Masters dissertation week 3: Shiretoko Utoro & Rausu

Whenever anyone would mention bear attacks I would always shrug it off, and laugh in my head. “bear attack”, I though “there hasn’t been one in years!”. This opninion changes quickly, when faced with a 2 meter tall bear at 4.30 in the morning on your own. After that, the notion of an encounter with a bear scares you a plenty.

I got up at 2.30 to debate whether I should walk over to the falls (Furepe) or whether I would chicken out. I decided that I would give it a try and if I wasn’t happy at any point I could turn back. I started walking along the road and, as I expected, it was already getting light so I didn’t really need my headtorch. I realised after a while that I was walking too slow and that maybe I wouldn’t make it, so the rush of having to get there in time took over my fear of what might jump out at me. My destination was just behind the visitors centre, and the minute I got there another car pulled up. “Typical”, I thought,  that I had just rushed for an hour when I maybe could have gotten a lift. I was relieved, anyhow, that someone else was there so if something happened I wouldn’t be alone.
The next bit was walking through the forest, which was probably the most nerve-wracking, but I made it out alive and got to my spot just in time. I took some photos and then decided to start making my way back 20 minutes later. Back through the forest, I only encountered deer, and was feeling pretty good about myself. Suddenly, at the other end I saw a big black lump on the path and I though “shit, that’s a bear!”. My heart started racing and I rang my bicycle bell (usually a ‘bear bell’ is a bell that rings all the time, but I thought that was a bit silly, too loud and expensive so I just bought a bike bell from the 100 yen shop), and stepped back a bit. You’re supposed to walk away but to my back was the forest, and I wasn’t particularly keen on walking though there again. Deciding what to do I quickly changed my camera lenses and as I hadn’t seen the bear in a while I decided to slowly move forward. I couldn’t see it and though that maybe it had run off when ahead of me I saw it again, grazing on grass between some park benches. When it saw me it started walking towards me slowly and I move backwards slowly till I was just behind a house that was right next to me. I wanted to hide behind the house but that would mean I would have no idea which way I could come at me from. After a few seconds there was still nothing, and when I leant forward there was no shadow on the ground. I walked forward again and the bear had moved toward the car park. I slowly went forward to take another photo or two when I noticed the man with the bin bag running to his car. Running is what you SHOULDN’T do as it will provoke a bear. The bear got excited and moved faster towards the car, but was scared off when the man in the car revved his engine, which moved the bear back towards my bit of the area. “Thanks” was what came to mind. I didn’t want to shout as that may attract the bear’s attention so I just waved my arms frantically, hoping the man in the car would notice. Like an idiot he didn’t and drove off, leaving me there to make my own way out. “Thanks” came to mind again, with a couple of swear words here and there. The bear had gone back to finding his yummy grass, which allowed me the chance to walk around through the car park and out. On the whole walk back along the road to town, I was still looking in every which way to make sure the bear wasn’t following me, and I rang my bicycle bell a lot. Once back into town I played my music VERY loud to relieve some of the panic I had felt, and to try and calm myself down. That was a very surreal experience.

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my bear encounter

My other plans for the day were to try and get to the pass, which is the highest point on the road between the two coastal towns of Utoro and Rausu, and you’re supposed to get a clear view of Kunashiri, the Russian island, from there. There’s also another lake you can hike to, Lake Rausu. Got a nice view, but couldn’t get to the lake as the path was still covered in left-over snow. In mid-June.

I got back to town at midday and decided to take it easy for the rest of the day and had a very early nights sleep to let the rest of the stress go from that exciting morning.

On the 6th, I wanted to just kind of bumble about and take some photos around the stream at Iwaobetsu, see if I can find some small things. My motivation didn’t last too long, and I saw a bear from the bus (though this one was tagged) crossing the road. The bus driver, proudly remembering his English from class, turned around after he’d stopped the bus to wait, and said “that is a bear.”
I leant out to take a photo from the winding, but when I screamed out when I dropped my lens cap on the road, the bear was scared off into the woods and that made me realise just how scared these bears usually are. But that’s alright to say if you’re sitting safely in a bus that can out-drive these beasts. A bit of a disappointing final sunset, and I left for Rausu the next morning.

