Wednesday, April 18, 2012

HAJET Article

The Hokkaido Association of Japanese Exchange Teaching (HAJET) organization is a social group that hosts events, training programs, and works to create a better working and social environment of the JETs (and non-JET English teachers) in Hokkaido.  For members, there's a monthly magazine about life in Hokkaido and Japan, teaching issues, and other articles.  It's a volunteer magazine with low circulation numbers, but I've recently been writing a little bit and thought I'd share the article I wrote for the March magazine.  I've done a few entries on the Drift Ice already, but the article is a little more thorough.  Enjoy!

Intro written by the editor:

The Hokkaido winter presents numerous opportunities for the adventurous JET. Intense and persistent, the prevailing Siberian weather patterns give rise to a number of fascinating phenomenon. Kitami ALT Kimberly Johnson details one of the more unique winter experiences, a boat trip over the famed Abashiri Drift Ice. 

My little article:

Every winter something happens in the Okhotsk Sea that draws thousands of people out from under their kotatsu and into the coldest weather Eastern Hokkaido has to offer.  A unique combination of Siberian winter temperatures and an influx of freshwater from the Amur River allow the top layer of the Okhotsk Sea to freeze. For several weeks every winter, white drift ice flows from the Chinese river down through the Okhotsk Sea until it reaches the edge of northeastern Japan.  Although much of Eastern Hokkaido sees this phenomenon at some point during the winter, one place in particular has done a good job of promoting it as a tourist destination—Abashiri.

Abashiri’s claim to fame—aside from a notable prison museum—is the Drift Ice.  A local company runs boat cruises for a fee of ¥3,300 per person to help visitors get a better glimpse of the surreal landscape.  I’ve personally gone on the Aurora Boat Tour of the drift ice two years in a row and would highly recommend it if you’re curious about the drift ice.  Frequently the drift ice is just far enough offshore that getting a good view is only possible if you’re on a tour boat.  The boat tour is useful because it gets you far enough out into the Okhotsk Sea that you can be surrounded by a frozen ocean.  An added bonus is that your chances of seeing wildlife on the ice increases a bit further away from shore—though I cannot personally attest to this since the only thing I think I saw was a seagull way off in the distance one time.

The problem with the drift ice is that it’s somewhat unpredictable.  Locals will say that in the past decade the unpredictability has only increased.  It’s possible for the ice to reach Abashiri, retreat, and continue that pattern throughout the winter.   Therefore, one weekend may have a decent ice showing, while the next is disappointing.  I went last year during the first weekend in February and thought it was impressive, but even compared to that good experience, this year’s ice was spectacular.  

The season for viewing the drift ice has ended, but for those of you who are staying another winter, consider adding it to your plans next year!   

Logistical Info:

The official English website for the Abashiri Drift Ice boat tours - - has almost all of the information you might need about arranging a visit.  If you’re interested in seeing where the current ice is, and where it was in the last 13 years, check out -  And one last website that you might find useful is – it shows hourly updates of the harbor so you can check out the drift ice before you go.

A few things to highlight:

·       The cost is 3,300 yen per person and the cruise will take about an hour.
·       Traditionally, the best time to visit the drift ice is sometime in February.
·       Driving is the easiest way to get to boat docking sight, though you can get a bus from the train station if you don’t have a car.  Parking is plentiful and free.
·       I would recommend the sunset cruise for those who enjoy a little variety.  You’ll get to watch a beautiful sunset and get some interesting lighting for your photographs.
·       They run several boat tours a day, but if you’re going as a group or want to do the sunset cruise, calling ahead to reserve a spot is a good idea.  The sunset cruise will be cancelled if there is no drift ice, so call the morning of to double check that the cruise is still on.
·       The inside of the boat is warm, but being on the decks will be frigid.  Dress as you think you should for a Hokkaido winter, then add another thermal layer or two.   

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