館 Ohōtsuku ryūhyōkan), . Spring-fall 8AM-6PM. A museum devoted to pack ice, a common phenomenon in the Okhotsk Sea but for some reason a subject of fascination among the Japanese. Here you will learn all you ever wanted to know and more about pack ice, and even get a chance to touch some in a room kept at -15 degrees C (5 degrees F) (coats provided).¥520.
Icebreaker Aurora (おーろら), 網走市南3条東4丁目5の1, ☎ +81 0152 43-6000 (fax: +81 0152 43-6200), . Jan-Apr 9AM-6PM. In winter, when the famed pack ice has surrounded the town, you can hop aboard this boat for a one-hour tour of the stuff up close and personal.¥3300, discounts for groups of 15 or more.
Being a fishing port, the thing to eat here is fresh seafood, particularly crab. There's a morning market (網走感動朝市) with great selection.
Abashiri Beer, (10-minute walk from JR Abashiri Station.). Like every other city in Hokkaido, Abashiri has its own microbrew. The brewery is open to visitors and also serves lunch and dinner.
Abashiri Ryūhō-no-Oka YH (網走流氷の丘ＹＨ), ☎ +81 0152 43-8558, . Offers good views of the Okhotsk Sea.HI members ¥3250.
Internet Cafe Link (インターネットカフェリンク), 駒場北５丁目８３−６ (5m south of Abashiri Station by car.), ☎ +81 0152 61-0320, . 24h. This is a net cafe with drink bar, karaoke room, manga, and showers. The showers could be nice for anyone traveling on the cheap.
The best reasons to come to Abashiri are the natural attractions near it.