Rausu is very different from Utoro, in many ways. People say that Utoro is California and Rausu is London (how true the weather stereotype is!) Utoro gets all the sunshine, and Rausu gets all the fog. Those mountains running across the middle of the peninsula are mighty powerful! So the weather is much less predictable. But the town is also different. It lives off its fishing industry much more than Utoro does (which is purely a tourist settlement it seems), and so people actually live here. And therefore it’s bigger (it has several small food shops that aren’t convenience stores), and also a lot less pretty. Plus there’s not as much to do around Rausu in terms of animals unless you ride the expensive boat to see cetaceans or in the winter time you come and see the hoards of steller’s and white-tailed sea eagles.
But I had a reservation on the 13th at a minshuku (a Japanese-style inn) where I would get some night-time shots of a Blakiston’s fish owl. Lots of time to kill then.

I decided to stay at this camp site that’s just next to the visitors centre. It’s a little weird because there’s gravelled lots. Why would you want to camp on gravel? It only opens on the 15th though, so I was still camping on it ‘illegally’ even though the people at the tourist centre said it was ok (there’s no running water though). The campsite is about 45 minutes from town, and across from it is a GREAT, and very popular, onsen. Well more of a rotemburo – being very hot and outside. But it’s free, and the women’s bit is sectioned off from the road (the men’s bit is more exposed). Perfect campsite you say? Well, that’s debateable. Being the only one there, close to nature is a little worrying when there’s bears around. And I’m very sure there’s bears around. There are bears stories when the camp site is open, but I’m pretty sure on the second day a bear visited the camp site when I was out as my rubbish bag was torn up in various places. And the next morning at 4.30am, I heard something sniffing around my rubbish again. I didn’t want to attract it to me in the tent, so I didn’t want to open the zip to see what it was, but at same time I wondered what it was. Don’t know how ‘comforted’ I would be knowing if it actually was a bear or not. When I got out of my tent, the bag was ripped the same way it had been the day before, and I doubt that’s anything other than a bear – too high up for foxes (the rips were too wide) and deer aren’t interested in anything but grass.
First I felt annoyed. That it kept on ripping my bags. Then I felt like I should have somehow manoeuvred a camera out. And then, when the quiet dawned on me, I decided I didn’t want to camp there anymore.

Anyway, back to my first day in Rausu. I didn’t get too much done, wasn’t too impressed with the town and didn’t know how to spend the next 6 days! I spent some time at the internet ‘café’ (literally, a small café where there are 2 computers and wireless), and then in the evening went to soak my feet in the onsen. Sweet relaxation. I met another foreign girl, who was doing a ranger trainee internship up here for 2 weeks, and we had dinner together. She was nice enough to let me stay at her place for a night to not have to camp for once (this was before the whole bear thing). Nice to have some normal conversation and warm food, she also gave me some good insights about things to do, not just in Rausu but also in the rest of Western Hokkaido.

On Friday (the 8th?) I went to a waterfall and then also to the visitor centre, which is ace by the way – new building and so much information! – and then to a less ace ‘geyser’ – more like a silent squirt of water 10 times and then you have to wait another 50 minutes. Not the most productive day, but this is when I first saw signs of the bear, and then the next morning is when I heard it. Luckily it wasn’t interested in me, but I didn’t get much sleep after that.

Foggy morning, typical of Rausu at this time of year, made me decide to ride the whale boat in the afternoon and I spent the morning in the internet café trying to do some work. This also seems to be a popular spot with the locals, so all these old folk would come in and smoke away. But I told them about my bear encounter and one lady offered me her place to stay! I will definitely take her up on that!

I rode the boat (and was very realistic about my chances of not seeing anything) and didn’t see a. single. thing. At least I tried! Apparently it’s rarely that bad…
I met up with the girl again (Meghan, studying at Kyoto university) and we had some ‘deep sea vanilla’ flavoured ice-cream – not too much about it other than it being bright blue. We walked around, managed to make my reservation for my minshuku earlier so I could leave earlier, and had a nice party at her place (Jenga is hours of fun!), and I stayed there again that night, in the safety of a house. At the party were us two, two other students doing an internship on a boat (Japanese), a local fisherman and a ranger who Meghan works with.

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playing Jenga

Up on Sunday, and it was pouring it down with rain. Not much to do then that day! I hung around Meghan’s place for a while before deciding to pack  up and head to the rotemburo (a rotemburo is an onsen, or hot spring – basically a bath with natural sulphur water, but outside). Hitch-hiked to my minshuku and set up for a nice evening with lots of photo opportunities of a Blakiston’s fish owl! How glad I was to finally be able to take some photographs despite the bad weather! I had to use an ISO of 1600 though, and considering how bad my camera is with high ISO I wonder how they’ll turn out.

