An Introduction to the Area
Travelers who hear the name “Shiretoko” immediately conjure up images of a land of pristine nature and scenic beauty, along with ice and snow in winter. Many people think that Shiretoko is the unsurpassed wilderness area of Japan. In particular, for travelers coming from countries with climates and scenery that are different from those of Japan, and where it doesn’t snow, it would be worth the time to go see for yourself the scenic beauty and nature in the northern part of Japan any time of the year. And Shiretoko makes the perfect choice because it is an area of unspoiled and spectacular natural beauty, earning the distinguished designation from UNESCO as a Natural World Heritage Site.
Orca swimming off the coast of Rausu
The word “Shiretoko” is derived from the Ainu-language term “sir-etok”, which means "end of the land". When the Japanese came to Hokkaido in the Meiji Period (late 19th century), they Japanized the words “sir-etok” into “shi-re-to-ko”. Indeed, the peninsula is without a doubt considered to be the "end of the land" in Hokkaido for sure, and possibly throughout the entire Japanese archipelago as well. In line with its name, i.e., “the end of the land”, the Shiretoko Peninsula has extremely rough terrain and is basically isolated from civilization. In fact, most of the peninsula can be accessed only on foot or by boat. This article focuses on how to go to the Shiretoko area, the three gateway towns (Shari, Utoro, and Rausu) where you can stay, and some of the local food, attractions, and activities that await visitors.
Going: How to Go and Travel Around
Geographically speaking, the Shiretoko Peninsula is on the eastern edge of Hokkaido, the northern most island among Japan’s four main islands. The peninsula itself extends into the Pacific ocean for 70 kilometers.
There are various modes of transportation and routes when it comes to traveling to the Shiretoko area. For example, the nearest airport north of Shiretoko is Memambetsu that is served by direct flights from Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Sapporo. The Memambetsu airport is roughly 100 kilometers away from Shiretoko, so it takes a little over two hours to reach the town of Utoro (one of the gateway towns) by car or airport bus. Most travelers to Hokkaido arrive into New Chitose Airport (Sapporo), from where there are 50-minute flights to Memambetsu. In addition, major cities in Japan have flights to other cities and towns in Hokkaido, such as Asahikawa, Kushiro, Obihiro, and even Nemuro-Nakashibetsu airport.
If you plan to travel from Sapporo by car, train, or bus to Shari, the closest town to the peninsula and the only town you can reach by train in the peninsula, it will take you from six to seven hours. Overnight buses to Shari leave Sapporo each evening around 11pm, arriving 7am. The return buses leave mid-morning and arrive in Sapporo late in the afternoon. When traveling overland on the return bus to Sapporo in the day light, be sure to enjoy the scenery along the route to the peninsula. One route passes by Lake Akan and Lake Mashu, which are themselves must-see spots to visit in Hokkaido.
Buses go to Utoro from Shari, Rausu, and from Memambetsu Airport. The ride from Shari takes about 50 minutes, and the ride from Memambetsu Airport takes a little over 2 hours and costs around \3,300. Traveling there is seasonal only (mid-June to mid-October) and (late January to mid-March). During the warm months only, buses run between Utoro and Rausu.
Rausu is served by the Nemuro-Nakashibetsu Airport. Travel time from the airport to Rausu is about one hour by car/taxi and 1.5 hours by bus and costs around \2,400. In addition, buses operate from Kushiro, which is further south from the Nemuro-Nakashibetsu Airport, and which has its own airport.
From Shari and Utoro on the north side of the Shiretoko Peninsula, buses can go to Rausu during the warmer summer season when the Shiretoko Pass is free of snow. Part of National Highway 334 includes the Shiretoko Pass Road that cuts across the peninsula from north to south. However, due to the road’s extreme location at 738 meters in this far-north region, this road closes to traffic from mid-November to usually around the end of April or even until early May, depending on the year. Therefore, during the winter months, Rausu can be reached only by Highway 335 coming from the south, which connects the town to Nemuro and Kushiro.
