NORTHERN HOKKAIDO: BEARS, DRIFT ICE AND SHIRETOKO

DRIFT ICE OFF NORTHERN HOKKAIDO

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Japan Brown bear
NORTHERN HOKKAIDO borders the Sea of Okhotsk, a very cold body water, so cold in fact that it can become almost completely covered with ice during the winter months. Ice flows in the Sea of Okhotsk originate off the coast of eastern Russia and can be up to 20 meters in diameter. Early in the season the ice flow masses are two to three kilometers wide and 50 kilometers long.

Northern Hokkaido is the southernmost point in the northern hemisphere, where pack ice accumulates. This phenomena is made possible by the Amur River --- one of the world’s largest rivers --- in Russia and China which releases great amounts of fresh water into the sea and makes it easier for water to freeze (fresh water has a higher freezing point than salt water). In most years the ice pack is visible from late January or early February to mid or late March.

The freshwater from the Amur River that flows into the Sea of Okhotsk is sort of trapped there as the sea is surrounded by the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands, Hokkaido and Sakhalin Island. The layers of freshwater seawater become frozen cold air that comes in from Siberia, producing in ice floes. The amount of ice floes has declined year after year because of global warming. Abashiri is located at a latitude that is mostly unusual for drift ice to come down to. Drift ice therefore tends to respond sensitively even to the smallest of changes in sea water temperature. [Source: Kuniaki Uematsu, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 17, 2014]

Cruises to check out the ice run several times a day and cost ¥3,000 for adults and ¥1,500 for children. Sometimes the trips are canceled because of high winds or waves many times visitors don?t see any ice. Meakandake, a 1,499-meter-high volcano in eastern Hokkaido experienced a small eruption in March 2006. It was the first time it erupted since November 1998.

Abashiri Area

Abashiri (70 kilometers west of Shiretoko National Park) is a transport hub with access to Shari and Shiretoko National park. Home to about 45,000 people, it contain the Prison Museum, Museum of Northern People and the Museum of Ice Floes. Some people come from December to March to see the ice floes that close the harbor. Many visitors come in the winter and take a boat trip on the Sea of Okhotsk and check out the pack ice, which is sometimes there and sometimes isn’t. A number of animals such as Stellar sea eagles depend on the pack ice as they search for food.

Websites:Abashiri City site abakanko.jp Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Abashira is accessible by air from major cities in Japan and connected by bus and train to other cities in Hokkaido. By Air: JAL and ANA operate flights several times trips per day between Sapporo (Shin-Chitose Airport) and Memanbetsu Airport, 30 minutes by bus from Abashiri. The flight takes about 45 minutes. The regular one way fare is around 25,000 yen, but discount tickets between 12,000 and 19,000 yen are generally available. By train: JR Okhotsk limited express cover the distance between Sapporo and Abashiri in about 5½ hours.. The one way fare is around 10,000 yen. By Bus: Hokkaido Chuo Bus and Abashiri Bus operate daytime and buses between Abashiri and Sapporo. The trip takes six hours and costs 6800 yen. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Abashiri Quasi-National Park (north of Akan National Park) extends along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk and features a number of large and small lakes, natural flower gardens and sand dunes along the beach. The city of Abashiri in the middle of the park is a major fishing and agricultural center.

Beicho is town popular with visitors in some because of the large numbers of flowers that bloom in the fields here. A train runs through an area with lots of flowers. In some places farmers use their tractors to pull tourist-filled carriages through sunflower fields. area with lots of flowers. In some places farmers use their tractors to pull tourist-filled carriages through sunflower fields.

Lake Tofutsu (between Abashira and Koshimizucho) is a famous spot where 2,000 whopper swans migrate in the winters. They are usually seen between late September and early October. Other kinds of bird can be spotted here throughout the year.

Drift Ice Tours

Drift Ice Tours are available aoard the Garinko-go II icebreaker ship based at Monbetsu Port and the Aurora icebreaker ship in Abashiri. The drift ice season is from January to March, with its peak in February. Abashiri can be reached in forty minutes by direct bus from Memanbetsu Airport that goes directly to “Drift Ice Breaker Terminal”. Monbetsu can be reached via a twelve-minute ride on a shuttle bus from By flying to Okhotsk Monbetsu Airport. Monbetsu is about 100 kilometers northwest of Abarshiri.

The average temperature in February is-10 degrees Celsius (14 degrees Fahrenheit). Protection from the cold is a must as it gets even colder at night and winds on the deck of the ships can make it feel like it is much colder. If you are lucky, you might see animals that come from the seas of the far north such as Steller’s sea eagles and spotted seals. When there is a lot of drift ice, the Garinko-go II uses its huge drill. It is an exciting watch the boat crush through the ice as it pushes its way through. The forecabin on the first floor gives you a closer view of the ice being crushed away.

