Shiretoko National Park was gazetted in 1964 and covers a substantial part, some 386.33 square kilometers (miles), or roughly half of the Shiretoko peninsula, a long narrow peninsula jutting about 70 kilometers into the Sea of Okhotsk from the northeastern tip of Hokkaido. This large Japanese national park was added to the World Heritage list in July 2005. It is one of the most isolated parts of Japan and contains extensive wilderness, there are few roads (and none into the heart of the national park), so the only way to access much is by boat or on foot.
The name Shiretoko is derived from an Ainu word meaning the “end of the earth” or “lands end”. The peninsula is formed from a volcanic chain of mountains, enormous black rocks are strewn everywhere, reminding you where they came from. There are few roads, none at all to the cape, and large numbers of wild deer, Hokkaido brown bears and foxes. It is a birder’s paradise. Drift ice, hot thermal vents and springs, wild seas and cliffs, quiet ponds, are all a feature of this beautiful wild area.
Shiretoko is unusual in Japan in that it includes both the land from the central portion of the peninsula to the cape, and also the marine areas surrounding this land. In fact the importance of this marine ecosystem is such that when UNESCO designated the park as a World Heritage site, it also advised that Japan should jointly manage the environmental regulations together with Russia, in effect creating a “transborder” park. This is because the waters adjoin and include Kunashiri, one of the 4 Kurile islands invaded 2 weeks after WWII by the former Soviet Union and part of an on-going dispute.
One of the key reasons for the UNESCO listing is its value as a sanctuary for several marine and terrestrial endangered species. There is a considerable population of cormorants and white-tailed sea eagles. The wilds of Shiretoko National Park provide valuable habitat for several threatened sea birds and the extensive wetlands provide one of the most important areas for migratory birds. The diversity of the park (marine environment with the southernmost ice floes in the northern hemisphere and alpine plants in close proximity) supports rare species such as the Blackiston’s Fish owl & Viola Kitamiana, marine animals such as Steller’s sea lion and some cetaceans.
Higuma – Hokkaido Brown Bears:
Along with the Daisetsuzan National Park in central Hokkaido, Shiretoko is important as a habitat for Hokkaido Brown Bears, with Shiretoko having the largest known bear population on the island. Considerable care and caution needs to be be taken by hikers, especially in the spring when the bears emerge from hibernation.
Sea Ice (Ryuuhyou):
The Sea of Okhotsk has the southernmost ice floes in the northern hemisphere. This seasonal drift sea ice is an increasingly popular tourist attraction, with ice-breakers providing tours from nearby Abashiri. The sea ice has a major impact on the productivity of the local marine ecosystem, and the interaction of this unusually southern sea ice environment with the land ecosystems is an important research field for scientists studying Shiretoko. It is worth seeing, and an option to combine with either the Winter Programs, or the Sapporo Snow Festival and/or a holiday mixing skiing and snowboarding in Hokkaido.
Volcanoes / Thermal / Waterfalls:
The spine of mountains running the length of the Shiretoko peninsula (and then undersea, forming the Kuril island chain) is volcanic, creating lakes and thermal hotsprings (including hot waterfalls such as Kamuiwakka) in many areas of the park. Mount Rausu (Rausu-dake) is the best known volcano, listed amongst the 100 most famous mountains in Japan. The other main peaks are Onnebetsu, Io and Mount Shiretoko which is the closest to the cape.
Shiretoko’s mountains define the terrestrial ecosystem. The main hiking routes (Shiretoko traverse) cross this terrain, and the range forms the backdrop for the 5 beautiful lakes (shiretoko-go-ko) that are one of the main attractions of the park. The range is rugged, and this plus the remoteness of the area is why there is no road to the end of the peninsula. The mountains can be seen from the ocean side, along with many of the waterfalls such as Oshinkoshin-no-taki, which falls into the sea near the fishing village called Utoro.
Visiting Shiretoko National Park:
Most visitors to Shiretoko use the small towns of Rausu and Utoro. Rausu is known for its hot springs. Apart from Rausu onsen, there are coastal thermal vents bubbling hot water up into the sea. Also of interest is a cave called Makkausu. Formed by wave action, the internal surfaces have an unusual moss which is luminsecent and gives an eery glow after nightfall. Apart from tourism, Rausu makes its income from fishing and from harvesting konbu, large kelp that is like a sea vegetable with thick leaves and is used in many recipes, particular as in soup stocks.
From Rausu there is one road across the peninsula to Utoro, though most visitors will prefer to make the journey by boat. The best part of the sea journey around the rugged cape (you can’t get out of the boat, the light house is unmanned) to Utoro is the last part, when the cliffs rise to 200 meters in height, often unbroken for 10 kilometer stretches. There are occasional breaks in the long cliff lines, such as for rivers such as the Iwaobetsu – a wonderful breeding habitat for trout and salmon – and where waterfalls such as the Kashiyuni-no-taki cut into the rock as they plunge to the sea. The cliffs are interesting as they have what appear to be striking black and white stripes. These layers were formed when molten lava from repeated eruptions settled in the sedimentary rock, before massive volcanic activity lifted the whole structure out of the sea.
