Eastern Hokkaido, January 2024
Katy and I stopped in Hokkaido for three nights on ways back from Australia to the UK and New York. It was our first time in Hokkaido and I’d wanted to visit in winter for at least a decade after reading about the Sables that visit a luxury onsen (a hotel and steam baths) each winter.
Our trip did not start brilliantly: as we were boarding our plane in Sydney for Tokyo Haneda my phone flashed with the news that an Airbus 350 had collided with another plane at Haneda and burst into flames. Remarkably we left on schedule and landed early. The following morning in Haneda it was hard to know there had been a major accident 12 hours before, though there were many cancelled and delayed domestic flights.
We connected onto a flight to Nakashibetsu where we rented a car to drive the 30 minutes to Yoroushi Onsen. In hindsight we did not need a car at the onsen and it would probably have been cheaper to have taken arranged transport with the hotel. Though if making those arrangments were as complicated as booking the hotel itself then maybe not. … because booking the hotel was far from simple. The hotel does have an English website https://yoroushi.jp/en/ . But there seems no way to reserve a room through the English pages. Nor could we find a way to reserve a room on the Japanese pages without having a Japanese name and address. Thankfully a Korean friend enlisted the help of his Japanese friend to make a booking for me using their address and my credit card details. It seemed to work.
I was a bit worried about what would happen when we arrived but everything was fine. The hotel had one or two English speaking staff who were assigned to us for our visit. We had us a lovely and very cosy traditional Japanese room and were given detailed instructions on how to enjoy the steam baths and order dinner (the hotel is famous both for the hot springs and the food). Yoroushi has a reputation for being quite expensive, though as the Yen is currently very weak against the US dollar it was considerably cheaper than usual (I think we paid about $200 per person per night full board).
Although most people visit for the hot springs and the food, the hotel is also well known among birdwatchers. A Blakiston’s Fish Owl (the world’s largest) visits most nights during the winter to eat fish that are left out for it. They are huge. And during the day there are a plenty of birds around the feeders.
More importantly the food that is put out out for the birds attracts mammals. A few years ago Yoroushi was a reliable place to see Sable in the winter. Coke Smith reported seeing up to eight Sable at one time in the day time here back in 2013!
Sadly those days are gone. Sable are currently a rare sighting at the lodge. One rumor is that the lodge’s owner now traps the Sable after he blamed one of them for fighting with ‘his’ owl and blinding it. One of the staff in the hotel said she had seen Sable only two or three times in the past 10 months.
I spent most of our two nights there sitting in the lobby in front of the window overlooking the feeders hoping for a Sable to appear. One didn’t. I did see a feral American Mink emerge from under the decking and I am guessing Mink may have been empowered to take up residence in the Sables’ absence. And they will almost certainly be doing worse things to the ecosystem than the Sable were.
The local subspecies of Red Fox visited several times after dark to take fish from the feeders.
And at breakfast time on morning time there was a ‘Japanese’ Red Squirrel on the bird feeder.
The hotel is really very lovely and the food fantastic. But trying to stay awake all night – alone – in the hope of an animal showing is not much fun, at least not when the animal doesn’t appear. So I hope the Sables return and I will too.
For our final night on Hokkaido I wanted to explore the coast to look for Steller’s Sea Eagles and possibly – and this was a minuscule chance to be honest – spot a Ribbon Seal. Ribbon Seals are very occasionally seen on boat trips out of Rausu in the winter when sea ice drifts in. But it was snowing heavily so visibility was poor and there was no sea ice. We spent the night at a small guest house that Mark Brazil – Hokkaido-based naturalist – recommended: Minshuku Furen on the southern shore of Lake Furen. The owner – Matsuo-san – speaks English and is a birder. A cosy simple place with good food, To make a reservation you can email the owner Takeyoshi Matsuo.
The next morning we drove back to Nakashibetsu via Nemuro, Japan’s easternmost town, to look for Sea Otters and anything else we could find. We didn’t see any but did pass several small herds of Yeso Sika Deer and plenty of Sea Eagles.
Hokkaido in winter – at least this winter – was nowhere near as cold as I had imagined but just as beautiful. If the Sables begin to reappear at Yoroushi – or elsewhere – then I would love to return.
A big thanks to Mark Brazil for his advice and coming over to meet us, and to my buddy Bryce for helping me book a room at Yoroushi Onsen.
Japanese Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris orientis)
American Mink (Neogale vison)
Hokkaido Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes schrencki)
Yeso Sika Deer (Cervus nippon yezoensis)