“You will need long rubber boots for the walk to Lake Rausu: it’s quite muddy there. Also it would be safer to go accompanied by a ranger because of possible encounters with bears …”
The original plan was to hike to Lake Rausu and then do a boat trip on the Pacific side of Shiretoko National Park. The peninsula on Japan’s north-eastern tip has become a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site in 2004 for its unrivalled nature and wildlife.
The eastern side of the peninsula borders the Pacific, the northern one the Sea of Okhotsk, which is the southernmost place to see drift ice in winter due to the currents, island chains and the inflow of fresh water from the Amur River. With lower levels of salinity, the water freezes easier than elsewhere. It’s not winter yet, however, and we want to see whales and dolphins which can frequently be sighted on the Pacific side, next to the Southern Kurile island of Kunashiri which is occupied by Russia.
Spotting whales and dolphins
It is perfect autumn weather with brilliant sunshine but the cruise company calls to tell us that the afternoon boat trip is cancelled due to an approaching typhoon, so we have to switch to the morning whale cruise. It’s a small boat whose captain is used to spotting the whales, judging from the zigzag and circles he is performing in the semi-open sea between the coast of Rausu and Kunashiri Island. He seems to be commenting on his course as well; the old loudspeaker on deck is spluttering something even the Japanese passengers don’t understand.
Sometimes we hear “left” or “right” and then everyone is straining their eyes in that direction. Some animals briefly jump out of the water – small whales perhaps? Or dolphins? The shutter clicks from a dozen cameras usually come the instant when they have just disappeared again. Ok, they might have been closer to the boat, or larger, but the boat ride in itself is nice enough, and after all that’s the point about a nature cruise, or a Natural Heritage site: The whales just live there, they are not trained to perform their jumps at the convenience of tourist shutters.
The five lakes of Shiretoko
In the afternoon, we opt for the scenic walking tour around the Five Lakes of Shiretoko, on the other side of the Peninsula, an area known as a popular roaming ground for wild brown bears. Those bears are found all over Hokkaido (as well as Honshu, Japan’s largest island), but on Shiretoko they are especially numerous and, since they are protected here, less afraid of humans. Which is why visitors get a special briefing before they start on the short trail around the lakes:
- If you do see a bear, don’t run, don’t scream, but try to move slowly backwards and away.
- In case the bear follows or attacks you (quite possible with bear mothers if their cubs are around), your best bet is to lie on the ground and play dead. As long as it takes. Cover your head so that the prank would hit your arms first. Every year a number of people die in Japan from bear attacks.
- Try not to meet with any bears. Make noise so that they will notice and avoid you!
Bear spotting in the Shiretoko National Park
Armed with these tips and carrying a huge “bear bell” (on sale in every tourist shop on Hokkaido), we didn’t meet any bears, which was fine. A safer way to see live bears would be the boat cruise on this side of the peninsula, starting from Utoro and following the coastline. Along that coast, the bears are known to stand in the mouths of rivers fishing for salmon, especially in autumn when they are fattening up for winter. That typhoon, however, did come to Hokkaido very quickly and no cruises took place for the next couple of days due to storm and high tide.
The visitor centre in Shiretoko sells tinned bear meat, “Made in Shiretoko”. Does that mean the UNESCO-protected bears are sold to tourists as goulash? The ranger hesitates. Err, yes. Apparently, it’s not really that there are too many bears on Shiretoko, but there’s still a hunting season, and long-established hunting permits have not been withdrawn. Sure enough, the bear meat is a popular souvenir.
How to get to the Shiretoko National Park
The best base for Shiretoko is the small harbour town of Utoro. From there, buses go to Rausu on the Pacific side, passing the turn-off to Lake Rausu. Another bus line goes to the Shiretoko Goko Visitor Center. The walk there is clearly marked and you may not step off the path.
Is Shiretoko National Park worth visiting?
Hokkaido is a different experience from the rest of Japan. The Shiretoko National Park is one of the most untouched parts of the country and hiking there is very rewarding. When we first visited in 2005 it was still possible to hike up the Kamuiwakka-no-yu, a hot spring water fall with pools on the upper end. It used to be one of Japan’s ultimate hot spring destinations, but for the time being due to the danger of falling rocks you can only walk a short way up. Utoro has more regular hot spring options, too.