I felt good about finally getting SOMETHING, and had an amazing two meals at the minshuku full of lots of wonderful crab and fish and sashimi and nabe and more food than you can imagine! Breakfast was also yummy, though very Japanese with rice and more fish and some natto (I tried, I really did, but they just taste fermented!), and then packed up to meet the fisherman I’d met at the party two nights before. He had offered to show me the market place, and I thought that would be quite cool so I had agreed to it. He came to pick me up at 8.30 and mentioned riding a boat. Turns out he had asked a friend to take us on his boat (this fisherman, kazai-san, had never seen killer whales either so he thought it might be a nice opportunity!), for free! Wow! A second chance! I got a quick look at the fish market, and then we rushed to take the 9:00 boat. On that boat, I met a couple who had given me a lift the day before. What a small place Rausu is. And this isn’t the last time I will think this.

The boat ride was better than the first time, though it took a while to get there. The sea was quite choppy so we only were able to come back up on the top deck after the 1st hour. Still nothing, we were still trying to find some killer whales. I was getting excited about the crested auklets (though no one else was), and we also saw a massive group (a ‘lake’) of shearwaters who do this cool dispersal when you ride through them. We were dangerously close to the boundary between Russia and Japan when we saw the several fins stick out of the water, but too far into Russian territory. Zannen!! (Shame!) Either way, I couldn’t really complain about a free trip. Kazai-san took me and the skipper out for lunch (had some venison curry, a rarity!) and we were going to do another boat ride in the afternoon but the water got too rough. Instead, Kazai-san took me to see another fish auction (they do it really fast and lower the price until someone says yes) and we parted ways. I spent some time on the internet and called this lady I’d met at this internet café before who offered me her place for a nice to sleep. “It’s free accommodation!” I thought. I dragged my stuff over to this lady’s place (a tiny little apartment, the lady being 64 and widowed, and a major chain smoker), where we had some food and she kept on giving me things – a Louis Vuitton necklace, some Minnie mouse earrings, stationary… and a lot of food! I really wanted to say no, but I didn’t want to disappoint her because I was her first guest, to sleep over since her husband died 7 years ago. She also told me of her love for a Japanese pop band called Exile and that she was going to see them live at the end of the month with her daughters in Sapporo… classic.

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fish market in Rausu

The next morning, now Tuesday the 12th, I dragged my stuff over to a cheap ryokan for my final night in Rausu (I was looking forward to my freedom). I tried to see if I could ride the boat one final time, but apparently it was quite stormy at sea, despite the exceptionally beautiful skies on shore (though april-ish temperatures). I decided to head up the peninsula, hadn’t been that way yet, and took the bus as far as I could. It was only 100 yen!! Score.
The end of the road was another 10km away, and my destination, to find some ducks, was slightly beyond that so I started walking promptly. Not too long into my hike I heard my name being called out and, lo and behold, there was Kazai san! He called me over to join him and his fellow fisher folk on their break, with some tea and dried fish. It was really cool to see, but also very awkward, me being the only girl, from a country they cannot even begin to imagine where it is,  on top of which they all speak very local Japanese.

I said goodbye to Kazai san, again, and started walking again. After an hour I found a fox family with both mummy and daddy, as well as two cubs, so I decided to hang out there and photograph them. Daddy fox was quite intimidating, but once he left, I was fine. Was very pleased with that find.

I walked back to the bus stop and rode it into town. Quickly, I bumped into kazai-san AGAIN, who had finished work for the day. Seriously, how small is this town!?! Post office (I keep on seeing people I know, who are surprised I’m still here, and I really don’t know that many people), internet, onsen. Great way to finish in Rausu, really.  My final stop was to find some sea lion meat for dinner, but at the restaurant I was put off by the high prices. However, when debating whether to go in, I saw the ranger that Meghan worked with, who I met on Sunday!! Apparently she saw me before but I was listening to music so I didn’t hear her (typical). We had a chat and she called around and got me a free boat ride to hopefully see some more whales in the morning. Seems like I’ll delay my trip to my next destination – Teshikaga – till the afternoon. My plan for accommodation in teshikaga is couchsurfing with someone called Tim. Tim had emailed me earlier to tell me his girlfriend is taking up a temp teaching position in Rausu. And in the convenience store, getting my dinner, I see a familiar foreign face and it’s Tim, dropping off his girlfriend!!!
(This day just keeps getting weirder and weirder……..)

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Foxes in Rausu

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