Drift ice cruises on the Garinko-go II icebreaker can be enjoyed from January 20 to March 31 every year with ships departing at 9:00am, 10:30am, 12:00pm, 1:30pm, and 3:00pm In February, which is the best month to see the drift ice, there are also departures at 6:00am for a special sunrise view and at 4:10pm for a sunset view. Advanced reservations are a must. Passengers can call the office to make reservations by the day before departure or reserve directly at the boarding point. Reservations can be made in English and the fare is 3,000 yen (3,000 yen per adult and half off for children). Address: 1 Kaiyokoen, Monbetsu-shi, Hokkaido (in Kaiyo Koryukan), Tel: 0158-24-8000 (English spoken);

Aurora icebreaker ship departs from the roadside station “Drift Ice Highway Abashiri”, which is located at the mouth of the Abashiri River. Reservations can be made on the ship’s webpage and the fare is 3,300 yen (3,300 yen per adult, and half off for children).. The Aurora breaks through ice gorges with its force of its own weight. On the deck, passengers can enjoy the sounds and impact of the ice being crushed. Drift ice cruises can be enjoyed from January 20 to March 31 every year. There are also tickets for hotels in the city and cruises at discount prices. Address: Minami 3, Higashi 4-5-1, Abashiri city, Hokkaido, Tel: 0152-43-6000; Website: ms-aurora.com

Hokkaido’s Ice Museum

Okhotsk Ryu-hyo Museum (15 minutes from Abashiri Station) features 120 tons of real drift ice on display at the “Hands-on Drift Ice Activity Room”, which is set to-15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). Cliones, a type of mollusk also known as “sea angels”, are also bred and on display here. The observation deck commands a magnificent 360-degree panoramic view across Lake Abashiri, Lake Notoro, the Okhotsk Sea, and the Shiretoko Peninsula, which is a World Heritage Site. Admission is 540 yen for adults, 430 yen for high school students, and 320 yen for junior high school students and younger children.

Kuniaki Uematsu wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “”Oh! It’s c-c-cold!” squealed the members of a group from Singapore. They were inside the “ice floe experience chamber” where temperatures are 15 C below zero. Giant lumps of drift ice totaling 120 tons sit inside the chamber at the Okhotsk Ryu-hyo Museum, taken straight from the Sea of Okhotsk during winter. A Yomiuri reporter touched one and exclaimed, “That’s freezing cold!” At the chamber entrance, museum staff handed out wet towels—which quickly froze over as visitors waved them around. Excited voices resounded once more over the icy delight, clearly in astonishment at the rapid freezing rate. [Source: Kuniaki Uematsu, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 17, 2014]

“This unique museum is located at the top of a mountain in a southwestern area of Abashiri, Hokkaido. Built as an annex to an observation tower, it offers a sweeping view of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Shiretoko Peninsula, located in the easternmost part of Hokkaido. There are other facilities offering similar ice floe experiences throughout the year. But the Ryu-hyo (drift ice) museum in Abashiri—the southernmost point where floating ice can be found—was opened way back in 1980, boasting overwhelming amounts of drift ice.

“In recent years, more foreign visitors, particularly those from Southeast Asian countries and Hawaii, have been seeking out simulated experiences of frigid environments. Exhibits featuring clione, a genus of small floating sea slugs dubbed “angels in a sea of floating ice,” have been gaining just as much popularity. The city-run museum hopes visitors will have a good time and also learn something new about the scientific aspects of drift ice in the Okhotsk sea. “Among other things, we hope visitors will learn that drift ice is not just about the scenic beauty of nature,” said 34-year-old guide Rurika Kawabata.

“The museum began emphasizing environmental education by taking advantage of the renewal of its facilities in 2004. By setting up such displays as a northern hemisphere model to show the areas where drift ice reaches in the sea, the museum was better able to offer clear explanations to visitors.” In 2015 the museum opened in a new building. The new museum is “furnished with upgraded equipment, including audiovisual devices. This is “a stark departure from its former days, when the current museum was a small facility where visitors peered at lumps of drift ice through glass panels. The clione displays were once nothing more than used jars of instant coffee.”

Shiretoko National Park

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Shiretoko National Park (northeastern Hokkaido) occupies the scenic Shiretoko Peninsula. Covering 490 square kilometers (190 square miles), it embraces volcanic peaks and large tracts of wilderness and is still relatively undeveloped and has one of the densest bear populations in the world (one bear per three square kilometers). Shiretoko means “end of the earth” in the Ainu language. It is situated at the southernmost point in the Northern hemisphere reached by seasonal winter ice.

