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.
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!