Northern Territories Near Hokkaido Increasingly Being Turned into Tourist Spots; Area Sees Increased Visitors From Russia and China

Courtesy of Roman Silienkov
The former dining room of the House of Friendship, which has been converted into a sports bar

SAPPORO — Japan’s northern territories off Hokkaido are increasingly being turned into tourist destinations by Russia, which effectively controls the four islands.

Accommodation and other facilities are being constructed one after another, drawing an increasing number of visitors not only from Russia but also from China. The two countries have strengthened ties since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Four years have passed since a visa-free exchange program between Japanese and Russian residents was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic and worsening relations between the two countries. While former residents were unable to visit, the Russian-held islands have undergone major changes.

The House of Friendship on Kunashiri Island served as a center of visa-free exchange. The Japanese government provided more than ¥400 million to fund its construction and it was completed in 1999. The facility was used to accommodate Japanese visitors to the islands. It also became known as “Muneo House” after it became the center point of a bid obstruction scandal involving lawmaker Muneo Suzuki’s secretary.

Courtesy of Roman Silienkov
A commemorative plaque that reads “As a token of the friendship of the people of Japan” remains at the entrance of the facility.

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a Russian public corporation turned the facility into a commercial venture. Late last year, a sports bar with about 10 screens opened in an area of the facility.

“We have only responded to the needs of tourists,” said Roman Silienkov, a director of the corporation, in a telephone interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun.

According to Russia’s Far East and Arctic Development Corporation, the Kuril Islands — by which it means to include the northern territories — received more than 50,000 tourists in 2022, a 150% increase from 2020. The area is known for its magnificent natural environment that includes volcanoes and lakes.

As the Russian government continues to develop the Far East, the number of visitors from Russia has increased.

Earlier this month, Russia’s Aurora Airlines began passenger flight services between Vladivostok and Etorofu Island with the help of Russian government subsidies. More and more hotels and hot spring facilities are being built on the island.

“Besides Russians, the number of Chinese tourists is increasing considerably,” said Oleg Shumikhin, 57, who runs a Korean restaurant on the island. “I expect we’ll have more and more Chinese group tours.”

A 55-year-old tour guide on Kunashiri Island said that three new accommodation facilities have been built on the island this year alone and the number of Chinese guests has been on the rise.

“As Russians became less inclined to visit Western countries, they are flowing to the northern territories for sightseeing,” said Yoji Kameyama, a former diplomat who worked at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow. He believes that the administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin would further advance development in the northern territories to support regional development and gain domestic support.

“The House of Friendship was given as a gift for humanitarian aid and exchange, so it is presently used for purposes other than its intended purpose. However, if the facility is left unattended, it will become unusable in the future. The is no other option than to allow its use so maintenance costs can be covered,” Kameyama said.

The Foreign Ministry has told the Russian side that it cannot accept the operation of passenger flight services to Etorofu Island, claiming that the Russian government was involved in the launch of the service.

“We are paying close attention to the moves taken by the Russian government in northern territories,” a ministry official said.