You won't know why the Shiretoko Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage Site until you get within some fifty kilometers of it; but when you do get within that sort of henge of understanding the whole thing becomes really plain and clear to you and it makes a lot of sense. It appears first as like an outline on the horizon, a dimmer blue against the blue of the sky, cropped and cut like the edge of something sharp, something with teeth; but at this point a good deal of it is over the horizon, visually, and you don't really get that good of a look at it. It looks like something off the cover of a science fiction novel, where some truly gifted artists get their actually pretty stunning oeuvres (if you think about it) covered over by bright yellow Word-Art-esque fonts chosen by someone who definitely is not a designer working at publishing house Tor. This view of Shiretoko from afar is more of a gesture towards what it really is than something serious to view in the first place, like a billboard set up some fifty kilometers out, assuring you you're on the right track. And indeed somehow all of the roads in the northeast corner of Hokkaido, which really is a geographical corner, a meeting of two coastlines at a 90-degree angle, all of the roads up there somehow seem to orient themselves with respect to Shiretoko, kind of an all-roads-lead-to-Rome scenario, so even at the end of the day when you're leaving Shiretoko's corner of Hokkaido, still somehow it seems you're traveling towards it.
After another ten or fifteen kilometers, at about thirty kilometers' distance from the peninsula's collar, Shiretoko kind of unveils itself very suddenly -- the atmosphere parts and shifts and you come round a bend in the road and the massive many-peaked ridgeline of Shiretoko's spine just hulks there in front of you, veering way out into the ocean like an arm reaching out for the Arctic or something. This time of year the peaks are all dusty white on top and the bases are that grayish brown that shows up just everywhere there's a big spread of trees post-autumn, that bland almost non-color of tree bark. Here and there are big patches of evergreens looking almost black against the surrounding pale, or some hardier specimens that have held on to their leaves through the wind and rains of autumn and in the low-angle early-winter sun (which, remember, never actually gets above like 40 or 50 degrees above the horizon, even at noon, and so noon here looks like maybe 5 or 6 o'clock down at the equator) have almost the exact color you think of when you hear the word 'amber,' a misleadingly healthy color that looks like sunlight through lager.
By the time you're close enough that anything at all comes into detail -- of note is the tall conic peak of Rausu, the head of Shiretoko's long toothy ridgeline -- you're already on Shiretoko itself, and the coast stretching all the way back to Abashiri (or like Shibetsu, if you're coming from the other way) is making itself visible through the shimmer over the Okhotsk (or I guess from the other way, the Nemuro Straits). You realize in a kind of in medias res kind of way that you're already pretty high over the water and pretty far out onto the peninsula before you know it, that you're looking back on a very generous amount of coastline some hundred kilometers out behind you. I don't know if it's that you're absolutely forced to gawk at the mountains overhead or if Shiretoko like defies geographical centering or what, but Shiretoko kind of distracts you from how far you are from your destination until you're already there. You feel as though you've just sort of woken up already at where you were trying to go, and the ride to this point was more or less a movie or a dream that you were sort of wandering timelessly through. Before you know it you're at the Five Lakes District, which I don't know whether to use the English name or the Japanese name, Goko, because on the English signage it was actually referred to as both, as the quote 'Shiretoko Goko Five Lakes District.' Anyway.
The legend of Shiretoko is built, as well, by the people who work there -- up to this point sure the mountains were huge and majestic and sure the snow and weird weather patterns on top caught the eye, but there didn't seem to be much of a character and legend and World Heritage to the Site. It's just some mountains in Hokkaido, which, on paper, aren't particularly special or anything -- there are taller and more dangerous mountains in Honshu, for sure. It's when you throw people at those mountains that they develop that extra something-something -- e.g. the landskeeper at Shari who was stung by a suzumebachi and died, or the Daisetsuzan's old moniker, The Playground of the Gods, or for another example the mirroring of Mt. Fuji in our own Mt. Yotei. In the same way Shiretoko takes on that through-the-ages legendary quality when you learn that it has only actually been called Shiretoko for the past century, give or take, and that for hundreds of years before that the Ainu called it The End of the Earth.
Which makes sense. This is this spit of land sticking out into the Okhotsk, twenty-five kilometers wide at its widest at rising more than a kilometer and a half above the waves. The whole peninsula is volcanic, by the way, and home here more than anywhere else to the Ezo bear, literal granddaddy of our more famous American variant, the grizzly. Which is to say nothing of the hordes of eagles and deer and assorted critters and oh yeah killer whales (which are actually dolphins, but ehh) and oh yeah actual whales as well, more than ten different species of them. Keep in mind as well that there's actually no consistently level surface to be found anywhere on the peninsula (which makes for some very clever engineering, road- and parking lot-wise).
Those Ezo bears are no chumps, either, as it turns out. At the Shiretoko Goko Five Lakes District lodge, which serves also as the locus of a big 3-km ring trail through the five lakes, they keep a chart of bear sightings in the past week. They more or less shove this chart down the throats of any would-be trail-walkers, but with good reason: when I was there, there had been something like eleven bear sightings in the previous week. Jordan and I elected to watch the nationally-funded Watch Out for Bears Cuz They Will Mess You Up, Like Seriously bear safety video, as well, featuring more bears than any other given piece of media I think I've ever laid eyes upon, and I read the shit out of those Bearensteins, when I was younger.
Author's note, 14/09/23: Mandela effect!
A better warning against the Ezo bear, though not exactly Shiretoko-based, would have been the tale of the Sankebetsu Ezo Bear Incident, a period of some four days in 1915 when an Ezo bear measuring almost 3 meters tall came down from the mountains in the late winter and killed seven people in a rural Western Hokkaido village. The bear had almost certainly been involved in another skirmish further south where it killed three other people and earned the name Kesagake, which means 'diagonal wound across the back.' When it was decided that the bear had developed a decided taste for human flesh (which I am led to understand is a quasi-scientific behavioral modifier applicable to the whole Kingdom Animalia, 'man-eater,' which happens to some animals as amok happens to some Southeast Asians), a Haboro-based bear-tracking sniper task force was assembled and dispatched the bear. The best part of the story is the son whose whole family was killed by the bear, and himself injured, who grew up to be an expert bear tracker, vowing to kill ten bears for every person he knew that was killed. When he died he had 106 notches in his belt.