The Shiretoko area is located on the most northeastern point of Japan (excluding the Northern Territories). Shiretoko National Park is characterized by its majestically precipitous landscape, which was formed by volcanic activity and lava flows, and its richly diverse wildlife. In particular, the park is home to many large mammals, such as the brown bear and killer whale, and large birds of prey that are in danger of extinction. With these creatures at the top of the ecological chain, various wild animals interrelate and live strongly. The diversity of these creatures and the links between ocean, river, and forest ecosystems in the area have been recognized, and in July 2005, Shiretoko was designated a World Natural Heritage site. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

The Shiretoko peninsula is a long, narrow peninsula, measuring approximately 70 kilometers long and approximately 25 kilometers wide at its base. From the top of Mt. Rausu-the main peak on the peninsula-is a spectacular view of precipitous mountains 1,200 to 1,600 meters in height rising on both sides in a row, as if emerging from the sea. Known as the Shiretoko Mountain Range, these mountains were created by volcanic activity.

Along the coastline on the western side of the peninsula stretches a row of cliffs rising more than 100 meters in height. These were formed by ice drifts fiercely eroding lava flows. Like the Frepe-no-taki Falls , groundwater flows between the rocks, transforming the cliffs into a multitude of spectacular waterfalls dropping into the Sea of Okhotsk. The ruggedness of these cliffs bars entry by humans and natural enemies, creating a valuable breeding ground for seabirds such as the spectacled guillemot.

In contrast, on the eastern side of the peninsula, where there is no forceful contact with drift ice, the comparatively gentle coastline extends to the tip, and there are numerous kelp gathering stations dotted along the beach. In this way, one characteristic of Shiretoko is the different topographies that can be seen on the eastern and western sides of the peninsula, divided by the soaring Shiretoko Mountain Range running down the middle. Since ancient times, the Ainu hunted, fished and gathered plants on the peninsula. The main industry today is fishing. Chum salmon, pink salmon, walleye pollack, and kelp are all harvested in a sustainable way.

Shiretoko: UNESCO World Heritage Site

Shiretoko was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. According to UNESCO: “Shiretoko Peninsula is located in the north-east of Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. The site includes the land from the central part of the peninsula to its tip (Shiretoko Cape) and the surrounding marine area. It provides an outstanding example of the interaction of marine and terrestrial ecosystems as well as extraordinary ecosystem productivity, largely influenced by the formation of seasonal sea ice at the lowest latitude in the northern hemisphere. It has particular importance for a number of marine and terrestrial species, some of them endangered and endemic, such as Blackiston’s fish owl and the Viola kitamiana plant. The site is globally important for threatened seabirds and migratory birds, a number of salmonid species, and for marine mammals including Steller’s sea lion and some cetacean species.” [Source: UNESCO]

“Shiretoko provides an outstanding example of the interaction of marine and terrestrial ecosystems as well as extraordinary ecosystem productivity, largely influenced by the formation of seasonal sea ice at the lowest latitude in the northern hemisphere, occurring earlier here than in other sea ice areas.Illustrating ecological processes, phytoplankton blooms develop on the nutrients supplied by the melting sea ice and from the deep ocean, entering the system through circulation of currents. The food webs starting from the phytoplankton blooms involve fish, birds and mammals, and form dynamic ecosystems over ocean, rivers and forests.

The boundaries of the property follow the existing legally designated protected areas and covering 71,100 ha in area, they embrace all of the conserved areas of the integrated ecosystem, comprising an extremely rich marine and terrestrial ecosystem, sufficiently encompassing all the key terrestrial values of the property and the key marine ecological area for marine biodiversity. The terrestrial boundaries are logical and protect key terrestrial features while the marine boundaries extend 3 kilometers from the shoreline, corresponding to the depth of 200 meters , which encompasses the key marine ecological area for marine biodiversity.

Visiting Shiretoko National Park

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Asiatic black bear
More than 2.3 million people visit Shiretoko National Park annually. Most of them visit in the summer. Some years the snow doesn’t melt until June. Among the park's attractions are a rich variety of animals, plants and birds, unspoiled open-air hot spring baths, many splendid waterfalls, small lakes and picturesque forest. The park is famous for its autumn colors. Popular hiking destinations include 1,661-meter-high Mt. Rausu-dake, 1,562-meter-high Mt. Iozan and Shiretoko-toge Pass. The town of Shari is the gateway to the region and Utoro is the main accommodation center.

People often see bears. There have been no reports of injuries. Other wildlife found at Shiretoko includes foxes, deer, Blakiston’s fish owls, white-tailed eagles and Stellar sea eagles. offshore, especially where there is pack ice, seals, sea lions, whales and killer whales are regularly observed. Several species of salmon spawn in the rivers. Many visitors come to Shiretoko specifically to check out the 600 or so bears that live on the peninsula. They can be observed feeding on Pacific salmon returning to the Rusha River and are also often seen around Shiretoko Goko Lakes and the Kamulwakka-no-Taki Falls. Hikers are advised to exercise caution while hiking in bear country. There have been attacks by so-called new-generation bears that have become accustomed to humans, It is a good idea to wear a bell or other noisemaking devices that prevent you from startling bears and stay clear of mothers with cubs. See Nature, Animals

