In winter the northern Japan is cocooned in snow and ice and is in fact
the most southerly point that the Arctic sea ice freezes over, coupled with
this are some huge volcanic mountain ranges, including the Japanese Alps and
also many lakes and forests that play home to a wide variety of wildlife;
most of which is endemic to Japan. We will visit Honshu and
Hokkaido, being the two largest islands in Japan they are also home to some
of the country’s most pristine ecosystems and abundant wildlife. The
major focuses on this trip are the magnificent dancing cranes, majestic
Steller’s sea eagles and serene whooper swans of Hokkaido as well as the
iconic Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) that use the geothermal features of
the Japanese Alps to keep warm during the winter.
Getting there ...
|We continued our trip from
Khabarovsk (Siberia tiger
tracking) in the early morning on 2/9. We chose to stay
one night in Tokyo so we could use some free time in the afternoon
to see around Tokyo city. However, due to the outbreak of
coronavirus, Woanyu and I decided to stay in our hotel room as much
as possible and only went out to a super market under the train
station across the street to buy some bento boxes for dinner.
2/10 (Day 9) ...
- Akan International Crane Center 阿寒国際ツルセンター
had an early flight from Haneda airport to Kushiro (釧路) in Hokkaido.
Our first stop was Akan International Crane Center for the red-crowned
Red-crowned cranes (or Japanese cranes) were thought to be
extinct in Japan due to overhunting and habitat destruction. However, in
1926 a group of about 20 birds was discovered in the marshes around
Kushiro. With conservation efforts they have since made a dramatic
recovery and now number more than 1000 birds. The cranes are most
spectacular to watch as they dance, often in pairs, with seemingly
choreographed dips and jumps.
We had a quick lunch at a curry restaurant across the
street from the crane center, and went back to take more photos after the
- Lake Akan Ainu Kotan 阿寒湖アイヌコタン
When we drove toward the mountain
close to Lake Akan area, the weather changed dramatically and snow
started to fall. It was so cloudy and foggy that we could hardly
see the lake at all. "Kotan" means "village" or "settlement" in
the Ainu language. This is Hokkaido's largest kotan, located on the
shore of Lake Akan. Attractions include a theatre specializing in
traditional dance, souvenir shops offering artistic wood carvings, and
more. Akanko Ainu Kotan offers a chance to experience the precious
culture of the Ainu people (but we did not spend too much time here to
visit any shops).
2/11 (Day 10) ...
- Tsurumidai 鶴見台
We had another visit to see red-crowned cranes at
a different location: Tsurumidai. Between
November and March, some 200 cranes come flying to Tsurumidai, which is
known as one of their two main feeding sites.
Woanyu did not stay outdoors for too long since she
did not feel too well (got a cold in
Siberia) so she went to a
coffee shop across the street to have a cup of hot coffee. It turned
out the coffee shop was also a good spot to see some more wildlife: deer and
birds (great tit, and brown-eared bulbul, etc.).
- Kushiro Shitsugen National Park (Kushiro Marshland, 釧路湿原)
Kushiro Marshland was designated as a national park in 1987 in order to
preserve the country's largest wetland and marsh habitat.
The wetlands of Kushiro Shitsugen extend from the Pacific Ocean to
inland Hokkaido, spanning the four municipalities of Kushiro City,
Shibecha, Tsurui, and Kushiro Town. The designated area
of Kushiro Shitsugen National Park is approximately 28,000 hectares.
About 700 species of plants and 1,300 species of wildlife inhabit
the Kushiro Shitsugen.
We climbed up to a hill (with the ice grips
attached to our boots) to have an expansive panoramic view of the
- Toro Station 塘路駅
The SL Fuyuno Shitsugen train (SL冬の湿原号)
which dashes through the white Kushiro Wetlands is an icon of winter
tourism in Kushiro. Although we were not big fans of trains, it's
still fun to get the timing right to wait for the
vintage train to pass
- Tawadaira 多和平展望台
Tawadaira is an
observation deck at a hilltop with a fantastic panoramic view of the
vast area, far and wide. During summer time, it is surrounded by
pastures of grassland for 3000 cows at the Shibecha Town Training Ranch.
In winter, it turns to a white wonderland of tranquil scene.
- Yoroushi Yuyado
Daiichi 養老牛 湯宿だいいち
Yuyado Daiichi is a hot spring
resort in mountains and streams. Since Woanyu did feel too well,
we checked in the hotel early and spent time to enjoy its high quality
hot spring (onsen). We also had a fancy dinner (Seseragi Set Meal,
せせらぎ御膳, 清流御膳), a Kaiseki meal
(懐石料理), a traditional multi-course Japanese Cuisine.
dinner, I went to the lobby to wait for a special guest, a
Blakiston’s fish owl. Over the years this large, rare and
beautiful owl has become very used to people and often comes to visit a
small pond on the lodge ground to catch fish, and this is one of the
best place in the world to see and photograph a Blakiston’s fish owl.
