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 3 (2/2).
Written by Hokkaido playwright Sô Kuramoto (倉本聰), Kita no Kuni Kara 2002 Yuigon (北の国から 遺言) is the final chapter of Kita no Kuni Kara (北の国から), a popular television drama series about a father and his daughter who moved to Hokkaido from Tokyo after divorcing his wife. The series and its special episodes were first broadcasted in 1981, and ended in 2002 with Kita no Kuni Kara 2002 Yuigon. Throughout the years, Kita no Kuni Kara and other stories written by Sô Kuramoto have become part of the cultural identity of Hokkaido, while his efforts of promoting Hokkaido have made places like Furano to become well known tourist attractions nowadays.
In Rausu, a seaside timber house that appears in Kita no Kuni Kara 2002 Yuigon has been rebuilt and converted into a lovely seafood restaurant Jun no Banya (純の番屋). Ran by several local ladies, Jun no Banya serves fantastic local seafood. During our two-day stay in Rausu, we had two delightful seafood meals at Jun no Banya that ranked among the top highlights in our Shiretoko experience.
Jun no Banya is a popular seafood restaurant housed in a rebuilt timber house that appeared in Kita no Kuni Kara 2002 Yuigon (北の国から 遺言).
The Jun no Banya is managed by several local ladies.
The interior of Jun no Banya is full of colours.
Outside the window, the sea looked calm and relaxing.
We ordered some local seafood after checking out the seafood display in the fridge.
Many decorations in Jun no Banya reveal the restaurant’s strong connection to the fishing industry.
Many Japanese glass fishing floats were handmade with recycled glass from sake bottles.
A cute little lantern.
Dried fish are also used as decorations.
A series of colourful lanterns lined along a timber beam of the house.
A poster in the restaurant reminded us that Shiretoko had been inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage sites since 2005.
Uni (sea urchin) and kani (crab) on sushi rice is definitely a signature dish of Shiretoko.
Super fresh sashimi from the area was another delight.
Shrimps from the nearby waters and oysters from Akkeshi Bay (厚岸) let us experience the true sweetness of fresh seafood from clean and cold seawater.
Located beside Rausu Shiretoko Tourist Information Centre, the Rausu Fisherman Store (羅臼(漁協)直営店 海鮮工房) offers wonderful souvenirs including the famous Rausu kelp and local salmon made from this remote fisherman village.
A map in the tourist information centre explains the main highlights of Shiretoko and the northeast coast of the peninsula.
At the tourist centre, we tried out the light blue ice-cream inspired by the famous Abashiri (網走) Ryuhyo or drift ice.
Outside the tourist centre, we quietly looked at the sea across the street, hoping the sea would calm down and the sun would come out the next morning.
Day 2 (3/3).
The weather fluctuated throughout the afternoon. After lunch, we headed back up to Shiretoko National Park from Utoro to check out Shiretoko Nature Centre, the visitor centre near the park entrance. The centre houses a large screen theatre showing films of the park, service counters for hikers to obtain trail information, a cafe serving excellent coffee and ice-cream, and a shop selling all kinds of outdoor outfits and souvenir. After watching a film about a family of Ezo Red Fox at the theatre, we decided to do a short hike.
Only 20 minute of easy walk would bring us to coast of Sea of Okhotsk, where the The Virgin’s Tears or the Furepe Waterfall awaited us.
In the past few decades, efforts had been made to reforest the area after years of pioneer development.
Weather was changing quickly. At one moment, clouds and mist were moving away from the Shiretoko Mountain Range.
At Furepe Falls, we could only admire the cliff of the waterfall from the opposite side.
A small group of seabirds gathered at the tip of the rock cliff.
From the opposite side, we could see the top part of the Furepe Falls. The waterfall originates from ground water surfaced near the top.
A wooden pavilion was built across the cove from Furepe Falls as a lookout.
Despite the sun was out at Furepe Falls, clouds and mist continued to cover most of Shiretoko Mountain Range.
We slowly walked back to Shiretoko Nature Centre.
Back at Shiretoko Village Guesthouse, we had another tasty dinner after a pleasant bath at the inhouse onsen. That evening, we were served with local salmon ruibe. It had a delicate texture and would melt in the mouth.
Each of us was served with lamb nabe, herring with sea urchin miso, dried flounder, butter scallops, steamed razor clams, etc.
(Foreground) Ruibe, translates as “melted food”, is half-frozen sashimi. It is an Ainu culinary specialty from Hokkaido. Fresh fish was traditionally stored under snow during winter and eaten without defrost. (Background) Kichiji is a local fish with red skin and big eyes. We tasted the deep dried kichiji which was crispy and delicious.
Steamed razor clams were full of aroma of local sake.
UTORO FISHERMAN’S WIVES CO-OPERATIVE DINER (ウトロ漁協婦人部食堂), Shiretoko Peninsula (知床半島), Hokkaido (北海道), Japan, 2019.06.16
Day 2 (2/3).
