The Great White Yonder: Japan’s ‘Siberia’


Once upon a time, there was a chilly little town by the sea. It had ice and snow to spare, but not a single winter resort facility. Its fading downtown managed to be both antiquated and charmless. Fishing, once the lifeblood of the town, had seen its best days, and for every new inhabitant, more than one hit the one road out and never looked back. Last stop for a train with only two cars, the town was the end of the line in every sense of the word.

But despite a conspicuous lack of ski slopes, golf courses or Starbucks, the town did boast a singular asset: The sparsely developed peninsula on which it stood, little valued by humans, was prime real estate for wildlife.

“When I first set eyes on Nemuro,” says local naturalist Masaru Takada, “I was stunned by its natural beauty.” Hokkaido’s volcanoes and calderas may supply more drama, but when it comes to easy access, Takada says, few destinations can compete. “In Nemuro, you can go birdwatching on your way to or from work.”

The peninsula, which is so narrow in parts that both the Sea of Okhotsk to the north and the Pacific Ocean on the south flank can be taken in in a single glance, is the country’s Bird Central. It is home to more than half of Japan’s 500 avian species, including rare giant owls, endangered eagles, the exquisite red-crowned crane and whooper swans. Ezo deer, fox, squirrels, whales and several species of seals populate the area, and unusual tidal flats and marshy terrain support lush fields of wild lilies, orchids and irises. The Shunkunitai Nature Reserve, minutes from downtown Nemuro, encompasses one of the world’s last remaining stands of virgin Sakhalin spruce.

Nemuro’s world-class wildlife draws tens of thousands of visitors over the brief warm season, but luring tourists to the frigid tip of northeastern Japan in the dead of winter takes more than just the call of the wild. So, in 1996, the town decided to sweeten the deal, emptying its pockets to offer a four-day ecotour for less than the cost of airfare.

If flying in a mere 15 tourists a year seems a rather deliberate way of boosting off-season business, the trip’s organizers insist they’re pleased with the results. “We weren’t expecting an immediate payoff, but for participants to gradually spread the word about the wonders of Nemuro to their friends and family,” says Akiyasu Ogawa, who comprises 50 percent of the town’s ecotourism promotion bureau. In fact, three of the hardy participants this year were repeaters, two making their third pilgrimage to Japan’s wild wild east.

“We could have run conventional tours for 30 or 40 people,” Ogawa says. “But you can’t really experience the area’s beauty from the seat of a bus.”

Warming a seat is most definitely not in the spirit of the frenetic once-a-year tour run by the city of Nemuro and appropriately named the Lake Furen Wilderness Training School. Originally conceived as a pure birdwatching expedition, it has evolved into an intriguing four-day marathon. An astonishing number of activities are crammed into waking hours — one part agricultural showcase, one part outdoor sports, one part Outward Bound-style bonding ritual . . . all melded with conventional ecotourism.

Over its eight-year existence, the project has drawn some 100 residents of mainland Japan to a forbidding edge of the country which likely none would otherwise have bothered with — particularly at a time of year when punishing winds off the Sea of Okhotsk send the mercury well below freezing.

Our group of six — myself (the only foreign participant), two retired men in their 60s, two middle-aged office workers and a college student — had scarcely dropped their backpacks at a converted schoolhouse, when it was time for a crash course in canoe-building.

After three hours of hammering strips of pine into a hull, my vision grew too blurred to focus on the nails — but then it was finally time for dinner. Any illusions of sinking down with a nice glass of Merlot, however, were quickly banished: To economize, as well as impart an appreciation for the rural lifestyle, Furen visitors are expected to cook and clean up for themselves.

So, after a delicious and sorely needed dinner of venison curry, it was time to mash potatoes for dumplings to be consumed the next day.

The second day, we rose before dawn to prepare supplies for the morning’s adventure — ice-fishing. A few minutes’ drive brought us to a frozen-over lake; with hand-powered drills we cut holes in the ice and dropped bait with fishing poles so small they looked fake, the rods designed to haul in pond smelt. With military precision, meanwhile, the guides managed to assemble a BBQ area in a matter of minutes, serving last night’s potato dumplings, coffee, toast and pond-smelt tempura — all in a slow-melting spot on the frozen lake.

Enough excitement for one day, perhaps, at other vacation spots, but not in Nemuro. A fast round of snapshots and we were ushered to the Nemuro Riding Club, owned by a retired salaryman who last year turned in his time card to pursue his hobby full-time.

After an hour in the saddle I was tired and had trouble mustering enthusiasm for the next event, a cooking class featuring the local specialty of fried pork on buttered rice. Them, by the time the dishes were washed, it was time for a lecture on the dangers of windpower windmills to migratory birds. Despite the riveting subject matter it was hard to sit up straight.

