Wrong Way Round – Day 13

Wrong Way Round – Day 13

Day 13 – Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel to Utoro (岩尾別ユース – 宇登呂) – 13km

There was a sign in English on the stall door to the youth hostel’s botton-benjo (ボットン便所 / composting toilet) that read, ‘If foreign objects accidentally fall in, please inform a member of staff’. Did this mean, I wondered, that should I accidentally drop my mobile phone down the loo, a member of staff would dive into the cess pool and retrieve it for me? And come to think of it, as a gaijin, did my poo count as a ‘foreign object’? Either way, the most interesting thing about the botton-benjo was that it was situated on the second floor, meaning there was a suspense-laden interval of about three seconds between releasing one’s foreign object, so to speak, and hearing it make a splash in the cess pool below.

Bears – who as we all know prefer the woods to a composting toilet – were very much the dominant theme at the Shirétoko Nature Centre just up the road, so if you can bear with me for a moment, I’ll give you the bear essentials, and I promise to keep it to the bear minimum:

An adult higuma (羆 / brown bear) can weigh up to 400kg, although its diet is 90% vegetarian. As well as wild salmon, the other 10% does occasionally include domesticated human – statistically speaking, about one unfortunate soul a year in the country as a whole – and brown bears can run at up to 50kph, which meant that even downhill, on a tarmaced road and with a following wind, I would barely be able to out-run one on the Transeo 4.0 GT 7005 City Cross Design (on my way down from the Shirétoko Pass the previous day, I had clocked a new top speed of 53kph).

As well as bear bells to warn unsuspecting bears of your presence, and bear spray (a kind of super-strength pepper spray) to ward them off in case they didn’t hear your bear bell, the souvenir shop at the Nature Centre sold bear candy, bear fridge magnets, bear warning signs, bear t-shirts and even bear-in-a-can for human consumption, which an assistant confirmed really did contain bear meat – in this case sautéed with soy sauce and mushrooms.

Large parts of the Shirétoko Peninsula are inaccessible by road, and there are various ways of travelling the twenty-five or so kilometres to its north-easternmost point, Shirétoko-misaki (知床岬 / Cape Shirétoko), which was the third corner on my circumnavigation of Hokkaido.

The cheapest option is to hike and the most expensive to go by helicopter, and while some sightseeing boats have on-board bars and restaurants, the Godzilla Rock (so-called because there is a rock next to Utoro Harbour that if you squint at it from a certain angle looks ever so slightly like Godzilla) was recommended to me because it afforded a closer view of the coastline, and therefore the bears.
As well as being a national park, the Shirétoko Peninsula was registered as a World Heritage site in 2005, and apart from the occasional jetty, log cabin or dirt track, is almost entirely untouched. Seen from the sea, its forests, lakes, cliffs and waterfalls are quite awe-inspiring, and as the captain of the Godzilla pointed out, some of the falls are volcanic (in the same way, the bath taps at Iwaobetsu Youth Hostel run with naturally hot water twenty-four hours a day).
The word ‘sir-étok’ means ‘end of the Earth’ in Hokkaido’s native Ainu language, and it struck me as I was surveying the majesty of this land-that-time-forgot that despite sightseeing helicopters, and canned bear meat, and mountain passes that take twenty-two years to build, and composting toilets, and rocks shaped like Godzilla, and World Heritage sites and national parks, that nature doesn’t give a damn. Nature doesn’t give a damn whether or not we want to protect it, or to live in harmony with it, because nature knows that it will be here long after we are gone – billions of years after we are gone, in fact.

When people talk about global warming, they talk about the fact that we are destroying the planet and that the planet needs to be saved, when what global warming threatens isn’t the planet at all, but us. If the worst-case scenarios in our computer-generated climate models come to pass, it will be the human race that disappears in a puff of its own hubris, while the planet, and places like Shirétoko – so vast, so solid and so immoveable – will continue to go about their business as if nothing had happened. The trees will continue to grow, the waters will continue to fall and the waves will continue to break against the cliffs, and while the bears, sadly, may not survive whatever catastrophe we bring about, life will go on.

Later in the afternoon I called Mr Cedar Mountain – one of the many cyclists I had met at the campsite in Shibetsu – and he invited me out to dinner at a local seafood restaurant with him and his wife.

Having given up farming – for the time being, at least – Mr Cedar Mountain was a self-confessed house husband. He had lost both of his parents while he was still in elementary school – ‘because of the war’ he said, although he must have meant indirectly, as this would have been in the early fifties – and subsequently lived in orphanages or was looked after by relatives.
‘Because my parents died young,’ he said, ‘I always assumed that I would too, which is why I went off and travelled around the world. Now that I’m older, though, I’ve realised that I needn’t have been in such a hurry. There’s still plenty of time to do what I want to do.’

Back at their apartment we watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics (before any newcomers to this blog think they have travelled back in time, a quick reminder that the cycle tour described in Wrong Way Round took place almost five years ago), and Mr and Mrs Cedar Mountain insisted that rather than brave the local campsite, I stay the night in their spare room.

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