Baby-friendly whale watching? Yes please! Today we have a special post from guest blogger Jennifer Wheelock. Jennifer tells us of her adventures in Shiretoko in Hokkaido with her 5 month old baby:) Thank you Jennifer! I would LOVE to visit this place!
Shiretoko Adventure Baby Shiretoko, meaning “End of the Earth” in Ainu, seemed an unlikely destination for our family vacation to Hokkaido with a 5 month old. My Lonely Planet guidebook mentioned bears and a two day hike through the national park and not much else. Not exactly baby-friendly at first glance. But my husband assured me our ryokan hotel had onsens overlooking the Sea of Ohtosk and we could enjoy whale-watching and other activities that did not require bear bells. The final selling point was that we could use our British airways miles for flights on Japan Airlines. (Tip: Upgrade your seating for only 1000 yen at the airport).
As promised, the Shiretoko Grand Hotel did not disappoint with views over the Sea of Okhotsk and 5 separate baths in the women’s onsen, including two rotemburo. Better yet, it was extremely baby friendly. Free of charge, the hotel provided a wide range of baby goods. With a call to the front desk, staff could deliver bumbo chairs, baby cribs, diaper pails, picture books, and even Milton disinfecting kits. They had more baby goods available than we have at home!
The onsen was equally well equipped for washing up the baby. She hung out in her Anpan-man shower seat, while I scrubbed us up before taking her into the low-temperature bath. Otherwise my husband and I took turns watching her while we enjoyed the rotemburo each day. I even scheduled a late night massage at 11 pm when I had relative confidence of her being asleep.
Despite its comforts, we wanted to see more of Shiretoko than just the drift ice display and Ainu-made goods for sale in the hotel lobby. On our first morning, I inquired about the 1 pm whale watching cruise leaving from Rausu. The staff assured us it was fine with a baby, arranged our reservation and advised us that the drive would take about an hour, leaving us ample time for our daughter’s morning nap before setting out and a quick snack of surprisingly good fried fish sandwiches from the Michi no Eki (rest stop) near the boat launch.
Our whale watching cruise was part nature tour, part history lesson. While following sperm whales in the area, our captain avoided entering Russian waters near Iturup, the largest of the disputed Kuril Islands (Chishima retto in Japanese). Iturup (Etorofu-to) is larger than Okinawa and presently home to around 7500 Russians. History lesson aside, we were there for the whales.
Straight away, we spotted our first sperm whale. After its customary 7-8 minutes near the surface, we were thrilled to see its fluke as it dove and disappeared for roughly 40 minutes. While we waited for the whale to resurface and kept watch for a second one in the area, the captain talked over the loudspeaker about the islands and whales, while an English-speaking crew member answered our questions. Throughout, our daughter was warm and cozy (and fed!) in the Ergo without any need for more protective clothing.
On our second day, we decided to see more of the national park and set out for the 5 Lakes area (Shiretoko Goko). Due to heightened bear activity during summertime, visitors to the lakes are restricted from most unaccompanied hiking. Although there was an English-friendly 3 hour guided hike that day, we opted for the shorter unaccompanied option of 800 meter walk along an elevated boardwalk with the baby in mind. Before moving on, we enjoyed a quick lunch of deer burgers from the concession stand.
Our trip was not without hiccups. After our morning at the Five Lakes, we headed out for loooong drive to the Notsuke Peninsula. With an unhappy baby unwilling to sleep in her rental car seat, this was not our smartest choice. More enjoyable was our quick visit to Oshinkoshin Falls (oshinkoshin-no-taki) on our last morning. There were many more activities we could have enjoyed in the area, including boat trips leaving from outside our hotel and other nearby onsen and waterfalls.
After returning our rental car and car seat, I commented to the friendly staffperson on the surprising level of English speaking staff and signage we encountered at nearly every business in this remote corner. He confirmed that since receiving the World Heritage Designation in 2005, they are trying to improve their appeal to international tourists. If you are considering a trip to Hokkaido, you will find this “End of the World,” to be a very baby-friendly destination.
Thank you so much Jennifer! Very sad you are leaving Tokyo soon. I will miss you! Please keep in touch!