Day 53: LIKE YELLOWSTONE IN JAPAN
At 6:30am, we awoke after allowing ourselves a little bit of sleeping in beyond the usual 5 or 6am. Upon looking out the window, we could see it was still overcast, but we were able to see some of the peaks behind Utoro town.
The forecast had called for 20% chance of precipitation or otherwise partly cloudy conditions.
After our 7am breakfast, we went back to our room to get ready for the day. By 8:45am, we were in the car and headed for the Fox Cafe where we were supposed to meet to fulfill our reservation for a boat tour on the Utoro side of the Shiretoko Peninsula.
While we waited for the 9:30am tour, we occupied ourselves with free internet at the cafe (Julie) while I was playing with a pair of dogs that appeared to be owned by someone at the Fox cafe.
So at 9:30am, we were on our way out of the dock. I think the dogs were attached to me as I was to the dogs so when we were walking towards the boat, one of them barked as if it didn’t want me to leave.
Anyways, we boarded the boat and were off into the Sea of Okhotsk to the soundtrack of Enya. All of the dialog over the loudspeaker was in Japanese, but the driver also pointed us to a screen just to the side of him (since we sat on the frigid top of the boat while the rest stayed below) where it would show us what we were seeing in English text. Pretty nifty.
Barely a few minutes into the tour, we already started to visit the Furepe Falls as well as some other set of wispy waterfalls falling through cracks in the cliffs.
From there, lots of the scenery from the boat revealed more light waterfalls as well as sea cliffs. Interspersed throughout this stretch were some birds skimming the Sea of Okhotsk, which was notable since I couldn’t recall seeing this much wildlife so readily in Japan let alone Asia.
As we were about to approach Kamuiwakka Falls (visible way out in the distance at this point), the boat driver pointed out an eagle perched on the sea cliff to us.
It was a good thing I armed myself with a telephoto lens but even that was barely enough to make the eagle appear a little more than just a dot. However, the telephoto made it difficult to take landscape shots so I had to rely on Julie’s point and shoot for that.
Not long thereafter, we went right in front of the Kamuiwakka Waterfall. Originally, I had hoped we wouldn’t need a boat tour to see this waterfall, but the problem was that they don’t allow private vehicles on the unsealed road to get to the falls, and the bus that goes there only operates from mid-July to mid-August.
But instead, we had to settle for a view from the boat. Actually it was a surprisingly good experience as we could see the waterfall pretty much with its tallest drops. The only drawback was that we just couldn’t treat it like a natural onsen experience.
One thing that struck us was how green the water was as the falls fed the Sea of Okhotsk. It was a rather unusual sight as the green water abruptly turned back to the natural dark color as the concentration of the sulfur was diluted enough to act more or less like seawater again.
We also started to see Asiatic brown bears foraging for food. These were the lords of the forest in these parts who apparently can be aggressive and kill in much the same way grizzlies can. They’re bigger than the California black bears we’re used to at home, and they don’t quite command the same kind of fear and respect as these bears (along with grizzlies) apparently do.
We also saw more bears up cliffs as well as by the rocky beaches near some fishing hamlet beyond some end of the road.
Speaking of which, we were a little surprised at seeing how many tiny fishing hamlets were spread out along the Shiretoko coast facing the Sea of Okhotsk. We had researched the Shiretoko National Park and were consistently told that it was untouched and pristine.
But what we were seeing from the water was that humans have definitely left their imprint along the coasts going as far as the end at the Cape of Shiretoko. Even some of the sea walls seemed to be eyesores.
I’m betting that the real untouched wilderness in Shiretoko National Park lies in the interior of the peninsula amongst the forests and volcanic peaks where no roads exist. There may be some hardy backpacking souls in there trying to truly get away from it all in Japan, but it’s definitely not for the faint of heart in bear territory and where trails can disappear in the thick forest as well as along the sea cliffs!
Amongst all the sightseeing that was going on in the boat, we were also having runny noses as we had worn some four or five layers to fight off the bitter cold. They even gave us light gloves to help keep our hands from getting numb or frostbitten. But our faces bore the brunt of the windchill as the boat pierced through the cold air. So that’s why our noses were running profusely while our cheeks were probably flushed.
