Japan’s smallest city by population (3000!), Utashinai grew into a 46,000-person with nine coal mines in the 1950s. Sorachi’s last underground mining was finished in 1995, but this tranquil city has some cultural places along the valley.
Beyond the mountains from Utashinai or runs along the Sorachi-gawa from Takikawa, Akabira holds the original forms of old mining remnants behind the modern train station.
The route between Sunagawa and Akabira via Utashinai is an attractive alternative route from Sapporo to Furano.
PLAN YOUR OWN TOUR
Utashinai & Akabira At a Glance
START: Sunagawa Medical Center (Around 10am)
FINISH: Akabira Station (Around 4pm)
DURATION: 6 hours
BEST TIME: Wednesday to Sunday from May to October
Sunagawa Medical Center
Sunagawa on the JR Hakodate Line (and Route 12) is a transfer point for Utashinai. Hourly buses for Utashinai depart from this big medical center (砂川市立病院: called shiritsu byoin), a 5-minute walk northwest of JR Sunagawa Station across Route 12. Note that there is no bus stop at the train station.
NEXT: From Sunagawa Medical Center, take the Chuo Bus (10:00 *9:50 Sat & Sun) for Akabira-Showa (赤平昭和). You will see the Old Mitsui Sunagawa Coal Mine (旧三井砂川炭鉱 / Closed in 1987) with a pithead near Chuo 1 (中央1丁目) bus stop in Central Kamisunagawa with an old train station (旧上砂川駅). Then get off the bus at Utashinai-shigai (歌志内市街 / 10:40 *10:30 Sat & Sun) in front of the local museum.
OPTIONAL TOUR: CLIMBING
神威岳 / 467m
The pleasant grassy mountain of Kamoi-dake (467m) offers a scenic view of Naka-Sorachi Region from the top. You might be overlooking the sea of clouds in the morning. Allow three hours for the return climb from Kashin (歌神) stop on the bus route between Sunagawa and Utashinai. Best way to reach the summit by car on a narrow road.
Utashinai City Museum Yume-tsumugi
歌志内市郷土館ゆめつむぎ / 10am-5pm / Closed Mon, 30 Dec-4 Jan / ¥200 / yumetsumugi.ec-net.jp
This museum, located at the site of former Utashinai train station, tells of the city’s mining history. Displays cover coal mining machines, livingware and an imitation mining tunnel.
大正館 / TEL 0125-42-2276 / Basically appointment only
Right opposite the city museum, the 1920 red brick warehouse is now a private collection gallery Taisho-kan owned by Honjo Yoshio, a friendly artist. It houses an amazing number of classic clocks, lamps, cameras and signboards donated by local citizens.
The gallery is open only the Golden Week (late April to early May), but if you meet him by chance at the entrance or contact by phone, you will be able to enter here.
NEXT: Walk 1km east on Prefectural Road 114 (for Akabira).
HISTORIC BUILDING & LUNCH
悲別ロマン座 / 1-5 Kamiuta / 10am-5pm May-Oct / roman-za.com
This colliery-era triangular-roof building was originally a theater for Kamiuta coal miner from 1953 to 1971. In 1984 this abandoned place became the location site of Japanese TV drama “Yesterday, in Kanashibetsu” (昨日、悲別で) produced by Kuramoto So. Today the Roman-za transformed into a cafe that serves curry and coffee.
NEXT: From Kami-Utashinai (上歌志内) bus stop opposite the Roman-za, take an Akabira-bound bus (12:43 *12:33 Sat & Sun) to Sumitomo-Sakae-machi (住友栄町 / 12:50 *12:40 Sat & Sun). From where, it is a 10-minute walk to Akabira Coal Mine Guidance Facility over the train tracks.
COAL MINE HERITAGE
Old Sumitomo Akabira Coal Mine
旧住友赤平炭鉱 / 485 Akabira / 9.30am-5pm Wed-Sun / Guided tour 10am & 1.30pm Wed-Sun / www.facebook.com/zuriyama
The historic symbol of Akabira, this coal mine facility was constructed in 1968 and has a 43.8m-high pithead (立坑櫓: tateko-yagura), bathhouse, office, cutting machines and elevators to the underground (depth 650m) used until its demise in 1995.
Today Akabira Coal Mine Guidance Facility (赤平市炭鉱遺産ガイダンス施設) does guided tours (¥800) with a former miner. Join the guided tour starting at 1.30pm.
NEXT: Walk 800m northwest along the train tracks, you will see an old concrete building on the left.
COAL MINE HERITAGE & SCENIC VIEW
ズリ山階段 / 693-1 Akabira / 24hrs Spring-Autumn / FREE
Just behind Akabira Station, the Old Hokutan Akama Coal Mine (旧北炭赤間炭鉱: closed in 1973) formed the 130m-high big artificial mountain Zuri-yama. From the old storage house, you can climb up the 777 stairs to the summit viewpoint look down upon the whole city. At least allow 30 to 45 minutes for the return climb.
NEXT: There is no footbridge between Zuri-yama Stairs and JR Akabira Station. Walk 500m west along the train tracks and pass through the underground walkway, then walk 350m east to the train station.
The 6-storey, castle-style JR Akabira Station (赤平駅) has a rooftop observation deck (May-Oct / FREE).
CONTINUE: From JR Akabira Station, you can catch a local train for Furano (15:53 or 16:41) or Takikawa (16:41). There are also non-reserved highway buses for Furano and Sapporo in front of the train station.