Day 4 (2/2).
Whale watching was the final act of our Shiretoko experience. The 2-hour outing in the Nemuro Strait turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of our trip. Located at the eastern coast of Shiretoko Peninsula, Rausu is the most popular spot in Japan for whale watching. Depending on the season, various kinds of whales might be found in the waters just off Rausu, including minke whales, sperm whales, orcas (killer whales), humpback whales (rare), Dall’s porpoises, giant beaked whales, and several types of dolphins. In the summer months, there would be a good chance to spot Orcas, also known as killer whales. Orca is the biggest member of the oceanic dolphin family. They are highly social animals that hunt and wander the sea in pods.
After three days of poor weather, the strong wind and rough sea had finally died down despite the overcast condition over Nemuro Strait. Returned from Shiretoko Pass, we went immediately to the office of Gojiraiwa Kanko Eco Tour (ゴジラ岩観光) in Rausu to make our cruise payment, get a quick snack near the tourist office, parked our car at the dock, and followed one the three queues to get on our cruise boat.
After three days of stormy weather, the sea was calm as we were about to set sail for the whale watching cruise.
Looking back towards the dock, we could see Mount Rausu rising beyond the village of Rausu.
After seeing several black dorsal fin dolphins popped out of the sea in the first ten minutes, our boat captain received the news that orcas had been spotted by the other cruise boats ahead of us. Soon we reached cruise boats and had our first encounter with the magnificent orcas of Nemuro Strait.
While the whales roam in the water of Nemuro Strait, Stellar Sea Eagles and White Tailed Eagles rule the sky.
Lies between Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula and the controversial Russian Kunashir Island (国後島), Nemuro Strait is one of the best place in the world for whale watching.
Orcas often appear in a pod. We were fortunate to follow a pod of around a dozen of orcas, even with a few juveniles.
Sometimes, the pod would get pretty close to one of the cruise boats.
Eventually, the pod of orcas broke up into a few smaller groups. Our boat followed one of the groups towards the direction of Rausu.
Each boat followed a different group of orca.
Seeing one of the juvenile killer whales in the pod was very exciting.
In a few moments, the whales swam really close to our boat.
A few of them even swam under our boat.
From a close distance, we could truly appreciate the true scale of the orca’s dosal fin.
Some scientists can identify different orcas just by studying their distinctive dorsal fins.
For most of the time, our boat continued to follow a small group of orcas.
It was the first whale watching cruise that we ever experienced. We were grateful that the cruise turned out to be a fruitful one.
After about 1.5 hour chasing the whales, it was time for our boat to return to the dock.
The majestic Mount Rausu signified our arrival of the village of Rausu.
Most fishing boats were parked behind the sea wall at the dock.
It seemed that most fishermen were staying away from the sea for another day. Whale watching offered us the perfect finale to for our Shiretoko journey. We picked up our car at the dock, had another seafood lunch at Jun no Banya (純の番屋), and left Shiretoko altogether for our next destination: Mashu Lake.
Day 4 (1/2).
It was the fourth day since we arrived in Shiretoko. Finally we woke up to a fine morning. Clouds gathered atop the Shiretoko Mountain Range northwest of Rausu. We had made reservations for an afternoon whale watching cruise. Our plan for the morning was to head up to Shiretoko Pass, and do a bit of hiking near Rausu Lake. It would be quite unfortunate if we were to leave Shiretoko without seeing Mount Rausu (羅臼岳).
At 1661m in height, Mount Rausu is an active stratovolcano that sits above Shiretoko Pass, the highest point on Road 334 between the villages of Utoro and Rausu. Also known as the Fuji of Shiretoko, Mount Rausu is one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. Hiking up the volcano takes 6-8 hours round trip, but given our limited time and lack of snow crampons, we would have to leave the hike for another time.
Driving Road 334 up to Shiretoko Pass, we could see the mountains were still covered in clouds.
On our way up, we passed by several covered road sections.
It was a disappointment again when we arrived at Shiretoko Pass (知床峠) and saw Mount Rausu covered in thick clouds.
Though the weather looked quite promising down at coast of Rausu. We hoped that the fine weather would stay for several more hours so that we could embark on our whale watching cruise in the afternoon.
It was 2.3km from Shiretoko Pass to the trailhead of Lake Rausu Trail. About five minutes after we walked down the road from the parking lot of Shiretoko Pass, the clouds began to disperse over Mount Rausu. We could finally see the beautiful volcano right behind us.
Some hikers would prefer taking the bus to cover the 2.3km journey to the trailhead, but there are only four buses per day on the route.
Looking down from the trailhead, the trail began at a marsh area.
We followed a narrow path down to the trailhead of Rausu Lake Trail.
The return trip of Rausu Lake Trail would take about 3-4 hours. Unfortunately our time was restricted by the afternoon whale watching cruise. We decided to do a shorter hike by turning back at Marsh 3.
