Kushiro is a city on the Pacific coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. I recently found out that it is a favored destination for those looking to get away from the spring cedar pollen, (known in Japanese as hifunchi — place to escape pollen) from which my husband suffers terribly. I also learned it was a popular destination for those looking to get away from the unbearable summer humidity, from which most living things I know suffer terribly (hishochi — place to escape the heat). After a few more quick searches I managed to check off all our criteria for family vacations: easy access, kid-friendly lodgings, food adults would enjoy and places for the little ones to run and play even if it rained every day. Estimates were coming in significantly cheaper than competing destinations. Hmmm. Could this be an answer to my prayers? There was only one way to find out.
Our trip didn’t start out particularly well. A 90-minute flight from Haneda looked great on the itinerary but we realized, twenty minutes after takeoff, that an early morning start meant our two-year-old was being asked to quietly share a seat with her five-year-old sister, having had zero exercise. Lesson learned. Luckily, the flight was no longer than expected. We took a taxi into Kushiro upon arrival and started exploring. We were all happy to stretch our legs and hungrily breathed in the crisp Hokkaido air.
We had marked a few spots on Google Maps before we left Tokyo and headed toward an indoor play area. The Kushiro Children’s Museum is a playground, science museum and planetarium all in one, and it ended up being a spot we’d visit every day the facility was open. A large indoor sandpit by the entrance was free and open to all, and once inside the paid area there were even more activities. Our kids happily stayed on one floor called Asobi Land, playing house in a tent or climbing up and down a fancy jungle gym made of nets. But older kids will also appreciate the other floors, which include a planetarium, science museum and a lab. All this came free for small kids, ¥120 for grade and middle school students, and ¥590 for adults. On the Monday, when the museum is closed, we ice skated at Yanagicho Ice Hockey Rink, no doubt a good spot to cool off in the summer. (Tip: ask for a walker for the little ones, “kodomoyou no hojogu”).
A short walk away from the museum is the bustling Kushiro Washo Market, full of live crab, fresh seafood, sushi restaurants and souvenirs. Crab stall owners will steam your pick of shellfish and serve you a rudimentary but delicious meal in twenty minutes. But with two hungry kids we couldn’t wait, and we preferred the quieter Kushiro Tancho Market across the street. Here you will find pre-steamed crab on ice, ready to be devoured. Go for the kizuari (an imperfect shell), priced at ¥1,800 for 500 grams of kegani (horsehair crab), about half the cost of regular ones. The friendly shopkeepers will prepare the crab for you so it’s easy to eat. There’s also a popular seafood ramen shop on the premises that got a nod from Michelin.
Foodies will delight in all of Kushiro’s offerings. It is said to be the home of robatayaki, which is fresh seafood and vegetables grilled on charcoal. We opted for a more kid-friendly barbeque in Akkeshi, a seaside town where the oysters are in season all year long. We found a spacious restaurant called Aburiya at the Conchiglie food complex where we barbecued and steamed fresh shellfish.
We were also very happy with our complimentary hotel meals, which featured all-you-can-eat ikura (salmon roe) at the breakfast buffet and a steaming bowl of ramen every night. The hotel is a well-known chain around Hokkaido called La Vista, known for its savory buffets and in-house onsen (hot springs). They were fine with little children in their onsens as long as they are supervised, and conveniently had a coin laundry in the locker rooms with free detergent. The view from our room overlooking the Kushiro River was beautiful and about the only complaint we had was the spotty Wi-Fi.
One reason this area stays cool during the summer is that it’s often overcast. This makes for perfect canoeing weather in Touro, about 45 minutes north by car. We were able to get reservations with Lakeside Touro, and got a canoe to ourselves with a friendly guide. The kids got to row and loved it. In Touro we saw wild animals everywhere, like young families of deer, eagles circling above our heads, large whooper swans and even dozens of the revered tanchozuru cranes that are Hokkaido’s pride and joy. And having three large antlered deer run parallel to us on a drive was breathtaking for city slickers like us.
On the day we left we enjoyed a long soak in the hotel onsen, then took the kids back to the museum to tire them out for the flight home. We were back home in Tokyo by mid-afternoon. We can’t wait to go up again.
Kushiro Children’s Museum (Kodomo Yuugaku Kan)
Open 9:30am – 5pm. Closed Mondays except when a holiday falls on a Monday (closed the following day) kodomoyugakukan.jp
Yanagicho Ice Hockey Rink
Open daily 10am – 4pm, June 1 – March 31.
Kushiro Tancho Market
Open 6am-5pm. Closed Sundays.
Uotti Ramen inside Kushiro Tancho Market
Open 9am-4:30pm. Closed Sundays.
Aburiya inside Conchiglie
Open daily. Check website for times
La Vista Kushirogawa