The Shiretoko Peninsula on Hokkaido, ice breakers, Utoro, Oshinkoshin Falls and Red Crowned Cranes … John Dunphy continues his review of Winter in Japan … see Snow Monkeys, Ice Festivals and heated toilet seats and Around Tokyo.
Drift Ice and Icebreakers
The highlight of our winter tour of Hokkaido was probably the northern part of the island bordering the Sea of Okhotsk and up to the absolutely beautiful Shiretoko Peninsula – with the world heritage listed Shiretoko National Park. Prior to driving up to the peninsula we did two ice breaker cruises on the Sea of Okhotsk. The sea is frozen in winter with drifting pack ice coming down from the north. To give a perspective, Abashiri is latitude 44 degrees north, which is slightly north of Vladivostok in Russia.
Our first ice cruise was out of Monbetsu on a smaller boat called Garinko 2 with twin helical screws on the bow to break up the ice into a kind of “ice slushy”
The second cruise was on “Aurora” out of Abashiri. Aurora is the name of twin icebreakers that operate out of the port and they are much larger than the Monbetsu vessels.
There is a Drift Ice Museum at Abashiri where you can learn about the formation of the drift ice.
The Aurora cruises are very popular and there are long queues to board each departure. It pays to get there early so that you can get a good spot on the rails for photos, but rug up well!
The ice was much thicker on the Aurora cruise and it forms wonderful patterns that sometimes look like Lotus leaves or pancakes. The ships rails were very crowded on our cruise. However as the cold took effect on guests they moved inside to the heated cabins, or for a coffee, so it was then much easier to secure a good spot for camera work.
The drift ice is the highlight of the trip but we did sea White Tail and Steller’s Sea Eagles, both magnificent birds of prey with a huge wingspan. Apparently you can see seals on the ice during the cruise but we missed out on those. It was very exciting feeling and hearing the ship crush though the ice and sometimes coming to a complete stop as it hit a very thick section. There’s a small snack and coffee bar on board and Aurora even has a first class section if you want to pay a bit more and have more comfort. However on our cruise, that cabin was almost empty. We spent most of the time outside but you do need a good waterproof jacket and gloves, plus some protection for your camera if (as in our cruise), it is snowing.
Northern Hokkaido and Shiretoko Peninsula
We coached from Abashiri to Utoro on the Shiretoko Peninsula. During our short winter visit the whole peninsula was covered in metres of snow and the Sea of Okhotsk was completely frozen at Utoro.
Shiretoko is a magnificent peninsula with high mountains, untouched forests and wild seascapes. The northern part of the peninsula is the world heritage listed Shiretoko National Park. Shiretoko would be perfect in all four seasons and we are tempted to go back in autumn and note that Destination Management, (our Brisbane based tour provider), has an autumn tour next year.
There are three major peaks in the park: Mt. Iou at 1,562m, Mt Rauso at 1,660metres and Mt. Shiretoko at 1,254metres. The only way to reach the national park north of Utoro and Rauso Town is by walking, boat or helicopter. The only road across the peninsula from Utoro to Rausu town is closed in winter.
We stayed at Grand Hotel Kitakobushi in Utoro, which is on the waterfront. Our room had a view of the frozen harbour and sea. We stopped at the beautiful Oshinkoshin Falls on the way to our hotel. This is a spectacular waterfall just next to the coastal main road from Shari to Utoro, and is in the top 100 falls in Japan. The walk up to the falls was through crisp dry snow and most of the waterfall was frozen solid.
A visit to the Shiretoko National Park nature centre at the entrance of the park is a must. You can obtain information on the park itself and the centre has a great audio visual presentation of the four seasons in Shiretoko and a very nice café.
A favourite winter activity in Utoro is taking a walk on the drift ice if you are brave. The ice walk tour company will kit you out in a dry suit for safety, allowing some hardy visitors to take a dip in the non-frozen sections of the sea. We did see one group out walking on the ice without dry suits and figured they must have a warped sense of personal safety!
Shiretoko is home to Sika Deer, Brown Bear, Foxes, and lots of different birds, being on the migration paths from Siberia. In the waters surrounding the peninsula you can take a whale watching cruise from May to September. We are told the national park is also home to the Tanuki, the Japanese Racoon Dog, although we didn’t see any. This little creature is featured all over Japan in carved images such as the one in this picture.
Shiretoko is named after the Ainu words for “where the earth protrudes”. Ainu are the original people of Hokkaido and are also found north into Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands in Russia. There is a replica Ainu village at Lake Akan (Akanko Onsen) and a theatre that has performances of Ainu dances and music. The village has lots of touristy shops selling carvings and other souvenirs. Our hotel in Utoro had some magnificent wooden carvings done by Ainu sculptors and we found a remarkable similarity to the First Nations people of Canada in the Ainu carvings, totems and symbols.
Red Crowned Cranes and other birds
Our tour was mainly to see the Snow Monkeys and the winter festivals but Destination Management also includes lots of wildlife sightings and photo opportunities in its tours. The avian highlight of our tour was the Red Crowned Crane in Kushiro Shitsugen National Park. On the way to Kushiro we also stopped at Lake Kussharo, Volcanic crater Lake Mashu and Lake Akan.
The crane is a national symbol of Japan and the continued existence of the Red Crowned Crane is one of the great bird survival stories of all time. At one point in the early 19th century there were less than 50 birds alive and their survival looked bleak. This was because of hunting and habitat loss due to farming and marsh draining. The cranes and many other birds depend on the Kushiro Marshlands for survival and fortunately the Japanese people and government implemented a program of buying back farms and restoring the Kushiro marshes to ensure survival of the cranes and other migratory birds.
The Red Crowned Crane is called Tancho in Japan and we visited a number of places where they can be seen in winter, including the Tsurui Ito Tancho Sanctuary feeding ground and Akan International Crane Centre. The latter has an observation area, toilets and a small café. The cranes are fed in the winter and there are a number of breeding programs in place to grow their numbers. In summer the cranes disperse into the marshlands to breed and because food is more easily available.
Photographers from all over the world come to Kushiro to capture the one trophy photo of the Tancho. We saw dozens of keen snappers with the longest lenses and most expensive camera equipment. A good photo of the cranes in flight, or doing their famous dance, is the most sought after. It seemed that many of the photographers spent hours there and took their snaps between chatting and having a coffee or two. It may seem sad that the Tancho is being fed but this ensures its survival and population growth; we were told that there are currently only about a 1000 to 2000 birds in Kushiro so it is still very much an endangered species. Tourism also contributes to the bird’s survival.
The Tancho is a magnificent bird with a 2.5 metre wingspan, as high as a man and with striking black legs and wingtips on a snowy white body. The name of course comes from the red skin cap of its crown.
The Kushiro Shitsugen Wildlife Centre (Raptor Centre) has a program to treat and, where possible, release injured raptors including the White-tailed Sea Eagle, Steller’s Sea Eagle, Black Kite and Blakiston’s Fish Owl. This owl is the largest in the world with a wingspan of up to 2 metres. It is very difficult to spot in the wild. One of the reasons for this is loss of habit (how familiar!).
The owl is so large it needs very old trees with hollows of the right size to nest. Like many places around the world there are not many old trees left in Japan. The Raptor Centre is installing artificial nesting boxes with some breeding success. You can see a Blakiston’s Owl and both sea eagles at the centre. Unfortunately many of the raptors that are brought to the centre are not able to be released again. We had the honour of meeting one of the caring veterinarians looking after these magnificent birds.
IMAGES: John Dunphy, Carole Dunphy