The city of Kushiro (south of the peninsula) is 2.5 hours away by train to JR Shiretoko Shari Station, in Shari Town. Shari is about 40 kilometers away from the park entrance. From Shari, buses are the only mode of public transportation to the peninsula. Some visitors who begin their visit to the Shiretoko Peninsula use either Shari or the towns of Utoro or Rausu as their base. In addition to public bus service in some parts of the peninsula, there are organized bus tours available too for traveling around the park.
Staying: Three Towns Where You Can Stay in and Explore
The Town of Shari:
Shari is almost always included in information about the Shiretoko Peninsula because it has the closest train station to the Shiretoko Peninsula and national park. So, the town serves as a good base for visiting Shiretoko and as stopover point for visitors traveling by train. In front of the train station is a tourist-information center. Shari covers more than 700 square kilometers and its population is almost 12,000. The town faces the Sea of Okhotsk and is basically known for its fish catches. In fact, the town’s people claim every year that Shari hauls in the largest catch of salmon in Japan. Other industries are farming and tourism.
Even though Shari is the most populated town in the area, and boasts the closest train station to the peninsula, lodging facilities in Shari are quite basic, ranging from a few large hotels, as well as tourist hotels, guesthouses, and Japanese-style minshuku (family-run B&Bs). Shari boasts more options for eating, compared to Utoro and Rausu that are right on the peninsula. There are several sushi restaurants, local mom-and-pop Japanese restaurants, izakaya pubs, ramen shops, shops selling yakitori (BBQ chicken pieces on skewers), and restaurants serving western-style meals. Nevertheless, most eating establishments serve Japanese food, and most of the food is heavily centered around the local seafood caught fresh from the sea.
Shari: Road to Heaven and Mount Unabetsu in the distance
The Town of Utoro:
Utoro, the northern gateway to the Shiretoko Peninsula, has a population of roughly 1,000 people. The town is located on the north side of the peninsular arm, basically at the entrance to the national park. In terms of its location relative to the other nearby towns, it is 40 kilometers from Shari and 30 kilometers from Rausu. Visitors can travel between Shari and Rausu by traveling across the Shiretoko Pass that traverses the peninsula, when the road is clear of snow.
For places to stay in Utoro, there are small hotels, “minshuku” (family-run B&Bs), and large ryokan-style Japanese inns (some with outdoor rotenburo baths), mostly near the Utoro Hot Springs area.
Oshinkoshin Falls is a five minute drive from Utoro
Utoro Hot Springs:
The Utoro Hot Springs (also referred to as the Shiretoko Hot Springs) were drilled in 1971 and now serve as one of the biggest draws to the town of Utoru in terms of its being chosen by visitors as a place to stay overnight. The hot-spring water contains sodium and iron, so the water is brown. Some of the 20 or so hot-spring hotels are very popular because bathers can enjoy views of the Sea of Okhotsk at sunset from the outdoor, hot-spring bath.
Town of Rausu:
Rausu, the southern gateway to the Shiretoko Peninsula, is located in the Nemuro area of Hokkaido. Rausu is about 70 kilometers northwest from Nemuro Nakashibetsu airport, the nearest one; and 120 kilometers from the city of Kushiro further south. It is 30 kilometers from Rausu to Utoro, a town on the western side of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Utoro can be reached by car or bus by crossing the Shiretoko Pass when it is open from late spring to early winter. The town of Rausu is almost 400 square kilometers in size and has a population of around 5,400. In the Ainu language, “raushi”, which was modified to “rausu”, means “low-land”. The downtown of Rausu is located on Rausu Harbor where the Rausu River flows into the ocean. Rausu’s economy is supported by three industries: fishing, general retail, and tourism generated by visitors to Shiretoko National Park. One popular sea-based food item is kelp, and the kelp harvested from the sea offshore from Rausu is famous and highly sought after by gourmet restaurants throughout the country.
Most of the lodging facilities in Rausu are minimal and basic, such as minshuku (Japanese-style, family-operated guesthouses) and western-style guest houses, although there are a few mid-size and larger hotels. And meals served at local eating and lodging establishments are for the most part heavily centered on the exceptionally fresh fish and seafood caught locally.
