Shiretoko National Park: Hiking, Nature, and Wildlife in Northern Hokkaido

After touring around Akan, we traveled up through Hokkaido to Shiretoko National Park, which is on the northeastern tip of the island.  A part of it is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, because it is re-claimed natural marshlands.  The park is in an interesting location because it is mountainous forest right on the coast of the ocean!  Shiretoko town has some great seafood, and is a short drive to the park for some day hiking.  The few days I was there were full of hiking through mountains, and looking out for all the wildlife!  While there are many tour buses that go to the tourist sites, I preferred being able to drive a car and visit things on my own time.  Also, the curves through the mountain are really fun to drive on (as long as you keep an eye out for any animals that might be crossing the road!).   One afternoon after a hike, we saw so many deer grazing along the road we couldn’t stop to take pictures of all of them!

Deer in Shiretoko

 Also along the road, we sighted a few foxes that are fairly iconic for Hokkaido.  They were light brown and super cute!  Unfortunately I didn’t sneak any pictures of them, since they ran back into the foliage (cleverly :P).   Also, as we were driving over a bridge, we saw quite a few cars stopped, and figured we should see what was going on.  We looked down into the river, and there were two brown bears there fishing!

Brown Bears Fishing

The highlight of the park, for me, was the hike around the Shiretoko Five Lakes.  This hike takes about an hour and a half, and goes right through the brown bear habitat.   Because of this,  everyone who hikes it needs to pay and register, and also watch a safety video beforehand.  The ranger showed us a chart that recorded all the bear sightings, and there had been quite a few over the last week.  Obviously, the goal is to avoid the bears, if at all possible.  The video showed us how to lie down and play dead if confronted by a bear, and I really hoped I wouldn’t have to use that tactic!   There were no bear sightings for us that day, so it was just a nice leisurely hike through the forest.

Here’s the route.  There is a long and a short option:

Route for Shiretoko 5 Lakes Trail

If you’re totally unwilling to take the bear path, or want a free walk, you can also go to the left and take advantage of the raised walkway that goes through the marshland.  This is great for anyone who has mobility issues, too.  There are some great views and outlook points, and you can see the ocean on your left, and the forest on your right.  When we were there, there was also a school group who toured this part.  Here’s a view of the ocean behind the marshland (although it was taken on a slightly cloudy day):

Ocean Behind Shiretoko

The hike itself takes you to all the lakes, and had some gorgeous views:

Shiretoko Lake

Shiretoko ForestShiretoko Lake

Clouds over Shiretoko

Another option if you go to Shiretoko is to travel even further north and take a boat to see whales.  This is a trip that you probably don’t want to take in winter- We had to drive from Utoro to Rausu to catch the boat, and that pass is closed at the end of October. No wonder! It’s super windy, and even in the fall, the whole thing was encased with fog.  I don’t think it would be drive-able in the snow!  Still, it’s a great option if you’re there in the summer or fall!

On the boat ride, we could also see an island belonging to Russia (I can see Russia from my boat!!).  WE were also lucky to sight some sperm whales on our trip:

Sperm Whale Breath

Sperm Whale Swimming

Overall, Shiretoko was a definite highlight of the week, and was just  gorgeous to walk and drive through.  There was plenty of wildlife, so it’s one of my top recommendations for a trip to Hokkaido.

Lake Akan, Hokkaido and the Marimo!

Looking for a nature vacation in Japan? Hokkaido is where it’s at!   I just spent a week there, soaking up sun, fresh air, and gorgeous mountain panoramas.  Akan National Park is in the northeastern part of the island, and about an hour from Kushiro Airport.   My first stop was the resort town outside of Lake Akan.  There is a slew of hotels there, as well as traditional onsen bath houses and lots of tourist shops.

The lake is also most well-known for the rare algae that grows there, called marimo.  Here’s the process on how it’s formed:

Step 1:

Marimo Step 1

Step 2:

Marimo Step 2

Step 3:

Marimo Step 3

And what you end up with is an adorable ball of algae!

Marimo!

The best way to see the marimo (and get the picture I took above) is to go on one of the boat tours that goes to the marimo exhibition hall.  There you can see a whole bunch of marimo gathered on the lake floor, and learn more about how they are formed.  Lake Akan is one of the few lakes in the entire world where algae does this, so it’s pretty unique.

