Hokkaido's Ishikari Beach offers rich bounty for beachcombers
During the summer, Ishikari Beach in the Ishikari region of western Hokkaido is a popular destination for sea bathers. But by late October, when they’re long gone, another group of people can be seen crowded together on the sand, peering at it intently as they walk.
This new cohort are beachcombers, who search for and collect objects washed ashore — from pumice stones, created by volcanic eruptions 40,000 years ago, to a helmet decorated with Russian letters or an argonaut, a type of octopus housed in a shell that lives in warm, open-sea waters.
Why are these things here? What is special about them? This reporter took a walk along with beachcombers on Ishikari Beach, which is known as a popular beachcombing spot.
Beachcombing, commonly done for academic purposes, is also popular in Western countries.
Kenji Shiga, 55, a curator at Ishikari Wind of Dune Museum who studies objects washed up by the sea, describes such finds as the “encyclopedia of the seashore.
“They are letters sent from the ocean,” he says. “If you research the objects, you can enjoy thinking about things like culture, history and the global environment. It’s an intellectual game.”
■Downstream and ashore
Ishikari Beach is a coastal sand dune formed by sand that flows in from the Ishikari River and the monsoons blowing in from the Sea of Japan.
The beach extends as far as 25 kilometers, from the Zenibako district of Otaru, Hokkaido, through Ishikari’s Atsuta Ward.
It became known as a good spot for beachcombing because the Tsushima Current carries objects from the south as it flows northward in the Sea of Japan, and the west wind from the Eurasian continent pushes them ashore.
Beachcombers can also find objects that were carried downstream by river, since the 268-km Ishikari River with its basin area of 14,330 square kilometers — equivalent to around one sixth of the total area of Hokkaido — runs into Ishikari Bay and releases objects of its own, many of which drift onto the beach facing the bay.
“While all the oceans are connected with each other, objects drifting in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk differ,” says Takashi Kuwahara, 46, a curator at Okhotsk Sea Ice Museum of Hokkaido in the northern city of Monbetsu, who has been beachcombing about once a year at Ishikari Beach since 2012.
“At Ishikari Beach, you can find a lot of objects that have drifted from the land and the river,” Kuwahara said.
Ishikari Wind of Dune Museum has been organizing beachcombing events two or three times a year since 2004 at the beach, which is roughly a 40-minute drive from Sapporo.
A total of 25 people from the Hokkaido cities of Ishikari, Sapporo, Kitahiroshima and Takikawa, including 12 taking part for the first time, participated in an event on Oct. 24, the second to be held in 2021.
At 9 a.m., Shiga explained to participants the dos and don’ts of beachcombing and things to note. Beachcombers should refrain from taking every item they find or discarding items at other places. They shouldn’t touch dangerous objects, such as plastic containers containing liquid, gas cylinders, syringes or dead animals.
Wearing rubber boots and work gloves, the participants set out from near the Ishikari Lighthouse and walked along the beach to the mouth of the Ishikari River, roughly 1.5 km away.
Small objects and shells could be seen near the edge of the water, while bigger, more worn objects tend to be found further up the beach.
Because of the Tsushima Current, more objects drift from the south in the fall. If they are fortunate enough, beachcombers can come across rare creatures and organisms that live in warm seas, such as the argonauts and blue button jellyfish.
Pieces of coal were found on the beach. They appeared to have come from the Sorachi region, further north, by drifting down tributaries and the Ishikari River.
Ishikari Beach is also popular among beachcombers looking for amber, a transparent substance formed in ancient times from resin produced by trees, which is sometimes contained in the pieces of coal.
A piece of amber more than 6 centimeters across was once found at the beach.
Other objects often seen on the beach are Japanese walnuts measuring about 2 or 3 centimeters, which are believed to have fallen from trees on the riverside into the river.
In the autumn, fresh walnuts can be found on the shore, as well as walnut husks with bite marks apparently left by Japanese field mice. In rare cases some walnuts get buried in sand and sprout, but none of them keep growing.
Unfortunately, on the day of the event, participants could not find any objects that appeared to have drifted from the south.
“That happens a lot. Today there were fewer objects washed ashore in the first place,” said Seiichiro Imai, 63, a company worker from Sapporo with 15 years experience of beachcombing. “The beach looks different each day, just as the shapes of waves differ. You can enjoy it if you look at it that way.”
