A most captivating time at Abashiri Prison Museum in Hokkaido

 Walk through this gate, and you enter another world - a place that was considered the worst place in Japan.
 The old buildings of Abashiri Prison have been restored and converted into a museum so visitors can see what life was like for the scum of Japanese society. My photos are a bit out of order from the tour, but I'll see what I can do. Here is the church/meeting space.
 Inside, it's quite spacious and works well even today for parties. Could you imagine having your prom here?
 The original gate. I'm not sure if it really is original or if it's just a reconstruction of the original.
 Were you a bad prisoner? You probably ended up here, the original solitary confinement building. No windows, but I'm sure it's quite cold.
 Even darker and more secure, this brick structure became the new solitary confinement building. The back of the building has the door to the cell, while the door in the front just allows access to the single cell so the prisoner could be fed.
 This is the administration building, a spacious wooden structure. It holds the museum gift shop and a photo spot.
 There are also offices inside the administration building which can be viewed.
 Prisoners took baths in this large bathhouse. Some original brick prison wall pieces were dumped on the grass outside.
 Inside the bathhouse, the prisoners disrobed, entered the bath in stages (wash, rinse, and soak), and then got dressed on the other side of the changing room. Note the soap on a rope. Prisoners had 3-9 minutes at each stage of what were sometimes rare bathing opportunities.
 Up the hill, the original wooden prison building can be visited.
 In the winter, this stove would provide a tiny bit of heat. Given that Abashiri is on the northern end of Japan's northernmost major island, the prison received lots of snow and wasn't pleasant in the winter months.
 Using a radial/spoke design, one guard could sit in his little box near the entrance and see every single cell door.
 You can walk down a couple corridors. The longest-accessible one has the most interesting cells. Several doors are open and you can see mannequins inside doing various things - trying to stay warm, writing letters, doing crafts.
 This cell has a missing grate, and the nearby sign explains about how the prisoner attempted to escape.
 This prisoner is trying to get out through the roof. Or just get up where it's warmer. I'm not really sure.
 You can walk into a couple cells. But many of the ones toward the end of the row are locked.
 Heading back outside, the kiln used to make the bricks for the walls and buildings still exists, unique as having a series of steps.
 There's a small shrine nearby too.
 An old farming prison was moved to the Abashiri museum, and shows what life was like for laboring prisoners.
 A small garden grows various fruits and vegetables.
 Pumpkin, anyone? I don't think these are quite ready.
 Carrier pigeons were used to communicate because Hokkaido was (and still is, in many ways) quite remote. Three prisoners are trying to catch a returning pigeon, while a fourth climbs a ladder to fetch another and the guard watches on.
 These cells can be viewed and entered too. This building is much brighter and more airy than the main one. That's probably a bad thing in winter.
 The cells have angled slats instead of walls or bars. the slats allow air flow, which is important to help the cells remain heated. They are positioned in such a way that prisoners can see into the hallway, and guards can see in the cells, but it is impossible to look through them to the opposite cells.
 The cells were enlarged at some point, so there are two doors for most cells. I don't remember why this was done. Note the shelves provided for inmates to keep personal belongings. I am sure they didn't have much.
 In the corner, a small covering hides a squat toilet. It seems that when the cells were enlarged, they decided to get rid of the squat toilets and converted one end cell into a toilet room. Working at the farm must have been so much more enjoyable than sitting in solitary.
 You weren't alone though. This mustached man is watching.
 Here are the toilets in the bathroom "cell" complete with plastic to keep the odor out.
 The farm prison is a very large building with several areas. Here is a work space.
 The kitchen is really large. Those two guys must be cooking rice and soup for all the prisoners.
 There's a smaller bath here, too.
 Despite that somewhat more social environment, this was still a prison, and eating in silence was the norm.
 There are additional buildings for the original prison; this is a machinery building and barn of sorts for farming materials.
 This triangle-shaped building was a temporary shelter for prisoners on work detail outside of the prison.
 It isn't that pleasant inside. It was dry, and probably not too windy, but prisoners slept on a thin mat among their fellow inmates.
 And the mustached man is always watching.
 This warehouse-style building is quite important!
 In here, there is equipment used to make sake and other goods!
 Abashiri is known for some of its products, including pickled vegetables. You can buy some omiyage at the store just outside the prison gates - it has more souvenirs than the small gift shop inside the museum.
 The guards who worked at Abashiri had it pretty nice. Here is some housing for an officer and his family.