And, in true marketing fashion, in the gift shops in Akan you can buy your assortment of marimo plush toys, cell phone dangles, towels, you name it!  I have to say- it’s pretty darn cute!

Marimo Sign Post

For some people, Lake Akan might be a little “touristy,” but I still thought it was worth it to go see.  You could just spend a while walking around the lake and enjoying the scenery and great views.  Also, in the winter you could go snow-shoeing.

I also really enjoyed the hotel I stayed in, which had a whole section of onsen.  Basically, there was entire floor dedicated to the bath house area (and it was split by gender, one for women, and one for men).  My hotel also had a rooftop bath, so it was great to go up there after a day of hiking to sit in the hot water and enjoy the cool breeze and gaze at the stars.  Starry nights aren’t really something I get to see in Beijing, so looking out over the lake at night was a real treat.  The room itself was pretty nice, and the hotel provided robes for the guests to wear during their stay, and to make it easier to visit the bath houses.

Silly me didn’t put my robe on right away, so my friend and I walked to dinner and were basically the only people wearing outdoor clothing, everyone else was in their brown robes! After that, I wore them everywhere in the hotel:

Hotel Room and Robes

There were very few non-Japanese tourists in Lake Akan, at least in early October.  I think with the hot springs, it is a very popular place for Japanese people to get out of the city and enjoy some quiet time with nature.  Luckily our hotel had a couple staff who spoke English, but we had to depend a lot on guide books and maps to make our way around.  Still, if you’re up for some adventure, it’s a great place to visit!  My favorite part was looking over the lake and enjoying the sky views (although it was a little rainy while I was there).

Lake Akan Pamorama

 

 

 

I visited many more sights in Hokkaido, and will be posting more of those later!

A Look at Tokyo Tower

I posted a couple days ago about my trip to Tokyo last week, and as I was looking at my pictures, I realized I had so many of Tokyo Tower that I think it warranted its own post.  Like everything I saw in Japan, there were so many interesting aspects of the Tokyo Tower tour that there was something for everyone.  As soon as I got there, I realized that Tokyo Tower has its own mascot, which is some sort of tower looking person, and is of course– pink.

Tokyo Tower Mascot Lots of families were hoarding around this guy and taking pictures with him, but I just thought he was cute. Not cute enough though, to warrant my buying any miniature versions at the myriad of souvenir shops peppered throughout the tower.

???????????????????????????????This is the shop on the main level as you wait in line to go up the elevators to the observatory.  I was glad I found this place, though, because that’s where I bought my Tokyo Banana treats my friend recommended to me. They are, in fact, delicious.

As far as touring Tokyo Tower, there are a few different options. The base ticket entry will get you to the first observatory, and from there you can buy a ticket to go even higher.  It’s all pretty straight forward, but be prepared to stand in quite a few lines.  I felt the whole thing was really organized, and all the lines moved relatively fast. Also, there’s a guide at every step of the way to take your tickets and guide people in and out of elevators.

Tokyo Tower Tour GuideI had to take a picture of one of the tour guides because I liked their little hats.

Once I got up to the observatory, I could wander around and get a good 360 degree view of the city. The brochure that you get with the ticket has the pictures marked with the different landmarks so that you know what you can see from each part.

Tokyo Tower BayThis is a view of Tokyo Bay.  Next time I go, I’ll have to go take a boat out there.

Tokyo Tower is no longer the tallest building, so maybe that’s why the crowds weren’t as bad.  I did get a glimpse of the new Sky Tree Tower, which is still so new that the lines to get to visit that are around three hours long.

Tokyo Tower Sky Tree In this picture you can see the Sky Tree, which is the tall pointy building in the back left.  Maybe next time I can go visit that!

Tokyo Tower Panorama It was pretty fascinating to look down and see all of Tokyo below, and I took a few panorama pictures, although it was a little difficult with the window panes and the people in the way!

