Japan: Shiretoko - far from the heat of the city

by cameranew

Shiretoko is Hokkaido's hidden beauty; hotsprings, waterfalls, wild deer and beautiful mountains await

Summer in Tokyo is a sweaty affair. If the thought of the city's humidity doesn't appeal during a summer trip to Japan, perhaps a holiday in Hokkaido might be just what's needed. Japan's northernmost prefecture boasts a cool summer, no rainy season, beautiful views and a lot more nature and greenery than any other Japanese prefecture. In the far north-eastern corner of Hokkaido is Shiretoko, one of only three of Japan's natural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The peninsula is famous for its wildlife, its huge, untouched forests and its harsh winters; but it's also a great summer retreat for those wanting to escape muggy urban life. 

Shiretoko's nearest airport, Memanbetsu, is easily accessed from major Japanese airports, such as Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The flight takes only an hour and a half, but the two airports seem worlds apart. Haneda is an international, bustling transport hub; whereas Memanbetsu feels like it's family run. Despite differences in appearance and atmosphere, the two airports do share Japanese service and efficiency standards, so it's easy to move on from Memanbestu towards Shiretoko. 

From Memanbestu airport, the transport choices are bus or rental car. Train lines in this area are few and far between, and the stations nothing but wooden shacks at times, but the bus services are fast, easy to use and the drivers friendly and willing to help. For us, the first bus boarded was bound for Utoro; the nearest town to Shiretoko National Park. Utoro is the port from which sightseeing boats depart daily; however it's also home to a convenient bus terminal, from which buses that venture slightly deeper into Shiretoko can be caught. The bus service around Shiretoko is useful and quick, but unfortunately can be a little expensive; ranging from about ¥200 to ¥950 for a one-way trip. However, to balance expensive transport costs, there is a reasonably priced youth hostel just inside the park.

Shiretoko Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel is located next to a river in a thickly forested valley near the Shiretoko Nature Centre. It's about fifteen minutes from Utoro by bus, and offers great access to Shiretoko while remaining reasonably inexpensive. Prices range from ¥2400 to ¥4800, and the hostel also offers maps, guides and organised activities such as mountain climbing, paragliding and nature tours. The staff are very friendly, and there's a lot of information provided in English, so as long as you can stand the 'vault style' composting toilet, it's a great place to stay to explore the area.

About 40 minutes by bus from Iwaobetsu is Kamuiwakka, one of the main draws of the area in summer. Kamuiwakka (reportedly meaning 'water of the Gods' in the local Ainu language) is a waterfall-onsen open to the public in the summer months. Wearing swimming costumes, and hiking either barefoot, or in special socks bought at the nature centre, visitors can make their way up the mountain stream, resting to bathe in the warm, flowing water. At the top of Kamuiwakka is a large hot spring pool, fed by a waterfall. It's an onsen experience like no other. Hiking up the warm stream in the forest and bathing in Kamuiwakka's natural onsen is a unique experience: a completely different feeling to the humidity of Honshu.

The waterfall at Kamuiwakka is not the only thing on offer in Shiretoko. Near the nature centre is Furepe Falls, a waterfall fed by ground water which feeds into the Okhotsk Sea. There are beautiful views of the cliffs, sea and mountains to be had, and it's a great place to spot wildlife - such as beautiful Sika Deer. The deer are abundant in Shiretoko, so much so that the numbers have to be monitored and controlled, and the deer are now farmed for their meat. As such, a few restaurants (such as the one found in the nature centre) offer tasty and tender deer burgers.

Restaurants are a little scant in Shiretoko due to the lack of development with the aim of maintaining the area's natural beauty. However, there are a few excellent seafood restaurants in Utoro, and the food offered at the youth hostel was delicious and sizeable. Crab is a Shiretoko speciality, and its abundance and price is surprising: a fresh crab big enough to feed two people might set you back about ¥1000. Being a seaside area, Utoro and Shiretoko have a lot of sushi and sashimi, but the prices are a little steeper: ¥2000-¥3000 for an uni (sea urchin eggs) or ikura (salmon roe) donburi (sushi on white rice).

Though the prices of sushi may not be dissimilar to Tokyo, Shiretoko's weather, landscape and activities put it in a different league as a summer holiday destination. Being able to hike up waterfalls and watch deer, eagles and owls is a unique experience; and it's great to be able to do it without dripping sweat in the summer humidity.