The Nemuro Area: Bird Watching and Under-ice Fishing



 The Nemuro area is located on the easternmost tip of the island of Hokkaido, in northern Japan. The area covers 3406.23 square kilometers (about 1315 square miles) and consists of the City of Nemuro and the towns of Betsukai, Nakashibetsu, Rausu, and Shibetsu. The disputed Southern Kurile islands are also considered a part of the Nemuro area in Japan.

 The Nemuro area is famed for its unspoiled nature: its wild wetlands bustling with wild birds of all kinds and windy shores by the Okhotsk Sea and the Pacific Ocean. The most well-known lakes in the area are Lake Furen and Lake Onneto. Some of the birds you can meet in the Nemuro area are Whooper Swans, Stellar’s sea eagles, and Harlequin ducks.

 In this column, you can read about the beautiful nature of the Nemuro area and the fun and exciting outdoor activities you can participate in there.

The Nemuro area basics

 Nemuro subprefecture—or the Nemuro area as we title it in this blog post—covers the coastal area from Nemuro peninsula to the southern half of Shiretoko Peninsula in southeast Hokkaido. Both of the peninsulas stretch out to the east making the area roughly the shape of the letter C. The Cape Nosappu at the tip of the Nemuro peninsula is the most eastern point in Hokkaido. The southern part of the Nemuro area is quite flat and in the middle of it lays the Nekushiro plateau with many dairy farms. The northern parts are mountainous with the Shiretoko mountain range.

 The capital of the subprefecture is Nemuro city (about 24,000 inhabitants) in the Nemuro Peninsula and other settlements in the area are the towns of Rausu (about 4,600 inhabitants), Shibetsu (about 5,000 inhabitants), Nakashibetsu (about 23,000 inhabitants), and Betsukai (about 14,500 inhabitants). Fishing and agriculture are the main industries of the area but ecotourism is also a growing area of business in Nemuro. Local specialty dishes are of course made of locally harvested ingredients, so if you want to taste some regional delicacies, try for example hanasakigani (king blue crab) ramen, pork escalope, or Holland senbei crackers.

 The Nemuro area has been inhabited by the indigenous Ainu people of Japan and Russia for hundreds of years and place names of the area also come from the Ainu language. What comes to the origins of the name Nemuro, there are several interpretations. Some of them are ‘ni mu oro’ (a place where trees are flourishing), ’ni moy’ (tree bay), and ‘mem or o pet’ (a river that is always where spring water is). Three of the towns in the area have ‘betsu’ in their name. It comes from Ainu ‘pet’ and means ‘a river.’ ‘Kai’ in Betsukai comes from ’kay, to bend,’ so the whole name means ‘a riven bend’. The ‘si’ in Shibetsu means ‘big’ or ‘major’, so the whole name of the town (‘si pet’) means ‘a big river’ in Ainu, referring to the wide River Churui flowing through the town. Nakashibetsu was born in 1946 when Shibetsu town was split in two. ‘Naka’ in the name is Japanese and means ‘inside’. The town is to inland from the Shibetsu town, hence the name. The etymology of the name Rausu is somewhat unclear, but the components of the name are ‘ra’ (several meanings, for example ‘intestines’ or ‘low’), ‘us’ (to be a lot or many) and ‘(h)i’ (a place), so some of the suggestions are ‘a place where there are a lot of intestines’ (Ainu used to disembowel their catch here after hunting and leave the intestines there) and ‘river that is in a low place’, depending on how you interpret the meaning of ‘ra’. Like this, the names of the towns in the area still reflect the way Ainu looked at the world surrounding them and what kind of activities they engaged in the area.