■Encounter with rare creatures
Beachcombers walk on the beach with different aims.
Masahiro Otsuka, a 13-year-old junior high school student from Sapporo who took part in the event with two family members, was removing driftwood and looking underneath, mainly searching for creatures and insects cast up by the sea.
“I sometimes find creatures that are not seen in Hokkaido,” Otsuka said.
Yoichi Suzuki, 40, an elementary school teacher from Kitahiroshima who was also at the event, said he became obsessed with beachcombing five years ago when he was working as a teacher in Ishikari.
Suzuki, who is interested in stones and ores, said, “I enjoy looking for agates and ambers. You can use them as materials to teach biology, history and environment issues.
“But now I’m in trouble because I have too many of them stocked up at home,” he said with a smile.
Some participants found pumice stones, although the rocks were different to those created by an eruption of the Fukutokuokanoba submarine volcano in the Ogasawara Islands chain in August — which drifted ashore at Kagoshima and Okinawa prefectures, affecting fisheries operations.
According to Shiga, most of the pumice stones found at Ishikari Beach were created by an eruption of the Shikotsu volcano in the area now occupied by the city of Chitose, central Hokkaido, some 40,000 years ago.
Many objects from abroad also reach the shore. The participants found an instant noodle container and a salad dressing tube with some branding in Korean script, as well as a helmet with Russian letters printed on it.
Of the objects that drift in from other countries, 40% are believed to come from Russia and 40% from South Korea, with the remaining 20% from China and Taiwan combined. Objects from the Philippines or Vietnam are found at times, showing how the beach is connected to the world.
The participants walked for some two hours, collecting objects, then returned to the museum and presented what they found — a fish-shaped soy sauce container, a baseball, a sea potato, a light bulb and so on.
One of the pleasures of beachcombing is discussing what the found items are and where they came from.
One participant looked at a piece of broken pottery and suggested it could be part of a shōchū alcoholic beverage bottle used by Hokkaido herring fishermen in the late Edo Period (1603-1868) or the Meiji Period (1868-1912).
Takashi Omura, 45, a company worker from Ishikari who was at the event with his son, a junior high school student, found a doll with big, round eyes and bristled up hair.
“I rescued it because it was buried in sand up to the neck,” Omura said. “I thought it was seaweed tangled around its body, but is it clothing?”
Omura began beachcombing about four years ago after collecting stones on a beach. “I was aiming for stones at first, but gradually became interested (in beachcombing) after finding objects I had never seen before drifting from overseas,” Omura said.
This reporter collected 10 objects, including a shell, a walnut and an onion. The most interesting find was an old empty can of canned coffee — a type with a removable pull tab — with a printed logo saying, “We support the 1998 Nagano Olympics torch relay,” indicating that it was from more than two decades ago. Where had it been drifting all those years? Thoughts bounced around in my head and I found beachcombing more interesting than expected.
Beachcombing doesn’t only involve the joy of finding treasures.
Shiga frowned when he spotted fishing gear — a float about 80 cm wide — washed ashore, with its orange cover torn and many holes on the plastic foam inside.
He believes birds made the holes on the float when it was drifting on the sea, as they tried to eat seaweed and barnacles.
“If they also ate the Styrofoam, I think it would affect their lives,” he said.
Citizens’ groups, as well as individuals and companies, volunteer regularly to clean up massive amounts of plastic bottles and cans that are scattered around beaches.
In Ishikari, some 280 volunteers took part in a beach cleanup event at the end of June before the beach opened for bathers, and collected some 3.3 tons of garbage.
That’s just a tip of the iceberg when it comes to globally spreading marine pollution.
Although argonauts were not found during the October beachcombing event, an increasing number of them have been found at Ishikari Beach since 2005.
More than 500 argonauts were discovered at beaches in Hokkaido in 2012, indicating a rise in sea temperature.
“Beachcombing teaches us the changes in the global environment, the issues of marine plastic waste, global warming and climate change,” Shiga said.
The cold winter is coming and the sea could get rough, but Ishikari Beach will see more objects getting washed ashore. Every day, there will be a new discovery. It may be a little cold, but why don’t you try strolling and looking around your nearby beaches?
Ishikari Wind of Dune Museum
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