Solitude in Kushiro Shitsugen – Hokkaido

Photo above: A deer in the wilderness. Kushiro Shitsugen in northeast Hokkaido forces you solitude upon you.


Whenever I’m alone in the mountains cycling, hiking, camping, or just taking photos, there are times when I stop what I’m doing, take a long look around and contemplate the existence of places like Tokyo, Osaka, or Nagoya. Stood in the middle of nowhere it often amazes me that they actually exist. Everyone talks about the contrasts in Japan between East and West, between modern and traditional cultures, but how many talk about the contrast between the manmade and the natural world?

When I went to Kushiro Shitsugen (shitsugen – wetlands・湿原) – apparently Japan’s largest national park – I knew that there were Japanese cranes and deer to be found. But eagles? Told at the tourist information office in Kushiro JR Station that if I went to the west of the wetlands I’d easily be able to jump on one of the frequent buses with all the other tourists, visit the wildlife sanctuaries and take plenty of photos. The east side was far less accessible (only a couple of trains a day),  had no shops, and not much chance of seeing wildlife because, as the young guy behind the desk informed me, ‘wild animals are wild so they don’t approach humans.’ (野生動物は野生なので人間に寄ってこない). No kidding!

So guess which side I chose? Give me solitude* in the wilderness any day over a bus full of tourists.

I took the morning train knowing full well that if I missed it at 1:20pm then I’d have to wait alone in the cold until 6:15pm or so to catch the next train back. Based on what I was told at the tourist office I wasn’t expecting to see anything but having no expectations is the secret to success.

A Steller’s Sea eagle along the Kushiro River.
The Kushiro River. The eagle in the tree off in the distance.
Steller’s Sea eagle near Toro Station.
Hiking through the reed to the river.

I also took a walk on the frozen wetlands. Deer are everywhere but these ones weren’t the passive kind you find in Nara. These had young fawn and were alert to my presence for the whole time I ventured off the main road. If I tried to get close they’d call out to the other deer and scatter. So I just sat there in silence, alone in the cold, just me and the deer.

With ears that large I had no chance.
Animal tracks over the frozen marsh.

Yes, I know. They’re only deer but watching them watching me made me contemplate how ridiculously easy it is to get out of the big cities and find peace in nature. And I’m so glad I no longer use Instagram or Facebook. Just imagine how ridiculous it would have been to sit there alone, posting updates one after the other, faffing about with a smartphone instead of being present in the moment.

Waving the last train for 5 hours goodbye.

I’m not a wildlife photographer and I genuinely had no idea what I was doing. But that’s not the point. The point is the map and the experience. Everything else is a bonus. Kushiro Shitsugen is a place worthy of

*Solitude by Japanese standards.

Cycled since I was a kid, moved to Japan in 2001, bought my first 'serious' camera in 2005. Spent the later half of the 1990s travelling in Australia, Hong Kong, India, Nepal, Japan, and the Philippines and wish I'd photographed a lot more back then.

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