Journey to the end of the world


The name in Ainu means “the end of the Earth.” And the bleakness and ruggedness of this lonely peninsula jutting out into the Sea of Okhotsk are such that little imagination is required as to how the Ainu — the indigenous people of Hokkaido — happened by the name of Shiretoko.

Located in eastern Hokkaido, the Shiretoko Peninsula is a 70-km-long finger of land that is one of the wildest and most remote areas of Japan. So successfully has development there been kept at bay that in July this year, Shiretoko was designated a World Heritage Site — only the third natural site in Japan to make the UNESCO list.

Natural delights

Covering about half of the peninsula is the Shiretoko National Park, a 386-sq.-km. expanse of volcanic peaks, virgin forest, sheer cliffs, sparkling waterfalls, hot springs, rich fauna, vivid flora and — blissfully — hardly any roads.

Midwinter on the northern coast of Shiretoko sees the Sea of Okhotsk choked solid with pack ice. By any measure, Shiretoko is nature writ large.

The point from which excursion ice breakers depart with their clutches of rubberneckers to inspect that drift ice at close hand is the northern gateway to Shiretoko — the small port of Utoro. The port itself has little to recommend it apart from minshuku (family-run lodgings), two tiny bars, a lively harbor and winds that have a tendency toward the hurricane end of the Beaufort Scale.

Not far from Utoro and a mandatory stop for the tour buses that make their way along the one road up the peninsula from Utoro is the Shiretoko Nature Center. Here, dutiful tourists are able to stock up on bells before heading off into the Shiretoko interior. The reason for the bells is to warn Shiretoko’s best-known residents that you are about to step into their territory. Shiretoko is home to 100 to 200 brown bears, making it one of the world’s densest populations of these animals. A relative of the American grizzly, the powerful Japanese brown bear weighs about 400 kg and is not the kind of creature that you really want to annoy. These bears do, however, have a habit of getting mightily upset if people surprise them. Hence there is a brisk trade in all manner of tinkling devices at the nature center to help visitors avoid any close encounters of the ursine kind.

One of the places where those bears are apt to put in an appearance is probably the prettiest spot on the peninsula. The series of marshy ponds known as Shiretoko Go-ko (Five Lakes) is connected by nature trails, which lead the visitor on boardwalks around the cluster of small lakes.

With Shiretoko’s central mountains as a backdrop, the trails lead through woods of silver birch and resinous pine, and a more pleasant hour’s walk in this country would be hard to find.

Ring my bell

The constant background sound as you make your way around the trails is of course that of all those spanking-new bells snapped up at the visitor center. Though even without the bells, a phalanx of three dozen garrulous tourists from, say, Osaka, marching along the nature trail would surely be enough to deter any bear.

While bears grab the attention as the main animal stars of this region, other large creatures are more conspicuous. Sika deer are found throughout Japan, but the deer in Shiretoko tend to be bigger and heavier than those elsewhere. Though not as extremely tame as their spoiled cousins in Nara Park, the deer here show little fear of humans.

Creatures that are a little less easy to spot are the spectacular Steller’s sea eagles, which are closely related to the American bald eagle, and Blakiston’s fish owl, one of the largest species of owl in the world.

The owl, in fact, was specifically cited by UNESCO as one of the endangered and endemic species within the outstanding marine and terrestrial ecosystems that Shiretoko comprises.

Stewing the sea lion

An animal that is more commonly seen on the dinner plate than in the wild on the southeastern coast of Shiretoko is the sea lion. Just as Utoro is the main gateway to Shiretoko on the northwestern coast, so is the utterly unremarkable port of Rausu, Shiretoko’s southern gateway. On the map to the area I was given by the tourist office, a favorite hangout for sea lions was clearly marked not far from Rausu, but both times I drove past all the animals had skulked off for the day.

On the menu of one restaurant in Rausu, though, sea lion is always to be found in the dish called todo tobanyaki. Here the sea lion meat is cooked in a sauce of miso, onion and soy sauce — heavily flavored, I suspected, to mask rather than enhance the taste of the meat. Behind the strong sauce, the sea lion seemed to have a flavor somewhere between beef and venison, and had all the melt-in-the-mouth delicacy of boot leather. If sea lions ever get hunted to extinction, it will not be for the succulence of their flesh.

As the tourists chomp on their sea lion, they can gaze across the Nemuro Straits toward Kunashiri. This island is faithfully marked on all Japanese maps as part of their country, though since the end of World War II, it has been held, along with the other islands of the Northern Territories, by the Soviet Union, and then Russia. The island is just 25 km away and looks to be rather ruggedly attractive, the details of its cliffs clearly visible on a good day.

Proud of their status

The people of Shiretoko are naturally proud of their status as Japan’s newest World Heritage Site. And as has happened elsewhere in Japan, that status has fueled local tourism. One local told me that visitors to Shiretoko had increased by around 15 percent since it joined the World Heritage list. The roads at present go only part of the way up the peninsula, stopping well short of the tip. And for the sake of preserving the pristine, primeval character of Shiretoko, it is to be hoped that no one ever does get round to extending them.