After about 30 minutes (from 7:45PM to 8:15PM), the owl suddenly
appeared outside the lobby window. It was quite a view to see how
an owl caught and ate fish, and then disappeared into the darkness.
Blakiston's fish owl is the largest living species of owl. Males
weighing from 2.95 to 3.6 kg (6.5 to 7.9 lb), while the female, at up to
2.95 to 4.6 kg (6.5 to 10.1 lb). The wingspan range known
for Blakiston's fish owls is 178 to 190 cm (5 ft 10 in to 6 ft 3 in). It
is possible the largest specimens can attain a wingspan of approximately
200 cm (6 ft 7 in). It is more correct to call this species the
Blakiston's eagle owl. This is because it is more closely related to the
Eurasian eagle-owl by studies of the main subgenus of the species than
to the subgenus of fish owls.
2/12 (Day 11) ...
- Bihoro Pass 美幌峠
Woanyu was still feeling tired and had a
headache and fever, so she decided to stay in the hotel room to sleep.
Our guide took me to do some sightseeing in the nearby Akan-Mashu
National Park area.
Bihoro Pass is a pass at about 493 m above sea
level in the northwestern side of the Lake Kussharo, and is a popular
viewing point with a view of the Lake Kussharo on the mountaintop of
Bihoro National Route.
- Lake Kussharo 屈斜路湖
Lake Kussharo is a caldera lake in Akan
National Park. It is the largest caldera lake in Japan in terms of
surface area, and sixth largest lake in Japan. It is also the largest
lake in Japan to freeze over completely in winter except a few locations
along the lake shore where there are several outdoor hot springs and a
sand beach with naturally heated sand and hot ground water. It is a
popular place to find whooper swan enjoying the warm water here.
- Mt. Io (Iozan 硫黄山)
Iozan is an active volcano in the vicinity
of Kawayu Onsen. Its yellow, sulfurous vents can be viewed from a close
proximity as visitors are free to walk around the steaming, smoking
- Yoroushi Yuyado
Daiichi 養老牛 湯宿だいいち
After a ramen lunch, I went back
to the hotel to check on Woanyu. Luckily she was much better after
a good sleep in the morning, and she was ready to go another round of
We had another nice Kaiseki dinner
tonight, and went to wait for owl again after dinner. It was a
much longer wait today: we went to lobby at about 7:50PM, and wait
till ~9:20PM when the owl finally came...
Blakiston's fish owl is
classified as an Endangered Species by the IUCN. It is endangered due
to the widespread loss of riverine forest, increasing development along
rivers and dam construction. The current population in Japan is
approximately 100-150 birds (20 breeding pairs and unpaired
individuals), whereas on mainland Asia the population is higher,
variously estimated at several hundred or perhaps thousands of
2/13 (Day 12) ...
- Rausu 羅臼
We started to head north to the coastal town of Rausu.
Rausu is located on the eastern side of the Shiretoko Peninsula which is
the most north-easterly point of the main Japanese islands. It is the
largest town of the Shiretoko peninsula and due to the abundance of marine
life offshore (thanks to the productive Nemuro Strait current) fishing is
a major industry here. The Shiretoko Peninsula is famed for its
rugged wilderness consisting of high mountains, dense forests and rivers.
The major mountain here is Mt. Rausu and it stands at 1,660m (5,312ft) and
is visible from almost everywhere on the peninsula. Most of the park is
only accessible by foot or boat and in winter the access is even more
reduced. The major draw cards for any wildlife enthusiast here are
eagles: Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles.
We went to Washi No Yado (鷲の宿) on the riverside in
the evening hoping to see more Blakiston's fish owl.
We arrived there at ~ 5:30PM and got assigned to the old bus as our hide.
We waited there till 9:30PM but still no sign of any owl. It's when
we got a line message about my brother's medical condition....
2/14 (Day 13) ...
- Rausu 羅臼
This morning we left the hotel
before dawn and headed out on a cruise into the coastal waters of
northern Hokkaido. The reason for the concentrations of these
large fish eating eagles (Steller's sea eagles and white-tailed eagles)
is the abundance of fish that is found here, with the cold upwelling’s
of the Nemura current bringing rich nutrients from the deep Pacific
ocean and forming the basis of a very rich and productive marine
Steller's sea eagle is the
heaviest eagle in the world, at about 5 to 9 kg (11 to 20 lb).
Steller's sea eagle can range in total length from 85 to 105 cm (2 ft
9 in to 3 ft 5 in), and its wingspan is one of the largest of any living
eagle, at a median of 2.13 m (7 ft 0 in) to 2.2 m (7 ft 3 in) depending
on which measurement standards. Steller's sea eagle breeds on
the Kamchatka Peninsula, the coastal area around the Sea of Okhotsk, the
lower reaches of the Amur River and on northern Sakhalin and the Shantar
Islands, Russia. The majority of birds winter south of their breeding
range, in the southern Kuril Islands, Russia and Hokkaidō, Japan.
