“There’s a bear over there!,” the young man seated next to me exclaimed as he pointed excitedly at the shore. “It’s right by the fishing nets on the beach, close to the water,” he added, prompting the other 39 passengers on our boat to pull out their binoculars in a bid to glimpse the furry animal we had all been hoping to see that afternoon.
We were on one of the small cruise boats that travel along the coast of Shiretoko Peninsula, a Unesco World Heritage site that draws nature-lovers from around the world for its unspoiled, rugged beauty, abundant flora and protected wildlife.
The narrow Shiretoko peninsula, which juts into the Sea of Okhotsk from the eastern coast of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, is home to ezoshika deer that are native to Hokkaido, brown bears, kitakitsune, or Ezo red fox, and Blackiston’s fish owl, one of the world’s rarest birds that is designated an endangered species. Ezo is the ancient name for Hokkaido.
The waters around the peninsula are home to whales and dolphins in the summer and seals and sea lions in the winter. The seals are brought here by drifting pack ice that floats down from Russia – another spectacular sight that lures thousands of visitors here between January and March.
While sightings of brown bears are fairly common on the Shiretoko Peninsula, we had been warned by our guide that we would be lucky to spot a bear, given that it was August when the bears generally stay in the cooler parts of the mountains due to the heat.
But on our three-hour boat cruise we saw not just one but two bears by the shore, desperately trying to snatch fish from the nets set up by local fishermen. Whether they succeeded in bringing home some dinner, at least they had nothing to worry about their own safety, since bears on Shiretoko are protected and the northern tip of the peninsula is uninhabited, save for a few rangers and fishermen who are accustomed to living in harmony with their furry neighbors.
What enables this part of Hokkaido to maintain its biodiversity is the restrictions placed on human interference – one-third of Shiretoko Peninsula can only be reached by boat – hence the popularity of cruises like the one we were taking. The boats are not allowed to land on shore.
Traveling by boat is the only way to see some of the most spectacular scenery that Shiretoko has to offer – magnificent waterfalls cascading into the turquoise waters of the sea, foamy waves crashing into towering basalt cliffs, dozens of sharp-eyed eagles taking a break from their hunting.
We were thankful that we had managed to book seats on one of the smaller boats, which are in high demand as the larger cruise boats that can carry 400 passengers do not come anywhere as close to the shore as did our small, 40-passenger boat.
After a bumpy but exciting tour of the peninsula, we returned to Utoro, the town that serves as a transportation hub for the area. All Shiretoko cruises leave from the port in Utoro, which also serves as a gateway to the Shiretoko National Park.
The only other attraction in this peaceful fishing village with a population of only about 1,300 is a massive 60-meter high rock called Oronkoiwa Rock, named after the Oronco people who once inhabited the area.
In the language of the indigenous Ainu people, the name means “the rock that is sitting there.” The English mountaineer George Mallory, when asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest, famously answered: “Because it’s there.” He was clearly not the only one to feel that way about big rocks.
Having learned the meaning of the name, there was no way we could resist climbing Oronkoiwa Rock, even though we could see that it would not be an easy stroll to the top – 173 steep steps, in fact.
Although arduous, we were amply rewarded by a panoramic view of the ocean and the village below.
Having enjoyed Shiretoko from the sea, we headed to our lodgings for the night – Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort.
With its magnificent views of the Sea of Okhotsk, spacious onsen, or hot spring, baths, and sophisticated cuisine using local ingredients, the Kitakobushi is a fine place to relax after an adventurous day looking for bears.
The next day we set off from our hotel in Utoro to the Shiretoko National Park, famous for its unspoiled beauty and five lakes that were formed by the eruption of Mt Io, which looms in the background.
Much to our surprise and disappointment, the nature trail was closed due to the sighting of a bear earlier that morning.
However, we were able to walk along the park’s elevated wooden boardwalk, which enables visitors to enjoy the scenery without having to worry about encountering wild animals.
