THE Japanese archipelago was once a part of the Asian mainland. The connecting bits have vanished over countless millions of years, but if you look to the north of Hokkaido, the island of Sakhalin – whose northern tip is just off the coast of Siberia – stretches to the south to fall just short of Wakkanai, Japan’s northernmost town.
This land bridge of the past brought people, animals and many of the cultural influences that shaped Hokkaido’s early history. The hard physical connectives have long since gone, but other links between Hokkaido and the mainland remain strong, particularly in the depths of the region’s long, cold winters.
The Amur River, which forms the boundary between Russian Siberia and north-eastern China, empties a huge volume of nutrient-rich fresh water into the northern end of the Sea of Okhotsk, near the island of Sakhalin. This fresh water rapidly freezes in the open ocean, and is driven more than 1000km by the annual north-west monsoon – the same wind that brings Niseko its fabled powder snow – out across the Okhotsk Sea into the north Pacific Ocean.
The southern edge of this vast expanse of drifting sea ice brushes past the top edge of Hokkaido until it hits the Shiretoko Peninsula, a long, thin, dagger-like projection of forest-clad basalt rock on the far north-eastern coast, typically from around the end of January. It remains snagged there for more than a month, wrapping around the tip of the peninsula and pressing up against the Pacific coastline as well. The resulting arctic-like spectacle of white pack ice, extending from the beaches and cliffs on both sides of the peninsula right out to the horizon, is one of the more dramatic sights visitors to Hokkaido can see. It is, in fact, unique in the world at such low latitudes.
The ice is extraordinarily rugged, pushed constantly by the wind against the unyielding basalt cliffs, and compressed and driven upwards into amazing, fantastically shaped outcrops.
In addition to simply marvelling at this panorama from the peninsula, which is now officially on UNESCO’s list of World Natural Heritage sites, visitors to the area in winter can actually experience getting out amongst the ice floes in a number of ways.
The easiest is to take a ride on an icebreaker cruise boat out of the port of Abashiri. Large and comfortable and very stable, these boats carry several hundred passengers at a time on a genuinely exciting trip out through the ice, crashing through the metres-thick cover with reinforced hulls and powerful diesel engines. All to an amazing accompaniment of creaking, groaning, swishing and gurgling, and the sounds of fractured ice rasping down the length of the hull. And the cries of an enormous cloud of sea birds, all wheeling and diving in the boat’s wake to take advantage of the rich food opportunities opened up by the breaking of the ice.
However, a more adventurous approach is to hire an experienced guide to take a trek out onto the heaving mass and look back at the coast from one of the more unusual vantage points to be found anywhere in the world. A starting point is the town of Utoro, about halfway out along the peninsula on the inner side. A walk out on the ice there leads around rocky headlands to see frozen waterfalls that plunge from cliff tops into the sea, to marvel at the diversity of wildlife – from the deer that pick at sparse foliage in precarious positions on cliff sides, to the seals that travel with the ice from Siberia, and the predators that hunt them.
On many of the raised outcrops, and wheeling in the sky above, you can see the beautiful Owashi, or Stellar’s sea eagles – magnificent black and white feathered creatures with two-metre wingspans and bright yellow hooked beaks and fierce eyes that miss nothing that moves.
The guide who led our expedition issued us all with protective dry suits and boots, and himself dragged a large inflatable raft – a very necessary precaution against sudden rifts, that in seconds can leave wide expanses of open water rimmed by greenish-blue tinged sheer ice walls, where beforehand there had been only a jagged and seemingly solid way ahead. It should be stressed that this is not an activity that should be contemplated without very experienced local leadership.
Even more adventurous types can elect to dive under the ice, and we came upon one such group, similarly clad in warm dry suits, who had found a small opening, dropped a line through it to the bottom, and were taking assisted dives to view the ice, and the myriad of marine creatures that thrive around it – from below.
A day out on the ice – or under it – is exhilarating and very rewarding, but totally exhausting, and it pays to be ski-fit to tackle it. Fortunately, Utoro has a number of very comfortable small hotels and inns, where a soak in the outdoor hot spring with a flask of hot sake or a bottle of wine can bring the lucky bather the sound of the sound of the Shimabukuro (Blakiston’s fish owl) on its nightly hunt. The Shimabukuro is another beautiful bird that is, unfortunately, close to extinction. In recent years, however, it appears to be responding to serious conservation measures to replace its breeding habitat artificially, and more sightings – and nocturnal bird calls – are being registered over a much wider area. They are very large birds, with some standing 70cm tall, and in winter wear a spectacular snowy white plumage.
One of our favourite haunts in Utoro is the Iruka (Dolphin) Hotel, perched right on the shoreline at the entrance to the town, and overlooking a wide expanse of ocean. Iruka is owned by Yasuhiro Yamamoto, a wildlife photographer who not only likes to share a drink and great stories about the peninsula at night, but also knows better than most how to make the most of your Shiretoko adventure.
In the warmer months, he operates a cruise boat from which we have had stunning bear-watching experiences along the peninsula’s beaches in late summer and early autumn, just as the annual salmon run gets under way. But even in the depths of winter, he can point you to a small minshuku
(guest house) by a stream in a narrow river valley where sightings of the owl are (almost) guaranteed.
Shiretoko also boasts the largest concentration of Hokkaido brown bears on the entire island, but in winter, they are all hibernating in the rugged mountains that dominate the landscape. Deer are prevalent, and indeed, because they are protected in the national park, are almost in plague proportions, and when food is scarce in winter, are now killing off trees in the pristine forests by eating the bark.
In addition to being a wonderful tourist spectacle, the annual ice floe phenomenon brings enormous wealth to the Shiretoko Peninsula and surrounding regions. There are waterborne nutrients from the Amur River’s journey through Siberia, locked up in the ice, together with plankton and algae on the under surfaces, which are released in the seas off the northern Hokkaido coast as the floes melt to feed a thriving fishing industry.
Sadly, this spectacular winter event appears to be falling victim to the predations of global warming. Evidence being compiled by ice floe watchers points to a steady decrease in the amount of ice and consequent negative economic impact on the region. The Okhotsk Sea Ice Museum of Hokkaido, in the nearby town of Monbetsu, says sea temperatures have raised almost one degree Celsius over the past century, and the amount of drift ice has shrunk by as much as 40 per cent.
Statistically, it can be seen that between 1970 and 2000, Abashiri was locked in by ice floes for an average of 87 days a year, and on at least two occasions this extended to over 100 days. Between 2004 and 2007, this had declined to 65 days a year, with nothing exceeding 100 in the past two decades.
Local old-timers suggest that back in ‘the good old days’ when they were children, the ice floes were ‘as high as mountains’, instead of the thin cover seen today. And when you look now at the cliffs rising sheer out of the ocean, it is indeed possible to see the gouges and striations marking old ice activity on the rock faces many, many metres above where today’s floes end.
The captains of the icebreakers will tell you that where once the floes were there to be ploughed through until as late as May, now they sometimes have to go looking for good, solid areas of ice to entertain passengers even as early as late February.
All this suggests that there is no better time to start planning a side tour to Shiretoko from Niseko soon. This year would be a good time to start, or make sure it is part of your plans for next year. There are flights from Chitose to Memanbetsu, with a bus ride to the peninsula, or train services to Abashiri and bus connections from there.
Information about the Iruka Hotel can be found online in English at http://www.iruka-hotel.com/en/index.html
(And by the way, there is a small local ski slope close by, so you can even take your skis or boards along for the trip).