Hokkaido: people and other wildlife

(Most of this entry was written around three weeks ago. Photographers, please note that the closest thing to a telephoto I have with me on this trip is a dust infested, manual focus, 105mm, third party lens from the 70s (used with an adapter), so cut me some slack and forgive the hazy, muddy wildlife pics!)

ferry folk

It’s fairly well established that ports and boats attract their fair share of characters, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if this wasn’t the case in famously reserved and well mannered Japan. The maxim seems to hold true, though: we found the port city Osaka to be as raucous as the guidebook promised, and the harbour and fish market area of Tokyo rang with shouts and laughter in a way that I heard nowhere else in the city. Nautical naughtiness (sorry) also seems to extend to ferries in Japan – at least the two that we have got to and from Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. As I type, a middle-aged Japanese man is providing, to a younger man sat with us, a monologue that involves lots of pointing at me, expressive faces and exclamations. I think it’s in relatively good humour, although it’s difficult to tell. Mattie and I had been exchanging basic greetings and information with him, which was going fairly well, but he was nothing short of astonished and apparently quite offended when we turned down his offer of dried octopus. Explanations of what we meant by vegetarian (the word is the same in Japanese) by the helpful younger chap did nothing to alleviate him of his reproachful frown, and I think he may now be explicating a thesis on the importance of consuming seafood, the folly of foreigners, or possibly both.

This is the return ferry, but on the outward journey we were also befriended and offered food – then by a affable retirement-age couple, Hiro and Middole, who were off to Hokkaido for a vacation and had an extremely tasty picnic spread that included fried sweet potato, crumbly cheese and red wine, that, judging by its aroma and it’s effects on the consumers, appeared to be very decent. Unfortunately I was the designated driver that evening (as well as for the entire rest of the trip) and so had to decline but Mattie was able to enjoy several generous cups and subsequently had no trouble making merry conversion across the language barrier. The ferries have a sort of multi-purpose no-shoes seating/sleeping area of carpeted floor and whilst this is quite traditionally Japanese, seeing our new friends and other passengers reclining about it with wine and food gave it an air of classical decadence of the sort I haven’t seen elsewhere in Japan, and a far cry from trains on which the rustle of a packet of crisps is enough to raise eyebrows and attract glances and huffs of disapproval. Hiro and Midole are also he only people on our whole trip who we have met who have offered for us to stay with them for the night, although we didn’t take them up as their place was quite a long way in the wrong direction for us.

Hokkaido is known for its wilderness and I get the feeling that the island attracts a slightly more adventurous and possibly more individualistic crowd than much of the rest of the archipelago. We’ve seen good number of hikers marching off towards officially closed peaks, still thick with snow, individuals changing into ski and snowboard gear at the bottom of mountains without ski lifts or runs, presumably preparing to hike up and make some of the last descents of the season, as well as intrepid mushroomers heading into the woods at dusk to forage in spite of the numerous bear warnings. In addition to regular, gore-tex clad hikers I’ve spotted a fair few men dressed head to toe in camo gear and sporting utility belts with crocodile dundee sized knives attached to them. Most notably of all, I’ve seen more gangs of motorbike riders in Hokkaido than anywhere in the world, including the never-ending highways that cross the USA. The roads here offer some spectacular views and are undeniably fun to drive, at times empty for miles at a time, and so I imagine it’s something of a pilgrimage destination for Japanese bikers, especially those used to the congested, inescapable urban sprawl of Tokyo. I have never had any sort of negative encounter with a motorcyclist, but nevertheless there’s always something unnerving about glancing in the mirror and seeing a group of them rising up behind like a squadron of warplanes assuming formation. Invariably it’s always a group of one particular breed, all riding the same bikes and wearing the same garb. Super bikes with riders clad head to toe in kevlar and shiny space-walk helmets overtake you before you’ve even clocked them. Touring bikes loaded up with extra boxes, high windscreens and wide fairings completely obscure the rider from view and consequently look like sinister sci-fi automata. Most distinctive of all, are, of course the choppers, their riders toting inexplicably overdeveloped forearms, masked faces and bandanas fluttering behind like flags of war as they straddle their mighty steeds. Happily, they actually all ride pretty respectfully and I’ve yet to see any Akira style biker on biker belligerence, although I think I did have a small cardiac event when a rider, having stopped and dismounted, suddenly darted out in right in front of me and back in the nick of time to retrieve an errant packet of cigarettes.