Luckily, when we returned to the visitors’ center, we were told that the alert was over and the nature trail was now open, so we took our seats in the auditorium, where all visitors in late summer must attend a lecture before hitting the trail. During peak bear season, between May 10th and July 31st, visitors must join a tour with a professional guide to walk the nature trail.
The entire trail is just 3 kilometers long yet takes about 3 hours to walk. As we had other plans that afternoon, we opted for the shorter 1.6-kilometer loop, which is a 1.5-hour walk that goes by two of the five lakes.
It was an easy stroll with breathtaking views of the lakes and gave us just enough time to make it to our afternoon appointment to take a canoe ride along the Kushiro River.
We had booked a guided canoe ride with Atreyu, a lodge in Kushiro, south of the Shiretoko Peninsula near Lake Kussharo, which offers outdoor activities.
The Kushiro River winds its way quietly from Lake Kussharo through Kushiro Marshland before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Known for its gentle currents, the river is particularly clear upstream where we were able to spot crayfish in the shallow waters.
The excursion was definitely a highlight of our Hokkaido tour.
Just a few days before, on the first day of our Hokkaido visit, we had stood in awe by a very different kind of river, the Shari River, watching hundreds of cherry salmon trying to jump up a waterfall and return to their breeding ground to lay eggs.
Each year in July and August, the cherry salmon swim upstream from the ocean and try to leap up the 3-meter high Sakura Waterfall with all their might. But judging from the number of fish that seem to fall back into the lower level of the river, the success rate appears to be relatively small.
Not far from Sakura Waterfall is the Kaminokoike Pond, a small but brilliant body of water that shimmers blue and green and every hue in between.
The Kaminokoike Pond (which means “child of god” pond) is fed by nearby Lake Mashu, renowned as one of the world’s clearest lakes.
Another feature of Lake Mashu is the absence of any rivers flowing into or out of it. Instead, the lake’s clear waters gush into ponds like Kaminokoike, which receives an astounding 12,000 tons of water each day.
The shores of Lake Mashu are off-limits to visitors (mainly for conservation purposes) and the lake can only be seen from two observation decks high above the lake.
Our final destination on our tour of eastern Hokkaido was Frattelo di Mikuni, a restaurant which also has several villas for guests to stay in.
We had previously visited the garden next door – Daisetsu Mori-no-Garden– and had wanted to return to stay in one of the villas and re-live the dining experience we had so thoroughly enjoyed in the restaurant a year ago.
Fratello di Mikuni is a collaboration between celebrated French chef, Kiyomi Mikuni, Hideki Horikawa, an acclaimed Italian chef based in Sapporo, and Yoshitomo Miyamoto, the grand chef of Fratello di Mikuni.
The cuisine is Italian and French-inspired and makes use of local seasonal ingredients, such as locally-grown daikon radish, Suffolk mutton from Shibetsu, slightly north of Kamikawa, and duck from Takikawa in east central Hokkaido. A particular specialty is the corn soup, using sweet Hokkaido corn harvested the same day.
There villas are minimalist in style but very comfortable to stay in. Ours had a small patio where we were able to sit and enjoy the mild Hokkaido summer weather.
For those of us living on any of the other islands that make up the Japanese archipelago, Hokkaido seems like a different country. The names don’t sound Japanese (as many of them are derived from the language spoken by the indigenous Ainu), the landscape is flat and wide open, as opposed to the rest of Japan, which is largely covered in mountains, and everything, from the fields to the vegetables grown there, is so much bigger than what you find in other parts of Japan.
The island attracts a wave of foreign skiers in the winter, but for many Japanese holiday makers, summer is the ideal season to visit Hokkaido and escape the suffocating humidity and heat of most other parts of Japan.
After an earthquake and typhoon this year left a trail of destruction in parts of Hokkaido, visiting the island to admire its natural beauty and indigenous culture may at first thought seem slightly inappropriate. But it helps to remember that it is also one way to support the local economy and contribute to the revitalization of affected communities on the island – while at the same time enjoying some of the most scenic territory Japan can offer.