Icebreaker cruise Hokkaido



If you’re looking for a truly unique winter adventure in Japan, consider hopping aboard an icebreaker cruise in Hokkaido. Getting up close to frozen, glittering seas on a special ship designed to plow through ice is an incredible opportunity you won’t find in most places.

During our last winter trip to Hokkaido, we embarked on this rare experience and now we can say that we are one of the few to have made a trip on a real impressive icebreaker.

Our Icebreaker Ship – The Garinko III Imeru

The icebreaker ship we traveled on was not your regular icebreaker. Typical icebreakers are equipped with an enforced hull and have a slightly different shape to more easily clear the ice. In addition they are equipped with more powerful engines to be able to push through the vast ice.

The Garinko III is even more impressive. It is equipped with 2 giant drills. Attached to the bow of the ship they forcefully crush the ice that floods in front of the ship. The whole boat shakes as it breaks through the thick ice. The crumbling and crackling noises of the chunks of broken ice that scrape and slide along the ship’s sides make the experience complete. It is almost like the sound of a gigantic ice machine.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of noise from the wind and the engine in the following video. By editing that out, the sound of the ice that the boat is breaking through has also become less spectacular. Still, I hope this video gives an idea of what to expect.

The Icebreaker Cruise Experience

The icebreaker cruise also includes a visit to the Okhotsk Tower. This tower stands at the entrance of the port. Shuttle buses run back and forth to the tower but you can also easily reach the tower on foot if you wish.

You can choose for yourself whether you want to do the cruise first or visit the tower first. We had traveled to the pier a bit earlier so that we could visit the tower beforehand.

The Okhotsk tower is unique because it features observation platforms above and below the water. From above you have a view over the drift ice on the Okhotsk Sea. When you descend you can admire the underwater life. There wasn’t much to be seen through the windows when we were there, luckily there are also some aquariums where you can admire the local marine life.

Next, we visited the Tokkari Center, a rescue center for injured seals. It is a small-scale center with 5 basins each housing 2 or 3 seals. It is located right across from the Garinko Center (where the cruise departs).

The animals are fed 3 times a day, at noon, 2 pm, and 3:30 pm. During feeding times you can see the animals up close, help feed them, and pet them.

Unfortunately, all the explanations given were in Japanese so we didn’t understand much of it. Of course, it’s always fun to see these cute animals and it’s a good way to kill time while waiting for the cruise.

Bring cash. Admission is 500 JPY for adults and 300 JPY for children. Admission is not included with the cruise and can only be paid at the vending machines at the entrance of the center.

Then it was time for the cruise. The Garinko III is the largest and newest ship. It features 3 decks with interior seats. During our cruise there was more than enough room. On the first 2 decks you can choose a spot by the window where you have an unobstructed view of the ice. However, if you go up another level there is a promenade that wraps around the ship so you won’t see much other than the backs of your fellow passengers.

Of course, the best way to enjoy the spectacle is from outside. At the front of the ship you can see and hear how the ice is ground up by the drills and how it disappears under the ship with a dramatic sound.

It takes a while before you reach the ice and therefore we made sure to secure a spot by the window on the first deck where we could warm up a bit until we reached the ice pack. Once we were there we went outside to enjoy the spectacle, before returning inside to warm up again as the ship turned back towards the port.

Many people stayed inside but believe us, once you reach the ice you really have to go outside. The view at the front is simply spectacular. You can also take a look at the back to see how the ship leaves a nice ice-free trail in the dense ice pack.

Even though plowing through the ice may have only lasted half an hour, the total cruise lasts about an hour, it really was an adventure and something we had never done before. We are really happy we took the chance to experience this when we visited Hokkaido.

How to get to Mombetsu

There’re no trains to Mombetsu. If you don’t have a car the easiest way to get there is by bus. Several buses run daily between Mombetsu and Sapporo/Asahikawa. We used the Mombetsu Drift Ice Express.

You do need to purchase a ticket for these buses in advance. In theory, this is possible online, but that did not work for us. We bought our tickets at the counter the day before and there turned out to be more than enough space.

Where to stay in Mombetsu

We stayed at the Hotel Okhotsk Palace. The hotel is close to the bus terminal and within walking distance of several restaurants.

It was obvious that the hotel does not often receive Western tourists. However, we were no less warmly welcomed. We were able to check in with the help of a translator app.

You can use the Mombetsu Shuttle bus to get to the pier where the icebreaker cruise departs. The hotel has information about the price and schedule of this bus.

Organized tours

Are you dreading arranging the bus to Mombetsu yourself? Or is your planning a little tight for 2 days in Mombetsu? Then you can also do a day trip from Sapporo.

You can even combine the cruise with a visit to the Asahiyama Zoo, famous for its Penguin Walk, or the Souunkyo Festival.

This tour can be found on Klook.

Other drift ice experiences in Hokkaido

You can also do an icebreaker cruise departing from Abashiri. Abashiri is located about 120km further east from Mombetsu and the cruise is largely comparable to the cruise we did from Mombetsu. The company in Abashiri uses the traditional icebreaker ships with reinforced bow, without the drills. We therefore think the experience will be slightly less spectacular than the one we had in Mombetsu.

Abashiri is one of the larger port towns in Hokkaido and is connected by train with Asahikawa and Sapporo. This could be an advantage if you have a JR pass.

Another, even more unique experience, is a walk on the drift ice. These walks depart from the Shiretoko peninsula which lies a bit further east. Outfitted in special thick dry suits you can take a walk on the drift ice. The suits ensure that you keep floating if you were to end up between the ice by accident. The daring ones can even take a jump in the icy cold water to drift between the ice floes.


An icebreaker cruise in Hokkaido provides adventurers a chance to sail through breathtaking arctic scenery and experience the raw power of a special ship crashing through ice. It’s a unique winter travel memory I’ll cherish. If you thrill to extreme encounters with nature and unforgettable modes of transportation, add an Hokkaido icebreaker voyage to your winter bucket list!

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