Shiretoko Goko are five lakes hidden in the native forest of the Shiretoko Peninsula in the northeastern corner of Hokkaido. The area is famous for its untouched and wild nature and the great number of brown bears living there. Bear tracks were present during our walk around the lakes; however we didn’t encounter any, fortunately I have to say.
From May to July the bears are most active and for safety reasons you need to join a guided tour to visit all five lakes (about 2-3 hours, easy walking). With 5,000yen per person the tour is not really cheap; however, our group was small (only 4 of us) and the guide seemed very professional. Before the walk we watched a short video, which should prepare us for a potential encounter with a bear. However, it’s not a tour to make you actually encounter one. It’s the contrary; the guide tries to make sure that you don’t, so that you can enjoy an interesting but safe day out there.
To let the bears know that we were walking in their territory and to give them a chance to move away from us, the guide kept on making some noise, like clapping his hands or shouting out loudly. First I thought ‘Come on, this is well exaggerated’—but only until we found some fresh tracks in the mud, claw marks on trees and bear feces in the middle of the walking trail. Yes, that was bear territory for real.
The lakes are of different sizes and depending on the light and weather they offer beautiful reflections of the mountains and the trees. The guide gave us lots of information about the flora and fauna, the bears and other animals living here; where they sleep, what they eat, how they live through the different seasons. It was definitely worth the money.
If you can, try to book the guided tour in advance, especially if you need an English guide. The Shiretoko Tourist Information Center in Utoro have English speaking staff to help. That’s how we did it, just one day in advance. There’s also the possibility to do this via the official Shiretoko Goko website; however, it only gives you access to a list of guides (in Japanese) and you can then contact them via email.
Here are a few things you need to bear in mind: You’re not allowed to take any food or drinks with you, except water, as it would attract the bears, so make sure you have eaten before you start the walk. In case you encounter a bear during the tour, the guide will decide if it’s safe to continue or weather the group has to go back. Depending on how far you got, i.e. how many lakes you managed to see, you will get a refund.
Even if you don’t want to join the tour, it’s still worth going to the lakes. Wide elevated and secured boardwalks (free of charge) lead to a couple of observation platforms up to the first lake, where the views are really spectacular: the lake and the mountains on one side, the ocean on the other, in between there’s grass and woodland, lots of deer and birds—and bears if you're lucky. Don’t forget your binoculars. We didn’t see any bears, but I somehow felt that they saw us.