Because of increased concerns about brown bears, starting in May 2011 visitors to Shiretoko Goko Lakes have been required to a pay for a guide to accompany them during certain seasons. About 500,000 people visit the area and use the boardwalks to walk to the lakes. The new rules were put in place as a precautionary measure. According to the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Shiretoko began restricting entry to the area around its famous lakes in 2011 based on the revised Natural Parks Law. The law, which came into effect in 2003, allows for limits to be placed on entry periods and the number of guests in designated areas. The park decided to act because vegetation had been excessively trampled by visitors. Visitors are now restricted to 300 to 3,000 per day, depending on the season. Some tourists have complained that they came to Shiretoko not knowing about the restrictions and were unable to walk around the lakes. [Source: Atsuki Kira, Yomiuri Shimbun, October 6, 2012]

Activities include: 1) Walking on Drift Ice, walk over drift ice with a guide and float in the cracks between the ice (wearing a special dry suit); 2) sightseeing Boats, departing from Utoro, provide spectacular views of cliffs and waterfalls, but also opportunities to observe brown bears, spectacled guillemots, and other wildlife; 3) Winter Drift Ice Cruises, between February and April, allow you see the ice drifts on the ocean at Rausu and observe Steller's sea eagles, white-tailed sea eagles, spotted seals, and other wildlife up close; and Whale Watching, in the Nemuro Strait near Rausu, is viewed by some as one of the best whale watching sites in Japan. The whale species that are observed change with the seasons.

Shiretoko World Heritage Conservation Center is designed to inform the many people entering the heritage area of the rules and regulations to be followed, to provide real-time information on the many high points of the Shiretoko World Naturual Heritage and on the various facilities, and to introduce the correct way to enjoy the natural environment of Shiretoko. Location: Adjacent to Michinoeki Utoro Shirietoku Utoro-Nishi 186-10, Shari Town, Shari County, Hokkaido, Tel: 0152-24-3255 Hours Open: 8:30 - 17:30 (April 20 - October 20) 9:00am-4:30pm (October 21 - April 19), Closed Tuesdays during winter (October 21 - April 19), end and beginning of year

Rausu Visitor Center is a facility established by the Ministry of the Environment to connect visitors with nature. The Center provides visitors with an understanding of the Shiretoko National Park and the information necessary to enjoy the natural environment through exhibits and videos explaining its natural environment, history, culture, and use. Also provides rentals of rubber boots necessary to explore Lake Rausu, and bear spray. (Requires a fee) Location: Yunosawa 6-27, Rausu Town, Menashi County, Hokkaido , Tel: 0153-87-2828; Hours Open: 9:00am- 5:00pm (May - October) 10:00am-4:00pm (November - April), Closed Mondays (Open daily during July - September), end and beginning of year.

Websites: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Wikitravel Wikitravel UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Accommodation can be found in the nearby towns of Shari, Rausu and Utoro Onsen. Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Shiretoko National Park is remote but accessible. Flights from Haneda Airport to Memanbetsu Airport take an hour and 50 minutes. From there it is 30 minutes on the Memanbetsu Airport Line Bus to Rausu. You can also fly Haneda Airport to Nakashibetsu Airport (one hour 40 minutes) at take the Akan Bus (about an hour and ten minutes) to Rausu. From Abashiri Station on one of the main train lines in Hokkaido take the JR Senmo Main Line (about 40 minutes) to Shiretokoshari Station Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Places in Shiretoko

Cape Shiretoko is located at the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula. It consists of vast grasslands that face the Sea of Okhotsk. Cape Shiretoko-misaki features sea-eroded cliffs that are hundreds of feet high. The area offers tour boat trips allowing visitors to enjoy views from the sea. Mt. Rausu is the main peak on the peninsula. It is a 1,660-meter-high volcano that last erupted in 1880. From the top there are magnificent view of the peninsula rising east-west from the ocean. Climbing this mountain is an eight-hour return trip and gorges remain filled with snow until late July, so thorough preparation and planning are necessary. The route from Rausu in particular is more suited to advanced climbers. Shiretoko Pass 738 meters high and is the highest point along the Shiretokoodan-doro Road connecting Shari and Rausu Towns. The pass provides spectacular views of starry night skies and the morning sun rising over Kunashirito Island.

Shiretoko Goko Lakes (Five Lakes) are located among marshes, meadows and primeval forest. The deep forests surrounding the lakes and Shiretoko Mountain Range rising above form a landscape representative of Shiretoko. There are nice walking trails on wooden planks around Shiretoko Five Lakes. The Lake Rausu Trail visits four large and small marshes before arriving at Lake Rausu, enabling visitors to enjoy the marshes, mountains, and plant life all at once. The walk requires the same preparations as for mountain climbing.

Kumagoe-no-taki Falls is a 15-meter-high high waterfall is on the Rausu-River. The footpath entering from the Shiretokoodan-doro Road follows the fresh stream, where Ranunculus nipponicus var. submersus thrives. Around Kamulwakka-no-Taki Falls you can hike up a hot water stream and waterfall to some wonderful open-air baths with ocean views. Frepe-no-taki Falls , also known as the Maiden's Tears waterfall, is characterized by underground water spraying out from a crack in the cliff. In winter, it is possible to go to see the frozen waterfall wearing snowshoes.

