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Monday, June 17, 2024

This Might Be Most Beautiful National Park in Japan — With Superb Hiking and Incredible Waterfalls



It’s fair to say that bustling Tokyo and temple-dotted Kyoto receive most of the tourism attention. While foodies often do side trips to Osaka to dig into tasty street eats like takoyaki and okonomiyaki, hot springs towns such as Hakone and Beppu attract relaxation seekers. To the south, Okinawa has its own unique local culture and tropical vibes. 

Sleepy and steeped in natural beauty, Hokkaido — voted one of the best places to travel in 2024 by Travel + Leisure editors — sees far fewer travelers. Its largest city, Sapporo, is famous for its brewing heritage. And avid skiers time trips to Niseko in the snowy season. Beyond that, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands remains impossibly peaceful and pristine. 

Nature lovers would be well served to veer off the beaten track for the chance to explore Shiretoko National Park. Derived from the Ainu word meaning “far corner of the earth,” the park and peninsula very much feel like a far-flung land-meets-sea destination that’s just beyond the grasp of man.

Listed as a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site due to its significant ecological value, the area protects fascinating flora — including the endemic Shiretoko violet — and fauna. Rugged scenery shifts from drift ice and mountain peaks to sparkling lakes and old-growth conifer forests. Ezo brown bears, orcas, sea lions, and white-tailed eagles inhabit the untouched landscape.

Here’s everything you need to know before visiting Shiretoko National Park.

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Planning Your Visit

It’s free to enter Shiretoko National Park. Many choose to do self-driving itineraries, and cruising the Shiretoko Pass (keep in mind it’s closed in winter) is sure to be a highlight. It’s also possible to drive on the roads that run along the east and west coasts, pulling off at must-see attractions such as Shiretoko Goko (Shiretoko Five Lakes). Of course, much of the majesty lies beyond what you can access with a car. The limited public transportation options and the necessity of taking a boat to see some of the most magical parts make a tour the best option, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO). Activities such as guided nature hikes, whale-watching cruises, and drift-ice tours can be booked through a local agency or an online platform like Tripadvisor.  

Travelers entering the park solo should start at one of the visitor information centers — Shiretoko World Heritage Conservation Center, Shiretoko Rausu Visitor Center, Shiretoko World Heritage Rusa Field House, Shiretoko National Park Nature Center, and Shiretoko Goko Lakes Field House and Shiretoko Goko Lakes Park Service Center — to pick up trail maps, learn about local plants and animals, and find out about any safety or weather advisories. 

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How to Get There

Given its far-flung location, you might expect to endure a long-haul travel day to Shiretoko National Park. But that’s not the case. Regular domestic flights link both Haneda Airport (HND) in Tokyo and New Chitose Airport (CTS) in Sapporo to Memanbetsu Airport (MMB). From there, it’s easy to drive or take a two-hour bus, which operates in the summer and winter months, to Utoro, the western gateway to Shiretoko National Park.

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Best Time to Visit

Given its remote location, Shiretoko National Park is never particularly busy, so the best time to visit depends on what you want to see and do. Viola kitamiana (Shiretoko violet), a rare white flower that’s become a symbol of the peninsula, begins to bloom late June to early July. Yoshiaki Okazaki, a guide at Shiretoko National Park, recommends the months of July, August, and September when Mount Rausu finally thaws, the weather is warmest, and it’s peak bear activity.

Fall means fire-hued foliage along the Shiretoko Pass. Travelers interested in experiencing drift-ice walks will want to plan winter trips. Just keep in mind certain roads will be closed, so it’s better to arrange a guided tour to get around. Baby animals, budding flowers, and seeing orcas and porpoises swimming around the Nemuro Strait make a compelling case for visiting in the spring.

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Best Things to Do

Shiretoko Goko (Shiretoko Five Lakes)

According to Okazaki, no trip to Shiretoko National Park is complete without visiting Shiretoko Goko. The scenic volcano-formed lakes wow visitors with brilliant blue water set against a backdrop of lush green forests and mountain peaks. 

