Hokkaido: Japan’s Wild Island

Mark Brazil|July 31, 2018|Field Report

Sunday, May 20, 2018
Narita, Japan

We gathered from Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, UK, and the USA at the ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel Narita for our welcome reception and dinner in the company of our Zegrahm Expedition Leader, Michael (MiMo) Moore, and his enthusiastic team of expedition staff. The reception room was soon buzzing with conversation and anticipation of our exciting voyage—the first expedition cruise circumnavigating Hokkaido!

Monday, May 21
Narita / Tokyo / Niigata / Embark Caledonian Sky

On our way into Tokyo, Japan’s bustling capital, some of us glimpsed views of majestic and iconic Mt. Fuji; at 12,388 feet, the country’s tallest volcano, was peeping through the high-rise buildings. Much closer at hand, the Tokyo Skytree (2,080 ft), the tallest structure in the land, was more dominant. Visiting Senso-ji (the Asakusa Kannon Temple) and strolling the crowded alleys leading to it gave us our first insights into Japan’s Buddhist religious history, in the graceful charm of a temple that dates back to 645 AD, and the frenetic pace of her modern consumerist culture and her attraction to tourists from around the world.  

After lunch at the Tobu Hotel nearby, we boarded our impressive bullet train (Shinkansen Toki 344) bound for Niigata and hit speeds in excess of 125 mph as we rocketed across Japan’s main island of Honshu. Along the way the mountainous and forested nature of the country became obvious as did the way in which suburban sprawl encroaches upon the spread of agriculture in the narrow inhabitable valleys between the mountains. Freshly planted rice fields were vividly green, while winter wheat crops were already ripening to a tawny brown.

Arriving in Niigata we were greeted by Hanano Komachi, a Niigata City Manga and Anime character, the first of many mascot figures that we were to meet during our travels. We then transferred to our staterooms aboard the Caledonian Sky and settled in with a safety drill and welcome briefings from our EL and our Cruise Director, Lynne Greig, before our first meal on board.

Tuesday, May 22  
At Sea

After a calm night at sea we continued sailing northwards during the day, bound for Hokkaido. Today was an opportunity to relax, overcome jetlag, and settle in for the commencement of our lecture series. Ornithologist and author Mark Brazil began with his introductory overview of his adopted country in Japan a Land in Turmoil: The Geography of Japan.  With the scene set, team member Amy Loewen continued with her presentation Language Matters: Japanese Demystified, followed by cultural geographer Ron Wixman who explored with us the all-important synthesis of Japanese Culture and Religion. After a break from education for an ice cream social, naturalist and photographer Rich Pagen gave the final presentation of the day with his entertaining From Cranes to Giant Salamanders: Wildlife and Humans Sharing Japan’s Ancient Landscape.

This evening, Captain Håkan Gustafsson welcomed us formally to his vessel with a reception and welcome dinner. 

Wednesday, May 23
Otaru, Hokkaido / Sapporo

Hokkaido! This morning we sailed into Otaru Harbor and made our first excursions ashore. Most of us headed into Sapporo, the island prefecture’s capital, where we visited the Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium, saw the historic Hokkaido government building and clock tower, visited Nijo Market, and enjoyed a typical Hokkaido barbecue known as “Genghis Khan” at the Sapporo Beer Garden before returning to explore the Otaru canal district known as Sakai Machi. Meanwhile, the birders were ashore in Otaru visiting Nagahashi Naebo Park and the Kiroro Ski Resort area where they found a range of resident and summer migrant species, along with several Eurasian red squirrels. We ended the day with our first recap of the voyage during which our staff talked about topics that had struck them during the day, or explored cultural aspects of Japan.

Thursday, May 24
Teuri Island / Rishiri Island

Before sunrise this morning we approached tiny Teuri Island and watched streams of rhinoceros auklets flying south from their colony. In another first, we were able to lower boats and take a pre-breakfast Zodiac cruise along the southwest coast of the island. There we found scores of pretty spectacled guillemots on the water, their red feet bright against their dark plumage. Occasional rhinoceros auklets were sighted too, along with pelagic and Temminck’s cormorants, and spotted seals. Overhead, screaming parties of Pacific swifts hurtled by in display, while from the island we could hear the delightful songs of recently arrived Siberian rubythroats. As we returned to the ship, we could see our next destination, Mt. Rishiri (also known as Rishiri Fuji), rising majestically from the ocean to the north. After breakfast, and as we sailed toward Rishiri, geologist John Buchanan introduced us to the turbulence that makes Japan tick in his presentation Plate Tectonics, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Oh My!

