Hokkaido Day 4: Shiretoko Peninsula
Alex’s coworker highly recommended Shiretoko Peninsula, located in northeast Hokkaido. He spent a few weeks riding a motorcycle around Hokkaido and his favorite road was Rt. 334, which starts along the coast and cuts across the peninsula. This peninsula is also “bear country,” so Alex and I knew for sure we had to add it to our itinerary!
The drive from Sounkyo onsen was beautiful. As we left the mountains, we drove through what looked like infinite plains of farmland. (We stopped a couple times to pick up drinks and use the bathroom at 7-Eleven/Lawson/Seico Mart. The bathrooms were all incredibly clean! The toilet paper was even folded into a triangle, like they are in hotels!! Even the bathroom in a gas station was impeccable. How do they manage it?!)
It took us a while to find our hotel in Utoro, the little town we chose as our home base. Alex inquired about the boat tours as he was checking in. “Bear tour?” the receptionist asked. YES! “It’s a sunny day- a good day to see bears. Bears have been seen almost every day.” I didn’t want to get our hopes up, but that definitely sounded promising! We purchased tickets for the 3:30 PM tour, and headed off to lunch. Downtown Utoro is pretty small, but there are a handful of restaurants. We took turns eating our seafood lunch, so that Baby M could crawl around, supervised, on the tatami mats.
At 3 PM, we met the rest of our group at the ticketing office for the boat tour, and together we walked down to the docks. We were told that the right side of the boat was the optimal spot for bear viewing. We slowed along the coast a few times. Was it a bear? No, an eagle. A waterfall. By this time, we were already 45 minutes into our 2 hour tour. And then, we spotted a bear. He (she?) was walking along the water, looking for clams. I REALLY wished we had brought a pair of binoculars (or our DSLR with the zoom lens — but Alex refused to lug it around), because while I could see the bear, we were still quite a ways from the shore. A little further down the coast, we spotted a mother bear and two cubs, rummaging around what looked like an abandoned boathouse. One of the cubs got in the water and shook himself (herself?) dry — very cute! On the way back, we stopped again at the waterfalls and could see a couple rainbows. 🙂
In the hopes of getting Baby M to take a (very belated) nap, we decided to drive Rt. 334 from Utoro (on the west coast of the peninsula) to Rausu (on the east coast) — this segment is called the Shiretoko Pass. We could see why Alex’s coworker loved this drive so much (especially on a motorcycle!) — so many hairpin turns. We went up and up in elevation (and could see the sea) between the mountains (Mt. Rausu is the tallest mountain on the peninsula) and then we went down to Rausu (seemed like a sleepy little town). Baby M did not want to take a nap, so we immediately retraced our steps and drove back to the hotel.
I put Baby M to bed while Alex and Mom ate pizza at the restaurant upstairs, before Mom relieved me and I was able to eat dinner. The hotel gave one free welcome token per person (to be used on a drink — wine included — or ice cream)… Alex and I cashed in three tokens for two glasses of red wine (decent) and one ice cream! We then sat outside on the deck overlooking the ocean, and had a few sips from our pocket bottle of Nikka whisky. (Hmm… it sounds like Alex and I like to drink a lot but we really don’t!!) We overheard other guests talking about driving to Rausu for the whale watching tour, because they weren’t interested in bears. Umm… seriously?! Shiretoko has one of the densest brown bear populations in the world!
The next morning, we had a traditional Japanese breakfast (think smoked fish and tamagoyaki, a Japanese rolled omelette), along with rolls (with Hokkaido butter!! So good!) and coffee before hitting the road.
Summary of our Hokkaido self drive: Whirlwind Tour around Hokkaido
Information on Shiretoko (watch the bear video!!): http://www.shiretoko.asia/world/shiretoko_trip_guide.html
Iruka hotel: This hotel felt more like a B&B, with a restaurant/common room upstairs and huge deck overlooking the water. The rooms are large by Japanese standards. Each person gets a welcome token good for a drink (coffee/tea/wine) or ice cream. The pizza served in the kitchen was pretty good. Breakfast (included in our hotels.com booking) is served in the restaurant — Japanese style, along with toast and coffee/tea. The guy at the front desk speaks great English and can help you book any tours.
MapCode: 757 353 706*
The pass is closed during the winter months (November to April).
Boat tour company we took — we did the brown bear course (~ 2 hours long, runs 6/1 to 9/25, tickets were 5500 yen per adult): http://kamuiwakka.jp/english-booking.php
We used the restroom at the ticket office (even though there was a bathroom on board) and bought some drinks from the vending machine (no place to buy drinks, etc. on the boat, so pack your own drinks and snacks).
The other company that does boat tours from Utoro is Aurora. I think this is a larger company and they run many cruises each day. The boats are bigger with more amenities (like a cafe), but I had read online that the smaller boats can get closer to shore and therefore increase your chances of seeing bears. https://ms-aurora.com/shiretoko/en/