Japan's Alaska: Shiretoko Peninsula, the Final Frontier

  Eurasian red squirrel, Hokkaido subspecies

Eurasian red squirrel, Hokkaido subspecies

In case you missed the announcement earlier this week, we have a new photographer and storyteller featured on the Wild Focus Project! Eli Sooker is a NZ-based conservationist, writer, and photographer, and you can find his page in the Story collection. Eli is currently in Japan, and recently had the opportunity to visit the Shiretoko Peninsula, a wildlife haven. This week, he shares his photos and thoughts on the experience. Enjoy!


  Great spotted woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker

Alaska is well known as the rough and gutsy "final frontier" of the US, for populations of wild animals scarce elsewhere; bears, salmon, tonnes of snow...as most of you reading this will empathise with, it's a dream destination for nature lovers and wildlife photographers alike.

But I can just about guarantee less than a handful of you will have heard of the Shiretoko Peninsula in Japan. Although much lesser known, Shiretoko is just as spectacular a wilderness haven, and is known for populations of wild animals scarce elsewhere; bears, salmon, tonnes of snow...am I seeing a pattern here?

  Mt. Rausu

Mt. Rausu

  Shiretoko Five Lakes

Shiretoko Five Lakes

What's more, the name Shiretoko even means "end of the earth" in the Ainu (indigenous northern Japanese) language..."final frontier", anyone? All in all, I think it's fair to say that Shiretoko is the Japanese cousin of Alaska. It also happens to be a World Heritage National Park. With that in mind, it should definitely be on the list of dream destinations for nature lovers and wildlife photographers alike...

  Utoro town

Utoro town

I first found out about Shiretoko through watching a wildlife documentary series, "Wild Japan". As I was already acquainted with Japan and planned on going back there, finding interesting places to travel within the country was a lingering question on my mind.

  Fishing station inaccessible to the public. This is where fishermen occasionally feed bears and live in harmony with them.

Fishing station inaccessible to the public. This is where fishermen occasionally feed bears and live in harmony with them.

  Welcome to bear country.

Welcome to bear country.

"Wild Japan" featured an episode on a fishing station in Shiretoko where fishermen and bears were living alongside each other without fear; in fact, these fishermen occasionally fed the bears. Though this is generally advised against due to the danger of bears associating humans with food, the fishermen here could get away with it as their fishing station was located in an area inaccessible to the public, hence not posing any danger to other humans.

The area in Shiretoko inaccessible to the public spans around 190km2. Its main purpose is to maintain an untouched wilderness for the endangered species of Shiretoko to thrive in. Only researchers and select fishermen are allowed to enter this area.

Well, what can I say? I already had an obsession with bear conservation after having lived for some time in an area where bear-and-human conflicts were increasing. Add that to the concept of a place untouched by humans, and you had me hooked like a salmon on a bear claw!

Usagi brown bear.JPG
  Usagi brown bears

Usagi brown bears

So off to Shiretoko I went.

In the weeks leading up to my arrival, I had formed a fantasy of a week or longer spent doing nothing but hiking around stealthily with my camera poised ready to strike. It wasn't just bears I was interested in, but any living thing I could focus my lens on, and Shiretoko was home to many: deer, foxes, chipmunks, whales, and an incredible range of birds including the threatened Steller's sea eagle and Blakiston's fish owl. On top of that, it was geographical eye-candy with its combination of stretching mountain ranges, endless lush forests, transparent lakes, rocky coasts and blue seas.

Scroll through the gallery! Image guide: (1) Sika deer, (2) White tailed eagle spotted from afar, (3) ants dragging a dead beetle, (4), Blakiston’s fish owl at the Shari Museum, and (5) Sika deer.

  Although native, sika now require controlling in areas like Shiretoko. Various methods of protecting trees have also been developed.

Although native, sika now require controlling in areas like Shiretoko. Various methods of protecting trees have also been developed.

  This sika isn’t phased by cars on the road.

This sika isn’t phased by cars on the road.

Though my expectations were high, it's safe to say Shiretoko far outdid them. The five days I ended up spending there weren't nearly enough to satisfy my wildlife photography cravings; and yet every one of them was a glorious osmosis with Mother Nature and brought something new to me photography-wise. Never before have I had such excellent opportunities to experiment and train myself with camera settings.

There were failures aplenty, to be sure; adjusting shutter speed is something I'm still coming to terms with, as you can see from some of the photos. But I wanted to show both failures and successes to illustrate how my time in Shiretoko allowed me to develop while still experiencing some awe-inspiring wildlife.

  Juvenile slaty backed gulls

Juvenile slaty backed gulls

slaty backed gull juvenile.JPG

I had multiple chances at capturing the same wildlife images. There were not only challenges in getting the right settings, but also in capturing the photo at the right time. I'm sure you won't be surprised to hear I spent a good forty minutes at the salmon river, trying to click in time with their leap upstream.

  Salmon leaping upstream

Salmon leaping upstream

salmon 2.JPG

The Hokkaido frogs dotted the Lake Rausu track abundantly yet snapping them before they noticed me and hopped away was another matter entirely.

hokk frog 2.jpg
  Hokkaido frogs

Hokkaido frogs

The forest birds darted quickly; the seabirds swooped and changed directions with an ease I could only dream of. The bears and white-tailed eagles were three to four hundred metres away; the dolphins put me in such a state of surprise that I had barely whipped out my Nikon before they were on their way.

Scroll through the gallery! Image guide: (1) A hurried photo of pacific white-sided dolphins as they slide by our boat - sadly no time to get a focused shot, (2) Seabirds along the Shiretoko Peninsula, (3) West coast of Shiretoko Peninsula, (4) Taking close-ups of Shiretoko cliffs from the cruise boat.

All I can say is it's a good thing I can still retain the awe and joy of the moment through my own memory. Even the worst of the photos is enough to conjure up those feelings again. With any luck and more practice, I'll be able to more adequately transfer those feelings and an excitement about nature to others through great photography.

  Female mandarin duck at at Shiretoko Five Lakes

Female mandarin duck at at Shiretoko Five Lakes

It's without a doubt that I'll return to Shiretoko. I'm hungry for more, and after five days there I learnt many things that will enable me to get better photos the next time. What's more, every season has something different to offer, and I'm more than keen to experience the varying scenes and wildlife.

If you've read this far, I'm hoping I've revealed something new to you; a new place to experience incredible nature, and undoubtedly one to add to your list of go-to places. Though Alaska is still on my list, right now Japan's equivalent has left me with enough of a blown mind that I can l rest easy knowing I've had a taste of what's to come.

  Kamuiwakka Falls - free access to hot spring waterfalls

Kamuiwakka Falls - free access to hot spring waterfalls


Be sure to check out Eli’s story page on the Wild Focus Project! You can also see more of his work on his website, Facebook page, and Instagram.