 The island of Hokkaido is divided in two by a vaste mountain range—Daisetsuzan—running north to south in the middle of Hokkaido. The east side of Daisetsuzan is called Doto/Dōtō (道東) in Japanese and it simply means Eastern Hokkaido in English. Eastern Hokkaido faces the Pacific Ocean in the south and Sea of Okhotsk in the north. The land area is mainly hilly with some plains and two large volcanic groups in Akan and in Shiretoko. The summers in the area are cool and the winters colder than in the western side of the Daisetsuzan mountain range. On the other hand, the mountains block the snow clouds coming from the continent and the snowfall in Eastern Hokkaido is smaller than that of Western Hokkaido. A unique phenomenon witnessed yearly at the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk is drift ice that floats down from the coast of China and Siberia to Eastern Hokkaido coastline up until the tip of Shiretoko Peninsula, which is the most southern point where you can see drift ice in the whole world.

 To get more travel ideas in Eastern Hokkaido, take a look at our earlier blog columns Okhotsk: The land of flowers in the East and Shiretoko: The peninsula at the end of the earth as well as staff experience column White Weekend at Shiretoko Peninsula.

 The population of Eastern Hokkaido is decreasing due to the aging population and migration to larger cities, and because of this, the area does not have very well-connected public transportation. Especially train connections have been suspended and also busses run infrequently. Nemuro is indeed one of the most distant places seen from the main hub of Hokkaido, Sapporo City. By car, it takes over 6 hours to travel the 423-kilometer-long (263-mile-long) distance between Sapporo and Nemuro.

 In many cases the best option is to take a plane and fly to the Nakashibetsu airport near Nemuro city. There are three daily non-stop flights from New Chitose Airport—the main airport in Hokkaido, about a 30-minute drive away from Sapporo. The airport is also accessible from Tokyo: there is a daily non-stop flight from Haneda airport to Nakashibetsu airport. The flight time is only 1 hour 40 minutes, so if your starting point is in Tokyo, airplane is an optimal means of transport for you. If you compare the flight time with for example Tokyo-Nagoya flight time (1 h 50 min), as you can see, Nemuro is actually very close to Tokyo!

At the shores and cliffs of Nemuro

 There are several capes at the Nemuro peninsula worth visiting for their amazing views. One of the most famous capes is Cape Nosappu, the easternmost point of Hokkaido. From the cape, you can also see islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan, and Habomai: The contested islands that both Russia and Japan claim to occupy. Russia calls the islands the Southern Kuriles and for Japan the name is the Northern Territories. At the tip of the cape, the historical Cape Nosappu Lighthouse, taken into use in 1872, has been guiding the vessels sailing the seas around Cape Nosappu for 150 years.

 Another cape (and a lighthouse) worth visiting in Nemuro is Cape Ochiishi. The cape is about 40 meters (131 feet) from the sea level and the top is relatively flat. Cape Ochiishi Lighthouse is deemed as one of the top 50 lighthouses in Japan. When you look at the lighthouse from the sea, it just looks like a lighthouse standing on top of a cliff but looking from the inland, you can see that the lighthouse is standing in the middle of a wetland. To get an idea how amazing this place looks like, take a look at the video below.

 Another cape with another lighthouse is Cape Hanasaki with Cape Hanasaki lighthouse. However, the interesting point here is not the cape nor the lighthouse, but a curious rock formation called Kurumaishi, that is, Cartwheel stone. Cliffs with columnar joints can be found in many locations in Hokkaido but Kurumaishi is formed with rare radial joints. To see the Kurumaishi, you can walk the small road down to the lighthouse and then the path between the lighthouse and the ocean until you reach the stone. There are also several other smaller rock formations with radial joints than the big Kurumaishi, so take a look at those, too, while you are there!

Notsuke Peninsula is a bow-shaped sandy landslip that arches itself between the towns of Betsukai and Shibetsu. The 26-kilometer-long sandy peninsula is the longest of the type in Japan and quite popular among the locals for its breathtaking views. The name of the peninsula comes from the Ainu language ‘notkew’, which means lower jaw. According to a legend, a gigantic whale was washed ashore here and the peninsula was formed on its huge lower jaw bone. One of the favorites at Notsuke Peninsula is Todowara—a forest of dead pine created by creeping sea water—which creates an end-of-the-world like scenery. This place is a paradise for wild bird watchers and you can see especially Stellar’s sea eagles, White-tailed eagles and Whooper Swans here.

