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July 6, 2016 - Hokkaido Day 5 - Shiretoko Five Lakes
Day 5 in Hokkaido had finally arrived and it was time to head out to explore the wilderness of Hokkaido's one and only UNESCO world heritage site, Shiretoko.
After having breakfast at the Shari Daiichi Hotel, I headed for the bus station at 8am to catch the first bus out bound for Utoro Onsen station. You can buy the ticket from the bus station so that you don't have to look for loose change and pay as you get off.
On the bus, the farming and small town landscape of Shari soon turned into the beautiful Okhotsk coastline as we were well on our way to Utoro. I was a bit worried to see that there were gray clouds along the coast, but as we approached Utoro town, the dark depressing clouds dissipated and the weather began to improve.
I got off at the bus stop near the Utoro Shirietok Road Station and walked a short distance to my lodging for the night at Oyado Kiraku.
At Kiraku, I've already arranged for a complimentary pick up by Umebayashi-san, my guide for the trek around the Shiretoko Five Lakes. From the Shiretoko Five Lakes website, I chose Umebayashi-san not only due to the convenient timing but also because he was the 2nd most popular guide at that time. There was a link to his tour company Okhotsk Jinendo where I found out that complimentary pick ups from any hotel in Utoro can be arranged. Some tour companies even provide pick ups all the way from Shari. This was a great way to save some money as buses in this area tend to be on the expensive side.
After ten minutes relaxing at the lounge, Umebayashi-san arrived just in time and off we go to the Shiretoko Five Lakes. While admiring the view of the Utoro coast, I had a chat with my guide and learned that he and his wife were originally from Osaka and had moved here to be closer to nature. Apparently, most of the guides in Shiretoko were originally from Tokyo.
We soon arrived at the Shiretoko Five Lakes in no time and I was asked to wait at the fieldhouse for the other participants to show up. According to Umebayashi-san, our session had a full participation of 10 people including myself. 7 of them were Japanese while there were 2 young girls from Hong Kong. One of the Japanese tourists was a returning participant as a few days ago the weather in Shiretoko was so bad that everything was covered in dense white fog.
Our tour started on time and we began with a lecture from Umebayashi-san, where most of the emphasis was on what to do when a bear showed up in the middle of the trek. At the end of the lecture, we handed over all the snacks that we carried with us so that the bears won't be able to smell us. We also received free binoculars and a small certificate as proof of completing the lecture.
5000 yen may be quite expensive for a 3-hour tour, but it was really worth it especially being in the good hands of Umebayashi's guidance. Apart from learning about the flora and fauna (especially bears) native to Shiretoko, we also did some bird watching, people watching (we saw some people who looked like ants climbing Mt Rausu) and had our pictures taken at each of the five lakes with the stunning view of the Shiretoko mountain range in the backdrop. It was interesting to learn that bears were omnivores and their favorite vegetable was the poisonous mizubasho or skunk cabbage that grew prolifically around the lakes. I helped Umebayashi-san out by translating some of the explanations to the two Honkies in a mix of Cantonese and English.
All of us managed to leave the trekking area safely and we were very lucky not to have encountered any bears along the way. In fact, we were extremly lucky, as Umebayashi-san pointed out during the trek that lately there has been increased sightings of bears and his wife was unfortunate to have bumped into them four times since last month.
Since there was plenty of time left, I thought about doing the Furepe Waterfall trek at the Shiretoko Nature Center, but apparently the trek was closed as many bears have been sighted in the area. I instead asked Umebayashi-san to drop me off at the Fisherman's Wife Canteen 漁業婦人部食堂 at Utoro port for lunch.
After being dropped off at Utoro, I thanked Umebayashi-san for his wonderful hospitality and hoped to come back to Shiretoko again in the future.
After lunch, there's nothing much to do other than checking out the Utoro Shirietok Road Station, voted as the best road station in Hokkaido. I thought of going to the Oshinkoshin Waterfall, but I dreaded at the thought of waiting there for an hour before getting on the bus back to Utoro.
Instead, I headed back to Kiraku and immediately collapsed to the futon in my room, tired out by the past four days of travel and this morning's trek. I woke up from my restful nap just in time for a nice, scrumptious dinner at 6pm.
Back at the Utoro Road Station, I learned about a viewing platform called Yuhidai 夕日台 near the hot spring hotels where I can view the sunset. However, the owner of Kiraku recommended the top of Oronko Rock instead.
Dinner finished later than expected and with only five minutes to go before the sun sets I struggled to make a run for Oronko Rock on an extremely full stomach. I reached the summit of Oronko Rock just before the sun completely sunk into the Okhotsk Sea, and waited a bit longer till twilight to see the night lights of Utoro. After I was done with Oronko Rock, I went back to Kiraku to enjoy a can of Sapporo Classic beer to end the night.
All in all, I was extremely glad to have ventured out of the tourist spots of central Hokkaido and see Shiretoko with my own eyes. To anyone planning to visit Hokkaido in the future, I really, really recommend adding Shiretoko or Eastern Hokkaido in its entirety as part of your itinerary, as this is where you can experience the real beauty of Hokkaido.
More photos can be found at https://www.flickr.com/photos/124829205@N08/albums/72157668284331664