Exploring Shiretoko National Park in Winter (With Pictures and Videos)
Shiretoko: A Journey to the 'End of the Earth’
Shiretoko National Park is a place that defies imagination. There, you can go on an icebreaker, come face to face with polar bears, go on walks with penguins, and watch fish swim under a frozen river (from the comfort of a heated room, of course) without having to go all the way to the South Pole.
Shiretoko attracts nature enthusiasts the whole year round, but it reserves its most spectacular display for winter.
The Shiretoko Peninsula, located on the northeastern side of Hokkaido in Japan, is one of the most unique wilderness areas in the world. Home to a rich variety of wildlife—including several endangered species of whales—the area's natural splendor has earned it a coveted spot on UNESCO's World Heritage list.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at what I found; after all, according to locals, 'Shiretoko' means ‘the end of the earth’, which to me is synonymous with mystery and danger. I should have known to expect the unexpected.
Ahoy! All Aboard the Icebreaker!
In winter, a strange phenomenon can be seen along the Shiretoko coastline—chunks of ice litter the sea as far as the eye can see in a seemingly unbroken sheet of white. Located on a similar geographical latitude as Portland, Oregon, and Venice, Italy (where surrounding seas typically don’t freeze), this freakish natural event occurs due to a chance confluence of climate and geography.
The Amur River—which forms a natural border between eastern Russia and northeastern China—empties into the Sea of Okhotsk off the north of Hokkaido, Japan, where it lowers the sea's salt concentration. Generally, the higher the salt concentration of water, the colder it needs to be before the water will freeze. Hence the lower salt concentration causes the surrounding sea to freeze more easily than other seas in freezing temperatures.
Drifting from northeastern Russia, the ice usually appears along the peninsula by late January and disappears again by early April. This has spawned a peculiar tourist activity: icebreaker tours.
The ship bulldozes its way through the frozen sea, crushing lumps of ice in its path and allowing passengers to enjoy the drift ice up-close. The drifting patches of ice bring seals, which in turn attract enormous eagles who follow in their wake all the way from Kamchatka on the Russian coast. They hover in the sky above the frozen sea, hunting for prey beneath.
It's as if you’re venturing into the North Pole, where everything is in a state of permanent freeze.
Explore the Beauty of Shiretoko in Winter
Northern Daichi Aquarium Is a Must-See
Nestled at the foot of a mountain range off a quiet motorway is an aquarium which was in decline like many remote villages nearby. Despite its unique collection of local river fish, the Northern Daichi Aquarium did not attract much attention until a makeover in 2012, which boosted attendance from 20,000 in previous years to 300,000 the following year. (It has averaged 100,000 visitors annually since.)
Where Do Fish Go in Winter?
The new design is the brainchild of aquarium architect Hajime Nakamura, whose passion is to build aquariums that appeal to the masses. In the coldest months, as river surfaces freeze, visitors often wonder, “Where do the fish go in winter?” His response: the world’s first frozen-over tank, which simulates a real river in winter.
This “Aquarium of Four Seasons” is a must-see, giving you a cross-section view of a “river aquarium” where you can see fish swim under ice.
Not to be missed is the waterfall basin aquarium where you can watch trout and salmon swim against raging waters. This aquarium is the first of its kind in Japan; its underwater view looks up from the bottom of the waterfall, showing how fish navigate turbulent waters.
What a thrill to see how fish not only survive but thrive under icy waters!
Walk With Penguins at Asahiyama Zoo
In the northernmost zoo in Japan, they take the idea of a petting zoo to new levels. Granted, you can’t pet a polar bear, but it comes pretty close. Welcome to Asahiyama Zoo, the northernmost zoo in Japan, where cold-climate species are housed in enclosures that simulate their natural habitats.
Visitors are treated to scheduled, daily penguin walks (yes, in the open along a prescribed route) and polar bears diving and swimming in their aquatic park.
How Do Animals Behave in Their Natural Habitat?
This zoo is unique in that it shows animals' natural behavior from different perspectives. The creative architecture allows you to look up and see seals darting through the water and penguins seemingly flying above your head through aqua tunnels.
Snow foxes and owls are so well camouflaged in their enclosures that you struggle to make out their shapes against the all-white background. It's as if you're on a "winter safari" sharing the same environment as the animals and watching them go about their business.
I Found Abundant Life at the End of the Earth
These are just some of the marvelous highlights from my journey to 'the end of the earth.' Shiretoko's icy facade makes it seem as though it's devoid of life, lying dormant and awaiting spring. It's merely a cover though; Shiretoko is teeming with life where it’s least expected, leaving intrepid travellers hungry for more.
A Closer Look at the Shiretoko Peninsula
© 2019 CC Leau