Animals in Shiretoko

A total of 36 land mammal species and 22 marine mammal species have been confirmed as living in the park area. These include species, such as Steller's sea lion and the sperm whale, that are rare throughout the world. The animal most representative of Shiretoko, however, is the brown bear, which is Japan's largest land animal. Shiretoko Peninsula's brown bear population is estimated at several hundred, which is one of the highest population densities in the world. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

Some 285 bird species have been recorded, and Blakiston's fish owls, which is an endangered species, white-tailed sea eagles, and black woodpeckers have been confirmed. Moreover, the national park and surrounding area is a globally important wintering place for Steller's sea eagles, more than 1,000 of which spend the winter here.

Brown Bear (Ursus arctos yezoensis) is Japan's largest land mammal. It lives only in Hokkaido in Japan. Its population density in Shiretoko is among the highest in the world. Visitors to Shiretoko should understand the ecology of the brown bear and take care to avoid dangerous encounters.

Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus) is an endangered large bird of prey that breeds on the Kamchatka Peninsula and in a few other areas. It come to south to the Shiretoko Peninsula with drifting ice during the winter. In February, large numbers gather around the coastline of Rausu Town, where they hunt for fish overflowing from Walleye pollock fishery.

White-tailed Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla albicilla) is a large, endangered bird of prey, characterized by a white wedge shape on its tail. Some of the birds fly to Japan as winter birds between November and March, while others live and breed year-round in Shiretoko. The birds can be seen along the coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula.

Spotted Seal (Phoca largha) is a member of the seal family that comes to the Northern Hokkaido shore in winter to breed. Its name comes from the black spots dotting similar to black sesame seeds on its back hide. In Japanese, it is called "gomafuazarashi" or "darkly-mottled-seal" and can be seen in harbors and atop ice floes. Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) can be seen off the shore of Shiretoko. Visitors to the Rausu Visitor Center can see an orca skeleton on display.

Shiretoko Ecosystem

The reason that many wild animals can live within this small area in this way is the connection between the ocean, rivers, and forests that is unique to Shiretoko. Ice drifts arriving at Shiretoko come bearing phytoplankton called ice algae. When the ice drifts melt in spring, the ice algae multiply explosively, and the zooplankton that eat the ice algae also proliferate. Juvenile salmonid fish eat the zooplankton as they depart Shiretoko, swimming in the ocean for several years before returning to Shiretoko. The salmon then swim upstream, becoming food for brown bears and eagles, providing the foundation for the land ecosystem. [Source: Ministry of the Environment Government of Japan]

The Shiretoko area is populated with mixed forests of needleleaf and broadleaf trees including Sakhalin fir, Jezo spruce and Mizunara and other trees. Viola kitamiana is an alpine plant that is only found in Shiretoko, Etorofuto Island and Kunashirito Island, and is a symbol of Shiretoko. In June, the white flowers can be seen protruding from sand gravel surfaces in the Shiretoko Mountain Range.

In precipitous Shiretoko, vegetation change can be observed at different altitudes at the shorter distance. Going in order from low-lying areas, mixed forests of conifers and broad-leaved trees such as Sakhalin fir, Quercus crispula Blume, and painted maple; forests of Erman's birch; and creeping pine zones. On land there are some 872 vascular plant species, of which 233 are alpine plants. These also include indigenous and rare species such as Viola kitamiana.

According to UNESCO: Shiretoko is one of the richest integrated ecosystems in the world. Encompassing both terrestrial and marine areas the property is located in the northeast of Hokkaido and is comprised of a part of the Shiretoko Peninsula, which protrudes into the Sea of Okhotsk and the surrounding marine areas. The extraordinarily high productivity of the marine and terrestrial component of the property, produced and largely influenced by the formation of seasonal sea ice at the lowest latitude in the northern hemisphere, and the prominent interaction between the marine and terrestrial ecosystems are the key features of Shiretoko. [Source: UNESCO]

“The supply of nutrient-rich intermediate water resulting from the formation of sea ice in the Sea of Okhotsk allows successive primary trophic productions including blooms of phytoplankton in early spring, which underpins Shiretoko’s marine ecosystem. This in turn sustains the food sources for terrestrial species, including the brown bear and Blakiston’s fish-owl, through salmonid species swimming upstream to spawn. The property is globally important for a number of marine species, globally threatened seabirds and migratory birds. The terrestrial ecosystem has various types of virgin vegetation reflecting the complex topography and weather conditions of the property, and serves as a habitat for a rich and diverse range of fauna and flora including endangered and endemic species such as Viola kitamiana.