With only around 5,000 Steller’s sea eagles remaining in the world this
population of around 2,000 is globally important.
The white-tailed eagle is a very large species of sea
eagle widely distributed across temperate Eurasia, from as far west
as Greenland and Iceland across to as far east in Hokkaido, Japan. The
white-tailed eagle is sometimes considered the fourth largest eagle in the
world, measuring from 66 to 94 cm (26 to 37 in) in total length with a
typical wingspan of 1.78 to 2.45 m (5 ft 10 in to 8 ft 0 in). It is
often the largest eagle across its distribution in Europe, but not here
in Hokkaido where it co-exists with its larger cousin, Steller's sea eagle
The boat tour last for less than 2 hours.
The drift sea ice did not appear to come down south
enough so our boat did not really go very far and stayed quite close to
the harbor. However, it was perfect for us: I got plenty of
nice shots of eagle catching fish, and Woanyu did not worry about sea
sickness at all.
- Oshinkoshin Waterfall オシンコシンの滝, Shiretoko
We drove from Rausu to the west side of
Shiretoko Peninsula. Since the more direct route from west to east
(route 334) was not open in winter, we had to go through the southern
part of peninsula (route 244) to get around the mountains to Utoro on
the west side.
- Furepe Waterfall Trail フレペの滝, Shiretoko National
Furepe Waterfall drops down a steep cliff into the Sea of
Okhotsk on the spectacular western coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula. The
waterfall is fed by ground water, which surfaces just at the top of the
waterfall, meaning that there is no visible river leading to it.
The waterfall is all frozen
in winter and it looked like the time was frozen together with the
waterfall. Furepe Waterfall can be reached in a pleasant twenty
minute walk (1km one-way) from the Shiretoko Nature Center, which
provides information and exhibits about the national park, as well as a
restaurant and souvenir shop. The nature trail leads from the nature
center through the forest and then over an open area (grassland in
summer) to an observation deck on top of the cliff with views down onto
2/15 (Day 14) ...
Woanyu and I walked to the harbor in the
early morning to enjoy nice views of frozen sea and drift ice.
We drove up to a vista point where it provides a
panoramic view of ocean covered with ice all the way to the horizon.
It was a totally different type of winter scenery compared to inland
We arrived at Memanbetsu (女満別) Airport at about
noon, and flew back to Haneda, Tokyo in the early afternoon. Like
the first day in Tokyo, we decided to stay in the hotel room for the most
time and only went out to buy some bento boxes as our dinner to eat in the
2/16 (Day 15)...
- Jigokudani Monkey Park 地獄谷野猿公苑, Nagano 長野
We took trains in the early morning (Shinagawa 品川 --> Tokyo (Shinkansen)
--> Nagano 長野 --> Yudanaka 湯田), and taxi to the trailhead to the Monkey
Park. Since it was Sunday morning, it was amazing to see so few
people in Tokyo's subway station. It was so warm today (more than
5C) that there was no snow when we got to the Monkey Park.
It is famous for its large population of
wild Japanese macaques, more commonly referred to as snow monkeys, that go
to the valley during the winter, foraging elsewhere in the national park
during the warmer months. The monkeys descend from the steep cliffs and
forest to sit in the warm waters of the onsen (hot springs), and return to
the security of the forests in the evenings. The story says the habit of
bathing came after a young macaque chased an apple accidentally thrown into
the hot spring bath of Japanese inn Korakukan. He liked it so much that he
started getting into the onsen regularly and slowly but surely the other
monkeys followed. Since it opened in 1964, the Snow Monkey Park has
been a favorite destination for people to observe and photograph the wild
monkeys in their natural habitat from close distance.
We had a simple soba noodle lunch at the only
restaurant/inn inside the park. After lunch, we went back to the hot
spring and found more monkeys in the pool.
The Japanese macaque, also known as the snow monkey, is a terrestrial Old
World monkey species that is native to Japan. They are world's
northernmost non-human wild primate, and the only monkeys living under
cold weather extremes (e.g., -10C).
2/17 (Day 16) Going Home ...
We left Tokyo in the morning to Narita Airport. But instead of
going back to US as originally planned, we changed our flight to go back to
Taiwan to visit my brother after his emergency surgery and stayed in Taiwan
for additional 2 nights.
In the past, we were not used to cold
weather and had been avoiding cold places for our vacations. We have
totally changed our temperature tolerance in this winter season:
Starting from our Christmas in
Boston, New Year in Sweden,
early February in Russian Far East
Siberia, and this week in Hokkaido, I think we can claim that we can go
to anywhere cold in the future winter.
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