At Shiretoko, the north-eastern part of Hokkaido, brown bears roam free on the mountains overlooking the Sea of Okhostk and Stellars Sea Eagle fly above the deep blue ocean full of whales and dolphins. The Shiretoko peninsula is the home of Shiretoko National Park, a UNESCO world heritage centre to protect the diverse and unique wildlife. It was one of the first settlements for the Ainu people in Hokkaido and now my favourite getaway when I want to be surrounded by mountains and sea. There is a lot more to Shiretoko than wildlife watching, so read along to know what awaits in this remote sanctuary.
Rausu and Utoro are the two main towns in Shiretoko located on opposites sides of the the peninsula. You can travel between the two towns by taking the scenic mountain route, open from late April to early November or, on a ferry by going around the peninsula. The Shiretoko Nature Center in Utoro is a tourist hub and it provides heaps of information including bus timings, to reach the sightseeing spots in Shiretoko.
1.Shiretoko Goko Lakes:
The Goko lakes is made up of five crater lakes. Here you can see seasonal flowers, hear birds chirping on native trees and walk through a virgin forest inhabited by brown bears. Elevated wooden trails serve as walkway around lakes to preserve the natural flora in the region and to keep the people away from wildlife. The lake administration offers paid ground tours strictly with guides in spring and summer, when the bears are active and dangerous. In winter, walking tours are offered through the frozen forest and, you can view the drift ice in the sea as well. Do check the rules to be followed at Goko lakes before you visit.
2.Waterfalls at Shiretoko:
At Shiretoko, you will find waterfalls large and small cascading directly into the sea or seeping through the mountains. This gives it a title of the ‘waterfall kingdom of Hokkaido’. Two of the most popular waterfalls here are:
a) Kamuiwakka no taki:
The onsen temperature of water, 36-40 degrees Centigrade, of Kamuiwakka, makes it a favoured waterfall in Shiretoko. Carry your swimsuits, if you would like to take a dip in the fall. It is also slippery up there, so good rubber footwear is recommended, bamboo slippers are available for rent. Located near the Goko lakes, Kamuiwakka can be reached both by land and sea. The waterfall is located at the end of an eleven kilometre long dirt track and entry for private cars is prohibited in the busy season. You can use a tourist bus or rent a bike to get there in summer, unless you want to meet with bears on your walk. Please check at the Nature centre or at your hotel for bus timings.
Kamui wakka no taki Photo Credit ramblingonmyhokkaido.com
A large waterfall, which is located on the national route 334. Oshinkoshin ranks as one of the best 100 waterfalls in Japan. It is forked out in two different paths and the water from the fall flows straight into the sea. You can buy souvenirs and also refresh your self at a store near the fall.
3. Drift Ice:
I have listed drift ice in Shiretoko and Abashiri as one of the must do winter activities in Hokkaido. From late January to April, the coastline of the Sea of Okhotsk is covered with sea ice, which comes all the way from Siberia. You can go on drift ice walking, diving trips and have a close encounter with sea lions, stellar’s sea eagles and other sea birds. Operators such as Kamuiwakka and Veltra offer drift ice tours at Shiretoko.
Photo Credit marquirino.exblog.jp
4. Shiretoko Misaki and Cape Puyuni:
Cape Shiretoko can be viewed only from the sea, it is a protected 30-meter-high rock formation at the tip of the Shiretoko peninsula. Cape Puyuni, located next to the road from Utoro to Shiretoko Nature centre is well known for a gorgeous sunset view.
Sunset at Cape Puyuni Photo Credit senbonsakura.com
Activities to do at Shiretoko:
1. Get on the Shiretoko Sightseeing boats:
Sightseeing boats are a good way to explore Shiretoko. A number of small and large operators such as Aurora run boats on three courses around the peninsula. These boats will take you to places inaccessible by roads such as the Rusha bay where you can watch Higuma bears having a feast on salmons in autumn.
Photo Credit shinra.or.jp
Hokkaido brown bear Photo Credit blogs.livedoor.jp
2. Enjoy Hot Springs:
If you like onsens, then you would love Shiretoko. There is a number of hot springs to get soaked at Shiretoko. Most of the accommodations at Shiretoko provide onsen facilities for their guests and day trippers. However, you should try the secret ones too. I love the open air Kumanoyu Hot spring, in the middle of the forest at the Rausu mountain range. It has separate baths for men and women. Seseki hotspring is another interesting free of charge hotspring next to the sea, where you can bath from July to September. It is a unisex and covered rocky bath tub. Do take permission from the fisherman’s house next to the tub before entering, as he might not permit because of the dangers of a high tide. Ladies, you will need to put on your swimwear and gents, well you can go in your birthday suit.
Kumanoyu Onsen Photo Credit birdmura.com
Japanese restaurants in Utoro and Rausu serve local seafood such as Salmon, Crabs, Scallops and, Mackerels etc. It was here in Shiretoko, when I first ate Salmon Chan Chan Yaki a local fishermen dish which is now my all-time favourite. Click here for a list of restaurants at Shiretoko. Many seafood souvenir shops are also available.
Ikura Photo Credit hokusen.co.jp
4. Salmon Fishing:
Autumn is the season to catch wild salmon which come up to the rivers for spawning at Shiretoko. Fishing, in the rivers is illegal for all unless you are a hungry brown bear. However, you can fish at the ports, highly recommended, or at the mouth of the river. You can also team up with the local fishermen and go deep into the sea for a catch. Here is my experience of salmon fishing in Hokkaido.
5. Whale Watching:
Mink whales and orca watching at Shiretoko can only be done from May to October. When I went for whale watching in May, I was rather unlucky as I didn’t see any whales, but plenty of seals, dolphins and migratory sea birds made my day. You can book a whale watching tour using these sites or ask your hotel to book one for you.
6. Visit the Salmon Park:
Salmon park, is a good place to learn more about salmon for kids and adults alike. When I visited the park, it had a collection of 18 different species of salmon, which is considered to be the largest in Japan. It also included a juvenile fish and salmon exhibition room where you can watch videos to know more about their ecology. It is best to drive to the park, directions are here.
Where to Stay?
How to go and travel around?
- By flight and car: This is the easiest way to reach Shiretoko. You can rent a car from Memanbetsu airport, closest airport to Shiretoko and Abashiri . Driving from Sapporo will take approximately 7 hours. Bus from Memanbetsu airport is also available, which will take about 3 hours to reach Shiretoko.
- By Train: JR Shiretoko Shari is the closest train station and a one hour bus ride from the station will drop you at Utoro.
- For local sightseeing, Shari buses are available.
- On the fourth Friday and Saturday of July, Shiretoko celebrates an annual summer Shiretoko –Shari Neputa Festival at Shari. Here are details on some of the other events at Shiretoko.
- The best time to be at Shiretoko is summer, but autumn and winter has its own charm too.
- From late January to March, the drift ice Norokko train runs from Abashiri to Shiretoko. Go here for more information.
Do visit Shiretoko, if you want to experience one of the most remote regions of Japan, where as per Ainu belief “the mother earth ends”. Write to me by commenting below .
Thank you for reading .