I Saw Bears, Sperm Whales, and Red-crowned Cranes in Some of Japan’s Most Beautiful National Parks

A stream of people abruptly started walking back towards us against the one-way flow of trail traffic.


We looked to our guide, who confirmed we needed to turn around and join the line of people heading back to the visitor center. We were in Japan’s Shiretoko National Park, and just minutes earlier, we had attended a ranger-led bear safety presentation and video required before hiking the Goko Lakes Trail, which showcases five gorgeous lakes. There, we learned the trail was closed the previous day due to bear activity, and bears had been spotted almost daily over the past week. It was September, past the season requiring a tour guide to accompany you on the trail, but brown bears were still out in force on Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido. The Shiretoko area is home to approximately 400 brown bears, according to a large-scale 2020 DNA study, and on the drive up to the park’s visitor center, we saw one of them strolling alongside a creek. 

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With our original hiking plans dashed, we instead followed the park’s raised boardwalk path — protected by an electrified fence — to take in gorgeous views of the first of the five lakes. Later, we hopped on a small boat for a coastal bear tour and spotted a family of three bears, Japanese cormorants, other seabirds, and stunning landforms with a dash of refreshing sea spray. Seeing bears from the water is the best option, according to rangers. 

“Boat trips are recommended to watch bears,” says Daisuke Imura, visitor use coordinator in Shiretoko National Park. “On the ground, visitors happen to see bears while they are traveling, but it can be dangerous. Goko Lake is the place to enjoy the landscape, not to [view] bears.”

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Bear viewing is one of the top draws in Shiretoko, one of Hokkaido’s six National Parks, which, along with the prefecture’s quasi-national parks, makes the island an incredible immersive nature destination. Hokkaido’s parks hold everything from crystal clear caldera lakes to deep forests, mysterious green algae balls, red-crowned cranes, Ainu culture, and geothermal features — from geysers to sulfur mountains and boiling mud. Far north of the bustling metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, you will find wildlife and nature, with opportunities to hike, enjoy onsens, and even walk on drift ice in the winter. 

During my trip to Hokkaido as part of the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s Adventure Travel World Summit, I visited Hokkaido’s three eastern national parks, including Shiretoko, Kushiroshitsugen, and Akan-Mashu, along with other sites. 

Down the coast, we boarded a ship to go whale watching, spotting five sperm whales — which sleep vertically in the water and are the world’s largest toothed whales. We watched Dall’s porpoises swim and saw tuna leap out of the water. 

In the winter, the Shiretoko area becomes an ethereal landscape of ice and snow, with drift ice being a draw for tourists who go on guided trips to walk on the ice or snowshoe. Winter is also prime time for spotting Steller’s sea eagles, which are one of the world’s largest eagles and can weigh up to 20 pounds. It is also the season when frozen particles of ice dance and glisten in the cold air, adding a special mystique. 

Courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organization

“We call it diamond dust,” says guide Kazuhiro Arai. “The air is so cold that the moisture in the air is frozen in front of you and reflects sunlight.” Arai is a co-founder of Adventure Hokkaido and the chair of Hokkaido Adventure Travel Association, and he has guided in Hokkaido for 23 years. 

Arai was one of our guides for the week as we explored Eastern Hokkaido, including Akan-Mashu National Park, which is located southwest of Shiretoko and reminds me of my own backyard park, Yellowstone. Similar to its counterpart in North America, Akan-Mashu is in a volcanically active area, with three caldera landforms and a wonderland of geothermal features like the bubbling Bokke mud volcano, and a stinky, sulfur mountain called Mt Iwosan (Atusa-Nupuri), beautifully adorned with patches of bright yellow deposits. Formerly used for mining sulfur, it is a popular photo stop today as tourists pose in front of the steaming mountain, emitting fumes from more than 1,500 vents. The area’s geothermal activity also makes the park popular for soaking in onsens and hot springs. Conveniently, the Kawayu Onsen Foot Bath is located trailside, and after a hike, we removed our boots, peeled off our socks, and dipped our feet in the boiling water, which is more acidic than lemon juice, for a soak. 


The volcanic activity also means the park is home to crystal-clear caldera lakes which, on a still day, reflect images of the mountains and forests, becoming a mosaic of red, yellow, and green during the autumn as the mixed broadleaf trees turn alongside evergreen pine forests. With a fresh dusting of snow and a bright blue sky, the lake’s reflection showcases a whole kaleidoscope of color. 

While many places around the world feature gorgeous reflective bodies of water, Lake Akan is unusual in that it is also home to mysterious algae balls called “marimo,” which have a designation as a National Special Natural Monument. Scientists study these unique algae balls, which are in decline, and according to a research study published in 2021, only Lake Akan is now home to the large marimo, which have a diameter of nearly 5 inches.

Courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organization

“It’s really limited in areas by the water currents,” Arai says. “We still don’t know how it forms or how the water current goes and makes such a shape. It’s a mystery that makes us more interested.” 

When I arrived in Hokkaido, I flew into Kushiro, which is located near Kushiroshitsugen National Park. One of the biggest draws in this area is the red-crowned cranes (Grus japonensis). Banners featuring the cranes hang in the airport, and large statues depicting the birds are prominently displayed in front of the terminal. Even the headrest covers on the airport bus to town feature cranes, and artistic depictions of cranes are all over the city. Winter is the most popular time for viewing them, though we saw several of the majestic birds, which have up to 8-foot-wingspans, out in the fields during the fall. 

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Kushiroshitsugen National Park is known for having Japan’s largest marsh, with the Kushiro River flowing through it, and we hiked along the Onnenai Wooden Path to explore. As we walked by Yachibouzu sedge clumps, we saw deer and learned the area’s rich biodiversity was preserved due to the difficulty of developing the land. The iconic cranes also helped encourage people to care for the area and its biodiversity — including many tiny lifeforms, like more than 1,000 species of insects.

“The wetland, although it had a lot of biodiversity, the creatures were not that interesting for people because they are hard to see, all the little ones,” Arai says. “However, the crane is one of the iconic animals… a beautiful, iconic bird that can make people be interested, and that’s when we started conserving and regenerating to get nature back.” Today, the wetland is home to an array of species, including approximately 39 mammals, 200 birds, 38 fish, and several reptiles and amphibians, including Siberian salamanders. 

From the brown bears of Shiretoko to Siberian salamanders, sperm whales, Steller’s sea eagles, red-crested cranes, and delightful balls of marimo algae — not to mention the fascinating geothermal features and incredible onsens — Hokkaido is an excellent place for nature lovers to explore the country’s biodiversity and immerse themselves in wild Japan.

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