Hokkaido is a tourist destination with immense value for wildlife watchers

Yezo sciurus vulgaris orientis in snow
Yezo sciurus vulgaris orientis in snow
Hideo Kishimoto
You may be surprised to learn that Japan is one of the only countries in the temperate zone that is covered with forest and greenery, and is so diverse that both drift ice and coral are just a few hours' flight from Tokyo. You won't find any other country like this in the world. Hokkaido is the "grand champion of the north", with orcas, whales, brown bears, red foxes, flower fields and colorful autumn leaves.

Japan is one of the world’s best wildlife destinations

The world is full of wildlife, and each region has its own great destinations. I want to go to Africa to see lions and giraffes, and to Oceania to see kangaroos and kiwis. I also want to visit the Galapagos Islands once in my life because it’s considered to be the starting point of evolution, with unique species such as the giant tortoise.

But did you know that Japan is also a world-class wildlife spot? I have a feeling that many people will be skeptical about this. I can’t blame them based on Japan’s image. But two thirds of Japan’s land is covered with forest. Few temperate countries are blessed with such an abundance of forest. Fly just a couple of hours from Tokyo and you’ll reach a region with drift ice just off the coast. Fly the same distance in the other direction and you’ll come to a place with profusions of coral. Japan is the southernmost place in the northern hemisphere to receive drift ice, and the northernmost place on earth where coral is found. No other country has such a wide range of nature packed into such a small area. Walk into the terminal of Narita Airport in February and you’re likely to find someone who’s going to walk on Hokkaido’s drift ice seated next to someone who plans on diving the coral reefs of Okinawa.

A fortnight’s trip is all you need to see a diverse range of nature. And with reliable, well-developed transportation and a low crime rate, you can travel at ease. This “archipelago of miracles” is a place to be savored by wildlife lovers.

An archipelago of miracles

Grab your nearest world map and look for Japan. Find the northernmost point (Hokkaido) and the southernmost point (Okinotori Island, Okinawa) and draw horizontal lines across the map from those points. You have just drawn a segment that encompasses swathes of Eurasia, Africa and North America. What do you see in between those two lines?

Look west from Japan and you’ll see one dry area after another – the Gobi Desert, the Taklamakan Desert, the Arabian Peninsula, the Saharan Desert and the southwest of the USA. Draw those lines in the same part of the Southern Hemisphere and you’ll see more of the same – the Australian Outback, the Kalahari Desert, the Namib Desert and the Atacama Desert. Everywhere else at Japan’s latitude is full of dry areas.

There is a scientific reason why there are so many dry areas: it’s because this area constantly receives dry westerly winds.

World map with Japan

If you look at the world as a whole, the place that receives the most heat from the sun is the area around the equator. In equatorial regions, the air heats up and creates updrafts that rise high up in the air. Clouds then form, causing rain that provides life for abundant rainforest. Have you ever wondered what happens to that dry air high up in the sky? Those strong updrafts mean that air cannot come straight down in equatorial regions. That dry air travels north and south, landing at the latitudinal area where Japan is located. Basically, dry air descends on the countries at Japan’s latitude, creating that series of deserts.

So why is Japan covered with such an abundance of forest and not deserts? There are reasons for this too. One is because of the Himalayas. That dry air is carried longitudinally around the world by westerly winds. It circulates this latitudinal area creating a band of dry areas extending east and west. But there is one area where this flow is interrupted: the Himalayas.

Those dry westerly winds circulate in an around 10km-thick portion of the atmosphere called the troposphere. The Himalayas block almost 9km of this area (Mt. Everest is 8,848m high). With the mountains in the way, the westerlies are forced to change course, curving through the Indian Ocean, South China Sea and East China Sea where they gradually gather moisture, bringing rain when they finally reach Japan.

Because the westerly winds are blocks, Japan receives an unusually high rainfall for the region, and it is thanks to this abundance of water that two thirds of its land is covered with forest. The typhoons in autumn and heavy snowfall in winter also mean that the land never gets dry enough to turn to desert.

