Amazing Adventures in Hokkaido

The abundance of the natural environment, the lifestyles and culture of the people who live there – Hokkaido has many incredible stories that are as yet unknown.
In this column, we learn about the appeal of Hokkaido’s four seasons from the people who guide adventure tours there. We hope such stories will enrich your next visit to Hokkaido.

Special feature

Column: 100 things that Hokkaido kids should experience: Daisetsuzan National Park “Pika Watching” And Cape Kiritappu “Rakko Watching”

Kazu Arai @Daisetsuzan National Park, Higashikawa, July 2020

Written by Kazu Arai. Was born and educated in Hokkaido. He is a nature guide and founder of Daisetsuzan Nature School providing environmental education and ecotours. He is also the president of Hokkaido Adventure Travel Association and GSTC trainer for working on sustainable tourism in Hokkaido.

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At the Daisetsuzan Nature School, we provide environmental education for local children. As covered in my first article, we are putting together a list of 100 things that all kids in Hokkaido should experience.

In this article, I’d like to share two wildlife watching activities that are best combined with camping to maximise your time in nature.

The first is searching for northern pika, or “Ezo-nakiusagi”, in Daisetsuzan National Park, located in the middle of Hokkaido. The second is watching sea otters, known as “Rakko” both in Japanese and the Ainu language, from Cape Kiritappu in Akkeshi-Kiritappu-Konbumori Quasi-National Park.

Camping nearby brings you closer to nature and makes you more sensitive to the environment around you, increasing the possibility of finding wildlife.
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A pika calling out on a rock
A camouflaged gray pika eating the leaves of alpine plants

Northern Pika Watching

“Pitt, Pitt”. That’s the sound that gives away the presence of the northern pika; you can often hear it while walking through “rock gardens” in Daisetsuzan National Park.

These “rock gardens” are a jumbled mess of volcanic rocks, some larger than humans. Small alpine shrubs are dotted amongst the rocks, almost as if someone planted them. I enjoy walking through this beautiful landscape, especially in June and July when the flowers are in bloom. The rocky terrain means you may need to use your hands to scramble from rock to rock, but it is these small, complex gaps between the rocks that give the little northern pika a place to hide.

You can see such landscapes at Mt. Tokachidake in the western part of the national park, or at around Lake Shikaribetsu in the east. Both have relatively easy access, within a 30-min. walk from the carpark.

The northern pika is a herbivore that feeds on ferns, herbs, moss and mushrooms. The pika found in Hokkaido are described as “living fossils”. Their ancestors migrated here during the ice age, when there was a land bridge between the Eurasian continent and Hokkaido. They became cut off from their relatives when the ice melted and have survived in Hokkaido’s rocky mountains.

Quietly waiting is the key to spotting Pika. When you hear their “Pitt” call, you should stop walking and scan the exposed rocky area. The pika look like a fist-size grey rock, so are easy to miss if you are moving. You also don’t want to scare them, do you?

So, bring a warm jacket even in summer, a cushion to sit on the rocks, sandwiches, coffee and biscuits. Have a picnic, be with nature and wait for them to appear.

Two sea otters swimming and playing together

“Rakko” Watching

Rakko, the Japanese word for sea otter comes from Ainu, the language of the indigenous people of northern Japan. Rakko are found along the coastline of the northern Pacific Rim from Hokkaido through the Aleutian Islands to Alaska, British Colombia, Washington and California.

Sea otters were once extinct in Japan in the early 20th century, as a result of hunting for the fur industry. However, they have returned in recent years. It is assumed a few otters from the population that survived in the northern territories and Kuril Islands got washed down to Cape Kiritappu. While they didn’t seem to be settled at first, three otters have been seen year-round from 2016. In 2021, five were spotted regularly.

Where can they be seen? The Cape Kiritappu footpath is the best spot from which to observe them. There are two reasons: one is that you need to have a wide view to spot them as they seem to move a lot – not fast but floating freely along the coast backwards and forwards, maybe looking for shells and sea urchins. From the tip of the cape you have views to both the left and right. Another reason is because you don’t want to scare them away. At the top of the cliff you are far enough away that they don’t even care about you. Please check out the sea otter watching guidelines issued by the local conservation organization for more advice on watching the otters responsibly.

The sea otter looks like a dark brown log floating in the sea. They could be just floating upside down, rolling sideways, smashing shells on their stomachs or holding onto sea weed. On my last visit, I also saw two playing with each other. Binoculars are essential if you want to watch their behaviour, and it’s always nice to have a windproof jacket to make your wildlife watching experience comfortable no matter the weather.

A typically foggy day here at Cape Kiritappu
Looking for sea otters. It takes a while to find them
Our family. Staying in a cottage is another option instead of camping

The last tip I have is to camp at Kiritappu Campsite right at the start of the footpaths. Having a base camp there allows you to wonder along the path and regularly search for the otters. Encountering wildlife is not easy, but the longer you are in a creature’s natural habitat, the higher your chances are of meeting them.

Enjoy!

Location

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