Shiretoko is the mountainous peninsula stretching out towards the Kuril Islands in the very far north-east of Hokkaido.
In the language of the Ainu, the indigenous hunter-gatherers of Hokkaido, the word sir-etok meant the “End of the Land.”
With the Japanese take-over of the area in the Meiji Period, sir-etok became Shiretoko. The “End of the Land” it remains.
The coastline is rugged and lined with tall rocks, the mountains in the interior rise steeply up with Rausu-dake being the tallest at 1660m, the forests are the home of Japan’s largest population of brown bears. Beyond the coastal settlements, almost all of the peninsula is classified as UNESCO World Natural Heritage.
The closest airport to Shiretoko is Mombetsu-Abashiri (with daily flights to Tokyo), the closest train station is Shari on the Abashiri-Kushiro line. From Shari, only buses connect to the peninsula.
A rental car would certainly provide more individual freedom and be more convenient to explore points rarely traveled by buses. However, there are not that many roads to drive on here. The main road crossing the peninsula and offering the most spectacular views to drivers is open only from late April to early November – and can be closed sometimes even during that period if the weathers turns nasty.
Coming from Shari, as most visitors do, you will arrive in Shiretoko proper once you get to the town of Utoro.
Located right at the shore on the Western side of Shiretoko, Utoro is the main tourist center of the area. A large visitor center offers all kinds of information on the peninsula, hotels, inns and shops are a plenty and the restaurants offer the best the local fishermen have brought in from the sea.
Right in the center of the town is a large fishing port. The nets, lifted up to dry by huge cranes in the morning, are gigantic. The amount of fish and other seafood that were entangled in them while out in the sea must have been enormous.
There are a good number of restaurants right next to the harbor that offer the fish the nets have caught: large crabs, sea urchins and generous amounts of ikura, salmon roe. Hokkaido is famous for these dishes and here is one of the best places on the island to eat them really fresh.
Right behind the fishing harbor is the Oronkoiwa Rock and it is well worth climbing up and looking down onto both the busy fishermen bringing in their catch and out towards the northern shore of the peninsula. Tour boats of all sizes leave and return in quick succession.
Next to the fishing harbor is the tour boat harbor and on the street leading towards it, one boat company after the other offer their rides. The tours range from going all the way to Cape Shiretoko, the final point of the peninsula, to various shorter rides.
They include a trip to a beach where brown bears frequently roam and a ride to the Kamuiwakka waterfalls, the latter taking a bit more than an hour in all. What the tours all have in common is that they feature a lot of stunning scenery – and that they all stay strictly out on the sea. Boats are not allowed to land on the further reaches of the peninsula.
In fact, the area around Cape Shiretoko is closed to anyone save for a few wildlife researchers. As busy a tourist town as Utoro might be, the people running the World Heritage National Park right behind the town limits are serious about protecting the wildlife from any intruding visitors.
The views from the sea are gorgeous though. The coastline is rocky and wild and there are plenty of small rivers falling right into the sea from high rocks.
The most spectacular sight however are the Kamuiwakka Falls. They splash down three large steps before reaching the sea – and they are big. While that already would be some sight, they actually consist of hot, mineral-laden water and come straight down from Iou-dake. Mount Iou is a volcano and iou means sulfur. In the early days of Abashiri Prison, circa 1900, inmates were placed here to collect the then abundant mineral. The volcano had just had a major outbreak back then.
Nowadays, the Kamuiwakka Falls are in one of the few areas of the national park accessible by land as well. To reach it, drive up the road towards Rausu and park your car at the Shiretoko Nature Center (Shizen Sentaa) a little behind Utoro.
Basically, it is possible to bathe in the pools the falls form – and that should be a great experience – looking out over the sea while bathing in a hot pool of onsen water. Nature in Shiretoko is not very stable, though. In the Summer of 2010, the falls were closed due to heavy rocks that had fallen into them. Only at beach level was it permitted to take a foot bath.
Beyond the falls, the road still continues until it meets the Rusha River. This part of the road however is closed to all traffic and it leads you straight into the land of the free-roaming bears. Beyond the Rusha River begins the prohibited zone. Here, the bears rule.
From late April through early November, the Shiretoko crossroad from Utoro to Rausu is open for traffic. Make sure to travel it – it’s spectacular. Steep slopes lead up to the Shiretoko Pass about halfway. Barren Rausu-dake is close-by on your left.
Ensure to stop at the parking lot up on the pass and look out towards the east, towards Rausu. You get a great view over the mountains and the sea and, weather permitting, over to Kunashiri Island.
Access to the Kamuiwakka Falls
Access to the Kamuiwakka Falls is strictly regulated according to the time of year.
Bus August 1 – 25 and September 15 – 24, the Falls are accessible only by bus. The bus can be boarded from Utoro Onsen Bus Terminal or the Shiretoko Nature Center. With a return ticket on the Kamuiwakka bus, you can also get off at Lake Shiretokogo; however, you cannot drive to Lake Shiretokogo and board the bus from there.
