Beat the heat: Freezing fun at Japan’s ice museum


ABASHIRI, Japan — ”Oh! It’s c-c-cold!” squealed the members of a group from Singapore. They were inside the “ice floe experience chamber” where temperatures are 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Giant lumps of drift ice totaling 120 tons sit inside the chamber at the Okhotsk Ryu-hyo Museum, taken straight from the Sea of Okhotsk during winter. A Yomiuri reporter touched one and exclaimed, “That’s freezing cold!”

At the chamber entrance, museum staff handed out wet towels — which quickly froze over as visitors waved them around. Excited voices resounded once more over the icy delight, clearly in astonishment at the rapid freezing rate.

This unique museum is located at the top of a mountain in a southwestern area of Abashiri, on the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island and the northernmost of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Built as an annex to an observation tower, it offers a sweeping view of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Shiretoko Peninsula, located in the easternmost part of Hokkaido.

There are other facilities offering similar ice floe experiences throughout the year. But the Ryu-hyo (drift ice) museum in Abashiri — the southernmost point where floating ice can be found — was opened way back in 1980, boasting overwhelming amounts of drift ice.

In recent years, more foreign visitors, particularly those from Southeast Asian countries and Hawaii, have been seeking out simulated experiences of frigid environments. Exhibits featuring clione, a genus of small floating sea slugs dubbed “angels in a sea of floating ice,” have been gaining just as much popularity.

The city-run museum hopes visitors will have a good time and also learn something new about the scientific aspects of drift ice in the Okhotsk sea.

“Among other things, we hope visitors will learn that drift ice is not just about the scenic beauty of nature,” said 34-year-old guide Rurika Kawabata.

Here’s how it all works: The Amur River finds its way to the Sea of Okhotsk. The water that flows into the Sea of Okhotsk remains there, surrounded by the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands, Hokkaido and Sakhalin Island. Layers of fresh water, which tends to freeze more easily than seawater, are formed. These layers then become frozen from the stream of cold air that comes in from Siberia, resulting in ice floes.

But the amount of ice floes has declined year after year because of global warming.

“Abashiri is located at a latitude that is mostly unusual for drift ice to come down to. Drift ice therefore tends to respond sensitively even to the smallest of changes in sea water temperature,” explained Kawabata.

The museum began emphasizing environmental education by taking advantage of the renewal of its facilities in 2004. By setting up such displays as a northern hemisphere model to show the areas where drift ice reaches in the sea, the museum was better able to offer clear explanations to visitors.

“Protecting drift ice will lead to the protection of our own daily lives,” said Kawabata to a group of second-year high school students from Osaka Jogakuin High School on a school trip. Kawabata was calling on the students to lead their daily lives with more environmental awareness. Following their tour of the museum, students expressed their impressions, with one saying, “We are the ones who have to do something about it.”

In fact, the museum in its current form is undergoing final midsummer operations this year. With the current building set to be torn down, a new museum that will open next August is being built nearby.

The new museum will be furnished with upgraded equipment, including audiovisual devices. The plan marks a stark departure from its former days, when the current museum was a small facility where visitors peered at lumps of drift ice through glass panels. The clione displays were once nothing more than used jars of instant coffee.

It’s not a bad idea to think about the environment while reflecting on the museum’s history. But you’ll probably enjoy yourself more by cooling off in a sub-zero environment at the height of summer heat.