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.
Asahikawa to Wakkanai (JR Soya Line)
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’.
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 Furano Line and the JR Sekihoku Line. The city is straddles the clear rivers and laid out in a grid pattern.
BOARDING ›› About 25km north after leaving Asahikawa, the train crosses the steep Shiokari Pass (塩狩峠) and its small station. This place is known for Miura Ayako’s famous novel ‘Shiokari Pass‘ and you will find her literary museum (塩狩峠記念館 / 10am-4.30pm Apr-Nov / Closed Mon / ¥200) behind the train station.
Kenbuchi 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.
BOARDING ›› Only rapid and local trains stop at Kenbuchi. 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 (羊と雲の丘 / 9am-6pm), called the Suffolk Land. This farm is 3.5km west of JR Shibetsu Station and a taxi will cost around ¥1500 for up to four people.
BOARDING ›› The line passes through the Nayoro Basin’s rustic rice fields. Before arriving at Nayoro, look out for the impressive Kimaroki (キマロキ) steam locomotive snow plow train (covered in winter) on the right.
At the heart of the Nayoro Basin, this city 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. Nayoro was once a rail junction for Fukagawa (in Sorachi Region) and Okoppe (in Okhotsk Region).
BOARDING ›› One stop north of Nayoro, Nisshin (80.2km) is the closest station to Hokkaido Sunpillar Park and two rustic guesthouses.
DETOUR: 40km West of Nayoro
Japan’s largest artificial lake Shumarinai-ko is designed as a water-based prefectural natural park. The best way to experience the lake is to pack camping gear, rent a boat, fishing and spend a silent night. This lake is on the JR Bus Shinmei Line (深名線) between Fukagawa and Nayoro via Horokanai.
From 1964 to 1985, Bifuka was a branch point of the Biko Line for Niupu. The station itself has the Old JNR Biko Line Memorial Hall (旧美幸線資料室 / Free) on the 2nd floor, with old railway tickets and photos.
About 20km east of Bifuka, you will find the charming rural village of Niupu (仁宇布) where is said to be the setting for Murakami Haruki’s famous novel “A Wild Sheep Chase”.
BOARDING ›› Japan’s northernmost large-scale rice fields open up around Hatsuno (101.9km), one stop north of Bifuka.
This is the closest station to Teshiogawa Onsen (10am-9pm / ¥400 / www.teshiogawa-onsen.com) for 1km on the riverbank. Only local trains stop here but it is worth spending for one night.
BOARDING ›› Located between Teshiogawa-onsen and Otoineppu stations, Sakkuru (124.7km / no stop for the limited express train) has a seasonal rider house (Jul-Sep) near the platform.
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 (天北線記念館 / Free) and the popular soba stand Tokiwaken (常盤軒 / 10.30am-2pm Fri-Tue).
BOARDING ›› The train follows the right bank of Teshio-gawa in the serene Kamiji Valley (神路渓谷), which flows into the Sea of Japan. One stop north of Otoineppu, Osashima (135.6km) is home to the Ainu’s prominent sculpture Sunazawa Bikky’s Atelier 3 More (9.30am-4.30pm / May-Oct / Closed Mon) in an old wooden elementary school.
At the northern edge of Kamikawa Region, this rural riverside town has several cycling routes, a cozy onsen and an eco museum.
BOARDING ›› From Toikanbetsu (175.8km), the line enter Soya Region with coastal wetlands and dairy farms. Before arriving Horonobe, the train passes through the 45th parallel north.
On the southern side of Sarobetsu Shitsugen, Horonobe is a transfer point for Rumoi on the coastal Ororon Line. JR Horonobe Station ticket window offers bike rentals for free (7.10am-3pm).
BOARDING ›› Between Horonobe and Toyotomi, Shimonuma (207.2km) is about 2km east (30-minute walk straight) of Sarobetsu’s largest marsh Panke-numa (パンケ沼).
Northern Hokkaido’s top dairy farming town of Toyotomi is the main gateway for Sarobetsu Shitsugen wetland, as well as Toyotomi Onsen. Adjoining JR Toyotomi Station, where you can rent a bicycle (¥300 per hour, ¥1500 per day).
BOARDING ›› One stop north of Toyotomi is Tokumitsu (220.9km), the nearest station to Miyanodai Viewpoint (宮の台展望台) with great wetland views. It is hard to visit by a few local trains, but you can reach there by rent bikes from Toyotomi Station.
Just a short walk from the platform, Kabutonuma Park Camp-jo (兜沼公園キャンプ場 / May-Sep) overlooks the gentle marsh and has a variety of bungalows and cottages. Only local trains stop here, but it is one of the best places to sleep before arriving at Wakkanai.
BOARDING ›› After you pass Bakkai (245.0km), the train follows the scenic coastal terrace overlooking Rishiri-to island in the sea. All trains make a brief stop at Minami-Wakkanai (256.7km) near the government district.
Japan’s northernmost train station of Wakkanai is an important turning point for all tourists. In summer Wakkanai is crowded with group tourists, railway enthusiasts, hiker, bikers and cyclists. They spend a couple of time in the town and its surroundings before traveling onward.
CONNECTIONS ›› Wakkanai has ferry connections to Rishiri and Rebun islands. In summer there are also international ferries to Sakhalin Island, Russian Far East. Local bus runs to Soya-misaki, mainland Hokkaido’s northernmost cape.
BOOK YOUR STAY ONLINE: WAKKANAI
Most accommodation is within easy walking distance from both Wakkanai and Minami-Wakkanai stations. You will need to book ahead in summer. Room rates rise sharply between summer and autumn.