Monbetsu in northeastern Hokkaido is a region of Japan which is still relatively undiscovered, but has plenty for the intrepid traveler to see and do. The area has air access to and from Tokyo's Haneda Airport through ANA, meaning that your off-the-beaten-path winter getaway is easy to reach. If you're wondering what to see and do in this part of the country, here are seven recommendations for a meaningful, cultural trip.
Drift Ice Cruising
An unmissable experience in Monbetsu during winter is hopping aboard the Garinko II icebreaker ship to explore the natural phenomenon of drift ice up close. The sightseeing cruises last approximately an hour, and can even present the opportunity to see majestic birds of prey and marine life like seals while you're out on the water. The ship has both an indoor and an outdoor portion, but be sure to dress for the conditions and rug up - it gets mighty chilly out there!
Sake sampling at Bar Ikioi
When the weather outside is frightful, warming up with some sake sounds most delightful - and if you want to sample some local brews, look no further than Bar Ikioi. The bar's proprietor is incredibly passionate about one of Japan's most iconic beverages, and gives you quite an education in the differences in sake from around the country. The reputation of sake originating from Hokkaido has been growing positively in recent years, and I was personally impressed with what I tried.
Preparing your own crab dinner
A trip to Monbetsu wouldn't be complete without trying some of the region's specialty of crab. If you really want a unique experience when it comes to your crab dinner, Monbetsu Ryoshi Shokudo is a must. The staff here help you prepare several crab dishes from scratch - you're literally presented with a crab and a range of tools to extract the crab meat yourself. Slightly intimidating to begin with, but completely memorable when you're done.
Crab Claw Statue
If you're not a big seafood fan, there's still a way you can connect with Monbetsu's crab obsession - at the famous crab claw statue by Monbetsu port. The statue stands 12 meters high and 6 meters wide, and is a popular spot for fun photo opportunities. People typically grab a seafood Cup Noodle, and pose with the statue so it looks like the crab claw is emerging from the cup. Worth a visit!
Wildlife Experience at the Okhotsk Tokkari Center
The Okhotsk Tokkari Center operates as a conservation facility for earless seals local to the area. At the center you're able to see these wonderful animals up close, and even have the opportunity to feed and engage win play with them. The small entrance fee of 200 yen for adults and 100 yen for children ages 6 to 12 years is used to further their conservation efforts, and provide food and rehabilitation for injured seals. A truly incredible experience.
Learning about the region's marine life at Okhotsk Tower
Okhotsk Tower is a spot where you can learn about the marine life that don't just survive, but thrive, in the icy waters of the Sea of Okhotsk. There are a range of hands-on exhibits here, including touch pools and the opportunity to hold giant chunks of drift ice yourself. The tower is also home to Japan's largest undersea observation window, giving visitors even more of an insight into what happens under the water's surface.
Enjoy arguably Japan's best kamaboko
Dezuka Suisan is a spot which is loved by locals for the high-quality kamaboko (fish cakes) which are produced here. The store has been around since the 1930s, and the kamaboko varieties they make are made with locally sourced fish and other ingredients such as vegetables from across the prefecture. The staff will happily fry up your kamaboko on the spot if you'd like to enjoy it then and there - there's a sitting area on the second floor of the building where you can enjoy your purchases and appreciate the snowy winter landscape.