Guest Author - Ching Kin Min
Tucked far in the eastern coast of Hokkaido, in the city of Abashiri, lies the Abashiri Prison Museum. The actual prison, Japan's first-ever maximum security prison, has been holding Japan’s most dangerous criminals since the 1890s. In the 1980s, some old buildings were moved into the Abashiri Prison Museum, which is not too far away from the actual prison. Through this open air museum’s buildings and many exhibits, visitors can take a glimpse at the daily lives of Abashiri Prison’s inhabitants.
Structures include a bath house, a punishment chamber, a law court, a church and the main prison building with five radially constructed wings. Several realistic wax figures, some of them automated, adorn many areas in the museum.
One of the buildings contains the tools that the Abashiri prisoners used to build roads and stuff. In this same building, visitors can watch a video clip depicting the harsh conditions they had to go through, back in the old days.
Among the structures in the museum are prison cells from the ancient days. Visitors can enter some of them and get an idea of how it feels to be locked up… The wooden bars of each cell are slanted in a way that prevents prisoners from different cells to see each other. Modern prison cells are also displayed. Visitors who envision prison cells as dark and gloomy will be surprised, as they’re neat and clean, furnished with books and a TV set to boot, among other amenities.
Visitors can even try out some real prison food in the museum’s canteen - the actual food that the current Abashiri prisoners eat. Lunch Set A (700 yen) consists of broiled barley and rice, grilled mackerel pike, some vegetables and miso soup. Lunch Set B (800 yen) is similar, except instead of mackerel pike, Atka mackerel is served instead.
For a memento, visitors can take a mock prison mug shot, complete with a mug shot background and an authentic serial number at an instant photo booth. At the souvenir shops, apart from the usual stuff on sale, wooden goods made by the current Abashiri prisoners – from small handicraft dolls to furniture - can be bought. For fans of Japanese rock band B'z, another noteworthy souvenir to get are a t-shirt with the words "Abashiri Prison" in front and "Well-behaved Prisoner" at the back, and another with "Escaped Prisoner" at the back. The band's members, Koshi Inaba and Takahiro Matsumoto, had once bought one of the t-shirts each and wore them during a concert in Abashiri.
For visitors to Japan who want a unique cultural experience apart from temples and shrines, Abashiri Prison Museum is the place to go.