During another epic powder season, two seasoned winter sports enthusiasts traded their snowboard bags for camera bags and traveled to Eastern Hokkaido to explore the frozen landscape and broaden their winter horizons.
A canvas of white unfolds as Hokkaido’s mountain ranges and frozen rivers create a mesmerizing panorama below. As we ponder the adventures ahead, a crisp cold air greets us in Kushiro, our gateway to Eastern Hokkaido.
The single carriage train awaits to take us from Kushiro to Nemuro. The journey through Hokkaido’s frozen landscape is a visual feast, with snow-covered trees lining the tracks and occasional glimpses of ice-covered lakes. We are headed to Shiretoko, the peninsula in easternmost Hokkaido that reaches out into the Sea of Okhotsk. The name is fittingly taken from the Ainu word “sir etok” meaning “the end of the earth.” In 2005, the area was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Just south of Shiretoko’s Nemuro Strait and Kunashiri Island sits the Notsuke Peninsula. It is essentially a 26-kilometer sand bar—the longest in the country—named after the Ainu word for jawbone (notkeu) as it resembles the jawbone of a whale. From December to March, guided snowshoe tours start from the Notsuke Peninsula Nature Center. From here we head out across the thick, frozen waters of Notsuke Bay, surrounded by a pristine winter wonderland and breathtaking views of the Sea of Okhotsk. We keep a look out for deer, foxes and various species of birds along the way.
“There are many charms to this region including whale watching for orcas, as well as spotting seals and sea otters that are unique to this area. It is easy to see a variety of wildlife here,” says Kaoru Fujii the director of the Nature Center.
Fujii fell in love with Shiretoko Nemuro, eventually laying down roots in this beautiful, yet remote region of Hokkaido. One of the highlights here is the chance to see the “Ice Horizon,” a natural phenomenon unique to the area where the sea and sky appear to merge into one. This natural spectacle is caused by the sea ice reflecting the colors of the sunrise or sunset, creating an unforgettable sight. For those who love vast open spaces and a unique sense of perspective, it’s a great way to enjoy Hokkaido in winter away from the crowded ski resorts.
Bird watchers and adventure travelers will want to join the Ochiishi Nature Cruise. It’s a great way to explore the island’s rugged coastline and marine birdlife up close. The cruise departs from the Ochiishi Fishing Port and takes passengers on a one-and-a-half to two-hour journey along the coastline to Yururi Island. The boat is equipped with a spacious deck, allowing passengers to take in the breathtaking scenery and spot seabirds as guide Kenji Takano keeps a lookout. Nemuro City is home to roughly 360 bird species, so it’s not hard to find some on the trip.
“It’s great for bird lovers!” proclaims Takano. “We have many sea birds and the Ochiishi Nature Cruise is dedicated to bird watching. Each time you come, you will see different species of birds.”
Takano grew up running a guest house with his parents and watching his father show grateful guests around the Nemuro area. Now a conservation warden for rare species—especially birds— Takano is passionate about sharing the beauty of the Nemuro and Kushiro regions.
“I noticed a lot of visitors to our guesthouse were asking about the wild birds and I shared my knowledge with them as I was already a nature guide. Eventually, I decided to become a wild bird guide to help people learn more about the local birds while searching for them. I prefer small birds, such as the Least Auklet and Spectacled Guillmot—they’re very cute!” he notes.
One of the highlights of the cruise is the opportunity to see the Steller’s Sea Eagle. It is one of the largest eagles in the world, sporting a wingspan of up to two-and-a-half meters. These magnificent birds are known for their striking appearance, with black and white feathers and a bright yellow beak. Other birds you may spot are the Crested Auklet and Tufted Puffin.
“I think there needs to be more attention put towards conservation here. There are many rare species living here and more protected areas, such as Yururi Island, are needed for breeding. As birds feed on the sea, fishing nets can be a problem as birds can get tangled in them,” says Takano.
Another attraction of the Ochiishi Nature Cruise is the chance to see the unique rock formations and geological features of Hokkaido’s coastline. The boat passes by towering cliffs, sea caves and natural arches, providing an up-close view of the island’s dramatic landscape.
The cruise operates year round. In the winter months, visitors have a chance to see the sea ice and snow-covered landscapes, while spring and summer bring blooming flowers and lush vegetation.
On the final day of our journey we were welcomed into the family home of local guide Takaya Suzuki for tea and some homemade jerky. We sat and listened to his guiding stories and his future aspirations exploring the vast wilderness of Shiretoko on horseback.
“I moved to Hokkaido after graduating high school. I worked for a forestry agency here for 21 years, but decided to follow my passion and get certified as a guide. I love the outdoors and the Nemuro Region is quite remote, giving me space to enjoy nature.” Suzuki says.
His company, Outland, offers Canadian canoe tours on the Yausubetsu River as well as horseback tours. “I have six horses including “Donsanko,” domestic Hokkaido horses. The best time of year to visit here is spring and autumn. There is so much to experience here, like canoeing, bird watching, horse riding, ice fishing or simply walking through forests,” Suzuki adds.
After marveling at these stories, we began to understand why this beautiful region is considered a sanctuary for both wildlife and those seeking a genuine connection with the environment. It is Japan’s true northern frontier, a special place that awaits those looking for adventure off the beaten winter path and a unique opportunity to broaden their horizons.
Live Field is a guide to Shiretoko Nemuro, Hokkaido’s far eastern region. There is various information about practicalities and access to the Shiretoko Region from Kanto and Kansai as well as local transportation by train, bus, taxi and rental car. Visit Live Field Shiretoko Nemuro’s website for more info.