While the weather might not be the most ideal for hiking and brown bear sighting, the rain wouldn’t affect our appetite to try out the famous seafood of Shiretoko. After our morning hike, we drove back to Utoro for lunch. At the fishing port of Utoro, the fleet of fishing boats below Oronkoiwa Rock ensure the continuous supply of seafood to the area and beyond. Right by the port, a simple eatery has long been a favorite for both the local and foreign visitors. Operated by women from Utoro’s fishing industry, Fisherman’s Wives Co-operative Diner at Utoro’s fishing port has been serving fresh seafood rice bowls or kaisen don for 40 years. Signature seafood of Utoro includes uni (sea urchin), ikura (red caviar made from salmon roe), kani (hair crab, snow crab, king crab), and grilled Hokke or Okhotsk Atka Mackerel, accompanied with pickled radish and miso soup.
The rain stopped after our morning hike. We returned to the fishing port at Utoro.
Due to unpredictable weather and strong wind, no fishing boats were allowed to head out to the sea.
The fishing port of Utoro was completely empty.
At the fishing port, the Fisherman’s Wives Co-operative Diner has been a popular seafood eatery for 40 years.
The interior of Fisherman’s Wives Co-operative Diner is simple and causal.
The diner is served by wives of Utoro fishermen.
Wild Shirozake Salmon and its roe, crab meat and the legendary Ezo Bafun Uni are the most popular delicacies in Shiretoko.
Feeding on laus kelp, Ezo Bafun Uni (エゾバフンウニ, 蝦夷馬糞海胆) or Short-Spined Sea Urchin of Hokkaido is widely considered as the best sea urchin in Japan. Known as orange gold, these tasty treat is available from June to August.
Grilled Hokke or Okhotsk Atka Mackerel is a popular local dish.
In Utoro, delicious seafood is also served at the Shiretoko World Heritage Centre (知床世界遺産センター), where simple meals and snacks are offered, as well as souvenirs and dried seafood. The centre also offers tourist information on Shiretoko.
Housed in another building, a visitor centre offers a comprehensive introduction of Shiretoko National Park to visitors with a number of engaging displays.
Wildlife is definitely the highlight of Shiretoko National Park.
Too bad we didn’t see a real bear during our hike earlier.
In the afternoon, we drove back up to Shiretoko National Park from Utoro.
Looking down from the uphill road that led to Shiretoko National Park, Utoro appeared as a sleepy village guarded by a few huge rocks.
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!
Everyone who has visited Tokyo would probably admit that he/she was spoiled by the abundance of dining options while staying in the Japanese capital. For us, it was actually quite challenging to pin down a place to eat near our hotel in Shibuya, because there were simply too many options (6,866 restaurants in Shibuya alone listed on the tourist website Tripadvisor). We began our trip research about two weeks prior departure. We checked guidebooks, searched travel websites and read online blogs, and came up with a short list of places to visit and eat. The name Kaikaya By The Sea (開花屋), a popular seafood restaurant at Shibuya, came up multiple times during our research. Tempted by their highly recommended seafood, we made a table reservation at Kaikaya for our first evening. After our visit to Ueno and St Mary’s Cathedral, we made it back to Shibuya right on time to Kaikaya By The Sea at 18:30.
Kaikaya By The Sea is located west of Central Shibuya, in a small street west of the shopping centre of Shibuya Mark City. The “fishy” mural under the shop awning introduces a sense of seaside relaxation to the small urban alleyway of Shibuya.
The restaurant vestibule is decorated with lots of visitor photos.
The setting was causal and relax with interesting sea and food related decorations throughout the interior.
The door handle reminded me of a bowl of seafood soup.
From his years of surfing, the owner of Kaikaya By The Sea maintains close connections with fishermen working by the sea. Fish is brought in fresh directly from Sagami Bay (相模湾).
The menu at Kaikaya is quite creative and diverse, from local Japanese sashimi to fusion seafood dishes, and so as the visitors from local customers to foreign tourists.
Kaikaya By The Sea is cozy and full of personal touches of the owner.
An English leaflet introduces a few of their feature dishes. We ended up trying the Tuna Spareribs recommended by the staff.
Our first dish was a plate of very fresh assorted sashimi.
The second dish was broiled live tiger prawns prepared in Hong Kong style. Again, freshness was the key and we could clearly taste the sweetness of the prawn meat.
Then came the in-house specialty tuna spareribs. They are actually baked marinaded tuna jaw. The dish was quite a pleasant surprise to us as we didn’t know what to expect.
Six pieces of fatty tuna (maguro toro) sushi, pickled ginger and fresh wasabi root. A leaf shaped grinder was given for us to DIY the wasabi paste. The toro was so soft as if melted right after we put it into our mouth.
Fresh octopus with rock salt and fresh lemon allowed us to taste the freshness and tenderness of the octopus.
Despite we had already eaten a lot, we couldn’t resist and asked for the dessert menu.
Outside the kitchen of Kaikaya By The Sea.
It was already dark by the time we finished our delicious seafood dinner.
We took a causal stroll in the area and found our way back to Central Shibuya.
We then walked through the shopping centre of Shibuya Mark City and Shibuya Hikarie to return to our hotel and called it a day.