From a global climate perspective, the fact that Japan is covered with forest is nothing short of a miracle. It’s the only place at these latitudes where you can see lush greenery instead of deserts.

Japan also has vast, rich seas. You may be surprised to learn that Japan has the sixth greatest area of sea in the world. The warm Kuroshio Current and cold Oyashio Current flow through the Pacific Ocean, creating a diverse ecosystem in the area where they converge. Meanwhile, the Sea of Japan used to be completely separate from the Pacific Ocean, which means that its ecosystem is totally different. Add in the extremely cold Sea of Okhotsk and the warm East China Sea and Japan’s waters are very diverse indeed, resulting in more diverse marine life than anywhere else in the world.

So Japan is a miraculous patch of forest surrounded by diverse seas in an area full of deserts. If you want to see some of the most diverse wildlife in the world, look no further than Japan.

Hokkaido is the “grand champion of the north” when it comes to wildlife

As I mentioned earlier, Japan is the only country in the whole world where you can wake up, walk on drift ice and then travel to a place with coral by nightfall. And when it comes to wildlife, Hokkaido is Japan’s “grand champion of the north”. If you’re a wildlife lover, spending some time here is a must. There are six national parks on this one island – make the most of your wildlife watching trip and check out all of them.

With clearly defined seasons, every season in Hokkaido brings its own spectacular sights. And the land and seas alike are full of prime wildlife watching spots. Remember that sightings of wildlife are not guaranteed, and it’s dangerous to venture into their homes alone. I recommend arranging a tour with an experienced eco-tour guide. Their prices might seem expensive before you go, but when you see what the guides are able to show you, it’s well worth the cost. Hokkaido has all kinds of hands-on nature tourism programs. Remember I mentioned walking on drift ice? Hokkaido is one of the only places in the world where you can do that. You’ll remember an experience like that for the rest of your life. And don’t worry about the cold – you’ll be given a drysuit that will protect you from freezing or drowning. That’s just one of the nature experiences Hokkaido has to offer. Whatever the season, whatever the region, there’s something to enjoy, from nature observations to canoeing and horse trekking. These programs are a great way to see Hokkaido’s wildlife while admiring its beautiful landscapes.

If I may digress for a moment, Hokkaido’s abundant nature also makes it a hot spot for delicious cuisine with plenty of fresh ingredients. The seafood from Hokkaido’s waters are a favorite among Japanese people. Its seafood rice bowls, sushi and crab dishes are outstanding, and there’s also an abundance of healthy seaweed such as kelp. Various Yezo venison dishes have also attracted attention in recent years. The Yezo deer population is enormous at present, and is affecting the local ecosystem, so these venison dishes don’t just provide people with a good meal, they also help to protect the region’s nature.

Hokkaido wildlife tourism throughout the year

In the freezing month of January, the drift ice in the Sea of Okhotsk is a must if you want to see Hokkaido’s wildlife. This area is filled with beautiful flowers in summer, but in winter it is transformed into a snowy wonderland. The drift ice begins drifting from Siberia around the New Year period. The Steller’s sea eagles and white-tailed eagles on top are a marvel to behold, and the tranquil spotted seals and awe-inspiring Steller sealions resting on the ice are the icing on the cake.

From spring to autumn, different wildlife appears on land and in the sea. In the sea, you can watch dolphins, whales and orca up close. Dolphins and whales gradually appear in Hokkaido’s waters from around mid-May, and then mostly disappear in autumn. Go whale watching in the summer holidays in July and August and you’ll see dolphins or whales of some kind almost every time. Rausu is a famous whale-watching spot, with nature cruises from Rausu Port where you can see Kunashir Island on the other side of the sea and are extremely likely to see dolphins and whales of all kinds, such as sperm whales, orcas and Pacific white-sided dolphins. The flocks of seabirds such as petrel are also an amazing sight. Tours like this are also available from Abashiri and Muroran, so choose the route nearest to where you’re visiting!