“Shiretoko has particular importance for a number of marine and terrestrial species. Combining northern species from the continent and southern species from Honshu, the property supports a range of animal species. These include a number of endangered and endemic species, such as the Blackiston’s Fish owl and the plant species Viola kitamiana. The property has one of the highest recorded densities of brown bear populations in the world. The property has significance as a habitat for globally threatened sea birds and is a globally important area for migratory birds.

“The property is a seasonal habitat for a number of marine mammals including the Steller’s sea lion, Spotted Seal, Killer Whale, Minke Whale, Sperm Whale, Dall’s Porpoise and the endangered Fin Whale. Shiretoko is also globally important for a number of salmonid species, encompassing habitat in many small watersheds and supporting several species of Pacific salmonids, including White spotted charr, masu salmon, chum salmon and pink salMonday Those watersheds have specific importance as it is the southernmost habitat in the world for the sea run of the Dolly varden.”

Shiretoko Conservation

According to UNESCO: “The region’s vitally important fishing industry has been undertaken in the area for a considerable amount of time and recent efforts to ensure sustainability will help to ensure valuable economic input to the region while attempting to ensure conservation of the natural values. Extensive consultation with local stakeholders and the development of the Multiple Use Integrated Marine Management Plan are also assisting management authorities to achieve the goal of a sustainable industry and continued long-term conservation. The terrestrial boundaries of the property protect key features on the land, from the coastline to the mountain peaks, 1,600 meters high. Most of the terrestrial area is in a natural or semi-natural condition and the property’s physical features continue to retain a high degree of natural integrity. Management agencies possess adequate resources to implement the provisions of the management plan including strategies to address the high density of both bear and sika deer populations. [Source: UNESCO]

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“Shiretoko is protected by a number of national laws and regulations, including the Nature Conservation Law (1972), the Natural Parks Law (1957), the Law on Administration and Management of National Forests (1951) and the Law for the Conservation of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Species Conservation Law for short) (1992).. In addition to these laws, the marine component is protected by regulations covering issues such as fishing and marine pollution, and is managed in accordance with, among others, the Regulation of Sea Fisheries Adjustment in Hokkaido based on the Fisheries Law. Rare and endangered species found within the property, such as the Steller’s Sea Eagle, White-tailed Eagle, and Blakiston’s Fish-Owl, are also designated and legally protected as National Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora based on the Species Conservation Law and/or as Natural Monuments based on the Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties.

“Most of the terrestrial area of the property lies within the national forest owned and managed by the national government and is designated in the following protected areas: Onnebetsudake Wilderness Area, Shiretoko National Park, Shiretoko National Wildlife Protection Area, and Shiretoko Forest Ecosystem Reserve. The Ministry of the Environment, the Forestry Agency, the Agency for Cultural Affairs, and the Hokkaido prefectural government are responsible for their respective systems related to the conservation and administration of the property. They developed the Management Plan for the Shiretoko World Natural Heritage Site to ensure smooth management of the multi-tiered protected areas and species.

“Tourism is an increasingly important issue within the property. Large numbers of tourists visit the property in summer and the numbers of tourists are also increasing in winter to view the sea ice. A consolidated ecotourism strategy, based on the protection of the natural values of the property, the promotion of high quality nature based experiences for visitors and promotion of the local economic development is required to ensure conservation of the property values. Other issues impacting the property, such as the effect of the fishery industry on the marine ecosystem, the impact of river constructions including check dams and erosion control dams on salmon migration for spawning, the impact on vegetation of grazing pressure of the densely-populated sika deer, and conflicts between local residents or tourists and brown bears including agricultural and fishery damage are being addressed based on the scientific knowledge of working groups established under the Scientific Council. Measures to address these issues are being taken reflecting the views and opinions of local stakeholders who have shown a strong commitment at all levels to ensuring the Outstanding Universal Values of the property are maintained.

“The Sika Deer Management Plan in the Shiretoko Peninsula was established to address sika deer issues, and the Multiple Use Integrated Marine Management Plan for Shiretoko World Natural Heritage Site was developed, on the basis of fisheries-related laws and autonomous management by fishermen. Subsequently, the revised Management Plan for the Shiretoko World Natural Heritage Site (2009) was formulated to integrate all individual plans. Furthermore, the Conservation Management Policy for Brown Bears on the Shiretoko Peninsula and the Second Sika Deer Management Plan in the Shiretoko Peninsula were established in 2012. The Multiple Use Integrated Marine Management Plan is currently under review and the second Marine Management Plan is being formulated.

“The long-term effects of climate change are unclear, but given the complex interactions within the property between the marine and terrestrial ecosystems and the reliance of the system on the seasonal sea ice, the effects of climate change are of concern. In order to respond to those effects, monitoring activities are ongoing based on advice from the Scientific Council. The bottom-up approach to management through the involvement of local communities and stakeholders, and the way in which scientific knowledge has been effectively applied to management of the property through the Scientific Council and working groups have been commended by IUCN and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre and provide an excellent model for the management of World Heritage properties elsewhere.

Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu Park

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Wakkanai (northernmost Hokkaido) is a windswept port and access point for Rishiri-Rebun-Sarabetsu Park. Wakkanai Koen Park has some good views. It can be reached by cable car. About 20 miles from Wakkana is Cape Soya-misaki, the northernmost point of Japan. From late April to early September, ferries operate between Wakkanai and Korsakov on Russia's Sakhalin Island.

Websites: Wikitravel Wikitravel Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu Park (reached by ferry from Wakkanai) is the northernmost tourist spot in Japan. The main features of the park are Rishuri and Rebun Islands and Sarobetsu Plain, a 27-kilometer strip of land on the Hokkaido mainland. The Sarobetsu Natural Flower Gardens in Sarobetsu Plain features wooden-plank walkways through swamps and scrubland that explodes with rhododendron, iris and lily flowers in June and July. Websites : Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Wikitravel Wikitravel

Sarobetsu-Genya Moor (40 kilometers south of Wakkanai in extreme northen Hokkaido) is one most important habitats for birds in Japan and is the largest flat area of wetland in the country. Located near the sea, the moor measures five to eight kilometers east to west and 27 kilometers north to south. Numerous pools and lakes are scattered around the area and dozens of varieties of flower bloom from mid-June through October. The wetland area is smaller than it was as large tracts of land have been drained for farms.

Most people live at the extreme north or extreme south of the moor. Most visitors arrive at the northern visitor center and enjoy a 20-minute walk on a boardwalk that penetrates into the moor from the visitors center. Birds stop off in the wetlands during their migrations in the spring and autumn.

Mt. Tokushunbetsu (Otakimuru) is the home of cave that produced spectacular ice stalactites and ice pillars that form when stalactites reach the floor and freeze to it. The stalactites begin melting in mid March and disappear in May.

Rishiri Island

Rishiri Island (in Rishiri-Rebun-Sarabetsu Park) is a round volcanic island with Mt. Rishiri, a 1,721-meter-high volcano, at its center. A road circles the island and provides access to rustic fishing villages. Many visitors come to climb Mt. Rishiri. There are trails to the summit. The most popular ones leave from Oshidormari and Kutsugata. Mt. Rishiri's shape resembles that of Mt. Fuji’s and the mountain is known as ‘Rishiri Fuji.’ A number of winter sports can be enjoyed on it, including backcountry skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing, all popular. From Oshidomari many people go to Mt. Pon, at the foot of Rishiri Fuji, to go snowshoeing. Mt. Pon is 444 meters and offers beautiful views of Mt. Rishiri.

On his trip in the summer, Shingo Masuda wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Rishiri Island off the coast of Hokkaido must be very cold in winter, but right now it’s comfortable, free from heat and humidity. It’s also the season for catching sea urchins. I tried my hand at collecting sea urchins at Kamui Kaigan Park (Kamui coast park) in the town of Rishiri on the west coast of the island. I was nervous because I thought I’d have to dive into the sea like the ama female divers (featured in NHK’s hit morning serial TV drama “Ama-chan”), but I was relieved when I heard that I’d catch sea urchins with a net while looking at the bottom of the sea through an underwater viewer from a boat. [Source: Shingo Masuda, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 4, 2016]

“I looked down into the clear sea from a boat anchored to the shore for use by visitors. It was fun just to look at the swaying seaweed, but I came to feel like I shouldn’t just do that. Sea urchins moved faster than I’d imagined, and if I was careless they’d quickly sneak in between rocks. I overturned the rocks using the net, and caught the urchins that appeared. Participants who pay ¥1,500 for this experience can catch up to two sea urchins. I was told I could eat them on the spot, so I cracked open the sea urchins, which were still alive and moving. The vivid orangey flesh of a sea urchin is filled with the smell of seawater. This is literally the nutrient of the sea in the north.

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Rishiri Island
“Hoping to learn about the history and culture of the island, I participated in a walking tour with a guide. The tour started from Oshidomari Port ferry terminal in the town of Rishirifuji and continued for just over an hour. Cape Peshi, which looks down over Oshidomari Port, is one of the most picturesque places on the island, and you can see Rebun Island and other places from the cape. On the way to the summit of the cape, I found a grave of feudal members from the Aizu domain. To prepare against the threat from Russia, they were dispatched to the island late in the Edo period (1603-1867), and died due to the cold weather or went missing. This shows us that this island was the “northern frontline.”

“There are many stone-cobbled places along the coast. At first glance, they look like parking lots, but they are for drying kelp under the sun. Tourists are said to be scolded if they park their cars there by mistake, giving us a glimpse of the lives of the people on the island. Mt. Rishiri, whose summit is located in the central part of the island, can be seen from anywhere on the island. The foot of the mountain, which is also called Rishiri Fuji, spreads to the coastline.

