World Natural Heritage in Japan



An ecosystem thriving on sea ice and a paradise for diverse wildlife

Protruding into the sea from the northeastern tip of Hokkaido, the Shiretoko Peninsula is a slender peninsula that measures approximately 70 kilometers in length and 25 kilometers across at its widest part. The Shiretoko mountain range, which contains active volcanoes such as Mount Rausu and Mount Io, stretches from north to south at the peninsula's center. It is also known for being the place at the lowest latitude in the world where sea ice approaches the shore. Plankton that blooms on the sea ice is the basis for a food chain that connects creatures of the land and sea, forming a rich ecosystem. The name Shiretoko is derived from sir etok, meaning "the end of the earth" in the Ainu language. As this name would suggest, the Shiretoko Peninsula is a pristine region beyond the reach of human exploitation or development where you can come into contact with thriving plants and animals of the sea, mountains, and beaches.

Through a Day

With the Nemuro Strait to the east and the Sea of Okhotsk to the west, the Shiretoko Peninsula offers completely different scenery on its east and west, as well as along its beaches and in its mountains, even on the same day. Here is a glimpse of the Shiretoko Peninsula showing its diverse charms on one summer day.

クジラの見える丘公園 朝日

Sunrise at Whale Observation Hill Park

Standing on a rocky cliff slightly to the east of central Rausu is Rausu Lighthouse, and this park is situated on an 80-meter hill nearby. It offers a 180-degree view of the Nemuro Strait and sometimes even of spouting whales, as indicated by its name. I decided to arrive before dawn and wait for the sun to rise over the sea. As I gazed at the lights of boats sailing out in the dark and fishing off the shore, the sea and sky gradually began to brighten, and the sun slowly rose above the horizon, signaling the start of a new day.


Brown Bear Watching Cruise

I boarded a fishing boat from Rausu for a cruise toward Cape Shiretoko to spot wild brown bears on the beach. The boat sets off from Aidomari Fishing Port. Located at the very end of the Rausu Route that travels up the coast on the Rausu side of the peninsula, this port is the northeasternmost point in Japan that can be reached by car. A veteran fisherman familiar with the sea of Rausu used his many years of expertise to spot brown bears on the beach one after another. If you join an early-morning cruise, you can also enjoy stunning views of the coast deeply shadowed by the light of the rising sun.


Shiretoko Goko Lakes

These five lakes situated amid marshes and pristine forests on the Shari side of the peninsula have a peaceful atmosphere in the morning. Since the area is frequented by brown bears, there are two ways to enjoy it. One is an elevated boardwalk that allows anyone to safely admire the scenery, and the other is a ground walking trail accessible after listening to a lecture. While remaining alert to the presence of wildlife, I enjoyed a pleasant morning walk taking in the ocean breeze.


Kamuy-wakka Hot Falls

Amid the slight chill of morning, I headed for these waterfalls, whose name means "water of the gods" in the Ainu language. Due to the sulfur content of the water, there were no signs of fish or plants. A lukewarm hot spring gently flowed along yellow- and green-tinged rocks. Wading up to my knees in the warm water, I followed the river up to the fourth waterfall, where the sight of rocks looking like they were on the verge of crumbling and the steaming waterfall filled me with awe at the power of nature.


The Summit of Mt. Rausu

Mount Rausu is an active volcano located roughly in the center of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Although it is only 1,660 meters in altitude, since it is situated at such a high latitude, it abounds with alpine plants that are only found on mountains over 2,000 meters high on Honshu, the main island of the Japanese archipelago. If you set off from the trailhead early in the morning, you can reach the summit before noon. The panoramic view of the entire Shiretoko Peninsula and the sea to the east and west, including Kunashiri Island in the distance, was breathtaking. Gazing at the beautiful shape of the mountain and its foothills from Rausudaira Plain along the way, I could understand how it had earned the nickname "Shiretoko's Mount Fuji."


Shiretoko Forest Keeper Trail Walking Course

Near the Shiretoko National Park Nature Center are multiple hiking courses through land that was once cleared by settlers on three occasions. Since I wanted to know more about the history of the pioneers, I chose the Pioneer Course, which is a five-kilometer round trip. The path led me through a mixture of wild and planted forests, where I was greeted by the sight of a partially reconstructed pioneer hut. Past the forest, I reached a grassy field that was once grazing land. Gazing off at the Shiretoko mountain range, I thought of the pioneers who risked their lives trying to cultivate this land.


Whale Watching Cruise

Multiple species of whale can be seen in the Nemuro Strait, depending on the season. This is because the waters off the coast of Rausu reach depths of 2,000 meters even relatively close to shore, making them an excellent feeding ground for whales. The species that can be seen in September is the sperm whale, known as one of the deepest divers. After submerging for roughly an hour, the whales come to the surface to breathe and simultaneously spout. Once they have surfaced for about seven minutes, they raise their tail fins high and plunge once again into the depths. This whole scene can be witnessed up close on a cruise.


Sea Kayaking

Shiretoko is like a paradise for sea kayakers. I launched my kayak from a beach to the east of Utoro and paddled east, heading for the Sea of Okhotsk. The freedom of a vessel that I could steer myself allowed me to enjoy experiences that would not otherwise be possible, such as looking right up at sheer cliffs along the coast that cannot be approached by large cruise ships and feeling groundwater dripping from the rocks onto my face.


Furepe-no-Taki Falls

I kayaked to Furepe-no-Taki Falls, which drops off a cliff into the sea. It is a rare waterfall without a river, where rain and melting snow that fall on the mountains seep out onto the cliff. Due to the minute amount of water trickling down, it is also known as "maiden's tears." Although the water flows down a steep cliff, it is teeming with life, overgrown with lushly green moss and other plants. The falls can also be viewed from land by walking about one kilometer along a trail from the Shiretoko National Park Nature Center.


Shiretoko Pass

I visited Shiretoko Pass just as the sun was starting to decline in the sky on this pleasantly clear day. Located at 738 meters above sea level, the pass is the longest portion of the Shiretoko Crossing Road. Although it is usually enveloped in fog, if you are lucky the fog will lift, with a sea of clouds spreading out below on the Rausu side and the soft sunlight from the west making Mount Rausu and the Siberian dwarf pines and Japanese pampas grass surrounding the mountain glow a gentle orange color. As the sky gradually darkens, Kunashiri Island can sometimes be spotted through the clouds on the Rausu side.


Cape Puyuni

Protruding into the Sea of Okhotsk on a hill overlooking the town of Utoro, Cape Puyuni is one of the best spots in Shiretoko to watch the sun set. You can park your car on a lookout bridge along the national highway. Watching the perfectly round evening sun illuminate the town of Utoro as it disappeared beyond the Sea of Okhotsk, I could feel the fatigue of my activity-filled day begin to melt away.

Photo = Kei Taniguchi

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