Monday, July 02, 2007

Shiretoko: Bus Tours and Brown Bears

By the time the overnight bus from Sapporo arrived in Utoro, Maureen and I comprised half the passengers. Most of the riders on the less-than-half-filled bus had gotten off in Shari, an hour earlier. Utoro is a fishing and tourism village on the west coast of the Shiretoko peninsula, in far northeastern Hokkaido. Shiretoko comes from the indigenous Ainu word for “the end of the earth,” and that’s an apt description where Japan is concerned.

The peninsula juts 80km into the ocean and is a mere 25km wide at its base, getting narrower the farther out you go. The coastline is rugged and rocky, with countless snowmelt-fed waterfalls cascading down the steep cliff faces and snow-capped peaks rising over 1600m (more than a mile) along the peninsula’s towering spine. There are no roads to the tip of the peninsula, and pavement ends about halfway out. Winters are brutal here, and the one pass linking the eastern and western sides of the peninsula is only opened from mid-June to mid-October.

Peak tourist season in Shiretoko, which is a national park and world heritage site, doesn’t begin until mid-July, and then lasts but a scant two months. Some of the park’s best natural features are only accessible during peak season, a fact that our guidebook failed to mention. Or rather, I should say, a fact that didn’t exist when our four-year-old guidebook was published. That was the year the park achieved world heritage status, and many regulations were summarily tightened.

After pitching our tent in the Utoro campground, Maureen and I caught the first bus of the day out the peninsula to the famous Shiretoko Five Lakes. From there we had planned to visit Kamawakka-no-taki, a hot waterfall and natural hot spring, whose warm waters offer a sweet reward for the half hour hike up from the road.

However, upon arrival at the Five Lakes, we were greeted by signs and barricades at the trailhead: “Bear Alert: All Area Closed.” Shiretoko is home to about 600 Hokkaido brown bear, a less-vicious relative of the grizzlies found in North America. We didn't see any bears at the Five Lakes, though. Nor did we get to see the Five Lakes, either. We only got to see one of them, and it from a distance, on the observation deck at the end of a short boardwalk by the visitor’s center.

With the trails closed, that boardwalk and the visitor’s center comprised the entirety of the Things To Do at the Five Lakes. Nor could we carry on to the hot waterfall, as the access road was closed for another 3-1/2 weeks. And yet, despite all this, the tour buses still paraded through the parking lot, discharging their passengers in droves. One group after another filed out the boardwalk for a group photo at the observation deck, then stopped for ice cream at the visitor’s center, took yet another photo beside the Bear Alert signs, and then promptly filed back onto their buses and drove away.

I was quickly becoming disgusted by it all. As another wave of buses rolled into the parking lot, I turned to Mo and barked, “Why do they keep coming? Don’t they know there’s nothing to see here?!?!”

She was disappointed, too, but she helped me calm down and remember how bus tours operate in Japan. Bus tours in Japan are typically sold months in advance as part of all-inclusive vacation packages from Sapporo, Tokyo, and all over the country. They’re painfully short, painfully expensive, and every moment of the trip is planned down to the minutest detail. Many Shiretoko tour packages from Tokyo last only two or three days, including the flights and bus rides. But then, so many Japanese only take a few days’ vacation every year – or few years. With their time so short and their disposal income relatively high, it makes sense to pack in as much as possible on a well-planned tour. It just doesn’t leave a lot of room for flexibility if the trail around the Five Lakes is closed to bear activity.

Maureen and I didn’t see any bears, or even any hints of bears, at the Five Lakes. We later learned that the closure was due to a single bear sighting three days earlier, and that any bear sighting around the Five Lakes results in an automatic four day closure of the hiking trails. The staff at Shiretoko N.P. aren’t taking any chances. Even though we didn’t see any bears, we did see plenty of bear merchandise.

It was easy to feel bitter toward the whole situation after the long, expensive train and bus ride from Muroran. Especially when I had recently read that it’s been a full nine years since anyone has been killed by a bear anywhere in Japan. But as my irritation subsided and I began to think more objectively, I realized that could very well be the direct result of such cautious policies as the one at Shiretoko.

We caught the very next bus going south, back toward Utoro, but disembarked at the nature center to see what we could find. The trail to Furepe Waterfall was open, and the weather cleared just in time to give us a stunning view of the falls with the mountains towering in the background. We lingered for half an hour at the observation deck, enjoying the sun, the sound of the surf, and sea gulls gliding in the narrow bay below us. In that time, we shared our spot with exactly five other hikers. The falls were only a 20-minute walk from the nature center, but that seemed far enough to keep the tour bus patrons away.

From there we continued by bus to another waterfall, Oshinkoshin, south of Utoro. This one was right beside the road and packed by a steady stream of bus tours. We found an old road leading to a view at the top of the falls where we escaped the crowds, but in doing so missed the next bus back to Utoro. I suppose I should also add how that was also due to my misreading the timetable. It was over an hour until the next bus, and I was resigned to walking. Maureen, however, took matters into her own hands and within a few minutes managed to flag down a friendly local man who gave us a ride straight back to our campground.

The entrance to the campground was closed, and we had to wait with several other campers for about half an hour while park staff tracked down a baby bear that had somehow gotten into the campground, despite the high, electric fencing surrounding the property.

The next morning, we boarded the [i]Fox 2[/i] site-seeing boat for a ride out to Cape Shiretoko, the windswept tip of the peninsula. Our guidebook advised against the expensive boat tours, arguing that the money could be better spent on bike rentals, local bus fare, or kayaking, but with so much of the park currently inaccessible, we reasoned it was one of the best ways to still see a lot of the park. We were not disappointed.

The captain spoke English and the mate carried a pair of high-powered binoculars. Thanks to her sharp eyes, we spotted three different bears foraging along the coast, as well as an eagle. The small boat was able to stay close to the shore, giving us better views of the wildlife and the breathtaking waterfalls. We shared the waters with a few other site-seeing boats and several fishing boats, the latter operating out of tiny, seaside hamlets wedged into peninsula’s steep cliffs. The fishing villages have no roads leading in or out of them, and are accessible only by boat.

As we bobbed in the rolling waters out from the cape, I looked back down the long, wild peninsula, and thought of those bears searching for food along the coast. We are visitors in their home. Sometimes being good guests means not building roads everywhere, and closing others for much of the year. Even if that makes the bears habitat that much harder to see, there’s a part of me that’s happier knowing they’re still out there, running free and largely undisturbed. I think that’s worth the annoyance of missing out on a hike or two.


R.B. Campbell said...

I was all excited about camping here someday until I read this post. It's too bad you were unable to do more hiking, but I totally agree with you about keeping the habitat intact.

Here in the states it seems every available inch of undeveloped land is paved over to make room for yet another strip-mall or cluster of identical townhomes. Then we complain when a coyote eats little Fido or a we see a bear wandering through our backyard.

Anyways, great post.

David F said...

I always ignore those signs. There are always bears in the area. Just because someone has seen one doesn't suddenly make the area more dangerous.