Thursday, December 19, 2013

Hokkaido Winter 2013 北海道冬季之旅 - Abashiri Prison Museum 博物館 網走監獄

Visited 07.02.2013

Mirror Bridge led to the entrance of the museum
Apart from the phenomenal drift ice viewing activities that occur during winter months, the most prominent attraction in Abashiri that is opened to visitors all year round has got to be this museum. The mention of "prison" will likely shun most people away, and almost impossible to associate this as an attraction. Apparently this is not case in Abashiri where you can find many souvenirs and merchandises (from milk candies to T-shirts) with images of prison imprinted on them.

History: 1890 marks the birth of Abashiri Prison, when 1200 prisoners and 173 jailers were sent to the small town of Abashiri, for the daunting task of building a central highway through Hokkaido. Japanese government had to expedite the development of Hokkaido in light of potential advancement of Russia to the South. Prisoners went through extreme hardship and merciless treatment to complete the building of central highway within a remarkably short period of time. Lives were lost due to long working hours, malnutrition, dangerous working conditions and harsh winter conditions. Important rail roads, fishing ports and farms in Abashiri were also the fruits of labour from these prisoners. Abashiri Prison undoubtedly marks an important chapter in the development of Hokkaido.

In 1984, the original site was reconstructed and a portion of the heritage buildings were shifted to Mount Tento and this eventually transformed into the current Abashiri Prison Museum, for future generations to understand the conditions of Abashiri Prison in the past and highlights the contributions made by prisoners towards the development of Hokkaido in the early days.



Red brick gate of Abashiri Prison
 - A reproduction of the "Mirror Bridge" (as the prison was located on the other bank of Abashiri River) that leads to the entrance of the prison. There is significance behind the name of this bridge: prisoners would look at their reflections in the clear waters and see the things they wanted to change about themselves. Main gate is constructed out of red bricks, which took five years and 1.5 million bricks to complete.

Reproduced the life of prisoners in temporary quarters
Right: Communal bathhouse; Left: Prisoners at work
- There are many things to explore within this 17 hectares size museum. Reproduction of staff housing, temporary quarters, agricultural warehouse and communal bathhouses provided an insight on the life of staffs and prisoners in the past. Life size wax figures were also displayed within these facilities, enhancing the realistic factor of the museum. Display boards for outdoor exhibits are written in four languages - Japanese, English, Chinese and Korean, allowing foreigners to better relate to these exhibits.

Five winged prison - a unique arrangement of prison cells
How interior was kept warm during cold weathers
- The restored five winged prison was my favourite exhibit in this museum. A unique architecture, the name came about as the five wings of prisoner cells radiate outwards with a central guard station in the middle. This building was modeled after Belgium's Leuven Prison. In the winter months, a fireplace with a long exhaust extending along the length of each wing is used to keep the interior warm.

Details of prisoners' contributions to development of Hokkaido found in Penological Museum
- Exhibits providing historical background on the construction of highway between Abashiri and Asahikawa can be found in Penological Museum. Display boards were all in Japanese for this particular section, and explanations in English/Chinese/Korean were provided on separate sheets of papers (which you can bring home) placed on stands found in various corners of the exhibition hall.

Modern prison reproduced in Penological Museum
- The present Abashiri Prison is also reproduced in Penological Museum. As compared to wooden buildings in the past, prisoners are now housed in concrete structures which have improved lighting and sanitary conditions. The nutritional value of food were also taken into consideration during meal preparation to meet the health needs of prisoners.

- Cafeteria located in Futamigaoka Farm (which is closed in winter) reproduces the prison menu, for visitors to experience the meals prisoners ate in their cells. Another cafeteria which offers the same menu (all year round) is located at the entrance of the museum. In photos, the food do look like typical Japanese meal sets! Did not get to try it personally.

- Overall, it was time well spent in the museum, immersing ourselves with historical information on Hokkaido. Do allocate at least 1 - 2 hours to explore this well constructed museum fully.  


Abashiri Prison Museum 博物館 網走監獄
〒099-2421 網走市字呼人1-1
Opening hours:
0800 - 1800 hrs (Apr - Oct)
0900 - 1700 hrs (Nov - Mar)
*You can get into the museum till one hour before closing time.
Admission fee = 940 yen (90 yen off with discount voucher)
Discount voucher can be retrieved online ( or from hotels located in Abashiri.


How to get there? 

(1) By Tourist Facilities Bus 観光施設めぐり (Mount Tento line, 天都山).
Board the bus at Bus Stop 2 at Abashiri JR Station. Fee = 230 yen.
Timetable (In Japanese):

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