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Expedition Shiretoko: Uncovering Japan’s most pristine and remote wilderness

Expedition Shiretoko: Uncovering Japan’s most pristine and remote wilderness

The Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園 Shiretoko Kokuritsu Kōen) is arguably Japan’s most pristine and remote national park. Located on the Shiretoko Peninsula (知床半島 Shiretoko-hantō) on Hokkaido’s (北海道) northeasternmost tip, the wilderness here was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2005. The area is so remote that the road leading to the park only extends a few miles in, leaving nearly all of the area inaccessible by car. To reach the northernmost tip, one must travel by boat or multi-day trekking tours through a forest of dense Siberian dwarf pine, birch trees, and Japan’s largest resident bear population. These factors are why this park is considered to host Japan’s most unspoiled nature. Thankfully, for those with less of an adventurous spirit, it is still possible to easily enjoy much of the park without venturing too deep inside its untamed wilderness. 

 

The Shiretoko National Park has much to offer for everyone. From pristine lakes, beautiful natural scenery, mountains, waterfalls, wildlife, and onsen, there is something to be enjoyed by all. 

 

Oshinkoshin Falls

Oshinkoshin Falls (Image credit: Captain76 / CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

As you enter the Shiretoko National Park, you will be greeted by the towering Oshinkoshin Falls (オシンコシンの滝 Oshinkoshin no taki) meaning “The place where the pines grow” in the local Ainu (アィヌ) language. The falls are also known informally as Sobi no Taki (双美の滝), which translates to “Twin Beauties Waterfall” because of the way it splits into two beautiful falls. 

    

Shiretoko Five Lakes

Shiretoko Five Lakes (Image credit: photoAC)

 

A must-see site for all visitors to Shiretoko is the Shiretoko Five Lakes (知床五湖 Shiretoko-goko) area. The lakes here are one of the most easily accessible attractions in the park. Located just off the main road, you’ll find a well-maintained trekking circuit that takes about an hour to walk. The boardwalk circuit offers stunning views of the beautifully placid lakes surrounded by green wilderness with the often snow-capped mountains of Shiretoko reflecting off their surface.

 

Kamuiwakka Falls

Kamuiwakka Falls (Image credit: 663highland / CC BY-SA 3.0)

 

From the Shiretoko Five Lakes, one can continue along the main road until you hit the last point of paved roads in Japan at Kamuiwakka Falls (カムイワッカ湯の滝 Kamuiwakka-yunotaki). Kamuiwakka means "water of the gods" in the language of the indigenous Ainu people. These falls are very unique in that the water that springs from them is actually hot and, with careful feet, can be hiked up and followed quite deep into nature. The steam emitting from the falls creates a very unique setting against the forest backdrop around them. On the way to the falls, you’ll be sure to see indigenous Ezo Deer (エゾ鹿 Ezoshika) grazing in the surrounding forests, and if you’re lucky you may even spot one or two Ezo Red Fox (北狐 Kitakitsune) frolicking in the grass. 

 

 

Ezo Deer and Ezo Red Fox (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Mount Rausu

Mount Rausu (Image credit: photoAC)

 

Only about a 40-minute drive from Kamuiwakka Falls is the formidable Mount Rausu (羅臼岳 Rausu-dake), one of Japan’s famous 100 mountains. Even if you aren’t trying to bag all of the 100 peaks, it’s still very worthy of a day hike. A trek to the summit of this 1,665m mountain is a steep climb but the breath-taking views of the Kunashiri Island (国後島 Kunashiri-tō) from the trail will quickly evaporate the fatigue from your legs. Remember to be prudent when hiking the trail because encounters with Ezo Brown Bear (蝦夷羆 Ezo-higuma) are quite common and also the reason why you’ll hear the gentle chiming of kumasuzu bells (熊鈴) carried by Japanese hikers to alert the bears who are more scared of us than we are of them.

 

An Ezo Brown Bear. (Image credit: Pixabay)

 

Iwaobetsu Onsen

The open-air bath at Iwabetsu Onsen. (Image credit: Soica2001)

 

At the base of the trail at Mount Rausu, either reward yourself with a dip or wait for your friends to finish their hike in the free mixed open-air baths at Iwaobetsu Onsen (岩尾別温泉) or the Sandan Onsen (三段温泉) at the Hikkyou Shiretoko No Yado Chi No Hate Inn (秘境知床の宿 地の涯).

 

Hikkyou Shiretoko No Yado Chi No Hate Inn. (Image credit: Soica2001)

 

Rausu Town

A view from above Rausu Town (Image credit: Tzu-hsun, Hsu / CC BY-SA 4.0)

 

After visiting the main attractions on the western side of the peninsula, one can take a drive over to the eastern side, along the Shiretoko Pass (知床峠 Shiretoko Tōge) with its striking views of the park and Mount Rausu, to the remote fishing village of Rausu Town (羅臼町 Rausu-chou), known for its top-quality konbu seaweed (羅臼昆布 Rausu konbu) and the various whale and seabird-watching cruises offered from May through October in the area. If you happen to come in winter, don’t miss the opportunity to take a cruise to see the drift-ice and seabirds. Rausu can be accessed by bus, but only in summer from June to October, from the Shari Bus Terminal (斜里バスターミナル) adjacent to JR Shiretoko Shari Station (知床斜里駅) via connection at Utoro Onsen Bus Terminal (ウトロ温泉バスターミナル). The buses are quite limited, so a rental car is recommended. 

 

A seabird over drift-ice in Rausu Town. (Image credit: photoAC)

 

The Shiretoko National Park is open year-round but peak season is during the short summer months, as the winter season can be very harsh. With all there is to do, renting a car is highly recommended, although there are buses available departing from various locations around the island.  JR Shiretoko Shari Station is the closest train station to the area. Whether you come in summer or winter, you’ll be sure to leave with wonderful memories of this unspoiled natural paradise that will endure a lifetime. 

 

Access to Shiretoko

Because the area is so remote, renting a car is recommended but the journey can also be done by guided bus tour. 

 

JR Shiretoko Shari Station

The train ride takes about 6 hours from JR New Chitose Airport Station (新千歳空港駅 Shin-Chitose Kūkō Eki). However, the Shiretoko Airport Liner bus also services the area. From here there are regular service buses to Utoro (ウトロ). Shari Bus (斜里バス) offers three different guided tours that hit up many of the attractions introduced in this article and range from ¥1,800–¥3,000. For more information about the course check the Shari Station website: uu-hokkaido.com/corporate/sharibus.shtml

 

Additional information

More information can be found at the Rausu Visitor Center about the Shiretoko National Park. One can get assistance from the park rangers for planning hikes and finding places to park. 

 

Rausu Visitor Center (羅臼ビジターセンター)
Address: 6-27 Yunosawacho, Rausu, Menashi-gun, Hokkaido 086-1822
Opening hours: 9am5pm (May–October), 10am–4pm (November–April) (Closed on Mondays, closed around the New Year period.)
Tel: +81 153-87-2828

 

Header image credit: photoAC

 

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