 His wife is still here, preparing dinner, as their daughter plays in the background.
 Dad is home from work, not worried about his family's safety. A similar style of living happened on Alcatraz, as many of the guards' families lived in housing on the island.
 He has a place that's larger than mine, actually, with a nice tatami mat floor and a quality dresser. That futon closet is really big.
 I almost missed this later-era courthouse, recently added to the museum and renovated.
 This courtroom has only one judge. It was used for smaller crimes.
 Across the way, a larger courtroom with three judges was used for the more serious crimes.
 This criminal is being interrogated. I'm sure he'll be found guilty eventually.
 The small holding cell has a woman suspect awaiting trial. A woman stands guard.
 Sunny day at the lily pond...
 Rainy day at the bridge across the pond. This bridge represented the last steps to the prison. Just past it is...
 the prison gate seen above.
 It's interesting that the prison could have a big hole in its wall and not be worried about escapees. The prisoner in the picture is tending to the stream/pond.
 There's also a nice waterfall feature in a small garden. I don't remember if this is prison-time authentic or added to the museum.
 Prison life. It's hard work.
 In addition to making goods and foods for Japanese citizens, the prisoners also built their own prisons and performed maintenance.
 There's a modern building with some interactive exhibits and a full-size model of the replacement prison.
 You can look and walk inside the mock-up cells (note the lack of ceilings, functioning buttons and outlets, and the window that looks at a white wall). This is a group cell for four prisoners. They sleep on futons which they put away every night.
 The solitary cells are much smaller, about half the size of my apartment...
 The toilet isn't very private here, if a guard is looking in your cell.
 Walking into the cell, despite the open ceiling, things got quiet very quick due to the heavy door and insulation. You could look through the window at the cells across from you, but conversation would be purely non-verbal.
 At least prisoners have a small table to write on, books to read, and a TV to keep them entertained.
 In contrast, the group cell has as slightly-private bathroom. The windows mean you can be seen but at least you can shut a door so the noise stays isolated.
 The interactive exhibits include photo opportunities. You can get in line as a prisoner by putting on the robe and hat provided. Or you can shackle yourself to a heavy ball to see what it was like to drag those cliched rocks around.
 Back at the farm, they've gone to work plowing the fields.
 But inside, some really bad criminals are being punished with restraints. The one on the far right has a muzzle, and the one next to him is in a strange straitjacket of sorts. The other sitting prisoner on the left has one leg and both hands shackled together. Odd, but I guess it's effective.
 Abashiri is not a place I'd want to live year round. It's just too cold. That, in itself, would probably be enough deterrent for any would-be criminal. But as a museum, it's a place you can easily spend half a day. Every building can be entered, studied, experienced. English signage is pretty good about each building - its purpose and use, sometimes with history.
 You may not be able to take a bath at Abashiri Prison, but would you want to, anyway? The statue in the picture below was taken in front of Abashiri Station.
Abashiri Prison is located a short ways from the town of Abashiri, located in the northern area of Hokkaido. It's open from 8AM to 6PM April through October, and 9 AM to 5 PM November through March. Admission is a bit steep at 1050 yen, but you get what you pay for. With 21 buildings, you can get through in an hour but if you make the trip all the way out to Abashiri you should take your time and enjoy the time and effort they've put into the place.

Access is either by walking (4km/40 minutes uphill) or taking a short bus ride from Abashiri Station. The bus doesn't run very frequently, but schedules can be found at the station. There's a restaurant that serves authentic prison food; I didn't get a chance to eat there but supposedly it's pretty good.

While in Abashiri, you can visit some other local museums or, in winter, take a drift ice cruise. Shiretoko is a short train ride away, a beautiful peninsula where you can take a nice cruise in the summer or walk on the ice in winter. That was my original plan, but the typhoon canceled my cruise. Due to the timing and duration of the peninsula cruises, they end up being a day trip or part of a multi-day stay in Shiretoko.

The museum was quite nice, and Abashiri/Shiretoko is worth a visit for the ice or peninsula cruises too. Note that it takes a long time to get to Abashiri from Sapporo by train and flights can be somewhat costly.


  1. Great post. I will never forgive myself if I don't end up taking a trip to Japan at some point in my lifetime. This museum is simply amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Abashiri is totally out of the way, but it's really worth the visit. I wish there was a museum like this closer to Tokyo. There is an amazing architectural museum I haven't posted about yet near Nagoya though.