Just 160 km from the northern tip of Hokkaido, Sakhalin is a desolate island that has long been ignored by world powers. Remnants of Japanese shrines are reminders that the island was governed by Imperial Japan until the end of World War II.

Now this lonely island, with huge reserves of oil and natural gas, is emerging as a strategic connection between Cold War-era foes Japan and Russia, making them close partners and even potential allies, with their leaders having met four times last year and discussed increased Russian energy exports to Japan.

"Although most Japanese don't know it, Russia can rescue Japan from its energy quagmire. Russia has huge resources and her oil and gas prospects in Sakhalin and other parts of eastern Russia are geographically close to Japan," said Kazuhiko Fuji, chief research fellow at the Institute for International Policy Studies.