As warned at the trailhead, the early section of the Rausu Lake Trail was flooded like a swamp. Rubber boots could be rented at the Rausu Visitor Centre.
We soon reached Marsh 2 after a short walk in the flooded path, but there wasn’t much water in the marsh.
Snow was still visible at certain parts of the trail.
After about half an hour from the trailhead, we reached Marsh 3, the destination of our short hike.
Mount Rausu and its reflection at Marsh 3 was the biggest highlight of the hike. While most hikers would continue on towards Rausu Lake, we had to turn back in order to make back to Rausu on time for our whale watching cruise.
Back to Shiretoko Pass, more clouds were visible over Nemuro Strait and the Russian controlled Kunashir Island. We were a little worried about the overcast conditions ahead of our whale watching cruise. After 2.5 days of rainy weather, even few patches of clouds would make us nervous.
RUSA FIELD HOUSE (ルサフィールドハウス), Rausu (羅臼), Shiretoko Peninsula (知床半島), Hokkaido (北海道), Japan, 2019.06.17
Day 3 (1/2).
We woke up to another stormy morning in Utoro. For the morning, we had seats reserved for a 3-hour Cape Shiretoko Boat Cruise to the eastern tip of Shiretoko Peninsula. Due to strong winds and heavy rain, not a single boat was allowed out in the sea that day. We had no choice but decided to leave Utoro earlier than planned, and crossed the Shiretoko Mountain Range to Rausu (羅臼) on the east coast of the peninsula. On our way, we passed by Shiretoko Pass, the highest point between Utoro and Rausu where we could see the full view of Mount Rausu if the sky was clear. Unfortunately, all we saw was rain, fog, fallen branches and flying leaves in the air. Beyond Shiretoko Pass, we gradually descended to Rausu, the remote fishing village which also served as the eastern entry point of the Shiretoko National Park. The rain began to cease as we approached Rausu. With extra time to spare in Rausu, we decided to check out Rusa Field House, the interpretation centre providing information on the famous residents of the Nemuro Strait: whales and dolphins.
We quickly put all our luggage in the car and left Utoro under stormy weather. We followed the Tran-Shiretoko Highway 334 heading towards Rausu via Shiretoko Pass.
As expected, we couldn’t see the mountain scenery along the way. Instead, we drove cautiously on the winding Highway 334 under heavy rain.
Blocked by Shiretoko Mountain Range, Rausu was actually pretty dry, though the wind was strong and waves were high.
High waves had also prevented any boats sailing out to the sea from Rausu.
Though we could at least step out of the car to enjoy the coastal scenery.
Near the end of coastal Road 87, we reached the Rusa Field House. It was very windy at the field house where strong wind from the Shiretoko Mountains channeled through the Rusa River Valley to the river mouth right by the Field House.
The Rusa Field House is a pleasant timber building facing the sea.
The Rusa Field House has a special focus on the wildlife at Shiretoko.
The upper mezzanine offers visitors binoculars and telescopes for whale spotting in the sea.
This beautiful map of Shiretoko Peninsula in the Field House caught our attention. Although we couldn’t understand Japanese, we thought the map was showing two routes (winter and summer) over the mountains connecting Rausu and Utoro to the northwest.
While one side of the Field House overlooks the sea, the other side faces the Rusa River Valley that goes all the way up the mountains to Shiretoko Pass. In the building, we could feel the strong wind from the mountains sweeping through the valley out to the sea.
Standing at a column base, the taxidermy of an Ezo Red Fox reminded us that red fox is a common sight in Shiretoko.
The Field House also showcases what is probably the most famous product from Rausu: the Rausu Kelp, one of the three most precious kelp in Hokkaido.
A hand-drawn illustration that shows the hidden connections between the life cycle of local salmon and coastal ecosystem of Shiretoko.
The Field House provides visitors information on current weather and coastal conditions of the area. We could see the warning of high waves along the shore, urging people not to visit the coastal outdoor hot springs. We decided to give up our plan of visiting the outdoor baths of Aidomari Onsen (相泊温泉) near the end of Road 87.
After visiting the Field House, we drove to the fishing village of Rausu. At Rausu, the weather seemed fine and the sea pretty calm. We spent quite a bit of time searching for a place to sample the fabulous local seafood.
In the afternoon, we checked in at our onsen hotel Rausu no Yado Marumi Ryokan (羅臼の宿 まるみ). In the lobby, we were greeted by some of the most iconic animals of Shiretoko: Sperm Whale and Brown Bear.
Our guestroom offered fantastic panorama of the sea.
The dinner at Rausu no Yado Marumi Ryokan (羅臼の宿 まるみ) was probably the most satisfying hotel dinner of our Hokkaido stay. Other than the “compulsory” seafood on our table as shown in the photo above, there were also a wide range of dishes made with local seafood and vegetables served in a buffet.
From our room, the sea looked peaceful and beautiful in late afternoon. We silently wished for fine weather in the next day when we would have our last chance to sail out to the sea before leaving Shiretoko.
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!