Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (tours from Korsakov), cruises

Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is a city on the south of Sakhalin Island. Now belonging entirely to Russia, the southern part of the island was briefly once claimed by Japan, and nods to this heritage remain.

Sakhalin has been inhabited since the Stone Age, and the Ainu, Oroks and Nivkhs are among the island’s indigenous people. There have been many claims and counter-claims to the territory, or parts of it, over the centuries, mostly involving Japan and Russia. The island was split between the two nations for much of the 1800s; indeed Japan owned at least the southern half of Karafuto, as they named Sakhalin, until the end of World War II when it became totally Russian.

A few buildings still show this heritage, most of all the Sakhalin Regional Museum, which resembles, after a fashion, a Japanese Palace. Many Korean laborers arrived here under Japanese rule, and have stayed, with an especially strong imprint on the cuisine, creating an intriguing multicultural feel.

In 1890 Anton Chekhov made the arduous journey across to the east of Russia then across to Sakhalin to undertake a census of the penal colony which existed here at the time. For three months Chekhov diligently interviewed thousands of convicts and settlers. His findings, at times far from positive, appeared in a work entitled “The Island of Sakhalin” that was published in 1893 and 1894. His time here is celebrated at a museum devoted to his work. There’s also a statue of the playwright in the city, perched thoughtfully in his chair.

One of the favorite sites in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk is the Church of St. Nicholas. Built in a traditional style, with wooden logs rather than bricks for walls, it’s topped with ornate flourishes of gilded onion domes and crosses.

Far more resplendent a place of worship is the extraordinary Cathedral of the Nativity, over 250 feet high, whose imposing exterior was completed as recently as 2016. The soaring whitewashed walls contrast with gleaming gold and blue domes, and it’s incredibly easy on the eye.

Equally fascinating is the Square of Glory, which honors the Russian soldiers who fell during the liberation of the island in 1945 and features, among other things, military vehicles. Lenin Square, as you might expect, is adorned with a vast statue of the former communist leader.

During your time ashore, you might be treated to a distinctly Russian showcase of local dancers in traditional garb. If you’re looking for souvenirs, the island has several natural resources beyond gas and oil. Sakhalin’s rivers are packed with salmon, the result being that the island is considered one of Russia’s caviar centers, although don’t expect a bargain. Other local specialties include high quality amber products, as well as syrup made from local red berries.