”During the three-day trip, the summit of the over-1,700-meter mountain was covered by clouds most of the time. On the last day of the trip, the summit finally appeared, so I rushed to the Himenuma marsh, which is a picturesque place at the foot of the mountain. Visitors can enjoy bird-watching there. I tried to take photos of an inverted image of Rishiri Fuji reflected in the water — just like that of Mt. Fuji, called “sakasa-Fuji,” but my efforts were interrupted by ripples.

“Rishiri Island has a cycling road about 25 kilometers long, making it easy to visit sightseeing spots such as Himenuma marsh, Rishiri Fuji hot spring and the Fujino Enchi field where you can see wildflowers grow in colonies. I rode a rental bike and enjoyed a variety of scenery, such as a bridge over a valley and picturesque places along the coast. The cycling road goes up and down a lot, so be sure to take your physical strength into account when deciding whether to use a bike.”

Websites: Rishiri-cho Tourist Association rishiri-plus.jp , (0163) 84-3622 ; Hokkaido Tourist Information visit-hokkaido.jp/ Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Camping : Rishiri Island Tourist Information japan.travel Getting There: Direct flights to Rishiri island are available. It is 50 minutes from Sapporo Okadama Airport by air.It is about 90 minutes from Haneda Airport to New Chitose Airport near Sapporo and about 50 minutes from New Chitose Airport to Rishiri Airport. It is about two hours from Haneda Airport to Wakkanai Airport and about 100 minutes from Wakkanai, at the northern tip of Hokkaido, to Rishiri by ferry and 40 minutes to nearby Rebun Island via Heartland Ferry heartlandferry.jp/english. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Rebun Island

Rebun Island (10 kilometers north of Rishiri Island) is the northernmost island in Japan. Sometimes called "the Island of Flowers," it features 300 species of Alpine plants, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Rebun is much flatter than Rishiri Island. The main draw here is the hike along the eastern coast, which passes charming fishing villages, conifer forest, rocky beaches, grassy slopes and spectacular sea cliffs. Website: Rishiri-cho Tourist Association rishiri-plus.jp , (0163) 84-3622 ; Secret Japan Secret Japan Getting There: Rebun is two hours by ferry from from Wakkanai, at the northern tip of Hokkaido, and 40 minutes to nearby Rishiri Island via Heartland Ferry heartlandferry.jp/english. There is no airport on Rebun Island but there is one of Rishiri. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

One traveler wrote: “We disembarked at Kafuka Port on Rebun, welcomed by minus five temperatures, and the fluffy powder snow. Many flock to the island in spring or summer to see the various alpine plants and flowers, yet in winter, the island transforms into a magical white wonderland. I headed straight out for dinner at a nearby izakaya, eager to sample some of the local cuisines. The island of Rebun has several delicacies, with battera (pressed hokke sushi) and shirako (soft cod roe), particularly flavorsome. Hunger satisfied, I decided to warm up at the Usuyuki-no-yu onsen. There are private baths here, so you can take a dip in this relaxing hot spring without being disturbed. [Source: JNTO]

”The following morning, I drove to Cape Sukoton, the northmost point of the island. Lining the road were snow-topped houses, icicles dangling down from the eaves. Passing through Kafuka, I noticed the red ‘torii’ gates of the Minai Shrine. People have come to pray here for safe childbirth since the indigenous Ainu inhabited the island. It is one of many places in Hokkaido where Ainu traditions remain. In the vicinity, some old ladies were working hard at the fishing port, removing large hauls of cod from the nets. Intrigued, I stopped off for a closer look, and they quickly invited me over to watch. Fishing has long prospered on Rebun, with most of the islanders involved in the industry.

”Back on the road, Japan’s northernmost lake, Kushuko, came into view. Due to the time of year, it was completely covered in a thick layer of snow.As I arrived at Cape Sukoton, the freezing north wind was blowing harshly. Despite the cold, the sight of the snow-capped white cape, protruding into the ocean, was magnificent. Apart from the small island of Todojima, just off the coast, the sea stretched endlessly towards the horizon, giving me the impression that I’d reached the very end of Japan.

”It was lunchtime, so I called in at Dining Cafe Umi in Motochi.Feeling hungry, I chose the hokke fish hamburger, plus an omelet and rice topped with sea urchin butter. Both dishes were a delight, and I highly recommend giving the cafe a try when you are in the area. In the afternoon, I went to view two of the island’s most famous rock formations, the enormous 250-meter tall peach-shaped Momoiwa, along with the cat-shaped Nekoiwa. You’ll find both of them close to Motochi."

Image Sources: 1) idioimagers.org Kumai Mintara 2) Wikipedia 3) 6) Nicolas Delerue 4) 5) Akan National Park 6) 7) 8) Wolfgang Kaeler, International Wildlife Adventures 9) 10) Rishiri Tourist Association

Text Sources: JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization), Japan.org, Japan News, Japan Times, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Ministry of the Environment, UNESCO, Japan Guide website, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2020

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