Nemuro lakes and wetlands

 In addition to the capes and beaches, there are several lakes and wetlands with a variety of wild birds and plants in Nemuro. One of the most famous lakes is Lake Furen, which is brackish lake (that is, a lake with salty water but not as salty as sea water) connected to Nemuro bay. The lake is located partly in Nemuro city and partly in Betsukai town. The circumference of Lake Furen is about 96 kilometers (about 60 miles) but there are only a few points where you can approach the lake easily. One of them is Shukunitai sandbar, which partly separates Lake Furen from the ocean. Shunkunitai is a 1.3 kilometers wide and 8 kilometers long sandbar formed between Lake Furen and Nemuro Bay when the ocean currents have slowly amassed the sand there. There is a mossy red pine forest growing on the sandbar, which is an extremely rare phenomenon in the whole world scale. The name Shukunitai comes from Ainu language ‘sunku nitay’, which simply means a pine tree (sunku) forest (nitay).

 Another brackish lake in Nemuro peninsula is Lake Onneto to the east of Lake Furen. Lake Onneto is smaller than Lake Furen with a circumference of 15 kilometers (a bit more than 9 miles). The water level of the lake changes by tide and during the low tide, there is a large tidal flat norther parts of the lake where people go for shell gathering. Note that there is also another lake called ‘Onneto’ in Eastern Hokkaido, that is, Lake Onneto in to Akan National Park, in Ashoro. Even though the pronunciation of the names of the two lakes is the same, this Nemuro Onneto is written in kanji characters (温根沼) but the Onneto in Ashoro is written with katakana syllables (オンネトー). This is good to keep in mind when planning your trip, so that you will end up in the correct lake! Both are of course very beautiful places, so if you only have the time, it’s worth visiting both.

 Lake Furenko and Lake Onneto are both excellent spots for birdwatching with confirmed sightings of over 250 different species. The birds you can see here are among others Stellar’s sea eagles, White-tailed eagles, Whooper swans, and many more. If you want to try to spot endangered species like Blakiston fish owl or Tufted puffin (etopirika in Japanese, etupirka in Ainu), for the former, try Shiretoko or Yoroushi Hot Springs in Nakashibetsu and for the latter, Kiritappu wetland in the neighboring Akkeshi district to the west of Nemuro.

 For other activities around other lakes in Hokkaido, see our earlier posts about Lake Shikaribetsu, Lake Onuma, Lake Toya and Lake Mashu.

Outdoor activities in Nemuro

 As you have probably already noticed by reading the text about Nemuro above, the Nemuro area is not a prominent tourist area with many man-made attractions and entertainments but it rather remains in its untouched natural state. And this exactly is the charm of Nemuro. This is of course great news to all the outdoorsy people out there!

 As mentioned earlier in this blog column, the sea and the ocean in the Nemuro area do not freeze to the south of the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula. However, the brackish lakes in Nemuro—for example, Lake Furen and Lake Onneto—do freeze because of their lower salt content and thus lower freezing point. So, what do you do, when you want to fish during the time when the lakes are frozen? You do it under the ice of course! Under-ice fishing with nets is a more than a hundred years old traditional fishing method at Nemuro: You will break a hole in the ice, put in your nets, and wait. Afterward, you can taste some local grilled fish at the lakeshore (availability of this activity depends on the season). And don’t worry, you can rent out winter boots, so you don’t have to bring your own.

 The fish that can be caught here are among others herring, flounder, and saffron cod (komai in Japanese). After you pull the nets up, the catch of fish is sorted and the fish the fishers don’t need are spread over the ice for the birds (Steller’s sea eagles, White-tailed eagles, etc.) to eat. And there will be many birds! Just look at the video below.

 That brings us to the next recommended activity in Nemuro: Bird watching and/or photographing. An especially popular target for both birdwatchers and photographers are the majestic Stellar’s sea eagles and White-tailed eagles. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you want to know more about bird watching tours or bird photographing tours in the Nemuro area.

 Be it a birdwatching tour on the wetlands or a private ice fishing experience, we are here for you. If you feel that Nemuro should be on your travel bucket list, let us know!