Car or motorbike June 1 – July 31, August 26 – September 14, and September 25 to late October, they are accessible only by car or motorbike. Note, however, that the roads are narrow, dirt roads, that animals often cross them, and that after the Shizen Center, there is no mobile phone connection.
Walking or cycling is permitted from June 1 to late October. However, note if walking that brown bears are common in the area.
Kunashiri belongs to Russia now. It used to be a Japanese island but when Stalin joined the war against Japan in the final days of World War II, he managed to take Kunashiri and a three other islands from Japan. All the original inhabitants were expelled and Russians settled there.
Japan has tried to persuade the Russians to give the islands back ever since. No luck so far.
In Japan, these islands are called the “Northern Territories” and in all of Hokkaido you will encounter a lot of propaganda reminding the public that “the Northern Territories belong to Japan.”
It’s highly unlikely, though that any Russian president can afford to return them in the foreseeable future – even if Japan would offer generous development aid to Russia. When Boris Yeltsin briefly started to think about it in the 1990s, the Russian nationalists ran amok. He quickly withdrew his advances.
In any case, Kunashiri looks great from a distance. You can make out large forests and high mountains over there if the air is crisp.
Once you enter Rausu, you will find that the town is the polar opposite of Utoro. Sure, Rausu also has a large visitor center and a really good fish and seafood market is part of it. But in general, Rausu is much less of a tourist town than Utoro. No big hotels here, no advertising for tour-providing companies plastered on the buildings. Rausu is still an unpretentious, real fisherman’s town. It offers local whale watching tours most of the year, though.
From Rausu, too, a road leads upwards to the peninsula. Up to the end it is lined by small fisherman’s houses where they dry their small nets right on the gravel beach. It all feels much more relaxed here than in Utoro.
Drive out far towards the end of the road and you find Seseki Onsen. That’s an onsen pool built right into the sea. You can access it only when the tide is low. The high tide will submerge it completely under the sea.
This is not a tourist onsen, though. In fact, you have to ask for permission to use it in the fisherman’s house next to it. The permission will be granted if the tide situation is okay and if the locals don’t need it for themselves.
Rausu, and especially this part of the town which is called Konbumachi, is famous for konbu, a very thick kind of seaweed. You may have seen konbu in Japanese supermarkets and admittedly, in dried form it doesn’t look very appetizing. Try the fresh seaweed up here or cook the dried variety thoroughly and it becomes a delicious part of any hearty seafood meal. Most famously, though, konbu is an important soup stock and widely used in traditional Japanese cooking.
Konbu is farmed in the sea and harvested by boat. Given that konbu leaves are large, this is hard work. Whenever the konbu men out at sea get too cold, they retreat for a break into Seseki Onsen. That’s why they built the onsen in the first place, with stones separating the hot spring from the surrounding sea.
To bath in the Seseki is beautiful, and on a clear day, you can look out from the warm pool in the cold sea right over to Kunashiri.
There is only one pool and thus it is konyoku – mixed bathing. Jumping in there naked with your girlfriend is totally okay – though Japanese tourists often prefer to wear bathing suits. The latter is accepted here – even though bathing suits are banned in most other hot spring baths in Japan.
Aidomari Hot Spring
If you continue along the road for another kilometer or so, you will reach the Aidomari hot spring. That is not in the sea but right next to it on the beach. It is separated by sexes and has a tarpaulin roof. You can look out over the sea from there too, though a wall of tetrapods on the shoreline hampers the view. Soon after the Aidomari, the road ends. From there on, it’s the territory of the bears on this side of the peninsula, too.
Rausu has many small inns to stay at. A rather exceptional place however is the Marumi Hotel in the southern part of of Rausu. It’s a rather faceless concrete building but it has some things going for it that make it absolutely worth a recommendation. One is of them is the great crab dinners offered at good prices. The hotel itself advertises them.
What they don’t advertise is the large terrace they have outside the 8th floor. In fact, it’s nothing other than a large space of concrete easily accessible via the elevator. Go up there at night – and you will have one of the best star-viewing skies you can find in Japan. Rausu is small, the strait towards Kunashiri has almost no boats on it and Kunashiri itself is perfectly dark at night except for the beams of a single lighthouse. Now, this is a place to watch the stars!
But if you really love beauty, you will set your alarm to about 4am (in summer) to catch another overwhelming spectacle – the sunrise over Kunashiri. Here in Rausu you can see one of the earliest sunrises in the Land of the Rising Sun. If the weather is with you, it is almost psychedelic. The rapid play of the colors between the sea, the clouds and blue-ish shimmering Kunashiri in the morning is simply overwhelming. The rare, brightly-lit squid boats in the sea just bring in even more bright spots to the exploding colors.
Driving south from Rausu, there are a lot of other amazing places to be discovered – but they will not be part of the Shiretoko Peninsula anymore.