Discover Japan’s wild north: five of the best nature experiences in Hokkaido
Japan’s northernmost, second-largest island is one of the country’s wildest destinations. From admiring the drift ice to seeing the iconic red-crowned crane in its home turf, we round up some of the best activities that showcase its natural diversity.
A rugged rise of rock, Hokkaido is a land of pine forests, smoldering volcanoes and jagged coastline. Countless species of marine and avian creatures inhabit the island's shores at different times of the year, while the woodlands and mountains are home to some of the largest mammals in the country, including Ezo red foxes, Ezo sika deer and Ussuri brown bears. Here are five nature experiences to help you make the most of your visit.
1. Walk the drift ice
On the edge of the Sea of Okhotsk, Hokkaido’s northern shore is subject to punishing winds that bear down from Russia during the winter. These frigid blows also deliver drift ice — frozen chunks of freshwater from the far-off Amur River — that arrives in Hokkaido between late January and early February, turning the sea into a blanched landscape of mini-bergs. It’s possible to admire the spectacle from the shore or from an icebreaker, with cruises departing from Monbetsu, Abashiri and Rausu. But if you’re feeling adventurous, head to Shiretoko, don a dry suit and join a guided walk on the ice itself. More than just a hike into a winter wonderland, a drift ice trek is an ideal chance to spot wildlife, especially migratory raptors such as Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles, which congregate on the frozen landscape to hunt for fish in gaps between the floes.
2. Cruise in search of wildlife
Sitting on the Shiretoko Peninsula’s eastern shore, the town of Rausu has, in recent years, transformed from a no-nonsense port into a visitor hotspot. Some local fishermen have embraced the times by swapping their nets for passengers; instead of fish, they head out to catch sight of migratory wildlife. Winter is the prime time to spot sea eagles, seals and Steller sea lions, the latter congregating on Hokkaido’s shores after being pushed south from the Kuril Islands by drift ice. Minke and sperm whales come through in the spring and summer, while summer and autumn are the peak seasons to scan the shore for Ussuri brown bears, which can be seen ambling along the beach from the boat. And no matter the season, keep an eye out for the elusive and endangered Blakiston’s fish owl, the largest living species of owl.
3. Snowshoe in the shadow of volcanoes
Sticking out like an appendage from Hokkaido’s northeast corner, the Shiretoko Peninsula is one of the most untamed spots on an already wild island. Both a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it’s made up of a craggy spine of mountains, including several volcanoes. Near the town of Utoro on the peninsula’s western side, the Shiretoko National Park Nature Center offers snowshoe rental — for an easy-to-tackle excursion, head out on the Furepe Waterfall Trail. The route takes hikers through stands of old- and second-growth forest before opening up into a meadow under Mount Tenchosan, Mount Rausu and Mount Io. Soon after, you’ll reach a cliffside viewpoint overlooking Furepe Waterfall. In the winter, this cascade transforms into frozen pillars of blueish ice and fern-like tendrils to hypnotic effect. If you’re lucky, you may even catch a glimpse of a sea eagle, flying high above the sea.
4. Admire the stark beauty of Notsuke Peninsula
Derived from the word for ‘jawbone’ in the indigenous Ainu language, due to its shape resembling that of a whale's, the 16-mile Notsuke Peninsula juts out into the Nemuro Strait like a narrow hook. Wind-lashed and forlorn, Notsuke Peninsula’s beauty lies in its bleakness. The defiant, volcanic rise of Kunashiri is clearly visible across the strait. Many of its trees have now died from taking in too much brackish water, leaving upright arboreal carcasses that lend the place an otherworldly feel. In addition to this stark landscape, Notsuke Peninsula has some of the best birdwatching in all of Hokkaido. Anyone keen to check a few species off their list should bring along a field guide and good pair of binoculars.
5. See the red-crowned crane in its natural habitat
When it comes to Hokkaido’s avian species, none is more iconic than the red-crowned crane: not only is this bird a symbol of luck, longevity and fidelity, it’s also come to represent the nation as a whole. Once feared to have gone extinct, the local population has now rebounded to over 1,000 — most can be spotted in the wetlands of Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, in eastern Hokkaido. Nestled in a wide marsh, with views of the twin volcanoes Mount Meakan and Mount Oakan, these wetlands are home to some of the most immaculate nature Hokkaido has to offer, including the largest tracts of reedbeds in Japan. This has made them a prime habitat for the red-crowned crane, and to see this majestic creature on its home turf is an experience not to be missed.
For more information about Hokkaido, visit en.visit-hokkaido.jp
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