Day 1 (2/2).
In the Northwest Pacific between the Sea of Okhotsk and Nemuro Strait (根室海峡) lies a pointy peninsula extending from the easternmost part of Hokkaido. Translated as “the end of the world” in native Ainu, Shiretoko Peninsula is often considered to be the last pristine wilderness of Japan. Because of the famous Oyashio Current (親潮) that brings the nutrient rich subarctic current from Alaska and Bering Sea to the east of Hokkaido, Shiretoko is blessed with magnificent biodiversity and probably one of the world’s richest fishery. Shiretoko is also the southernmost point in the Northern Hemisphere where sea ice can be formed. The peninsula is also defined by the volcanic landscape of the Shiretoko Mountain Range (知床連山), and of course the lovely onsens dotted around the peninsula, such as Utoro Onsen (ウトロ温泉), Aidomari Onsen (相泊温泉), Seseki Onsen (瀬石温泉), Rausu Onsen (羅臼温泉) and Iwaobetsu Onsen (岩尾別温泉). The special natural characteristics of Shiretoko have led to the establishment of Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園) in 1964 and later enlisted in UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005.
Determined to test our luck to check out the beautiful wildlife including Brown Bears, Ezo-shika Deer, Ezo Red Fox, Blakiston’s Fish Owl, Steller’s Sea Eagle, and the Orcas, Sperm Whales and Dall’s porpoise in the sea, Shiretoko was the top priority for our Hokkaido travel itinerary. From Memanbetsu Airport (女満別空港) near Abashiri (網走), we picked up our rental car from Toyota-Rent-A-Car and began our 1.5 hour drive to Utoro Onsen (ウトロ温泉) in the town of Shari (斜里), the gateway of Shiretoko National Park.
After an hour and 40 minutes, our JAL flight took us from Tokyo Hanada to Memanbetsu Airport in Eastern Hokkaido.
The road from Abashiri to Shari offered us beautiful scenery of the Sea of Okhotsk.
From Shari, we continued driving along the sea up the Shiretoko Peninsula.
Before reaching the onsen village Utoro, we arrived at one of the tourist attractions of Shiretoko called Oshinkoshin Falls (オシンコシンの滝).
Just two minutes up a flight of steps led us to the viewing platform of Oshinkoshin Falls.
From Oshinkoshin Falls, it was just a few minute drive to Utoro, where we would stay for two nights.
58m in height, the Oronko-iwa Rock (オロンコ岩) is an iconic feature at the fishing and onsen village of Otoro (ウトロ). The rock separates the village from the breakwater structures out in the sea.
At the Oronko-iwa Rock parking lot, we had our first fox encounter: a furry fox sneaked behind our black car while we were taking photos of the setting sun.
The Oronko-iwa Rock is a popular spot for watching the sunset.
It was 6pm when we enjoyed a brief moment of the peaceful sunset out in the Sea of Okhotsk.
From the Oronko-iwa Rock, we could see the onsen hotels at Utoro.
The posters at Utoro visitor centre promote the salmon fishery and winter sea ice of Shiretoko.
After the red-eye flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, the short domestic flight from Tokyo to Memanbetsu Airport, and the drive from Abashiri to Utoro, it was time for us to check in at Shiretoko Village, our onsen hotel in the hills behind Utoro village.
We always look forward the the meals at the onsen hotels in Japan. At Utoro, we were treated with local seafood, deer meat, local salmon roe, and hairy crab.
It was the time for hairy crabs in Hokkaido. Each guest was provided with a delicious hairy crab.
Drifting ice is the most popular local feature to promote various drinks and food products from Shiretoko, from sake, beer to ice-cream.
We ended our first day in Shiretoko with a bottle of local grape juice.
Tsuyu (梅雨), the rain season, begins to hit Okinawa in May and gradually makes its way north to the rest of Japan until the end of June. During the wet season, rainy and cloudy weather affects the entire country except Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island north of the main Honshu Island. The seismic active island is 3.6% smaller than Ireland, with a climate significantly cooler than the rest of Japan. Seeking for a pleasant getaway from Hong Kong’s humid and hot summer, we picked Hokkaido as the destination for our 11-day vacation from 15th to 25th of June. Traveling in the remote national parks and rural countryside of Hokkaido, hiring a car was a necessity. The Hokkaido journey was our first road trip in Japan.
Known as Japan’s last true wilderness, Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園) is the natural haven where Brown Bears and Blakiston Fish Owls ruled the primeval forests and Orcas, Minke and Sperm Whales roamed the waters of Nemuro Strait. With fantastic natural scenery, wildlife and seafood to offer, this easternmost part of Hokkaido topped our priority list in the travel itinerary. Next in the journey took us to the spectacular volcanoes of Akan Mashu National Park (阿寒摩周国立公園), where we came close to Japan’s clearest water at caldera Lake Mashu (摩周湖) and the fantastic onsen and fly fishing hot spot of Lake Akan (阿寒湖). While the lavender fields of Furano (富良野) and Biei (美瑛) had yet reached the peak bloom moment, the ultra fertile soil below the Tokachi Volcanic Group (十勝火山群) treated us with some of the best bread, corn, potatoes, asparagus, melons and milk that we ever had in our lives. Despite far away from Tokyo and Osaka, the architectural magic of Tadao Ando (安藤忠雄) in Hokkaido satisfied our thirst of contemporary design and aesthetics. Back in Obihiro (帯広), Otaru (小樽) and Sapporo (札幌), historic traces of early pioneers and contemporary dessert shops and local eateries brought us back to delightful charm of urban Japan. What’s more? Day after day of mouthwatering seafood, fresh produces, good coffee, and lovely patisseries reminded us how wonderful our world could be, when the water is clean, soil is rich, forests are healthy and people are friendly. Thank you Hokkaido. You have truly touched our hearts.
Located north of Honshu Island, Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan.
Flying in from Tokyo Haneda, our Hokkaido journey began from Memanbetsu (女満別空港) near the Shiretoko Peninsula. After more than 1,181km of driving, we arrived at Otaru and Sapporo at the western side of the island.
This black hatchback hybrid Toyota Prius c (Toyota Aqua in Japan) provided us the means of transport from east to west across Hokkaido.
After 2 days of rain and wind, we finally had a glimpse of the active volcano of Mount Rausu (羅臼岳), the tallest peak in Shiretoko Peninsula.
The greatest experience we took away from Shiretoko was the close encounter with a pod of orcas in the Nemuro Strait.
The Mashu Lake (摩周湖) offered us a peaceful sunrise at 3:30am.
Under the shadow of Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳), dozens of fly fishermen stepped into the crystal water of Lake Akan (阿寒湖) to test their luck.
Farms and greenhouses were washed with heavy rain as we entered into Furano (富良野).
Still at least half a month to go before the peak season of lavender blossom, visitors were enjoying themselves at a relatively less crowded Farm Tomita in Nakafurano.
Compared with rainbow flower fields, we loved the wheat fields at Biei the most.
Tadao Ando’s Chapel on the Water has been famous in the designer’s world since the 1980s.
The Hill of Buddha is the latest addition in Hokkaido by Tadao Ando.
At Yoichi Distillery (余市蒸溜所), whiskey has been produced since 1934.
Saturdays Chocolate in Sapporo is one of the many excellent local eateries and cafes that we visited in the journey.
Last but not least, Hokkaido offered us the best seafood and dessert that we ever had as far as we could remember. Let’s begin to tell the story of our journey!