Cruises leaving from Rausu takes you close to wildlife
Look for hotels in Shiretoko here:
Hotels in Shiretoko
Eating: Suggested Local Food to Try
Here are a few suggestions of local food you can try in the Shiretoko area.
Chan Chan Yaki: Salmon is the main ingredient in chan chan yaki, which is salmon, cabbage, onion, and green onions grilled on a hot plate and flavored with miso paste.
Chan chan yaki
Salmon roe: Salmon roe is called ikura in Japanese, which was taken from the Russian word “ikra”. While it can be eaten in many places in Japan, the ikura from salmon caught in Shiretoko is especially tasty, according to experts. A popular dish is “ikura don”, a bowl of rice topped with salmon roe marinated in soy sauce. In big cities especially, ikura don is considered to be a super-expensive, gourmet dish.
Another seafood rice bowl enjoyed by locals and visitors is "Hokkaido oyako don" or “salmon oyako don”. (“Oyako” means “parents and children” in Japanese, referring to the “oya” or grown-up salmon sashimi; and the “ko” or salmon-egg children.) Half of the rice is topped with salmon roe and the other half is topped with salmon sashimi. These rice bowls in Shiretoko are commonly eaten by locals, who consider them to be relatively inexpensive meals, considering the ingredients came right from the neighboring sea.
Kaisen-don: This is a bowl of rice topped with various types of fish sashimi such as salmon of course, and yellowtail (buri), along with crab, salmon roe, scallops, sea urchin, and other good-tasting items. All are fresh from the sea, of course. And Rausu and Utoro especially are known for their famous, high-quality “uni” (sea urchin).
Fresh local seafood in a bowl
Visiting Shiretoko Five Lakes
Going by car:
The road to the Shiretoko Five Lakes is closed in winter from late November to late April.
From Utoro, take the main road into the national park for about five kilometers until you reach the Shiretoko Nature Center. Turn left at the center and drive for about ten kilometers until you reach the parking lot of the Shiretoko Five Lakes visitor center at the end of the paved road. (Parking costs \500 yen)
Scenic drive across the Shiretoko Pass
Going By bus:
The Shari Bus Company operates a limited number of buses per day between JR Shari Station and the five lakes. The ride takes 85 minutes and costs \,2000 yen one way. It operates from late April to October. There are buses that operate between Utoro also and the five lakes, which take 25 minutes and cost \700 yen.
Free Entrance to boardwalk (elevated wooden path):
The elevated, boardwalk trail (1.6 kilometers) is free to enter without cost. It is wheelchair accessible and open all days when the park is open. (Wheelchairs can be rented if needed.)
There are two ground pathways, one is 1.6 kilometers and the long one is 3.0 kilometers. The entrance to the pathways costs \250 for adults (children 0-11 years=\100). Visitors choosing to go on the ground pathways on their own, must first listen to a 10-minute lecture before they can go. The ground pathways cannot be visited on your own during bear season, when you must take a guided tour.
Season: May 1 - October 31
(Note: Guided tours are offered every day regardless of bear season or not.)
Fee: The fee depends on the tour company guiding, length of trail, age of participants, etc. (For example, the fee for the long trail: adults (12 and older) costs around \4,500 - 5,250, cost for children (4 to 11 years) \2,250 - 3,500, and infants (0 years to 3 years) \250 - 3,000 (negotiable)
More detailed information about visiting is below.
The Shiretoko Five Lakes (Shiretoko Goko) were created long ago as the result of the eruption of Mount Io and are fed from underground springs. These popular lakes are an extremely popular attraction and are definitely one of the highlights of anyone's visit to Shiretoko, offering visitors of all ages the opportunity to get in touch with Shiretoko's pristine nature.
