The Shiretoko Ryūhyō Festival: Drift Ice and Snow by Night
Making It About the Experience
Considered the tourist gateway to Shiretoko—the northern Hokkaidō peninsula whose wild nature earned it a UNESCO listing as a World Heritage site—the town of Shari experiences build-ups of drift ice, owing to its local geography and the ocean currents in the Sea of Okhotsk. On some winter days one can see drift ice floes stretching from the coast to the horizon. The sea ice abuts the coastline typically from early February through to early March, which is when tourists flock to the area for the wintry views.
For three decades, an evening public event known as Shiretoko Fantasia was held during the drift ice season in the Utoro district, a region adjacent to a World Natural Heritage Site area. The event, whose centerpiece was a laser light show, was closed in 2016 and replaced thereafter by the Shiretoko Ryūhyō (drift ice) Festival, staged in the National Shiretoko Campsite, a facility that is otherwise closed during the winter months. The new festival is intended to give attendees a participatory experience of the natural environs of Shiretoko, whereas the Fantasia was purely a spectator event, something to look at from a distance.
One Impressive Ice Dome
From 6:30 to 9:00 each evening during its run, the Shiretoko Ryūhyō Festival site is illuminated, giving it a phantasmal air. The most eye-catching aspects this year are the ice dome and ice towers made by the modelmaker Takenaka Hirohiko.
Takenaka built the structures in some three weeks, chiefly with the assistance of local fisherpeople. Describing the creation of the structures as the result of a “dance” between himself and the natural environment, the artist adds that he took inspiration for them from the atmosphere and views of the Shiretoko area itself, approaching the task with no predetermined designs in mind.
Upon entering the ice dome, one finds oneself in an ice cavern going on and on, like a labyrinth. The shapes of the very walls of the dome and the fixtures within them stimulate the senses as though each has its own awareness; these icy forms seem not at all manmade. A refreshment stand called “Bar the Ice” is on the premises, offering hot beverages and original cocktails in a room warmer than outside. Take your time going through the dome and stop there for a breather.
Nature at Its Own Pace
In addition to fireplaces at various spots in the installation, outdoor equipment including hammocks and hanging tents is on hand for visitors to use. Campfires offer toasted foods including salmon jerky, marshmallows, cheese, and sausage, in addition to places to get warm. Shiretoko is also known for its stargazing, and lying back in one of the hammocks to look up is recommended on clear nights.
Other activities include tree-climbing by night on the weekends. A large tent is the venue for talks by nature guides who are expert in the Shiretoko environs.
Electrical River, a string of illumination lights which light up in various patterns in response to people passing by, is strung along the path to the Yūhidai observation deck, located off to one side of the campsite. The deck affords what is said to be the first ever overlook of illuminated drift ice, and is well worth the walk.
The popular food onsite is Shiretoko-chepu-man, a Chinese-style steamed bun with grilled salmon and vegetable filling. The dish is unique to Shari, famed as the place where more salmon is caught than anywhere else in Japan. The special coffee corner in the ice shelter offers Shiretoko Drift Ice Coffee, an original blend made with beans roasted onsite. Both are delicious ways to warm chilled bodies from the inside out.
Winter in Shiretoko
If you’re attending the Shiretoko Ryūhyō Festival by night, then take in the sights of Shari by day. The main tourist attraction at this time of year by far is the drift ice itself. Visitors can touch and even stand on the floes that are washed up onshore. Guided drift ice walking tours, which let participants walk out on the ice in buoyant drysuits, have become very popular in and around Utoro in recent times.
For a particularly good overlook of the drift ice, go to Cape Puyuni, located in the World Natural Heritage Site area near Utoro. From here one can see the whole of the Shari drift ice zone. At nearby Furepe Waterfall, one can also see Japanese deer in the wild, as well as the precipice of Shiretoko Peninsula. Another attraction is the Yūhidai observation deck, where visitors can see the drift ice set off by the setting sun.
While Shiretoko during winter provides fewer accessible places than in summer, it offers a profound sense of the extraordinary instead. The natural appeal of the place can be best experienced during the festival period, after sundown.
The 2019 Third Annual Shiretoko Ryūhyō Festival
- National Shiretoko Campsite, Utoro Kagawa, Shari-chō, Hokkaidō
- Jan. 30–Feb. 28, 2019
- 6:30–9:00 pm, weather permitting
- Admission: ¥500 (includes Shiretoko-tokosan commemorative pin and one beverage)
(Originally written in Japanese. Reporting, text, and photos by Laufen Katsu. Banner photo: The Ice Dome, symbol of the Shiretoko Ryūhyō Festival. © 2019 Takenaka Hirohiko.)