The best land wildlife is hands-down the Yezo brown bear. Hokkaido’s brown bears can be seen throughout the island, but the best place is Shiretoko, where the population density of bears is higher than almost anywhere else in the world. Obviously it’s very dangerous to go face to face with a bear, but the Five Lakes of Shiretoko area has high walkways that provide an easy vantage point even for novice wildlife watchers. There are also nature trails on the ground, with a 3km loop taking you through Shiretoko’s primeval forest. During the time of year when the bears are active, you can pay for a guided tour through their habitat by a licensed guide. You can also take a cruise and watch the bears on land from the boat.

Daisetsuzan National Park is a wonderful spot for those into mountaineering. A ropeway takes you high up in the mountains. As deciduous forest at the foot of the mountains gives way to a mixture of conifers and broadleaf trees and then Siberian dwarf pine forest and alpine plants in the highlands, you’ll see almost every species of wildlife that Hokkaido has to offer: brown bears, Yezo red foxes, Yezo weasels, sables, Yezo stoats, Yezo mountain hares, Yezo chipmunks, Yezo flying squirrels, Yezo squirrels, Yezo deer, shrews and more. Take a leisurely trek through the mountains and see how many you can spot.

And that’s just the mammals – Hokkaido is also a prime birdwatching spot. Hokkaido’s symbolic bird is the red-crowned crane, a natural monument of Japan known as “the god of the wetlands” in Ainu. You’ll see red-crowned cranes in Kushiro Shitsugen National Park. Named after the red area at the top of their heads, the red-crowned crane is an enormous bird with a wingspan of over 2m. Development and overhunting decimated its population at the end of the 19th century, but it is now recovering, with a current population of around 1,600. Vast flocks can be seen at sanctuaries during feeding season in winter. You’ll also see them in the wetland in summer. The Kushiro wetlands are also a sanctuary for various other birds, such as the white-tailed eagle, making this area a birdwatcher’s dream.

The wild plants are also beautiful. Throughout Hokkaido you can see mixtures of conifer and broadleaf forest, creating stunning colors in autumn. While places like Canada also have stunning autumn leaves, you mainly see expanses of the same color. Hokkaido’s autumn leaves are a mixture of red, yellow and all shades in between, creating a vivid palette that you won’t see in any other country.

And the alpine flower fields dotted throughout Hokkaido are a must-see. Rebun Island in Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park in the north of Hokkaido has beautiful flower fields even at low altitudes. The Daisetsuzan mountains that I mentioned before have a stunning patchwork of flower fields, and Koshimizu Primeval Flower Garden in the Okhotsk region is breathtaking.

Another highly recommended sight is moss balls, a special natural monument found in Lake Akan in Akan National Park. Take a cruise from the pier of Lake Akan to Churui Island, where you can see the moss balls.

If you’re looking for beautiful nature near Sapporo, Hokkaido’s political center, you can check out Shikotsu-Toya National Park. Onuma Quasi-National Park is also not one to be missed, and Furano and Biei are a family-friendly spot for watching Yezo red foxes.

Whatever your style, Hokkaido has a wildlife experience for you.

Storyteller

Nobuhiko Tanaka

Professor at the Tokai University School of Tourism

I am a professor at the Tokai University School of Tourism. After graduating from the Department of Forestry in the University of Tokyo’s Faculty of Agriculture, I got a Ph.D. (Agriculture, University of Tokyo). I worked as a senior researcher at the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute and a research planner in the research and conservation section of the Forestry Agency before being appointed in my current position in 2010. I specialize in tourism studies, forest preservation planning studies, landscaping studies and leisure and recreation studies.

Access & Maps

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Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu National Park
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Shiretoko National Park
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Akan-Mashu National Park
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Kushiro Shitsugen National Park
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Daisetsuzan National Park
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Shikotsu-Toya National Park
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Koshimizu Primeval Flower Garden
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Five Lakes of Shiretoko
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Churui Island
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Rausu Port