Up the winding roads of Hokkaido to the northernmost tip of Japan, I spent a day in Abashiri, tucked in the eastern part of Okhotsk Subprefecture. The Sea of Okhotsk divides Japan from Russia.
During my stay, I visited one of Japan’s earliest maximum security prisons since the Meiji era. Built in the 1890s, 1200 prisoners across Japan were sent here to build the roads today that was meant to be a military path to counter Russia.
Over 200 prisoners died due to overwork, malnutrition and extreme weather. One of the hardest prisons to escape from, Abashiri is surrounded by sea that would freeze in the -20 degrees winter (along with tears) that I’m sure even Sylvester Stallone would freak out.
The old prison sector has morphed into a museum, but the city’s new maximum-security prison is still in use.
As ‘high level’ as Asians can be, it’s no surprise there were inmates like Gosunkugi (dubbed the king of prison breaks during the Meiji Period) who had a moniker of ‘Long Nail’.
Halfway through one of his six breakouts, he stepped on a nail 15cm long, pulled it out and ran for 12km. Ironically, he chose the Zen life and became a model prisoner entrusted with cleaning outside the gates.
Another escape artist Shiratori could break handcuffs with bare hands, dislocate joints to slide through and run 120km in a day. He escaped 4 times.
Entering Old Abashiri Prison
This is the Former Gate of Futamigaoka Farm. In 1891, for the purpose of ensuring Abashiri Prison’s self-sufficiency, construction began on what would be Japan’s largest prison farming project.
The former gate of this farming facility was moved here and restored to serve as Abashiri Prison Museum’s main entrance gate.
Agricultural practices were also established and the prison became a centre for soy and miso production apart from the labour behind the development of infrastructure work, including the main road connecting Abashiri and Asahikawa.
Jacket: Pull & Bear, Paris | Hat: Muji | Bag: F21
Aside from exhibits on the history of incarceration and punishment methods, the museum also has a cafeteria (above).
One can opt for inexpensive options (ramen, rice bowls, etc) to complement a bottle of Abashiri Prison Stout beer, but most people come here for the Prison Food Set Meals. They are recreations of the meals served to actual prisoners in Abashiri’s prison today.
Here’s a glimpse of what their menu looks like:
Among the 1,200 prisoners sent to Abashiri, a town which had a population of only 630 in those days, 69 served life terms and 362 served indefinite prison terms.
As the road construction was urgent to counter Russia, which was seen as pushing aggressively southward, work quotas were four times larger than normal.
Inmates were tied in a pair by chains and forced to work all day till midnight. More than 200 died due to overwork, lack of sleep and poor food.
Many other roads in Hokkaido were also constructed by prisoners. Under the prison’s principle of self-sufficiency, prisoners made commodities such as miso and soy sauce, cultivated fields and constructed buildings in which they were imprisoned.
The Prayer Hall
The original prison buildings, excluding some parts, were burned down in a forest fire that spread to the prison.
There are 22 building areas in all. Some have been completely restored while others are reproductions. The prisoners could come to this chapel to hear visiting chaplains speak and receive guidance towards rehabilitation.
And this is just a mandatory creepy picture…
The Solitary Punishment Chamber
An unruly prisoner could be confined here for up to seven days with only rice-water to drink and punishment could be increased to include light deprivation. Imagine being here, alone, in pitch black darkness…wtf.
For >1000 prisoners to bathe efficiently, the men were divided into groups based on their duties.
In lockstep, upon receiving the guard’s command, each group would take their turns at each station:
- 90 seconds to disrobe in the dressing room
- 3 minutes in the first bath
- 3 minutes to get out and wash their bodies
- 3 minutes in the second bath,
- 3 minutes to get out and shave
- 15 minutes to towel off and get dressed
Despite having only 15 minutes to bathe, the prisoners looked forward to it more than anything else.
The Radial Five-Winged Prison House
The Meiji government promoted the construction of modern prisons, such as this radial prison design that originated in the United Kingdom. In fact, it was a carbon copy of the one in Leuven, Belgium.
Five buildings of the “Radial five wings prison house” surround a watch tower that resembles a human hand from an aerial perspective.
Constructed in 1912 and used for over 72 years until 1985, this design allowed efficient management of 226 cells from a single watchpoint. Prison break, anyone?
Visitors can enter some cells to see the scratches and names carved on the walls.
This bell was used to warn of emergencies such as fires or escapes.
The Indoor Penological Museum
This building displays historical materials that explain why Abashiri Prison was constructed. In the centre, there is a “Sensory Theatre” (pictured below) that transports one back to 1891 during the construction of the Central road.
To understand the pain these prisoners went through, you can try walking with an iron ball tied to the ankles while lifting these gravel.
The cost for admission is ¥1080 for an adult ticket, but I read that if you stop at the information centre at Japan Rail’s Abashiri Station, you can get a discounted ticket for ¥940. Their website also offers a 10% discount.
How to get here:
From Abashiri Station, you can take a bus from stop No.2. The bus trip is only five minutes long, but you must tell the driver that you want to stop at Tentozan (costs around ¥230 each way). After you alight, it is a 1km walk up a gradually sloped hill.
For more information, visit the website: http://www.kangoku.jp/world/