#GKtrip special part 6: Abashiri, the dreadful prison

We took the Taisetsu train (also covered by JR Pass) bound for Abashiri. It was not a short ride, and powerful as it was, the Taisetsu was no Shinkansen. It took us an almost four-hour ride from Asahikawa to finally reach the city in the Okhotsk subprefecture. It’s already dark so there’s not much to see outside, but at least I had the JR Hokkaido free magazine. Coincidentally, the current edition’s Ainu culture page discussed about the ezorisu (Hokkaido squirrel). One of the experts in the article mentioned how Asirpa in Golden Kamuy made citatap from the squirrel. It seemed like Golden Kamuy was now everywhere in Hokkaido.

Abashiri is a small city – it only has about 40,000 residents. It’s famous for its extreme cold, and indeed people pack here every winter to enjoy a voyage among the drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk. The main train station and the area around it were already nearly dead quiet when we arrived, but it seemed like the city wasn’t centered around the main station, unlike many other cities and towns in Japan. There’s only a convenience store and two eating places around the station, as far as we could see. There were two, or maybe three, tall modern hotels that also looked like they were not having many guests. Another hotel, old and dark, seemed to have closed business forever. A few taxis waited in front of the main station, hoping for the passengers of the last trains, who we reckoned would find it much easier to hop into a taxi than waiting for a bus. Public transport can really be a problem in Japan’s small towns—for one, they’re usually infrequent.

Although I’d love to use one of the taxis, we actually had booked a hotel very close to the station. We dragged our suitcases across the thinly snow-covered pavement, passing by a Sukiya (one of the two eating places we saw), and voila, there’s our hotel. It seemed to be run by a family and was named Sun Hotel—it sounds a bit ironic, remembering how little sunshine Abashiri gets every year. Unlike the modern hotels nearby, the building looked rather old, but comfortable. We were warmly welcomed by a man—probably the current head of the family. He was all smiles, so maybe the name Sun was apt for this hotel after all. He warned us that the lift was rather small. The two of us and our suitcases filled it almost to the brim.

Creakingly, the lift moved to the top floor. We were given a spacious room (by Japanese standards), with twin bed and slanted roof. I had always wanted a room with slanted roof, so I was extremely happy. The bedroom was clean, and the room was warm, so there was no reason to complain.

We rested a bit then went out again to have some dinner in Sukiya. Surprisingly, there were actually quite a lot of people in the restaurant, and while we were there, people came and went. Maybe the streets looked deserted because people, understandably, liked it better to spend time inside warm buildings.

Tired after our journey to Otaru and Asahikawa that day, we returned to the hotel after eating and went to sleep. In the morning, after breakfast we went to the station, because from what we found on the Internet, it’s said that there’s a bus going to the prison museum and making a stop at the station. We didn’t find any bus, and instead took pics with a fake barred prison window provided at the station. The prison, along with the drift ice, was another reason why people come to Abashiri.

Now, a note about the prison. The one that appeared in Golden Kamuy was the old one that now serves as the museum. In Golden Kamuy, we see how the 7th Division attacked the prison via the river using battleships. It would be impossible to do it now, because the old prison has been moved from its original site to the hills. (They call the place where it’s located ‘Mount Tento’ although it didn’t really look like a mountain to us.) At the place where it once stood, near the river and surrounded by hills, now there’s a new maximum-security prison. Here’s a blurry pic of the new prison that we took from a bus:

We didn’t see any bus stop in front of the train station, so we asked the station staff. It turned out we must wait at bus stop number 2 in front of the Sukiya. We walked back towards the restaurant and waited for a while until the bus arrived. Other buses heading to other directions also stop there, so make sure you board the right one!

Here’s the schedule for the buses going to the Prison Museum (Hakubutsukan Abashiri Kangoku):

The bus (¥240) took us through quiet streets, passed the new prison, and up the hills to the Prison Museum. When we arrived in the museum, there were only a few other people there. We went to the ticket booth to buy an adult ticket (¥1080) for us each. By the way, if you show the following pdf to the ticket booth, they’ll give you 10% discount.

The sight of the museum complex, under a slight snow, already excited us so much. Finally! We’re in one of the locations that served as the most important setting for Golden Kamuy! We of course first half-ran to the Main Gate which has featured so often in the manga. It was onto the roof of this gate that Inkarmat, Asirpa, and Kiroranke climbed up to witness Nopperabou and Sugimoto being shot by Ogata. The layout of the buildings is no longer the same with the time when Golden Kamuy was supposed to occur, though; so even if we climbed the Gate now, we couldn’t see the same things as Asirpa &co did.

Passing the Main Gate, we went to the left, where stood the prison staff quarters where Kadokura lived (see chapters 126 and 127). We took a look inside and imagined how the characters sat and talked about their plan to break through into the prison.

Life in Abashiri Prison was grim not only because of the strict rules and the harsh climate: prisoners used to be basically enslaved to build Hokkaido central highway in unfavourable conditions. As many as eight prisoners died each day during the project. When they were taken away from the prison to work, prisoners would be housed in temporary houses like in the picture below.

