The Shiretoko Peninsula juts 70 km (44 mi) into the Sea of Okhotsk from the northeastern tip of Hokkaido. Roughly half of it is a complete wilderness, accessible only on foot or by boat. Its spine of volcanic mountains and forest belongs to the largest known population of brown bears in Japan and to large numbers of wild deer. Its extensive wetlands are a sanctuary for massive colonies of cormorants and white-tailed sea eagles and countless migratory birds.
Its coastal waters host the southernmost ice floes in the northern hemisphere. This unusually southern sea ice has a major impact on the productivity of the local marine ecosystem, and it is the interaction of this environment with the land ecosystem that makes Shiretoko so fascinating.
Mount Rausu on the east coast is the best known of Shiretoko’s volcanoes, whose chain continues underwater and out to sea, to resurface as Russia’s Kuril Islands. Rausu town attracts visitors to its hot springs, and to Makkausu cave, which waves action has coated with a unique, Luminescent moss that glows eerily after nightfall.
Rausu is famous for its harvest of edible kelp (a stable of soup stocks), but it’s also the start of the ‘Shiretoko traverse’, the main hiking route to Utoro on the west coast.
10 km (6 mi) north of Utoro brings you to the five lakes of the Shiretoko Go-ko – quiet ponds surrounded by wild forest, each a perfect mirror for the rugged mountains. Just beyond are the Kamuiwakka-no-Taki waterfalls, 32 m (105 ft) high and 2 m (6 ft 8 in) across.
Hot spring water mixes with the river as it spills over a precipice into the sea, but the falls descend in a series of hot plunge pools where (with a swimsuit) you can bathe. It’s breathtaking, beautiful, and dramatic.
You can also travel from Rausu to Utoro by Boat. Round the cape, the cliffs rise to a sheer 200 m (656 ft), unbroken for 10 km (6 mi) stretch. The black and white striations show where molten lava settled time and again on the sedimentary rock before a large landmass was lifted out of the sea. It’s a wild land and seascape, with screaming birds and an angry ocean: these are virtues of isolation.