As we headed back to Utoro, we started to notice dolphins making their presence known only when they surfaced to breathe. But they didn’t reveal much of themselves, unlike the dolphins we saw in New Zealand where some did backflips for us. I’m guessing it’s because the boat motors and Enya music were on and probably scared off the dolphins or at least discouraged them from coming closer.
Eventually by about 1pm, we made it back to land. Our nearly 3.5-hour boat ride was over and now was the time to enjoy a little lunch that I was really looking forward to. The reason why was because there were some local restaurants here serving sea urchin, salmon roe, and other fresh seafood over a bed of rice and seaweed strips.
So we settled on this place across the street from the main visitor center. There, we each ordered a mixed bowl of the aforementioned sealife along with amaebi (really sweet shrimp), octopus, salmon, and yellowtail over rice and seaweed.
At a little after 2pm, we were finally on our way to visit the Shiretoko Go-ko (5 Lakes). This was supposedly the most touristed part of Shiretoko National Park. But I had hoped we instead drive over the pass towards Rausu Town where there was another waterfall as well as a predictable geyser that goes off nearly once an hour.
Unfortunately, Julie’s fear of bears kept us from considering this latter option, which was a bummer for me since I wanted to experience some of Shiretoko’s nature firsthand instead of from a boat offshore. Besides, the walk to Kumagoe Waterfall was said to be 0.2km according to the lady at the visitor center. Plus, the predictable geyser was pretty easy to see.
But instead, we chose the 5 Lakes over the Rausu Excursion for the latter half of the day. That one seemed to be the one excursion where we could get the most bang for our limited time this afternoon.
On our way to the lake, we saw many deer by the road as well as amongst the foliage before the mountains serving as backdrops. It was a bit reminiscent of the autotouring and animal sightseeing we experienced in Yellowstone National Park.
But through all of our picture taking, we kind of overlooked stopping at the Nature Center, which was a mistake because I had originally intended to see the Furepe Waterfall from the short walk behind the Nature Center but completely forgot about this trail.
At 2:45pm, we arrived at the car park for the Shiretoko Five Lakes area. We were charged 410 yen to park here, so I guess it was kind of indicative of how well touristed this part of the park is considering I didn’t recall other parts of the park charging for anything just to get in.
The walk at first went out to some wooden platform amongst some marshlands. We saw more deer here as it was becoming clear that they were a dime a dozen. The views here were primarily looking back towards the mountains as well as a distance glimpse of the first of the Shiretoko Five Lakes.
We next proceeded to join the tour groups and go onto the 5 Lakes walk. It was a bit of a challenge to get ahead of the slow moving tour group of mostly elderly people. But once we got to the first lake, we were able to pass most of them and start to enjoy the lakes in a little more peace.
Throughout the 90-minute walk, we tried to use the calm of the lakes which produced reflections of the mountains in the distance. Unfortunately, it was a bit difficult to photograph the mountains with the reflections in their entirety because it made the photos look flat. I was now able to see why post cards and ads of the Shiretoko Five Lakes tended to focus on specific subjects instead of trying to capture it all with the reflections.
At around 4:20pm, we left the Shiretoko Go-ko Area and made it back into Utoro Town at about 4:40pm. There, we checked out what appeared to be a natural waterfall spilling right into town. But with all the manmodified waterfalls we’d seen throughout the country, we couldn’t really tell if this waterfall was fed by onsen wastewater upstream.
This waterfall also didn’t have a formal name, which further made us a little bit suspicious about whether this was a real waterfall or not. Still, we took photos just because it was attractive in its own way, and to prove that we were here.
At 4:50pm, we stopped by the Visitor Center in town for another helping of delicious Hokkaido Milk Vanilla Soft Serve in a waffle cone as well as the same thing in Mango Soft Serve.
And at 5:10pm, we were back at the hotel where we soaked in the property’s onsen again while having yet another big dinner consisting of mostly seafood. It was a bit different from yesterday’s meal as this one also included Hokkaido lamb and what looked like King Crab legs. Delicious nonetheless, but we left dinner totally stuffed.
And so ended our long touring day of Shiretoko. As our some 500+ photos between us would attest, there was definitely no shortage of sights to see and we still could’ve seen more on the 334 en route to Rausu if not for Julie’s phobia of bears.