After a barbecue on deck, we went ashore in the afternoon on Rishiri Island. In fine weather we visited the forested environs of Hime-numa (Pond) and the Nozuka viewpoint, while some also visited the local Rishiri Forest Park and Cape Kutsugata. Within walking distance of the harbor was another treat in the form of an onsen. After Mark’s precap yesterday of the significance of Japan’s ancient therapeutic bathing culture, this proved enormously popular, so we set off in a large group for our hot spring soak expedition to the Rishiri Fureai Onsen, and a delightfully relaxing time was had by all. 

Friday, May 25
Rebun Island / Wakkanai

In contrast to the warmth and sunshine of the last few days, today dawned cool and cloudy. A hearty drizzle seemed keen on becoming rain and made our excursions a little more challenging. However, undeterred by the weather, we set off ashore by Zodiac to Kafuka Port and began exploring Rebun, Japan’s northernmost island, known as the “island of flowers.” Our excursion took in the Todo-shima viewpoint and the rather cold and bleak Cape Sukoton, described locally as the northernmost point of Japan; there, many of us tried famous dashi soup and kombu (kelp) ice cream in the souvenir shop. A highlight on Rebun was our walk to admire the spring blooms, in particular the rare and local Rebun lady’s slipper orchids, which were beautifully covered with water droplets.

Meanwhile, the very same weather conditions proved ideal for birdwatching as many migrants were brought down and into view by the bad weather. So many birds were present that the birders hardly strayed from the southern shore of Lake Kushu, where they were stunned to find a yellow-rumped flycatcher and a Chinese pond heron, so rare that Mark had never seen either of them in Hokkaido before!

Once back on board the Caledonian Sky, we sailed for Wakkanai to clear out of Japan. Along the way we continued our lecture series with cultural demonstrator Mayumi Brazil giving her presentation, and much photographed demonstration, Kimono: Japanese Clothing, Fashion, and Style.

Saturday, May 26
Korsakov / Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Sakhalin, Russia

Overnight we left Japan and arrived in Russia! Landing at Korsakov this morning, our excursions took us northwards to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the capital of the Sakhalin region. We visited the cathedral, a local market, a museum located in an historic Japanese-era building where we saw a newly married couple having their wedding pictures taken, and lunched at Mega, a trendy restaurant where we were entertained by a local Cossack troupe with energetic dances and lively songs. After a hearty lunch fuelled with vodka, many of us enjoyed a visit to a nearby supermarket to view local produce. Meanwhile, the birdwatchers enjoyed their visit to Solovyovka Bay and the forests nearby.

As we cleared Russian immigration once more, and headed south down Aniva Bay bound for Abashiri in Japan, Ron delved into the past, revealing the regional and global implications of The Impact of the Russo-Japanese War, followed by Mark who gave a broad introduction to the island prefecture around which we were sailing in his presentation, Hokkaido: Japan’s Northern Natural Jewel. In between, Mayumi, and our local guide team, taught us the traditional art of origami as some participated and others watched during afternoon tea.

Sunday, May 27
Abashiri, Hokkaido, Japan

Arriving back into Japan, we cleared immigration once more and soon set off on our day-long exploration of the Abashiri area and Akan-Mashu National Park. We stopped briefly at Shibazakura Park, overwhelmed by a whole hillside of Hello-Kitty-pink Phlox, then continued to the Mokotoyama viewpoint for our first view of the enormous Lake Kussharo caldera before visiting beautiful Lake Mashu, another spectacular caldera, and the belching sulphuroles billowing steam at Iwo-zan. Some visited the Sumo Museum dedicated to the late grand champion Taiho in Kawayu. After lunch there was time to revel in a hot spring foot-bath opportunity at an outdoor onsen at Wakoto, while others walked in the woods along the Wakoto Peninsula trail. Concluding a day of spectacular scenery and fascinating volcanology, we dropped by at Bihoro Pass to admire the broad vista of Lake Kussharo to the east and the plains towards the coast to the north. Meanwhile, the birders explored the shallow coastal lagoon known as Toufutsu-ko, and a woodland trail beside Lake Abashiri.

