What is behind 'shocking' Hokkaido bid for World Heritage Site status?

By Mark Brazil | Dec 30, 2004


Recently I was lucky enough to visit no fewer than six World Heritage Sites (WHS) in northern India. An astonishing cultural, ethnic and biological diversity is well represented in India’s array of national parks (NP) and WHS, and, my goodness, they have a huge wow factor.

Since 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has encouraged, via the World Heritage Convention, the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.

My impression of each of the many WHS I have visited worldwide is that they certainly represent something special, not merely nationally, but globally, and deserve international recognition as being among the greatest places on Earth. None have disappointed me in terms of their designation, though alas many are under threat, as visitors to the edifying UNESCO Web site (www.whc.unesco.org/) will find out. Seeing damage or degradation of once wonderful sites, as I did recently at Keoladeo Ghana in India, is saddening.

Japan, a convention signatory since 1992, has only 12 sites, ranging in diversity from Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture to Yakushima Island in Okinawa. Similarly sized Germany has 30, smaller Britain has 26, and the very much smaller Republic of South Korea has seven, so Japan lags well behind other countries in designating its best as being among the world’s finest.

This is not because Japan lacks sites worthy of designation, but because both the public and politicians have awoken slowly to the significance of WHS designation. Not only is acceptance onto the list a declaration of a site’s global significance, but it is also a clarion call for its protection — and a double-edged sword in the form of increased visitor numbers with all the economic benefits and conservation pressures they bring.

Wonderful wild places

Hokkaido is blessed with some staggering scenery, some very accessible and wonderful wild places, and several outstanding national parks — but none of these have been accorded WHS status. The nearest WHS are the Central Sikhote Alin in eastern Russia and Shirakami Sanchiin in northern Honshu.

For five years I have conducted ornithological fieldwork against the backdrop of Hokkaido’s most dramatic and beautiful scenery in the Akan NP, and I was shocked when it was the Shiretoko NP that the government proposed as Japan’s next WHS. The UNESCO committee’s decision is due in summer 2005.

On numerous occasions since my first visit in the early 1980s, I have explored the remote, 65-km-long Shiretoko Peninsula protruding into the Sea of Okhotsk — not only by road and on foot, but also by boat and by air. Shiretoko NP, a 38,633-hectare area designated in June 1964, is dominated by several volcanic peaks, of which Mount Rausu (1,660 meters) is the highest. As I have also been involved in the making of television documentaries there, I feel confident declaring that I know the area well.

However, as I felt that Akan NP was being slighted by not being proposed for WHS designation, I revisited Shiretoko at Hokkaido’s northeast tip in early December. In doing so, I consciously tried to look with fresh eyes, to see it from a global rather than a Japanese perspective, as an international tourist-magnet WHS.

By car, the approaches to the Shiretoko are along coastline-hugging ribbons of tarmac toward the towns of Utoro or Rausu. In summer, a cross-peninsula road opens, snaking up over the ridge and affording splendid views of Shiretoko’s mountainous spine and across the Nemuro Channel toward Kunashiri Island.

However, the approach to Utoro was grim, the housing unattractive, even ugly, and everywhere there was construction — of highways, concrete banks and tunnels — and the inevitable serried ranks of concrete poles with their spider’s webs of powerlines and phonelines. It looked like suburban sprawl and I was depressed even before I arrived in Utoro.

Rausu is equally bad, with its string of enormous boxy roadside houses and warehouses and its declining fishing industry, it is hardly an attractive coastal village. In fact it offers no agreeable visual images — once-pleasing vistas have disappeared as roads have been tunneled and liberal doses of concrete have been applied to “protect” the coast.

Concrete ugliness

Shiretoko does have wonderful natural features, including populations of brown bears, seals, eagles and, in winter, dramatic sea-ice scenery. Certainly a dedicated naturalist, with inside information, will not leave without splendid memories; it’s just that the average visitor will hardly see the natural beauty for the concrete ugliness of the roadside environment. Moreover, places to stop and pull over to enjoy the views are rare, and the few that do exist offer only views of coastal concrete protection and steep hillsides scarred by development or covered with cabling and snow fences.

