The miracles of the Sea of Okhotsk

Drift ice
Drift ice
Hideo Kishimoto
I watched the drift ice that comes to Abashiri every year for 44 years. So many things about the drift ice – the way the sea became a field of ice in one night, the sound the ice floes made when they rubbed together – could only be called magical, a miracle. In my story, I’ll look back on how drift ice was a part of my life.

Drift ice creaking in the night

I lived on a hill overlooking Abashiri Bay for 44 years. One night, I awoke to a rumbling sound like an earthquake. I got up and looked out at the sea but I couldn’t see anything. When I looked again in the morning, the sea had become a field of white ice that spread all the way to the beach and sparkled in the sun. That the sea could become covered with ice in just one night was a miracle to me.

After that experience, I began referring to the sound of the drift ice coming as ryuhyo-nari (drift-ice sound). Ryuhyo-nari can be anything from a low rumble that sounds like an earthquake to a creaking sound, and each sound is full of complexities and subtleties. I loved standing on the beach alone at night and listening to that sound while admiring the moonlight shining on the drift ice.

I was captivated by the drift ice as soon as I moved to this drift ice city, and I watched it every year for 44 years. So many things about drift ice could only be called magical, a miracle. In my story, I’ll look back on how drift ice was a part of my life.

Drift ice

Drift ice

The whistle of the drift ice

In late February, the height of drift ice season, we went to the beach and walked 100m out to sea. We made a campfire on the ice and used it to grill meat and warm sake, and we sang loudly. We called this event hyogen no utage (ice field party). At one point, everyone went quiet and we heard a sound like a quiet whistle here and there. Awakened to nature’s instincts, the young people squealed and ran across the ice. The whistling sound was coming from the small gaps between the ice floes, pushed out by the rising tide. It was a type of ryuhyo-nari, which I called “the whistle of the drift ice”.

The drift ice isn’t as impressive as it used to be – one of the older locals said “The ice floes used to be so big that they would make me think of tanks rolling in.” But it still comes. The unique structure of the Sea of Okhotsk and the effects of the Amur River on the continent create this miracle in the sea.

Drift ice with people

Drift ice with people

The ever-changing nature of drift ice

When I found out that a mountain of drift ice had formed on a beach, I traveled 250km to the Nemuro peninsula. Sheets of drift ice that had frozen at sea had been carried ashore by the wind, where they formed a pyramid of drift ice. A nearby fisherman told me that when he saw it between 5 and 6 o’clock the day before, the mountain of ice had been 30m high. How strange that it only appeared at one point on the coastline.

Drift ice is always changing its shape. It takes all kinds of beautiful forms depending on the nature of the beaches, the sea and the topography. These different forms of drift ice have their own scientific names, but I gave them names of my own when I watched them. Sponge ice, jellyfish ice, mud ice, ball ice, mushroom ice, ice candy, mosaic ice, ice tongue, ice projection…there must have been a hundred. Some of my names – icy horizon, drift ice freeze, drift ice fireflies, drift ice mountain range – have become popular among the people who live in the Okhotsk drift ice zone, which makes me happy.

Every winter, I would go up in a sightseeing plane or helicopter and watch the drift ice from above. The patterns in the Sea of Okhotsk look like the Nazca Lines – they feel like a mystery of the universe. The grease ice on the sea forms ice sheets and then lumps of ice that look like diamonds floating in the sea. The current and the winds at sea make all kinds of patterns as the ice makes its way to the coast.

Drift ice

Drift ice

The fertile sea

The Sea of Okhotsk used to be known as a whaling area. My friends who used to go out on the whaling boats told me “The sea was amazing when spring was coming and the last bits of drift ice were floating in the sea. The surface of the sea went bright red and there were whales all over the place. The red was plankton, which made red lines on the waves. Minke whales would pop up one after another to eat the plankton – it was comical how many we caught that way.”

The drift ice is the reason why there are plankton there. The ice that forms in the Amur River on the continent carries phytoplankton to the Sea of Okhotsk, which attracts zooplankton. When spring comes and that source of nutrients begins to melt, it connects the food chain of the Shiretoko Peninsula – which consists of the plants that grow there and animals such as bears, deer and eagles – with marine life such as fish, whales, orcas and dolphins, creating a rich circle of life in the sea.

Drift ice

Drift ice


Drift ice

Drift ice

The drift ice as a form of hibernation

An old Ainu man once told me “The drift ice is a lid that the gods have put on the sea to keep us from overfishing.” The Sea of Okhotsk was the only place in Japan that “hibernated” in winter. The fishermen used to call it fuyu-gomori (“hibernation” or “holing up for the winter”).

Until the 1970s, fishermen and the public alike stayed out of the sea in winter. The Sea of Okhotsk was the only sea that hibernated. Fishing boats were grounded (pulled out onto land) and the fishermen would spend a peaceful winter on land until the drift ice disappeared and the sea “awakened” again. The “awakening of the sea” was a time of strong hope for the fishermen and the public.

Drift ice

Drift ice

The Moyoro Legend

1500 years ago, the sound of knocking on a sheet of wood would ring out from the lookout in Moyoro Forest, near the Abashiri coast. That was the signal that whales could be seen. The men in the village would paddle several dugout canoes out to sea after the whales. The Moyoro forest in Abashiri was the center of the culture of an ancient people called the Okhotsk bunka-jin who lived along the Okhotsk coast. Where did the Okhotsk bunka-jin come from, and where did they go? From an archaeological perspective, it looks as if they suddenly disappeared, but they are said to have come from Siberia. Wars with other peoples forced them to travel across Sakhalin before finally settling on the Okhotsk coast of Hokkaido.

There is a legend that for several hundred years, they yearned for their motherland and sent a field of drift ice back to Siberia. This is called the “Moyoro Legend”. Imagining the Okhotsk bunka-jin creating this miracle is yet another thrill of the drift ice.

Okhotsk culture earthenware

Okhotsk culture earthenware, Possession of Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples

Storyteller

Keiichi Kikuchi

Author

Keiichi Kikuchi lived in Abashiri for 44 years. Throughout that time, he watched and recorded the drift ice, and he continues to publish works about it. In addition to drift ice, he has published works about various aspects of the history of Hokkaido’s ordinary people, such as the Hokkaido air raids, post-war development and whaling.

Keiichi Kikuchi
Keiichi Kikuchi

Access & Maps

1
Okhotsk Ryu-hyo (Drift Ice) Museum
2
Moyoro Shell Mound Museum