After wandering around the observatory, you can go back down to a few different floors. I went down one and found a live band.  I thought they were pretty impressive for some live music in a tourist destination. You can make your own opinion of their music after you watch the video:

There are of course floors with more souvenir shops as well as cafes, so you can sit and eat while looking out over the city.  I took the elevator down, and found an entire floor that was an out door amusement park for kids.  They had carousels and a giant Pikachu statue:Tokyo Tower Pikachu

It was actually really nice to sit on the amusement park floor and get some fresh air, since the observatory levels were all closed.  From here I could look up and really see parts of the tower’s structure, and appreciate the gorgeous blue skies of Tokyo that day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tokyo Tower Structure

Overall it was really interesting to go there, and although it is quite a tourist trap, I feel it’s something worth going to at least once when you’re in Tokyo.  If you don’t want to pay to see the Tokyo skyline (Tokyo Tower entry is around 800 yen or 8 USD), you can also go to an observatory in the Mori tower in Rappongi to get a good view.  Either way, the city is really impressive, from whatever height you look at it.

Timeout in Tokyo

This past weekend I took advantage of a long holiday to go to Tokyo, Japan for a much-needed few days of relaxation, time with fun friends, and of course some delicious food! It was my first trip to Japan, and all I can say is, I can’t wait to go back!

Tokyo is only a short four-hour plane ride from Beijing, which means it only takes about a half day to travel there. This is a nice change from the long flight from China back to the United States! When I arrived, I met up with my friend who was gracious enough to let me stay with her for my whole trip. It’s great having friends all over the world, isn’t it?  Once I got settled, she asked me if I wanted to go to a sake tasting! Of course I said yes. 🙂  The tasting was led by a sake specialist who concentrates on importing sake from the Akita region of Japan into the United States. She had even prepared food pairings for all the different sakes we tasted, and the whole experience was really eye-opening for me.  Although I’ve had sake before in a few Japanese restaurants, having all the different types explained and introduced to me in an educational way really helped me appreciate it for the taste and the thought that goes into each type of brew.  It was an excellent first night in Japan, and just the welcome I needed! You can read more about all the sakes I tasted on their website.

The next day I met with another friend Ai who was visiting Tokyo from Kobe. She and I ventured on the subway to head to Harajuku.  If you haven’t seen a Tokyo metro map, you will be blown away.  I’ve gotten a handle on Beijing’s subway system, but Tokyo’s lines opened up a whole new level of craziness, and I’m glad I had my friend to help me navigate the system at first.

Once at our stop, we headed to Meiji Shrine.  The whole area was gorgeous with lots of greenery.  We were even lucky enough to be there on a day when a wedding was taking place, and stopped our touring to view the procession of the wedding party from one gate to another.

MeijiWedding

At the shrine itself there is a section to make a prayer, and I think I did it correctly after watching a few other people.  I also left a written note in an area where people can hang their wishes on a wall.

After wandering around this peaceful place, it was time to go visit some more exciting parts of Tokyo, which led us to Takeshita street!  This whole area was full of shops and vendors.  It was really neat to see the variety of things to buy (and eat!).  I’ll tell you an anecdote to give you an idea:  As we were walking, I noticed a store with really small clothes and thought that they were really small, and seemed silly to buy for a baby because they’d be outgrown so quickly! My friend then had to point out that the shop was selling dog clothes, not baby clothes. Hehehehe.

The silliness continued when we walked into Kiddyland, and frankly I was a little too scared by all the crazy music and the idea that there was a whole floor devoted to Disney toys and the like. I took a quick picture before running away.

Harajuku

The next day my friend Sheila and I went out for a few more touristy adventures. I’m glad she indulged me, because after living in Tokyo for four years, she’s already done most of this! Tokyo Tower was amazing (even though it was a little tourist trappy and I was greeted by a life-sized Tokyo Tower mascot), and gave an excellent view of this enormous city.  There is now a tower that’s taller, but since it’s so new, the lines are three hours or more. I think I’ll stay content with the views from here though:

TokyoTowerView

Although my days were pretty filled, there is still a lot of Tokyo that I have yet to see. I had such an awesome time, and it was so easy to get to, that I will definitely be planning a trip back there some time soon.  Just the blue skies and slightly warmer temperatures made it a great respite from Beijing, and it was fascinating to see a radically different culture.  In addition to seeing the sites, I really enjoyed all the different culinary adventures in Japan. These are so unique that they merit their own post, so keep your eyes out for another Tokyo post in the future!