Shiretoko Pass

Few drives compare to the untrammeled beauty of Shiretoko Pass, which connects Utoro with Rausu. The road passes through pine forests and supplies picture-perfect views of Mount Rausu and Kunashir Island. Keep in mind it closes for the winter due to snowfall, so it’s best to plan accordingly.  

Furepe Falls

Located on the west side of the park, Furepe Falls is a rare cascade that isn’t fed by a river but rather by groundwater — and enough of it to power the water down the granite cliffs and into the Sea of Okhotsk. In the winter, it’s a memorable experience to snowshoe to the frozen falls.

Kamuiwakka Hot Falls

Surrounded by unspoiled wilderness, this hot springs waterfall pummels down from volcanic mountains into a rock basin where visitors can enjoy a warm, soothing soak in a natural outdoor onsen. 

Drift-ice Walks

One of the most memorable experiences in Shiretoko National Park is a guided drift-ice trek across the fantastical frozen landscape. Besides a thrilling adventure, it’s an opportunity to see incredible wildlife like white-tailed eagles in their natural habitat.

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Best Hikes

Furepe Falls Nature Walk

Accessible for most ages and abilities, the 20-minute walk to Furepe Falls, which begins behind the Shiretoko National Park Nature Center, brings visitors to a clifftop observatory for sweeping views of the falls. 

Shiretoko Goko Lakes Loop

Another relatively easy stroll, the Shiretoko Goko Lakes Loop follows the pathways that envelop the forest-shrouded majestic bodies of water. The trail covers a distance of approximately two miles, so it’s easy to complete in under an hour. But it’s worth leaning into the sense of serenity and stopping somewhere for a few moments of quietude. 

Mount Rausu 

For more experienced hikers and climbers, tackling Mount Rausu, one of the tallest peaks in Japan, is a worthwhile goal. The snow and ice finally thaw in the summer, giving avid adventurers the opportunity to strike out toward the summit. The prize for such effort? Breathtaking panoramas of ancient forests, lakes, and the ocean.

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Wildlife

Shiretoko National Park is an incredible place to spot wildlife. Its famous furry residents — native Ezo brown bears — are most active in July and August. Orcas and porpoises make an appearance in the Nemuro Strait starting in April. During the winter, the ice floes become a breeding ground for seals and white-tailed eagles dive into the frigid waters in search of fish.

MASATO SASAKI/Courtesy of Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort


Best Hotels and Resorts

Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort

Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort is a top-rated base within Shiretoko National Park. Suites have comfortable beds, private open-air hot springs, and beautiful vistas of the Sea of ​​Okhotsk. Food, drinks, and accommodations are included in the all-inclusive rate. Guests particularly rave about the breakfast. 

Hotel Chinohate

Well positioned within Shiretoko National Park, the ryokan-style Hotel Chinohate offers traditional accommodations with tatami mats, indoor and outdoor public baths, and a restaurant. But its best asset is the location, which provides easy access to trailheads, the visitor center, and the Five Lakes area. 

Kiki Shiretoko Natural Resort

Situated in the picturesque highlands of Utoro Onsen, Kiki Shiretoko Natural Resort sets itself apart as one of the larger properties in the area. It has ample amenities, refurbished rooms, and a buffet dinner with plenty of options, from Japanese to Western dishes, to refuel after a full day of hiking and wildlife spotting. 

Hotel Kifu Club Shiretoko

A short drive from Shiretoko National Park, Hotel Kifu Club Shiretoko provides a clean and comfortable base. Both the indoor public and outdoor private onsen are a nice setting to warm up and soothe sore muscles after drift-ice treks and other adventures. Do-it-yourself tempura dinners spotlight seasonal vegetables and seafood from the region.

Courtesy of Kitakobushi Shiretoko Hotel & Resort


Where to Eat

The wild, untamed appeal of Shiretoko National Park is part of what draws adventure seekers. In a place this wonderfully undeveloped, don’t expect a ton of dining options. The Shiretoko National Park Nature Center has a cafe. The hotels within the park have restaurants for guests to fuel up before and after exploring. For a meal beyond those options, you’ll need to head to the town of Shari.

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