There are two ways to tour and view the lakes. One way is by an elevated, wooden boardwalk that starts from the parking lot. It takes about 40 minutes to complete the 1.6-kilometer round-trip walk. The boardwalk’s height from the ground varies from between 2 to 5 meters and is equipped with an electric fence with 7,000 volts of current to ward off any brown bears who also might be thinking of taking a walk on the boardwalk. So, hikers on the boardwalk are protected from unwanted encounters with wild animals, especially brown bears. Two observation platforms have been placed along the boardwalk, from where you can enjoy wonderful views of the second lake, the other lakes, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Shiretoko Mountains. There is no charge to walk on the boardwalk, which is wheelchair accessible and open for the entire season when the park is open, usually from late April to late November.
View from Ichiko (lake one)
The other way to view the lake is by walking on the ground-level nature trails, of which there are two. One is 1.6 kilometers and goes to the first lake. The round-trip walk takes about 40 minutes. The other trail is three kilometers long and passes by all five lakes and takes about 90 minutes to complete. These trails are always subject to closure if bears are sighted. The conditions for walking on the trails vary according to the season, i.e., bear season (May 10-July 31) or not bear season. For example, when it is not bear season, visitors are free to walk on the trails on their own, and do not need to be accompanied by guides because bear sightings are far fewer. However, before starting to walk on the trail, visitors must listen to a short lecture and pay an admission fee of 250 yen per person (100 yen for children 0-11 years old).
However, during bear season from May 10-July 31st, which is a big chunk of the visitor season, when bears are more active and often present, visitors must join a guided-tour led by a licensed nature guide. (Note that the informative guided tours are operated throughout the visitor season, regardless of bear season or not.) Tours take about three hours and depart every ten minutes and cost \5,300 yen per person. Only 10 people are allowed per tour, and while advanced reservations are not required, they are recommended and can be made in advance by using the park's English website.
Look for activites in Shiretoko here:
Activites in Shiretoko
Winter Season Tour of Shiretoko
Shiretoko in the bitter-cold winter is another-world experience, with opportunities for you to see for yourself the wildlife that can survive in the freezing-cold temperatures and snow. These days, in the interest of adding to the Shiretoko experience, organized tours are now being conducted also in winter to enable visitors to walk on the frozen lakes and see the drift ice in the Okhotsk Sea. Reservations are required.
Shiretoko Steller's sea eagle
Fee: \6,000 per person
Open Jan 23 through March 22
Duration: 4-5 hours
Maximum persons: 9
Boots, hats, and gloves are included.
Ski ware can be rented for a fee.
Note: Persons who weigh over 100 kilograms are unable to join the winter tour.
Observing: Rules, Manners, and Common Sense When Touring Shiretoko
Shiretoko is a very special place, in some ways like no other. This is because of the fact that to this day it remains mostly a pristine area untouched by human hands. Most visitors already know and obey the “Never Do” behaviors listed below. In addition, nature lovers know the importance to check the weather forecast before and during their visits. However, as a reminder, please read all of these basic rules and remember them to assure that you have a memorable and trouble-free visit to Shiretoko. There are obvious reasons why these rules are plain, common sense, and don’t need much explanation. The need to follow these rules in Shiretoko especially is important under the spirit of eco-touring. At all times, your cooperation and understanding is appreciated so that you can keep yourself safe as well as protect the pristine nature and free-roaming wildlife.
Never go close to the wildlife.
While most visitors look forward to seeing wildlife, approaching too close to the wild animals can be very dangerous. It goes without saying that bears, of course, can be extremely dangerous, but even deer and other animals also can be very aggressive toward visitors, such as mothers with new-born offspring and males during the mating season.
Never feed the wildlife.
This includes never feeding the animals directly as well as never throwing food to or leaving food for the animals and birds.
Never speed and go too fast when driving your car.
Animals, especially larger ones, aimlessly cross roads and can run in front of your car, injuring themselves and possibly you, and damaging your car.
Never leave your car and go outside to see animals on or near the road.
If you spot animals from your car, remain inside your car at all times. In addition, be sure to use utmost caution about car windows too, especially if they are open.
Never touch, cut, and break bushes, trees, flowers, etc.
All plant life needs to remain pristine and natural, and stay in the same condition it was before your visit.
Never throw trash away, except in designated trash bins.
NAVITIME TRAVEL EDITOR