Once back on board, we were all treated to some special entertainment. Zegrahm Expeditions had commissioned a performance by Ainu Moshiri, led by Atuy-san, from the Kotan Ainu community beside Lake Kussharo. It proved to be a superb and moving example of living culture, showing a revival in Ainu music and dance, employing Ainu sentiments with modern instruments and styles.

Monday, May 28
Abashiri / Shiretoko Peninsula

Our second morning in Abashiri included a pleasant walk to enjoy the cliff-top scenery of Cape Notoro; a visit to the excellent Northern People’s Museum, where we learned much more about the indigenous Ainu of Hokkaido; and an opportunity to engage in retail therapy. Meanwhile, the birders made a return visit to Lake Tofutsu to enjoy more views of shorebirds, then took a birding walk in Komaba Kinohiroba Park. By mid-morning we were back on board and setting off for the Shiretoko Peninsula, watching for seabirds and marine mammals along the way. Amy entertained us in the afternoon with her presentation about Japanese culture entitled At Your Service, and many of us spent hours on deck enjoying the scenery of the Shiretoko Peninsula, the Russian-occupied island of Kunashiri to the east, and catching glimpses of porpoises and whales as we went. It was a beautifully clear and sunny voyage, and at times we ran through dense flocks of short-tailed shearwaters, which pattered away from us across the water in their thousands.

As we sailed down the shallowest part of the Nemuro Channel, separating Hokkaido from Kunashiri, our EL ran ahead in a Zodiac confirming soundings, and we gathered for a barbecue dinner on the Lido deck, ending another wonderful day in Hokkaido.

Tuesday, May 29

The cold ocean current flowing south from the Bering Sea, past the Kuril Islands, and meeting the warm southerly air current from the Pacific regularly brews fog along the southeast coast of Hokkaido, and today was no exception. Thankfully, the fog cleared as we headed ashore in Kushiro. Excursions set off in various directions; the keen walkers joined John to visit Lake Takkobu and walk to the Yumegaoka viewpoint, while the birders traveled inland to meet a local crane photographer and to watch wild nesting cranes in beautiful Kottaro Marsh. Some of us visited the Washo Market in town, where we ate excellent Katte-don, and visited the Kushiro Shitsugen Observatory, where we walked a boardwalk trail behind the observatory tower. After lunch on board the ship, we visited the Crane Park near Kushiro Airport and were fortunate to see cranes breeding in captivity—some even glimpsed a young chick. Also on our afternoon’s agenda was the surprisingly excellent Kushiro City Museum—a remnant of a recent past when the economy was booming. The museum’s Ainu and natural history exhibits were particularly beautifully displayed. On returning to port yet another mascot figure was waiting for us, this time in the spherical green shape of Marimu-chan, representing the local marimo, a strange spherical algae that grows in Lake Akan. 

Wednesday, May 30

Continuing our clockwise circumnavigation of Hokkaido, we arrived this morning in the industrial port city of Muroran. Our excursions took us out over the impressive Hakucho Oohashi Harbor Bridge then in several different directions. Birdwatchers headed east to Lake Poroto for a woodland walk, then for lunch and more birding beside Lake Shikotsu, a spectacular caldera flanked by dramatic Mt. Eniwa to the north and Mt. Monbetsu to the east. Meanwhile, other tours took us to the Toya Open Air Sculpture Park, to the Windsor Hotel for an excellent lunch, then Lake Toya to cruise the lake in a castle boat, before visiting Mt. Usu (part of the Global Geopark Network). We reached the mountain by way of a gondola ride to enjoy the view out across the great caldera of Lake Toya and to look out over Showa Shinzan, a new volcano, which emerged and erupted in 1943. Some visited the well-designed Toyako Volcano Science Museum and walked the Nishiyama Trail to see first-hand the impact of the 2000 eruption in the area. Back on board the Caledonian Sky once more, we were treated to a splendid send off from the local Soran dancers before an excellent Filipino dinner; then we set sail for Hakodate, our final port of call in Hokkaido.

Thursday, May 31

In 1859, Yokohama, Nagasaki, and Hakodate became the first open ports in Japan. Hakodate not only became the first open port in Hokkaido, but also a window into Japan for the few foreign residents allowed to live there at the time. Consequently, the city can boast of a number of buildings dating back to the late 19th century—something of a rarity in Japan—that help give the city a somewhat dated, but international feel.

