Hokkaido, Japan’s rural, northernmost island, has a wealth of tourist attractions. But while most travelers spend their time enjoying the natural beauty of the region’s mountains, forests, and oceans, visitors to the city of Abashiri often spend their time in a very different way.
That’s because in contrast to the sense of freedom Hokkaido’s wide-open vistas are so evocative of, Abashiri is home to the Abashiri Prison Museum. Aside from exhibits on the history of incarceration, the museum also has a cafeteria, where diners can eat a recreation of modern Japanese prison food, and even knock back a bottle of Abashiri Prison Stout beer.
Abashiri’s permanent population has been supplemented by convicts since the Meiji Era of the late 1800s. Even today, criminals are housed in Abashiri, although they’re placed in a more modern correctional facility than the town’s original one.
With no more need to keep prisoners in the old jail, the building has been converted into the Abashiri Prison Museum, and travelers with time to spare can see more than a dozen preserved and recreated aspects of the prison. Even if you’re in a rush, though, you can get a literal taste of life on the inside at the adjacent Prison Cafeteria.
▼ Thankfully, seating is at tables, not in cells.
While the restaurant has inexpensive standards such as ramen, beef bowls, soba, and udon, what most people come for are the Prison Food Set Meals, recreations of the meals served to the actual prisoners currently being held at Abashiri’s prison. On the day we stopped by, this meant a choice between two types of fish: samma (saury) or hokke (a type of mackerel).
We opted for the saury, which also came with sliced daikon radish, harusame salad, miso soup, and a 70/30 mix of white rice and barley. In stark contrast to a typical Japanese restaurant meal, where the foods and plates are arranged to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible, the no-frills presentation wasn’t doing much to visually stimulate our appetite.
Surprisingly enough, though, it tasted pretty good. As a matter of fact, you could do a lot worse than this, flavor-wise, at some cheap restaurants. As long as you’re OK with a very simple, austere collection of flavors, you might even be comfortable eating this regularly, provided you could find a way to do so without actually being locked up.
▼ If your taste buds need more stimulation, though, the cafeteria also has non-prison-spec curry.
It’s not just the food that’s prison-themed, either. If you’re feeling thirsty, you can also order a bottle of cold Abashiri Prison Stout, or Kangoku no Kuro (Prison Black) as it’s called in Japanese.
Despite the name, Abashiri Prison Stout isn’t made by convicts as part of a work release program, nor is it bottled pruno made by prisoners who hide bags of fermenting fruit under their beds. In addition to its prison and museum, Abashiri also has its own microbrewery, Abashiri Beer. The company offers a number of products, such as Ice Flow Draft and Abashiri Premium, and Prison stout is simply the most startlingly named.
The beer itself is pitch black. Light has as much chance of escaping the beer’s confines as prisoners do of breaking out of Abashiri Prison. The flavor, meanwhile, is what you’d expect from the color: full-bodied and captivating.
In addition to the Prison Museum’s Cafeteria, Abashiri Prison Stout can be purchased in souvenir shops in the city as well as online here directly from the brewer. Just make sure you’ve got a designated driver if you’re planning on knocking back a few and also are keen to stay out of jail yourself, since drunk driving is, of course, a crime.