It’s quicker and more convenient to get to Hokkaido from most places in Japan by plane or train (there is a tunnel) and given that that Japanese holidays are very short and there are lots of car rentals operating out of Sapporo, I would imagine that Japanese only take the boat when they absolutely must bring their own vehicle – perhaps for this reason the ferry is a hub for the more colourful characters. The young chap sat with us works for Hitahi Corporation in Tokyo but comes here with a jeep full of gear to fly fish and, by the looks of the photos he showed me, live in the woods for a few days. There are also a number of logging lorries parked alongside our car and I think that our loquacious, octopus offering friend is most likely a driver of one of them. His monologue has now ended, and he’s sleeping across a whole sofa, waking every ten minutes for a cigarette, a rant and another can of vending machine coffee. I intend no disdain in this report – restlessness and public slumber are both behaviours I often exhibit myself – it’s just not something I can imagine seeing in most other parts of polite, etiquette-bound Japan.

furry fauna

Whether or not I’m correct that Hokkaido is a magnet for Japan’s wilder humans, the promise of open roads and pristine wilderness is certainly part of the draw for many international tourists, Mattie and I included.

In addition to unspoiled forest and active volcanoes, the island boasts many wild animals, which, coming from the ecological graveyard that is the UK, was enormously exciting. We were lucky enough to run into Sika deer and a few red foxes on the road, which have become relatively accustomed to passing vehicles, as well as spotting a few other small mammals as they darted away. When hiking it isn’t uncommon to hear rustles in the bushes, even when you don’t actually see something, this just adds to the feeling that the place is teeming with life.

My ornithological skills leave much to be desired but it’s impossible not to notice the abundance of bird life when hiking in national parks, the variety of tweets, chirps and beeps sounding like a tropical rainforest. I was able to identify long tailed tits (they are black and white and look quite different to other tits) and we saw a pair of majestic white cranes soar above as we drove.


In search of real rarities, however, we found ourselves boarding more boats. ‘Nature cruises’ run around the coast line of Shiretoko, is the most exceptionally well preserved and biodiverse of Hokkaido’s national parks. The park has 36 land mammal species and 22 marine mammal species confirmed as dwelling within its boundaries, in addition to 285 species of bird including endangered Blakiston’s fish owls. The ecosystem is supported by plankton that arrive from drift ice, supporting the fish population and consequently the mammal and bird population.

Shiretoko is a mountainous peninsula, with forested slopes below its jagged, snowy peaks. Small coastal settlements (Rausu and Utoro) sit halfway up its length, one on either side, and are connected by a spectacular mountain pass. Beyond these, for the final 40km of the peninsula, run no roads – only pristine, ecologically rich, wilderness. It is possible to canoe or hike the coastline but there are strict access rules preventing the landing of motorboats and limiting footfall.

The mountainous ridge of the Shiretoko peninsula rises from sea like the horned spine of some ancient, sleeping dragon

Although it’s currently Hokkaido’s low season, by leaving it to the very end of our itinerary we were luckily able to be in Shiretoko on the weekend that the first nature cruises of the season sailed and that the mountain pass was opened.

A far cry from the usual coin the coin operated rubbish-oculars found at most viewpoints, these were hands down the most incredibly powerful binoculars i’ve ever used (and free!). You could see right into people’s houses 😯
that lighthouse is on top of the most distant headland in top pic


The first boat we took headed east from Rausu into the Nemuro strait in search of whales. It was a bright but cold day with a fairly choppy sea, and speeding around in search of a pod, the small boat practically bounced from wavetop to wavetop. I was surprised that we were permitted to wander the boat, including descending the steep steps to the walkway area around the cabin. With the frequent but unpredictable bumps and lurches it wouldn’t have been that improbable for one of us to have been caught off-guard and tossed into the frigid waters, and at the speed we were going, I don’t think cries for help would have been heard over engine and crashing of hull against sea.

Mattie and I spent some time at the front, alongside and older, weather-worn man who looked undeniably of the sea. He stood at the prow gazing out ahead, silent but with smiling eyes gleaming out from above his bushy beard. I wasn’t sure what role he played as he wasn’t a guest or a guide but I got the feeling he might own the whole operation and just be coming along for the ride. After a little while he whispered something to one of the guides who had come to check on us, who popped off and returned with two full length fisherman’s coats. These seemed a little unnecessary (we were already wearing our own waterproof jackets) but we politely donned them; only a minute or so later an enormous amount of water crashed over the prow and straight on to us.

