GUIDE Shiretoko: The Other Side of Hokkaido
There’s a place tucked away in the north-east corner of Hokkaido that is the true definition of ‘off the beaten path’ — Shiretoko. Home to Japan's most pristine and unspoiled natural beauty, the Shiretoko Peninsula is one of Japan's last vestiges of true wilderness.
Shiretoko National Park: ‘The end of the world’
If you want to get away from it all, this is the place.
Known by the indigenous Ainu as ‘the end of the world’, Shiretoko National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site virtually untouched by man-made infrastructure like roads and city blocks.
Occupying most of the Shiretoko Peninsula, the park is best known for its expansive primeval forests, diverse wildlife and loads of outdoor activities for every season.
Shiretoko Goko (Shiretoko Five Lakes)
Appearing as if an ancient god reached down and imprinted the land with its fingers, the Shiretoko Five Lakes are a set of five small lakes formed long ago by volcano, Mount Io.
You won’t find better views of the surrounding mountains and wilderness than by these lakes. If you’re lucky you can spot Yezo brown bears, sika deer, red squirrels and many species of rare birds.
There are two courses for walking around Shiretoko Goko. An elevated 800m wooden boardwalk which connects the carpark to the first lake, Lake Ichiko, offers a leisurely tour of the surroundings. (The boardwalk is free to use, wheelchair accessible and open for the entire season from late April to late November.)
For those looking to take the scenic route, there are full-course trails that wind around all five lakes that take about 1-2 hours depending on your speed.
(Note: During peak bear activity from May to July, access to the nature trails is only possible by joining a tour group led by a licensed, Japanese-speaking nature guide.)
Designated as one of the top 100 waterfalls in the country, Oshinkoshin Falls is a huge waterfall that stands 80m tall near the delta of Charassenai River. It's also affectionately called "the twin beauty falls" because it splits into two visible falls.
To get up close and personal, a short flight of steps leads to the Oshinko observatory platform where you can see (and hear) the falls from within a couple of meters.
Kamuiwakka Hot Waterfall
Have you ever heard of a hot waterfall before?
The Kamuiwakka falls are rare because they're fed by hot spring water! After a short hike up the Kamuiwakka River towards the majestic site, you can feel the heat as you get closer and reward yourself with a hard-earned soak in the volcanic waters surrounded by lush ancient forests.
Pack a swimsuit if you plan on going for a dip, or simply wade in the shallows if you forgot to bring one and soak up the beautiful seasonal surrounds.
Sightseeing boat tours
Because so much of Shiretoko is wonderfully untouched, there are many parts that you can’t get to by car on or foot. Thankfully, you can by sea.
From mid April to mid November, sightseeing boat cruises are operated along the rugged western coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula, departing from Utoro. On board you can view the peninsula's dramatic coastline with its tall cliffs and waterfalls as well as spot a variety of wildlife from deer and foxes to dolphins, whales and sea lions in the waters below. If you’re lucky, you might even see a brown bear or two roaming across the rocky beaches onshore.
Shiretoko is perhaps as close to walking on water as you’re going to get.
During the winter, drift ice floats across the Sea of Okhotsk from northeastern Russia, making a stunning appearance along the peninsula by late January and disappearing by early April. (The best timing to view the ice is typically around the second half of February.)
The ice can be enjoyed by participating in various ice drift related tours from Utoro, including "ice walk tours" in which you can slip into a dry suit and walk out onto the ice led by guides! Tours usually take two hours and can easily be booked through your accommodation.
If you’re a fan of unbelievably fresh seafood and onsen (hot spring) soaks, you have to stop by Utoro.
Utoro is the largest and only sizable town along the western coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Located at the entrance to the national park, it serves as a transportation hub and is the boarding point for sightseeing boat tours up the coast.
Utoro is home to natural hot spring water and offers a range of accommodation from simple minshuku (family-run B&B) to large onsen ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). While the town's coastal area retains the feel of a small fishing village, a short walk up the hill brings you into the hot spring area where the numerous, large onsen ryokan are located.
The town is also known for its stunning rock formations along the shores of Utoro. The most spectacular of them is the Oronko Rock, which stands 60 meters high just next to the harbour. A small path leads up to the top of the rock, where you can enjoy nice views of the town, and for the night-owls, stargaze.
On the other coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula (east coast), sits the quaint town of Rausu.
With a population of just 6000, it only just qualifies as a town, making it perfect for the traveller seeking peace and quiet far from the hustle and bustle, but still wants some of the comforts of civilisation.
A fishing town just like Utoro, Rausu is particularly famous for Rausu konbu (Rausu kelp), which is used in a variety of local dishes. If you’re a food with an appetite for off the beaten path, Rausu should be on the top of your to-eat list.
From Rausu, road number 87 leads up along the coast to the peninsula's tip where a couple of free-to-use public hot spring baths are located out in the open, including Seseki Onsen that offers two stone pools right on the beach.