Remember, this is Hokkaido – imagine living like this in the cold!

We think we also need to warn you that there are many life-like real-sized human figures in this museum, showing us the daily life of the prisoners. Some of them are also accompanied by recorded conversations and sounds and are capable of some limited movements, so be prepared if you’re one that gets surprised easily!

Our next destination was the Penological Museum, which housed various displays showing the life in the prison, including stories of famous individual prisoners.

We could also experience a 7-minute “sensory theater” that depicted the hardships of the prisoners at that time. Many that died were buried where they fell. Later their remains were unearthed and buried properly, respectfully. Hokkaido owed much to these prisoners, and this museum was one of their ways to own up their dark past and pay respect to the prisoners.

After this museum, you could choose to go left first to check the original Abashiri Prison (the buildings of the Futamigaoka Branch) or went straight to the Prison House and Central Guard House where a good part of Golden Kamuy was set. As we were walking to the front door, we saw holes below the prison windows. Could Shiraishi escape through one of these holes during Abashiri clash? The holes apparently used to be bigger than they are now.

We walked into the Central Guard House, from where five wooden wings radiated. This layout made it possible for guards in the octagonal guard hut at the center to monitor the corridors of the five houses at the same time.

The hut was where Head Jailer Kadokura hid when Tsurumi’s men attacked the prison. We of course tried to hide like him and found it must have been very terrifying for him to duck there, separated only by a wooden wall from the oncoming soldiers.

Some of the cells in the wings were meant to be used for several prisoners at the same time, but there were also smaller, solitary cells like the one where Nopperabou was kept in.

According to notes, temperature in the prison house can fall to -30° C. And without adequate heating, we can imagine how terrible it was for the prisoners. Indeed, we felt it’s much freezing inside than outside – probably it has something to do with the way the prison was built and the materials used.

Overhead in one of the corridors, we could see the figure of Shiratori Yoshie, who’s famous for breaking prisons time and again and is the model for Shiraishi Yoshitake. Using a device near the front door, you could also hear a recorded interview with Shiratori.

When we finally felt satisfied looking around the prison building, we went out to the bath house. The moment most waited by Abashiri prisoners was bath time. They had toilet in each of their cell, but to take a bath they would be taken to the bathhouse. Each man was given only 15 minutes from start to finish, including for shaving. And they did it all under the scrutinizing eyes of guards.

We passed by a brickwork punishment chamber and solitary chambers, where they locked prisoners that kept giving them trouble. (Like what happened to Gansoku Maiharu in Golden Kamuy.) Not far from the solitary chambers there was the lecture hall, where Hijikata and Inudou had their “till death do us part” showdown.

We didn’t check if there was really any basement, though! The curious thing was the lecture hall and the prison house were actually built in 1912, several years after Golden Kamuy was supposed to be set.

We returned to the center of the building complex, where the Administration Building of the original Abashiri Prison was.

We had on purpose chosen not to enter this building first because we were eager to see the museum and the prison house. The building had been turned into a spacious exhibition room of old photographs showing the history of Abashiri prison.

We can also learn more about the prison through a video called The Warden’s Tale that was made as if the warden was speaking to us from behind his desk.

Inside the building, there was also a store that sells Abashiri Prison souvenirs and a certain manga. Only one title is sold and that of course is…

You might have known that Noda Satoru left his drawings in various places in Hokkaido, especially those that feature in the manga. He gave one to the prison too—one of Shiraishi, as can be expected—and it was put up on a wall, with a Golden Kamuy poster and a page showing the convicts standing in one of the prison corridors.

We walked around the premises once more, looking at details we had missed the first time, before leaving the main parts of the museum. Sometimes you could see ezorisu scuttling freely among the trees. There’s also a nipopo on the prison ground; nipopo are wooden dolls in the shape of little children believed as amulets by the Ainu. Right now, they’re only made by Abashiri prison inmates and sold in the town.

We went to the Prison Cafeteria, where we can try eating the “Prisoner Meal” packages. Package A with mackerel is ¥720, while package B with atka mackerel is ¥820. Abashiri Prisoners used to produce their own food, such as pickled radish, miso, and even soy sauce, and these packages were what they ate, more or less.

We didn’t feel like leaving so soon, but the sun was already high while we needed to collect our baggage from the hotel and would start our long way back to Sapporo. Anyway, it was a Monday, and other museums in Abashiri were closed. Luckily, the Prison Museum opens all year long!

We took the Taisetsu 4 which arrived in Asahikawa at 16:19, then continued the journey to Sapporo aboard the Lilac that departed Asahikawa at 16:30. Tomorrow, we’re moving south, to visit the Poroto Kotan, the Ainu village in Shiraoi!

To be continued

Abashiri Prison Museum

Open every day of the week, all year, 8:30-18:00 (May-September), 9:00-17:00 (October-April).


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