Guides & Stories

Land, Sea and Sky: The Wild Nature of Shiretoko

In Japan’s far northeast, a mountainous peninsula unfurls into the Sea of Okhotsk. The indigenous Ainu people named it sir etok: the edge of the earth.

On a balmy June morning in 2019, I began my journey to Shiretoko National Park on a guided wildlife tour with the eco-tour operator Picchio. After flying from Tokyo to Memanbetsu and driving for nearly two hours, leaving settlements and farmland behind, it certainly felt like we were heading to the very edge of the earth. We continued along the coast, heading northeast, on a single road squeezed between mountains and sea.

Sunset view from Utoro

Shiretoko is known as one of Japan's wildest national parks, a remote area covering the top portion of the Shiretoko Peninsula. It juts out into the Sea of Okhotsk, with dense forests and Shiretoko mountain range's rugged peaks running through the peninsula’s center. The park is buried in snow and surrounded by drift ice during the long winters. But this forbidding wildness makes it a refuge for a huge range of Japanese animals, and in recent years it has become one of Japan's top destinations for sustainable tourism, with a focus on wildlife conservation.

This is why we were visiting: in hopes of seeing some of the peninsula’s rich natural landscapes and wildlife. Our explorations on foot would have to be limited to the southern half of the park, the north only accessible on tough multi-day hikes. The Shiretoko Peninsula's northern area is not maintained and only very experienced wilderness adventurers should consider visiting due to the high risk of encountering brown bears. But even the more easily reachable parts of the park promised us sightings of eagles, deer, whales and plenty more, in some of Japan’s most dramatic natural landscapes.

Arriving in the far north

The last time I was on this northern Japanese island was in winter. It had been the typical Hokkaido travel experience, skiing in pristine powder snow near Asahikawa. Our guides on this trip, Masaya Kusube and Makoto Yamazaki, explained that the seasons change things even more profoundly in Shiretoko than other areas of Hokkaido. Come winter, there would be chunks of ice drifting past in the ocean—sometimes delicate strands by the horizon, sometimes large slabs crowding the shore. But instead, we were here in June, a time filled with bright alpine flowers and lush greenery.

Ezo kanzo alpine flowers (Image: Jonathon Kram)

We reached the town of Utoro on the national park’s southwestern edge, just in time to watch the sunset over the ocean. A cyclist with heavy-looking panniers pulled in nearby, pausing to take in the view before setting up camp. The southern half of the park is an excellent cycling destination in the warmer months, avoiding the heavy humidity which cloaks much of Japan.

Not wanting to delay our wildlife-spotting, we got back in the car for a night drive. Over an hour or so, we spotted several deer, a couple of curious foxes and one or two tanuki (raccoon dogs), at first startled by the lights of the car but then happy to continue sniffing around in the undergrowth for bugs and berries. As they got their breakfast, we headed to bed, eager to explore more in the daylight.

Ezo red fox (Image: Jonathon Kram)

Protecting Shiretoko’s wilderness

Shiretoko has long been inhabited by the Ainu, the indigenous people of northern Japan and the Kuril islands. Their traditional way of life incorporates animistic beliefs that recognise the natural world as being inhabited by kamuy, or gods.

Shiretoko is home to some of the most important kamuy in the Ainu pantheon, which protect the key elements of life in the area. The brown bear is Kim-un-kamuy, god of the mountains; the orca is Repun-kamuy, god of the sea; and the elusive Blakiston’s fish owl (the world’s largest owl) is known as Cikap-kamuy or Kotan-kor-kamuy, god of the village. Catching a glimpse of one of these majestic animals is a thrilling experience—it’s easy to understand on a gut level why they’re so important in Ainu culture.

The establishment of Shiretoko National Park in 1964 and its recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005 made stewardship and wildlife protection a focus in Shiretoko, principles which had always been integral to Ainu culture. There are some 800 plants and around 500 species of animals native to the area, and eco-tourism initiatives aim to share them sustainably with locals and visitors for generations to come. These initiatives include the building of raised boardwalks to preserve vegetation in the Shiretoko Goko (Shiretoko Five Lakes) area, and encouraging stays of at least two nights.

A tanuki, or raccoon dog, on a night wildlife tour (Image: Jonathon Kram)

Watching whales in the Nemuro Strait

From National Route 334 (also known as Shiretoko Pass), the lone road which links the park’s west and east coasts, the rounded cone of Mount Rausu stands sentinel over the Shiretoko Peninsula. As we crossed this pass in June, there were still pockets of snow between its rockfaces and forests; in fall, the whole landscape would be draped in red and gold, and come winter, it would be inaccessible.

Views of Mount Rausu from Shiretoko Pass

We followed the road to the port of Rausu, the gateway to the Nemuro Strait—a strip of sea 43 kilometers at its widest point and 2,500 meters at its deepest. We would be taking to the water to search for porpoises, minke whales and—if we were lucky—orcas. Birds including kittiwakes, fulmars and sometimes even albatrosses can all be spotted in June, too.

