From Asahikawa the JR Sekihoku Line (石北本線) heads east to Okhotsk Region, passes through the northern part of Daisetsuzan National Park. The alternative route from Kamikawa to Rubeshibe or Kitami via Sounkyo offers great hikes and onsen experiences.
Asahikawa to Abashiri (JR Sekihoku Line)
DURATION: Limited express 3 hours 50 minutes / Local 7 hours (require a change at Kamikawa or Engaru)
ORDINARY FARE: ¥5610 (Valid for 3-day)
BEST TIME: Mid June to mid October for hiking / February to mid March for winter wonderland
Kamikawa & Sounkyo ›› Kamikawa is a springboard for an easy detour to Sounkyo onsen village in Daisetsuzan National Park, the base for hiking or skiing Kuro-dake.
Ikutahara ›› Enjoying the delightful museum of worldwide wooden toys and a skin-friendly onsen near the train station with a literary museum.
Kitami ›› The reasons to stopover in Kitami itself is visiting the peppermint museum and yakiniku restaurants.
VIRTUAL TOUR ›› Essential Asahikawa
Northern Hokkaido’s major transport hub, Asahikawa is a good base for a train trip on the JR Hakodate Line, the JR Soya Line and the JR Furano Line. The city is straddles the clear rivers and laid out in a grid pattern.
BOARDING ›› JR Sekihoku Line branches off from the JR Soya Line at Shin-Asahikawa (3.7km). After passing through the rice fields on the Kamikawa Basin, the line skirts Hokkaido’s longest river Ishikari-gawa.
Kamikawa is a stopover en route to Sounkyo Onsen in the northeastern part of Daisetsuzan National Park. This town is also known for its tasty ramen and you will find excellent shokudo around the train station.
BOARDING ›› From Kamikawa to Shirataki, the train passes through the 4329m-long Sekihoku Tunnel (石北トンネル) on the forested Kitami Pass, completed in 1932. After which, the line enters Okhotsk Region. Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of Aikido (Japanese martial art), settled in Shirataki (85.9km) in 1912. Look out for his memorial monument (82.5km) on the right.
DETOUR: 22km Southeast of Kamikawa
Set on the upper stream of Ishikari-gawa, Sounkyo Onsen is Northern Hokkaido’s largest hot springs resort and the main base of Kuro-dake. The village sits along the deep gorge with columnar joints and a jumping-off point for Tokachi Region.
Maruseppu’s several attractions are dotted along Muri-gawa valley. From JR Maruseppu Station, there are three buses (7.15am, 12.05pm and 4pm) daily to the Maure Sanso (20min / ¥290), stopping at the Ikoi-no-mori (15min / ¥270) forest park.
BOARDING ›› The train runs along Yubetsu-gawa, which flows into the Sea of Okhotsk. Before arriving Engaru, you can see the 78m-high huge rock Ganbo-iwa on the left.
JR Sekihoku Line turns southwest and southeast at Hokkaido’s only reversing station Engaru. You might find yourself in the town while waiting for transport connections. Otherwise, take a dip in the tranquil Setose Onsen or visit the flower gardens.
BOARDING ›› After changing direction at Engaru, the line runs along Route 242.
JR Ikuhtahara Station has Okhotsk Literary Museum (オホーツク文学館 / 10am-5pm, to 8pm Thu / Closed Mon & holiday / ¥160). Immediately to the left as you exit the train station, the North King is a convenient and pleasant onsen for railway travelers.
BOARDING ›› Hallway between Ikutahara and Rubeshibe, the train passes through the legendary Jomon Tunnel (常紋トンネル: 507m) completed in 1914, which killed over a hundred workers during the construction. From Rubeshibe (161.9km), the line runs on the Kitami Basin, Hokkaido’s top onion producing area. Before arriving at Kitami, the train heads into the 2km-long tunnel.
DETOUR: 10k west of Rubeshibe
Onneyu Onsen おんねゆ温泉
Onneyu (温根湯 / おんねゆ) is a popular onsen village to break up a journey if you make a detour trip from Sounkyo Onsen continue to Kitami or Akan-ko by bus. There are a few onsen lodging along Muka-gawa. To the Michi-no-eki Onneyu Onsen, eight buses daily run from Rubeshibe Station (20min / ¥610).
Hokkaido’s widest city (1427-sq-km) of Kitami makes a convenient stopover point en route to Abashiri, and is also jumping off point to the beautiful lakes of Chimikeppu, Saroma and Akan. The city has a few interesting sights and a large number of yakiniku restaurants.
BOARDING ›› The next major stop is Bihoro (209.8km), where seasonal buses leave to the scenic Bihoro Pass overlooking Kussharo-ko.
The pleasant brackish lake Abashiri-ko is just a short walk from the train station. You can pitch a tent and relax in an onsen on the greenery shore. Memanbetsu Airport is about 5km south of the town center.
BOARDING ›› The train runs along the brackish lake Abashiri-ko as it approaches the Sea of Okhotsk.
Abashiri is the historical and cultural heart of Okhotsk Region. In 1890 the town has set up the prison for political prisoners, dissidents and criminals. The town has varied museums, lakes and places to stay, which makes it an ideal place for explore. In winter most tourists take an drift icebreaker cruises into the frozen sea.
CONNECTIONS ›› From Abashiri, the JR Senmo Line runs to Kushiro (169.1km) via Shiretoko-Shari (37.3km).