Masters dissertation week 2: from Saroma to Abashiri and Shiretoko UNESCO nat park

I got up early for sunrise, which was beautiful indeed. After taking some photographs I went to look for the fox cubs again, but not to my surprise I didn’t see them – foxes are more active in the afternoon after all. I slowly packed things up and decided to walk along the road with all my gear just in case I venture upon the fox cubs anyway. I did not. And I carried all of my gear for over an hour… quite painful if you would believe.

Outside hamasoroma I had to wait a little but I finally found someone who was heading to Abashiri (only about 40km away) and they dropped me off by the michi no eki (tourist information office). I got some information and they told me about a free campsite – yay! It’s located just along the lake, past the hill that goes up towards the museums. Closest bus stop is tentozan iriguchi, but take close loosely as I still had to walk another good 15 minutes with all my gear. My shoulders were aching.

I got everything set up and headed up the hill towards the museums. Let’s get one thing straight about Abashiri:

(a) it’s a relatively big city (there was even a mister donut from which I managed to get free wifi from somewhere)

(b) its public transportation system is pretty appalling especially to the museums which are all located on top of a hill (why, why, seriously, why would you do that!?!)

I walked with all my camera gear for another good hour (the woman at the michi no eki said 20 mins. Ha! This is where a car would be REALLY useful) to get to the drift ice museum where  they had some tanks with clione – the only reason for me to go there. Though it’s quite cool because you can touch some of this year’s drift ice and also on a good day see all the way across the shiretoko hanto (peninsula). I was really tired by this point quickly found someone who could drive me back down to the city where I relaxed at the mister donut for a while before taking a bus to nofutsu-ko. Abashiri is known for is lakes dotted about, and nofutsu-ko is famous for its whooper swans. In fact, it’s a RAMSAR site, which I only realised upon reaching it. And it’s a wetland. Therefore there’s no guarantee where they will be at any point in time.
Fatigue and demotivation really struck and I felt like I was going a rather bad job on this project.

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clione, or sea angels (not my photo)

Back to my tent for a nights sleep (be warned, the campsite is close to a major road).

Next morning another early one, to give myself plenty of time to get to Utoro, my next destination. This town is basically the entry to the Shiretoko UNESCO site, and they had a campsite there that seemed quite good. I had a bit of trouble at first getting a lift, but by breaking it up in to 3 chunks I managed to get to Utoro by 10.30! Not too shabby.

The place is much more decked out than I though it would be – it has some really great information centres with excellent leaflets in English. Even seabird identification guides with English names!  Writing this bit of text for my project won’t be a problem at all.

The weather was still very fogged over, which was ok as I thought I’d take it easy that day. And easy I did take it! I stalked an urban fox for a tiny bit, and then I took a bath at a local onsen (yuhidai)– GREAT place where you can soak your muscles away for 500 yen, and then had a blast using the free internet at the local prince hotel. I also met this lovely lady who invited me to join her in her shop and kept bringing me food… I’m not going to have a problem staying here for 7 days. Though it did get cold that night in my tent. The campsite, called the shiretoko camp site, is very eco friendly with their toilets and the deer grazing the site.

Be warned though, that I was in luck when I came. I arrived on the 1st of June, and only from the 1st of June onwards were a lot of things open – such as the campsite. There are still fewer bus services than there will be by the end of June.

The next morning it was still foggy but I had prepared a plan for such a day: I decided to hit Oronkoiwa, a big rock right by the port, that has a lot of flowers. Even the violet flower I was really hoping to find. Score! (plus the clouds acted like a giant softbox). I took the long (but relatively flat) hike out to the Oshinkoshin waterfalls, and tried to do something with photography out there too, but slowly the blue skies were taking over. Gradually, by about 3 in the afternoon, it was nothing but blue skies and we got a magnificent sunset! What a change from yesterday. For the next few days the blue skies continued and the weather stayed at a max of over 20 degrees.

I was going to see the salmon but they weren’t around – many attractions in Shiretoko are seasonal, and I was lucky enough to get here when it all opens. There is still limited transport etc until at least another few weeks. So I ventured back into Utoro and was able to enjoy a beautiful sunset from right by my campsite – I didn’t realise that this was such a famous spot among tourists but the amount of couples that come here is a little sickening.

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shiretoko from the 5 lakes (not my photo)

I took advantage and headed over to the Shiretoko goko, or 5 lakes the next day. These are 5 volcanic lakes that are very famous for their mirroring of the mountains just beyond. I came here for the lakes, of course, but I actually also came here to see if I could find some animals – any animals. I didn’t, except for the odd woodpecker. We heard a black woodpecker, which would’ve been ace, but didn’t see it other than a shape in the sky. One of the couples in my group (at this time of year, because of the bears coming out with cubs, you can only see all the lakes on a rather expensive 3 hour tour) were interested in visiting this waterfall called kamuiwakka so I jumped at the chance for a lift; no but yet until at least the 15 of june. They were in quite a hurry but we did see a fox very close and a snake. The waterfall, which you can walk up to get into the onsen, isn’t very impressive to look at, and because the couple were in a hurry we were only there for about 15 minutes. On the way back to Utoro I hopped off at the nature centre (very informative and the gateway to another waterfall called furepe) and hung around there for a bit. I got this crazy idea for a sunrise shot, and decided to try it in a few day’s time but I was warned of a high chance of encountering a bear.

I stayed low this time for sunset, but still found it difficult at the gorgeous sun sets right in front of the port (or at least it did this time around). The next day I kicked up my feet as I took a(nother) rather expensive tour – a 3 hour boat cruise around the cape. It was my main chance to see bears, so I was really hoping I’d get lucky.

Freezing on the boat, I had a great seat and found the trip very interesting. I really would’ve wanted to slow down more near the seabird colonies but I guess that’s not most people’s interest. We did spot 3 different groups of mother and cubs – 2 feeding quite far away and one by the rocks. All of this was seen on the same route as the 2 hour bear-watching one, so I felt a  little guilty about spending the extra money but we got some great views further down the cape as well as seeing kunashiri island – the disputed territory between Russia and Japan. Also on the way back we spotted pacific white-sided dolphins twice, and by taking a smaller boat (I went with fox tours) we were able to get ‘reasonably’ close. How exciting. I decided to keep it quite low profile for the rest of the day and went to visit my obaachan again at the shop, who again gave me lots of food. Another great sunset and an early bed for this little birdie, as I mustered the courage to get up early and shoot a sunrise shot and try to not get eaten by bears.

I did meet a bear… more on that next time.

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