Our morning and afternoon excursions took in the Hakodate morning market; the star-shaped Goryokaku Fort, built originally for defense purposes against the threat of the Russian fleet; then after lunch on board, we visited Mt. Hakodate with its monument to Captain Thomas Wright Blakiston (of Blakiston’s Line and Blakiston’s fish owl fame) and its commanding view across the Tsugaru Strait that separates Hokkaido from Honshu, and the contrasting districts of Motomachi and Kanemori red brick warehouses revealing the western and Japanese influences on this particularly Hokkaido city. Many of us enjoyed hunting for new flavors of Kit Kat, while others searched for new manhole covers. Whereas Kushiro’s drain covers had sported wonderful designs of red-crowned cranes, Hakodate proudly displayed the local specialty of squid on theirs. Some even sampled squid-ink soft ice cream.

For others, the trails around the islands in the Lake Onuma Quasi National Park were a lush and green divergence from the city, and in the afternoon Mt. Esan to the east provided spectacular volcanic scenery with billowing steam vents, hillsides of flowering azaleas, an opportunity to taste miso soup made with five kinds of local seaweed, and of course some pleasant birding.

Sailing away from Hakodate and Hokkaido this evening, we completed our first ever circumnavigation of Japan’s northern island and headed south for Akita in Honshu.

Friday, June 1
Akita, Honshu

We arrived into Akita in cloud and rain, but the welcome from the city was a warm one. Hairy goblins, Namahage, were awaiting us and gave a rousing drum performance on Japanese taiko. Fortunately, the weather improved during the course of the day, and we returned at the day’s end from three very different and much enjoyed excursions. Some drove inland to visit the region’s most beautiful valley—Dakigaeri Canyon—and view the Mikaeri-no-taki waterfall. Some explored Kakunodate, the “Kyoto of Tohoku,” wandering the charming streets of the town’s samurai quarter before a good lunch at Akita View Hotel. Many visited the Akita Museum of Art and the local Senshu Park, where not only was there an opportunity to stroll about the park, but the chance to do so in the photogenic company of a beautifully kimono-clad maiko (trainee geisha). Some traveled north to the extensive rice growing area of Hachirogata, to search (successfully!) for rare birds such as marsh grassbird and Japanese reed bunting. On returning to the port terminal building at the end of our excursions, we found an excellent display of local products to tempt us, a giant, inflatable Akita-inu, and the now expected mascot figure—this time clad as a Namahage.

As this was our last night on board, we all hurried back from our excursions to pack, change, and to share farewell cocktails with Captain Håkan Gustafsson and his crew. We had experienced a wonderful day in the Akita area, but none of us expected what came next—the city had laid on a firework display specially for us, and not just any firework display; this one was truly spectacular. The prefecture is renowned for hosting one of Japan’s three major firework competitions, and Akita seemed bent on showcasing their capabilities. The buzz and excitement amongst guests, staff, and crew was immense and the commonest comments overheard were that “we’ve never seen such a fantastic display before.” It was a truly magnificent send-off.

After our final dinner aboard, we gathered once more to join Rich and enjoy his special presentation, Photos from our Circumnavigation of Hokkaido Voyage. 

Saturday, June 2
Niigata / Tokyo / Disembark

Our final day together in Japan came round all too soon. We said our farewells to the officers and crew of the Caledonian Sky, boarded Shinkansen Toki 314, and barreled along at a very high speed, Tokyo bound. Japan’s mountain and rice field landscape now seemed so much more familiar than at the commencement of our journey, but nevertheless after the countryside and small cities of Hokkaido, the extent and density of Tokyo’s urban area came as something of a shock in contrast. We lunched just across the street from Tokyo Tower at the oddly named, but pleasant, The Place of Tokyo, then went our several ways as some set off to explore Kasai Rinkai Park in search of birds, and others viewed the entrance to the Imperial Palace and visited the famous Meiji-jingu (Shinto shrine) where we were extremely fortunate to see a traditional Japanese wedding in progress.

Our very last group gathering was in the Hotel Okura Orchid Banquet Room for our farewell reception, drinks, a splendid buffet dinner including both sushi and tempura stands, and to say our farewells.

Sunday, June 3

Today we went our separate ways, some taking flights home, some traveling onwards, and yet more remaining in Japan for further exploration.


 “Warau kado ni wa, fuku kitaru”

(Good fortune visits a family filled with smiles)

Traditional Japanese proverb

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