If it hadn’t been for the overcoats we would have had soaking trousers and I may well have had a mortally wounded camera hanging around my neck. The man, on the other hand, only a well-worn fleece under his life-aid, seemed to have somehow ducked under the assaulting saline, and, looking back over his shoulder to check we were ok, gave me a wry but friendly smile.

Sadly we didn’t see any whales up close. At the distance of about a kilometre we could just see the fins of a pod of killer whales, enhanced somewhat by binoculars, however we couldn’t get any closer. Twenty-five kilometres across the straits lies the island of Kunashir, Russian territory, and part of the disputed Kuril archipelago, which passed back and forth between Japanese and Russian control during the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately for us, the whales we were hunting seemed to have decided that they were hunting exclusively in Russian waters! Beyond them we could see Kunashir; our first sighting of Russian soil was not to be the runways at Vladivostok airport as we had imagined.

After some long distance viewing we zoomed off and spent a further two hours smashing over the waves. This did not yield any more whales, but it did bring about cases of dreadful sea-sickness in Mattie and myself (despite the prophylactic medication we had taken), and by the looks of things in several other passengers too. The excellent guides were keen to talk to us about what we had seen and the marine life around Shiretoko but I was too queasy to take any of it in, thinking only of what I would give for a shot of intravenous anti-sickness medication and whether letting myself be tossed overboard might be worth it after all, hypothermia being preferable to another hour of intractable nausea.

Returning to the harbour was a great relief, and we did spot a Stellar’s sea eagle sitting atop the harbour wall which was a bonus. As we disembarked the old man of the sea spoke his first words to me – ‘I am truly sorry that we could not show you any whales today’.

Stellar’s sea eagles – Shiretoko is an important wintering location for these magnificent birds

Our bodies happy to be back on solid ground, we were able to take the mountain pass across the peninsula to Rasua, where our second nature cruise departed the following morning. We were obviously a little worried that this cruise might be a repeat of zero percent wildlife and one hundred percent bilious affliction. We needn’t have worried – the sea was calm and this cruise stuck close to the shore, looking for wildlife along the coast of the north-westerly, part of the park, otherwise accessible only by multi-day hiking. The sun was shining and cruising alongside the majestic cliffs and into coves, seeing the untouched beaches was worth the price alone. Flocks of seabirds raced the boat and strafed the water in tight formations, and I also spotted a seal popping his nose up to greet (or perhaps try to eat?) one that skimmed down close to the surface.

The main attraction, however, was to be found wandering the shoreline. Hokkaido is famous for its brown bears, and Shiretoko national park has one of the highest bear densities in the world. We had originally planned on visiting a reserve elsewhere in Hokkaido called “bear mountain” that was touted by our guidebook as being an area of bear-rich woodland with high walkways built between the trees allowing tourists to view them in their natural environment. However a bit of google-review reading gave a more honest picture of the place as being more of a bear exploitation centre. I’ve only seen bears in the wild once before in my life – a rather more alarming encounter in Romania (that hopefully have the time to write about one day) – and that was by dim moonlight. From the boat, therefore, we were delighted to see at least four bears going about their business, in broad daylight, alongside birds, deer and other wildlife. David Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit are fantastic, but there really is nothing like seeing magnificent creatures with your own eyes in their natural habitat to rouse the innate environmentalist and re-wilder that surely live somewhere within us all. The only downside to all of this was that I didn’t bring anything near suitable wildlife photography equipment on the trip, and the enormous telephoto lenses of most of the other passengers made me more than a little bit envious. Never the less we returned to the shore feeling privileged and enthused.

Did I mention I didn’t have a proper telephoto lens?

It wouldn’t be right to mention people and Hokkaido, nor indeed wildlife and Hokkaido, without mentioning the Ainu; the indigenous people of Hokkaido (and also of some of the Kuroishi islands). Their rich culture and spirituality was rooted in the natural world, and included reverence for the spirits of both bears and killer whales, the latter being the gods of the sea. The name ‘Shiretoko’ (unlike ‘Hokkaido’) is of Ainu, rather than Japanese, etymology. I’m reluctant, however, to make this important topic into a tag on – there will be more on the Ainu (and on bears!) in an upcoming post!

Travel writings from my iphone so expect typos and SOOC photos. Home now, hoping to knock out the odd piece now and again. Also see instagram.com/chillyscalp

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