From Utoro there is a small road stretching part of the way along the northwest side of the peninsula. This road enables tourists to visit the famous five lakes (shiretoko-go-ko), and further on, the wonderful Kamuiwakka falls. The first stop is the useful Shiretoko Shizen Center which has a treasure of information and displays. In the off-season it is open from 9am to 4am daily, but in the peak April 20 to October 20 period it is open from 8am to 5.40pm. There are nature trails behind the center that are worth exploring, as they lead down to the cliffs where there is a nice waterfall. About 10 kilometers further along the road are the Shiretoko Go-Ko. These five lakes are small, quiet ponds surrounded by wild forest. In good weather without wind, the surface of each lake is like a mirror reflecting the Shiretoko mountains. There is an easy walking path through the lake area which is only about 2.5 kilometers long, and even when dawdling it only takes about an hour. The path is formed mostly from boards to protect the soft soil from being trampled during the peak season. There is a lookout where you can obtain views across the heathland towards the open sea.
The lakes aren’t difficult to get to as there is a youth hostel at Iwaobetsu, as well as buses (about 4 a day) from Utoro. It is worth staying at the hostel just in order to make a few connections. During June to October there are buses (usually 3 a day from the Shizen Center), but sometimes its a matter of hitching. There is a dirt road from near the lakes that continues along the coast to the wonderful Kamuiwakka-no-taki waterfalls. Kamuiwakka is brilliant. The name means “river of gods” in Ainu, and the waterfall is a gem. It is about 32 meters high and two meters across, hot spring water seeps from the rock walls and mixes with river water as it spills over the precipice. There are a series of waterfalls each with plunge pool, so the effect is a layered natural rotemburo style onsen (in this case wear a bathing costume). Apart from the trip along the road (40 minutes in a shuttle bus/van), getting to these waterfalls is a bit difficult. You need to climb up the river, and the rocks are slippery, more so the higher you climb as there is more algae in the warmer water. You need a waterproof, preferably disposable or well protected camera. Buying a pair of straw sandals is one way to protect your feet, but some cuts are inevitable sometimes. The water is slightly acidic and will sting the cuts, but they heal quickly.
Hiking in Shiretoko National Park:
If you have the energy and schedule for it, it is worth considering some of the hikes available. A popular hike is to the fairly wild active volcano called Io-zan. This is a difficult climb unless you are very fit. The thermal vents from below Io-zan are the ones producing the hot water for the waterfalls at Kamuiwakka. The trail starts from the bridge near the entrance to those falls, and you need to allocate at least 8 hours of reasonably good weather and light.
Another popular climb is a 1 day hike across the spine of Shiretoko from Iwaobetsu to Rausu via the 1661 meter high peak of the volcano Rausu-dake. This is a pretty challenging hike, as to get to the peak is about 4.5 hours of uphill slog from the Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel. The staff there can advise you about the weather and interesting places along the route, including a natural outdoor bath. Although fairly popular, you don’t get the crowds common in areas of Nagano such as Kamikochi or Norikura, even on weekends. From the peak (depending on the weather) you have great views along both sides of Shiretoko, all the way to the Russian held islands. From Rausu-dake you can either return to Iwaobetsu or head on down the other side to Rausu. The hike is excellent in either direction.
Beware of bears: Buy a bear bell before you go, and if you are in a group – which you should be – talk a lot when on the move. Shiretoko has the highest concentration of Hokkaido Brown Bears, so take precautions. It is pretty hard to graduate from school if you are eaten.
How to get to Shiretoko National Park:
Fly/Drive: This is by far the easiest way. Public transport in this remote area of Hokkaido is limited, and cars (especially when the cost is divided amongst 3 or more people) offer a very cheap and flexible option. All you need is an international driver’s permit. Japan drives on the left side of the road, but if you are from a country that drives on the right don’t worry, there is very little traffic in this part of Japan and it doesn’t take more than a day or two to make the adjustment. The closest rental outlets are at Memanbetsu airport (the closest airport to Shiretoko) and Abashiri. Both are less than 100 kilometers from Utoro. If you drive from Sapporo, you are looking at about a 6 hour drive, but you can break the journey at Asahikawa.
Fly/Bus: Take a flight to Memanbetsu. In peak season, there are flights here from Sapporo & Hakodate, and also from Osaka, Nagoya & Tokyo. There are 3 or 4 buses a day from the airport to Utoro. 2 hours (2800 yen one way) depending on weather.
Train/Bus: If you have a rail pass and need/want to use it, the closest station is called “JR Shiretoko Shari”. The trains aren’t very regular (the population density is so scarce), but this will deposit you in Shari. It is about 2.5 hours from Kushiro (2730 yen), and about 40 minutes (810 yen) from Abashiri. Taking the long hail from Sapporo is about 7 hours and 11,000 yen. There are buses from the station to Utoro, but not many and fairly irregular – check the schedule at the station before heading off for coffee etc. The journey costs 1670 yen and will take another hour, another reason why it is cheaper and quicker to drive.