As our chief guide, Hatsumi Kimura (a housewife-turned-ecoguide who seemed to run on permanently recharging batteries), stood up to preview the next day, I had already been forced to retreat to my sleeping bag. To my utter chagrin, a pattern — and my reputation as class wimp — had been firmly established.

No one else seemed to break sweat as we rose at a lazy 7 a.m. for birdwatching, followed by an afternoon on the farm of Yasumichi Itoh, a cherubic but erudite dairyman who helped us remember the heft of an average cow (600 kg) by letting us know he weighed one-sixth as much.

We drag-raced the tractor, built an igloo, fed and milked the cows, made butter and cooked a barbecue in a barn, and — once again — I had to throw in the towel well before Kimura assembled everyone for a workshop on preserving fir needles and constructing homemade birdcallers.

By the final day of our trip, an easy 10-km trek to the famed Shunkunitai tidal flats, I was being treated by the others like a cardiac patient. It was discomforting to learn that this year’s tour was actually a scaled-down version of last year’s, when each day’s program began religiously at 5 a.m.

Our ridiculously overbooked schedule notwithstanding, Takada’s prologue about postcard-perfect wilderness being within arm’s reach was no hype, as we discovered on a snowmobile ride over frozen Lake Furen.

An unseasonably warm winter meant that this year there was less space than usual for commercial ice fishing. As a result the fishermen had to draw lots for the right to cut a square hole in the 30-cm-thick ice through which to drop their nets. A tanned, leathery-faced Toshimi Bansho, one of the lucky few members of his cooperative to draw a winning lot this season, drove us to his fishing hole in the ice. As he extracted a net wriggling with glistening black flounder and cod, we were directed to lift our binoculars left. In the distance, as another fisherman discarded the inedible fish from his net, a crowd of black specks quietly observed him, like black-frocked ministers soberly attending the presiding priest. With a start, I realized the comically severe figures were dozens of rare Steller’s sea eagles.

In other locales, catching even a brief glimpse of a single Steller’s sea eagle is slightly easier than tracking the Loch Ness monster. Being able to lavish whole minutes watching the massive raptors, with their magnificent white shoulders, pantaloonlike heavily feathered legs and trademark jumbo orange beaks, as they congregated to feed was almost beyond imagining.

After Bansho packed his fish onto the snowmobile and rumbled noisily back to shore, we sprawled flat on the frozen surface of the lake like discarded fish, until flocks of seagulls and kites, followed by a few Steller’s sea eagles and their cousins, the endangered white-tailed sea eagles, winged overhead. Lying on a bed of thick ice may sound less than inviting, but believe me, ecotourism doesn’t get much better than this.

At a honky-tonk down the peninsula, the festive mood grows downbeat as the owner’s son begins strumming a guitar and moaning his local hit, a depressing ditty about wanting to get on a ferry and go home. “Home” refers to a small group of islands that start just a few kilometers off Nemuro’s Cape Nosappu, the southernmost Kuril Islands, or, as the Japanese government began to refer to them several decades ago, Japan’s “Northern Territories.”

Since 1947, when Stalin brutally expelled the 17,000 Japanese living on the Kurils and colonized the area with Soviet citizens, the territorial issue has blocked normal relations between the two countries.

Many of the island exiles settled in Nemuro, and the town’s frontline location has been at times a curse, at times a blessing, and sometimes both. Throughout the 1980s, Nemuro was branded in the popular press as a “nest of spies”; visitors to the town were greeted by scary billboards featuring hostile Red Army soldiers and Cold War slogans.

Emotions eased considerably after perestroika, when humanitarian visa-free tours began running from Nemuro’s harbors, carrying former islanders on short visits to the Kurils, and Russian residents back to Japan for sightseeing, student exchanges and homestays.

Streets, parks and municipal buildings in Nemuro now bear both Russian and Japanese signs. And the threatening billboards have been replaced with cutesy pictures of seals and polite sayings: “The true proof of friendship is returning the islands.”

Frequent visits by shopaholic Russian fishermen, meanwhile, have brought a small but significant spurt of trade to the town’s struggling shops, many of which sport Russian signage and even employ Russian salesgirls.

With “Return the islands!” signs decorating every main street and even the sides of city buses, Nemuro is clearly a hostage of the past and of geopolitics wrought far away, in Tokyo and Moscow.

While the “islands issue” draws a handful of the curious — delegations from the ultranationalist fringe — the impasse is a distraction from the central dilemma facing this fading town of 35,000, and, indeed, almost every town on Japan’s northernmost island outside Sapporo: How to build an economy without the coal mines and flourishing fisheries of the past?

Ecotourism is surely one of Nemuro’s last and best hopes to revive its fortunes. But city hall may be too engrossed singing the blues over its past to aggressively invest in its natural assets for the future.