We boarded a small boat, wearing bright yellow life vests hand-decorated with drawings of whales, and set off. A short way out, the glittering waters by the boat began to stir in the wake of a pod of Dall’s porpoises.

“They’re curious and playful,” our guide Masaya told us, “and usually stay near the surface, so they’re a pretty common sight. But they do splash around a lot, so it’s hard to get a clear view of them.”

The porpoises shadowed the boat for a while, only veering away when we abruptly turned back toward Shiretoko’s coastline. The captain had heard reports of orca sightings nearby, so we were changing course to investigate. In what felt like no time, a shout of surprise rang out, and a dozen cameras turned in one direction. A huge dorsal fin sliced through the water, then a blunt black head emerged alongside a plume of water.

Orca surfacing in the Nemuro Strait (Image: Jonathon Kram)

We watched quietly, the clicking of shutters punctuating the silence whenever the orcas re-emerged. Masaya quietly explained that we’d first seen a male, identifiable by his size and the six-foot, triangular fin. There was also a female, smaller and with a more curved fin, and a calf. As Masaya explained, “They form a family, so you often see groups of them in summer here rather than just one.”

Eventually, they swam away from us, and we headed back to Rausu on a high, feeling like we really had seen the gods of the sea.

Cruising the Nemuro Strait (Image: Jonathon Kram)

Spotting wildlife from the water

Having stopped at Rausu Visitor Center, we knew there was more wildlife to see from the water. So the following day, we made our way to Aidomari, a small fishing village. This is about as far north as you can go by road; anyone hoping to hike or kayak further should stop at Rusa Field House first for the latest information about tides and brown bears.

View of a brown bear from the sightseeing boat (Image: Jonathon Kram)

We were heading out in a small, open motorboat, able to get fairly close to the shore—our focus was on the land, not the water.

“There are a lot of brown bears in Shiretoko,” Masaya told us, “but we don’t want people wandering around trying to spot one. You should treat them with respect and keep your distance. As they often head to the shore for food, boat trips are actually one of the best ways to see them without disturbing them.”

Mist in the mountains (Image: Jonathon Kram)

As we set out, low clouds were cloaking the mountains and mist masking the cliffs. Rocks would loom out of the haze as we approached, covered in noisy gulls or cormorants resting with their wings spread wide. Greenery stretched up steep slopes from the rocky shoreline, interrupted by the glittering threads of waterfalls. We quickly spotted a bright Ezo red fox and a couple of Ezo deer, looking impossibly small in the dramatic landscape.

Then suddenly, around a few more rocky promontories, we saw it. A brown bear, meandering along between the gently lapping waves and the high tide line, stopping occasionally to sniff or nibble at something. Its loping gait was unhurried, its long-clawed feet pointing slightly inwards. It looked cuddly, friendly, unthreatening.

Then the bear raised its head, turning towards us. For a long moment, it stared as we bobbed up and down off the shore. My breath caught as I took in the long claws, the muscles shifting beneath its fur, and remembered the fearsome teeth I’d seen in the visitor center displays. I was suddenly very glad we were on a boat, not intruding on this beautiful, powerful animal’s space.

It decided we weren’t a threat, lowering its head to continue foraging. We watched it for a while longer before moving on, not keen to overstay our welcome.

On foot to Furepe-no-Taki Falls

On our final day in Shiretoko, we decided to stay on land. After seeing the sheer size of the bears the previous day, I understood why our guide, Makoto, brought a bell when we went hiking—we certainly wouldn’t want to sneak up on one by accident.

We started at Shiretoko Nature Center, back in Utoro, where we were relieved to learn that the last bear sighting was two weeks ago, before setting off on the easy trail to Furepe-no-Taki Falls.

Furepe-no-Taki Falls

In contrast to the previous day’s moody weather, the skies were a clear blue dotted with high clouds, and the landscapes through which we walked were a bright green patchwork of bamboo fields and wooded areas. As we stopped to listen to the birds each time we reached the shade of the trees, Makoto identified each by its call well before we spotted it.

Coming to the end of the trail, we climbed up to a viewing platform overlooking Furepe-no-Taki Falls, a picturesque waterfall cascading into the clear sea. To our right were the dramatic black shapes of the Shiretoko Mountain Range; to our left the Sea of Okhotsk stretched away to the horizon, disturbed only by the widening wake of a sightseeing boat.

Shiretoko mountain range

As we rested and enjoyed the cool breeze, a shadow passed over the grass in front of us. Makoto excitedly pointed up to the source—a white-tailed eagle, its powerful talons and sharply curved beak visible even from the ground.

“It’s not so common to see them in the summer,” he explained. “But in the winter, you can often see white-tailed eagles and Steller’s sea eagles out on the drift ice, or hanging around the fishing boats in the ports.”

Here at the end of the earth, we watched the eagle wheeling overhead, grateful to witness the majestic wildlife of Shiretoko—and happy to leave it just as wild as we found it.

Written by Rebecca Hallett

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