All-in-all, my return to the once wild end-of-the-Earth felt like a nightmare.

In the lush greenery of a warm summer, Shiretoko feels somewhat different, and leaving the road behind and hiking the mountain trails is splendid. But with already more than 2 million visitors annually, and the presence of bears, the national park staff are, not surprisingly, wary of encouraging more people into the back country.

I had driven 450 km from Sapporo to experience this, but I wondered how I would feel were I visiting from China, Europe or America. The word “letdown” sprang to mind.

But ignoring my personal horror of concrete, how does Shiretoko rate on a global scale?

Yes, this valuable parcel of Japan’s real estate has dramatic volcanic peaks, waterfalls and scenic lakes, but the same combination of scenery, temperate/boreal forest and nutrition-laden ice floes also exists in neighboring Russia. The Kurile Islands far exceed Shiretoko in size, in natural beauty, in their wealth of undisturbed wildlife. Everything that Shiretoko claims, Kunashiri can claim in greater measure — and without the concrete uglification that seems to have picked up speed along the Shiretoko Peninsular since its proposal as a WHS.

Were I reviewing the various local or regional alternatives to its WHS designation, I would push Russia hard to propose Kunashiri immediately, closely followed by several others of the Kurile Islands — but most of all the Kamchatka Peninsular. If you want global wow factor you absolutely must go there.

There is, however, no need to travel as far as Russia to find places that eclipse Shiretoko in terms of wow factor.

Akan has Shiretoko licked on every count. Designated in December 1934, this 90,481-hectare NP dwarfs the Kamchatka Peninsular in area; it has three world-class calderas (Akan, Kussharo and Mashu); extensive natural forests and abundant wildlife; and Lake Akan is rightfully renowned for its bizarre globular algae, marimo.

Akan’s scenery is dramatic, sweeping and above all else visible! The average visitor even just passing through by road will see dramatic volcanic peaks, vast calderas and wide spreading forest. Many will no doubt also take a dip at one of the area’s many genuine hot springs in Kawayu, Teshikaga or Akan. OK, so Shiretoko has the sea and sea ice, but Akan has enormous lakes that freeze in winter, creating even more breathtaking scenes. Meanwhile, purely on the basis of biodiversity, my guess is that Akan, with its wider range of habitats, beats Shiretoko hands down in the species stakes too.

Having escorted large numbers of international visitors to both the Shiretoko and the Akan areas, there is no doubt about which ranks higher in impressive memories for both them and me — and it’s not Shiretoko.

The sights of stunning, moody lake Mashu, the mountains of O-Akan, Me-Akan and Akan Fuji, the forested shoreline of enormous Kussharo-ko with its massive encircling ring of low mountains are imbued with an epic grandeur and certainly rank up there among the world’s finest areas of natural beauty.

So why is Shiretoko being pushed for WHS status? After all, it is already a protected NP, and WHS designation confers no additional protection. In fact, WHS status would draw international attention to the disturbing overexploitation of its marine resources, since the fishing nets strung along much of Shiretoko’s length negatively impact both resident and migratory wildlife. Foreign visitors are often also shocked by the open sale of canned bear and sea-lion meat.

Devalued cachet

Additionally, whereas Akan has a well-established tourist industry, Shiretoko has long been a center of kelping and fishing activities. As these have declined, it seems that tourism (with WHS status as the draw) has been raised as an alternative. To my cynical eye, the pace of road, tunnel, harbor and roadside construction seems to suggest a vested interest of the construction industry.

If the Shiretoko Peninsula makes it onto the WHS list, my opinion is that the once-huge cachet of a UNESCO designation will have been devalued. The fact that Akan will also have been slighted in the proces is more of a personal grouch. Those visiting Hokkaido for a limited time, and who don’t have the option of long off-road hikes but want stunning natural scenery without suburban concrete sprawl, should head for Kussharo-ko, Mashu-ko and the volcanoes standing proudly around Akan-ko, in the Akan National Park — it is one of the most beautiful places in the world.