Wild frontier in the land of fire and ice


Hokkaido is a rough-cut northern diamond, both in shape and in its hidden natural riches — as well as the sparkle of snow and ice of its long Siberian winters.

Lying between Sakhalin and Honshu, Hokkaido’s climate, culture and natural characteristics lean northward. In its ancient past, Hokkaido was connected by land bridges northward via Sakhalin to the continental coast, whereas between it and Honshu to the south lay the unbridgeable, 450-meter-deep Tsugaru Strait. It is these ancient bridges and divides that have determined the rich biodiversity of this wild frontier that is Japan’s second-largest island.

Climate gives significant direction to the cast of characters found here. Prevailing northerly winter winds drive a weather machine that is more Arctic than temperate. For months snow blankets the island, its lakes and rivers freeze over as the mercury dips below minus 30 degrees in the interior — and overwintering is for hardy species only.

Come summer and its warming southerly winds, though, and as in the rest of Japan temperatures may top 30 degrees — giving Hokkaido an amazing 60 degree-plus annual temperature range. Consider that Sapporo is on a latitude roughly equivalent to that of the French Riviera, and you really begin to grasp the extraordinary nature of this island.

Sitting astride the Pacific “ring of fire,” and with active volcanoes aplenty, Hokkaido is truly a land of fire and ice. The dramatic Daisetsu and remote Hidaka mountain ranges, the spectacular volcanoes and lakes of the Akan National Park, and the rugged splendor of the Shiretoko National Park are among the 83,520-sq.-km island’s most beautiful and dramatic areas. In winter, though, even they are rivaled by the gleaming, grinding sea ice that drifts down the Okhotsk Sea to the northeast, or the marine mammals such as Steller’s sea lions and northern fur seals that arrive from the Kuril Islands and beyond as a cold current sweeps down the eastern Pacific coast from the Bering Sea.

Hokkaido is, in fact, at a natural crossroad. Its population of brown bear crossed via Sakhalin to the northwest. Each winter, too, thousands of sea eagles fly south from Russia — the most magnificent among them being the enormous Steller’s sea eagle, which I have witnessed ripping nonchalantly through the hide of a deer with their monstrous beaks.

Akin in size, though far more reclusive, is the enigmatic Blakiston’s fish owl — the largest owl in the world. Its lowland forest habitat has largely disappeared — a reminder of the human-caused problems of much of Hokkaido’s wildlife. More happily, it recalls to mind Blakiston himself, a British captain and consul resident in Hakodate in the late 1800s. His early researches were commemorated in an eponymous zoogeographic line, Blakiston’s Line, that passes through the Tsugaru Strait and underpins the biological differences between these islands.

Hokkaido’s resident icon species — the brown bear, the nearly 1,000 red-crowned cranes, fish owls and sea eagles — are all absent further south in the Japanese archipelago, as are the Asiatic pika, the Hokkaido squirrel, the hazel grouse and many others.

Even with the lower sea levels of the prehistoric era, the 20- to 50-km-wide Tsugaru Strait prevented these northern species from extending further south. Conversely, many distinctive Japanese species, such as the Japanese macaque, the badger, giant flying squirrel and giant salamander range north through Honshu but have not crossed into Hokkaido. Both in terms of what it has, and what it lacks, with its current isolation but geologically recent connection to Sakhalin and Eurasia, Hokkaido is a profoundly interesting place for the naturalist.

Past physical links aside, Hokkaido is connected to the wider wild world by migration routes that pass through it. Each autumn, tens of thousands of white-fronted geese, whooper and Bewick’s swans, and waterfowl of a dozen or more species arrive here from the tundra and taiga regions further north. Many merely pass through on their way south, returning again each spring.

In counterpoint to the winter arrivals from the north are the summer immigrants from the south: Gaudy flycatchers flit here from the balmy climes of Borneo; predatory shrikes arrive from Indonesia; and languid songster thrushes appear from Southeast Asia.

Most remarkable of them all is the “thunder-and-lightning bird” — Latham’s snipe. It breeds in Hokkaido’s rank grasslands, then pilots an unerring journey to southern Australia for the northern winter. There are other birds, such as godwits, that can boast even longer migrations (from Siberia to New Zealand), but although they pass through Hokkaido when migrating, they are not truly of Hokkaido — they don’t breed here.

Make a winter journey across Hokkaido and bushy-tailed foxes, rooting for sustenance in snowy fields, will not be an unusual sight.

Visit the east and you can hardly miss the huge sika deer herds that throng the white flanks of the mountains of Akan, Mashu and Shiretoko, or the clamoring hordes of swans that gather at certain lakes. Marvel also at the groves of hardy Mongolian oaks, their large, lobed leaves brown and rustling, a lingering reminder of autumn long after all other broad-leaved trees have been wind-blasted into nakedness. Needle-leaved forests of fir and spruce survive well under these taigalike conditions, and these drape the lower flanks of the many mountain ranges.

Summer is dramatically different as balmy southern winds encourage a wealth of wildflowers and bring migrant birds from southeast Asia. Magnolias are among the first of the forest trees to bloom, bringing a distinct touch of class to the rich mix of elms, oaks, ashes, zelkovas and limes that comprise the mixed deciduous forests. In this season, too, the eastern marshes are splashed gold and purple with wild pea and wild iris, and here the stately cranes defend their territories.

Consumptive industries — fishing, farming, forestry and mining — have been the mainstay of the island’s development, each one leaving indelible scars on the landscape and causing irreparable damage to natural habitats and wildlife populations. These days, of course, tourism draws several million people north each year, and perhaps one day the authorities will realize the value of nature tourism — and then, perhaps, begin to promote Hokkaido as a “New Zealand of the North.”

For Japanese visitors, though, Hokkaido is simply their “Wild West,” a frontier land. With its extensive forests and mountain ranges, numerous lakes and large national parks, it is unrivaled as Japan’s premier region for wildlife watchers and lovers of the great outdoors.