Shiretoko National Park
Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園 Shiretoko-kokuritsukōen) covers the entirety of the Shiretoko Peninsula (知床半島 Shiretoko-hantō), a remote northeastern corner of the Japanese island of Hokkaido. In 2005, the park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Shiretoko is one of the most remote areas of all Japan. The national park has no sizable settlements, and the northern portion of the peninsula does not even have any roads. Peak visiting season is during the short summer season; the park is open all year round, but the conditions in winter can be very harsh.
- Rausu Visitor Center (羅臼ビジターセンター), 臼町湯ノ沢町６−２７ (On Highway 334, several kilometers from Rausu.), ☎ +81 153 87-2828. May-Oct 9AM-5PM, Nov-Apr 10AM-4PM, closed Mondays, closed around New Years. This is one of two visitor centers for Shiretoko National Park. There is a small museum-like display, and some information on the park. Rangers can help visitors plan out hikes or find campgrounds. There's also a small store selling post cards and bear bells. Free.
Public transport to Shiretoko is extremely limited. The nearest train station is at Shari, from where you can catch infrequent buses (3 per day in peak season) through Utoro to the western coast of the peninsula. On the eastern side is the small town of Rausu, reachable by bus from Kushiro (3.5 hours) and (in summer only) two daily buses from Utoro as well.
Getting around for all practical purposes requires your own set of wheels, as buses services are limited and infrequent, especially outside the peak summer season. Note that the northern side of the peninsula is off-limits to cars of any sort. There are no roads on the southern side of the peninsula past Rausu.
- Shiretoko Five Lakes (知床五湖 Shiretoko-goko) (At the end of the main road on the western coast.). 7:30AM-6PM. These lakes are Shiretoko's best-known and most easily accessible attraction. The five lakes are located within walking distance of each other and well-maintained trails connect them — a quick circuit won't take more than an hour. Watch out for bears. Parking ¥400.
- Kamuiwakka Falls (カムイワッカ湯の滝 Kamuiwakka-yunotaki). These falls are one of Japan's more amazing natural wonders, and indeed the Ainu name means "river of the gods". The road to the falls is closed to private traffic, so you have to take the shuttle bus from the Shiretoko Shizen Center. The bus goes 11 km up a bumpy dirt road and takes about 40 minutes. At the end of the track, slip on a pair of sturdy sandals. If you didn't bring your own, Japanese waraji bamboo-straw sandals can be rented for a few hundred yen at the Shizen Center. Socks or running shoes are OK too, but will get wet. Then commence a thirty minute clamber up the river, in water that gets gradually warmer as you ascend ... and the rocks more slippery as algae celebrate a field day. Tread carefully and leave the cameras behind. The payoff awaits at the end, where waterfalls cascade into a free natural hot spring pool large enough for half a dozen people. Since August 2006, only the very first part of the river up from the bus terminal at the road bridge was open to the public due to falling rocks danger. Nevertheless, even that lukewarm pool is a great experience. Shuttle bus ¥1180.
- Shiretoko Pass (知床峠 Shiretoko-tōge). At the highest point of the road connecting the western and eastern coasts is a popular stop on the tour bus circuit, offering views of Mt. Rausu and, on a good day, the disputed Kunashiri Island controlled by Russia but claimed by Japan.
There are a number of popular hikes, but most require spending a night or two on the trail. The volcanically active Mt. Iō (1563m) is generally off limits due to the sulphuric fumes it spews out (it last erupted in 1936), but Mt. Shiretoko (1245m) at the northern tip is a possibility. Kamuiwakka Falls trail head closed, but the trails are open.
- Mt. Rausu (羅臼岳 Rausu-dake). A climb to the summit of this 1665m mountain is a tough but popular day trip. In bad weather, Mt. Rausu can be quite dangerous.
- Iwaobetsu Course (岩尾別コース) (Starts in the NW.). This is the most popular and less-rugged course.
- Rausu Onsen Course (羅臼温泉コース) (Starts at the Rausu Onsen Campground. The visitor desk there has a log book.). Most hikers start around 5AM. This course is around 14.6km roundtrip and, because of the large elevation gain, takes 9-12 hours. It is best to carry water from the bottom or use (properly treated) snow melt — there are some steam vents and sulfurous areas that might make the stream water undrinkable.
- Iwaobetsu Onsen (岩尾別温泉). After a hard day's climbing, reward yourself with a dip in this basic but pleasant open-air hot springs. Free and mixed, so be sure you are comfortable with that.
- Kuma no Yu (熊の湯), 臼町湯ノ沢町 (Across from the Rausu Onsen Campground, a minute NW of the Rausu Visitor Center on Highway 344. There is roadside parking next to a 20m bridge leading to the onsen.), ☎ +81 153 87-2111. This is a free outdoor onsen. Baths are separated by gender. There are no towels or soap available, so visitors should bring their own. The mens' bath is almost visible from the road, though tree branches help provide some privacy. The womens' bath has a wall for privacy. Free..
- The gift shop at the Five Lakes is the usual place for stocking up on bear bells and souvenir T-shirts for the folks back home.
There are few places to eat in Shiretoko. The youth hostel has affordable meals and will pack a lunch on request. Sometimes there are food stalls at Shiretoko Pass.
Shiretoko's sole alcoholic entertainment option is the tongue-in-cheek Izakaya Iwaobetsu at the youth hostel, consisting of a beer vending machine.
- Rausu Nature and Green Campground (らうす自然とみどりの村キャンプ場), 臼町幌萌町 (On Highway 335 about 10km S of central Rausu.), ☎ +81 153 88-2162. This campground has tent sites and RV sites. It overlooks the Pacific Ocean to the east, leading to good views of the sunrise. The mountains of Shiretoko are also visible to the NW. There are bathrooms with electricity and running water, and clean covered cooking areas. It is next to a park golf course. The caretaker closes reception at 6PM, so latecomers should pay in the morning. Tent site ¥300.
- Rausu Onsen Campground (羅臼温泉野営場 Rausu Onsen Yaeichi), 臼町湯ノ沢町 (On Highway 344, 1 minute drive NW from the Rausu Visitor Center.), ☎ +81 153 87-2126. This campground is well situated for people seeking to climb Mt. Rausu. It's also across the highway from a free onsen. Deer are frequently seen in and near the campground, so food must be properly stored.
- Shiretoko-Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel (知床岩尾別ユースホステル) (Take a bus from Shari to Shiretoko and get off at the Iwaobetsu stop next to the hostel.), ☎ +81 152 24-2311. An excellent HI-affiliated hostel run by knowledgeable staff. This is the place to meet with fellow hikers and gather information about hiking in the nightly briefing sessions. Bed for HI members ¥2900, 2 meals ¥1500.
Shiretoko claims Japan's largest bear population, a fact stressed to no end in local tourist literature. In practice, the Hokkaido brown bear (ezo-higuma) is no match for the North American grizzly, and you are exceedingly unlikely to be attacked if you observe a modicum of common sense. That said, most hikers wear tinkling bells known as kumasuzu to alert bears (which shy away from human contact), and you should not leave any food in or near your tent if camping.