Japan’s northernmost rail line, JR Soya Line (宗谷本線) from Asahikawa covers 260km lonely kilometers further north at Wakkanai, passing through the Nayoro Basin along the peaceful river Teshio-gawa. Most travelers just take the train and aim for Wakkanai, but a few relaxed places are worth to take a placid time and get their taste of the night sky full of stars.
DURATION: Limited express 3 hours 40 minutes, Local 6 hours (basically require a change at Nayoro)
ORDINARY FARE: ¥5940 (Valid for 3-day)
BEST TIME: You will avoid the crowds from October to May.
Kenbuchi ›› Discovering laid-back and charming countryside by yourself or check out the Picture Books Museum.
Nayoro ›› Experiencing ‘Japan’s most light and dry snow’ at the ski area on Piyashiri-yama or exploring the sunflower fields by bicycle.
Otoineppu ›› Taking placid time out in Hokkaido’s smallest village along the serene river. Thanks to its nice place to sleep and eat.
Toyotomi ›› Exploring the isolated Sarobetsu Shitsugen and head east to Japan’s northernmost tiny onsen ‘village’.
Northern Hokkaido’s major transport hub, Asahikawa is a good base for a train trip on the JR Hakodate Line, the JR Furano Line and the JR Sekihoku Line. The city is straddles the clear rivers and laid out in a grid pattern.
0km to 45.2km
Asahikawa to Kenbuchi
About 25km north after leaving Asahikawa, the train crosses the steep Shiokari Pass and its small station. This place is known for Miura Ayako’s famous novel ‘Shiokari Pass‘ and you will find her literary museum behind the train station.
Kenbuchi (only rapid and local trains stop here) is one of the prettiest rural towns in Northern Hokkaido but it is not touristy than Furano Region. You can explore the peaceful countryside with yourself. The line passes through the beautiful snowstorm prevention forest (European spruce) planted in 1942.
The main attraction in Shibetsu is its idyllic Hitsuji-to-Kumo-no-Oka, called the Suffolk Land.
53.9km to 76.2km
Shibetsu to Nayoro
JR Soya Line passes through the Nayoro Basin’s rustic rice fields. Before arriving at Nayoro, look out for the impressive Kimaroki steam locomotive snow plow train (covered in winter) on the right.
Nayoro makes a base for excursions in the surrounding countryside and mountains. In summer lovely sunflowers blooming in the serene fields. Ice-bound winter brings powder snow and mysterious sun pillars.
JR Bus Shinmei Line runs between Nayoro and Fukagawa via Shumarinai-ko and Horokanai.
Bifuka is known for its Japan’s northernmost large-scale rice fields. From 1964 to 1985, Bifuka Station was a branch point of the Biko Line for Niupu. The station itself has the Old JNR Biko Line Memorial Hall on the 2nd floor, with old railway tickets and photos.
About 20km east of Bifuka, you will find the charming rural village of Niupu where is said to be the setting for Murakami Haruki’s famous novel “A Wild Sheep Chase”.
This is the closest station to Teshiogawa Onsen (in Southern Otoineppu) for 1km on the riverbank. Only local trains stop here but it is worth spending for one night.
Developed by railway workers in the 1910s, Otoineppu is Hokkaido’s smallest village by population (around 700) but appealing place along the river surrounded by tranquil mountain forest. The woodcraft galleries and a pleasant onsen are dotted on the river bank.
The wooden train station including the Tenpoku Line Railway museum and the popular soba stand Tokiwaken. From Otoineppu, Soya Bus runs for Hamatonbetsu on the Okhotsk Line.
129.3km to 161.9km
Otoineppu to Teshio-Nakagawa
The train follows the right bank of Teshio-gawa in the serene Kamiji Valley, which flows into the Sea of Japan. One stop north of Otoineppu, Osashima is home to the Ainu’s prominent sculpture Sunazawa Bikky’s Atelier 3 More in an old wooden elementary school.
161.9km to 199.4km
Teshio-Nakagawa to Horonobe
At the northern edge of Kamikawa Region, this rural riverside town has several cycling routes, a cozy onsen and an eco museum. From Toikanbetsu, the line enter Soya Region with dairy farms. On the 45th parallel north, Horonobe is a transfer point for Rumoi on the coastal Ororon Line.
Northern Hokkaido’s top dairy farming town of Toyotomi is a main gateway for Sarobetsu Shitsugen wetland and Toyotomi Onsen. Adjoining JR Toyotomi Station, where you can rent a bicycle.
215.9km to 259.4km
Toyotomi to Wakkanai
Kabutonuma (only local trains stop here) is the location site of Kabutonuma Park Camp-jo (May-Sep) on the serene marsh. It is one of the best places to sleep before arriving at Wakkanai.
After you pass Bakkai, the train follows the scenic coastal terrace overlooking Rishiri-to island in the sea. All trains make a brief stop at Minami-Wakkanai near Soya Subprefecture government district.
Japan’s northernmost train station of Wakkanai is an important turning point for all tourists. They spend a couple of time in the town and its surroundings (such as Soya-misaki) before traveling onward.
Wakkanai has ferry connections to Rishiri-to and Rebun-to islands. In summer there are also international ferries to Sakhalin Island, Russian Far East.