Ice Station Abashiri and the Quiet Lake: Tofutsu-ko
Over the last 2 years of visiting wetlands across Japan, I have discovered that one’s image of wetlands is a direct result of how you experience them. Can you sail or canoe over them, trek or wade through them, or walk along their banks? From the standpoints of accessibility and scenic beauty, marshes tend to have a big advantage over bodies of water. Many marshes have installed boardwalks that allow you to stroll through them at your own pace. Even though you usually aren’t allowed to touch any plants or wildlife, you can at least view them close up.
I was able to walk inside Lake Furen-ko, but that is pretty rare! Normally, you will be on a boat looking for aquatic plants or wildlife, or simply gazing at the lake or river from the banks. In the case of Lake Tofutsu-ko (900ha), the chances are that you will be looking at it from a distance. Lake Tofutsu-ko borders Koshimizu, a small town on the northeastern coast of Hokkaido that also lies along the coast of the Okhotsk Sea. Koshimizu Town may be best known for the Koshimizu Primeval Flower Garden, a quasi-national park which is a short walk from the Genseikaen Station of the JR Senmo Main line that runs between Kushiro and Abashiri City.
From a rise in Koshimizu Primeval Flower Garden you can gaze over the expanse of beautiful wildflowers (If you visit at the right season…😊), look out over the Okhotsk Sea and turn around to view Lake Tofutsu-ko. Your first impression of Lake Tofutsu-ko may be something like ‘It’s a beautiful little lake’. To get a closer look at Lake Tofutsu-ko and a better idea of why it is an important Ramsar site, you can visit the Tofutsu-ko Waterfowl and Wetland Center, which is a short walk from Kitahama Station of the Senmo Line.
In the center you will learn that Lake Tofutsu-ko is an important stopover point for over 60,000 geese and ducks annually. It is also a habitat for local stars such as the White-tailed Sea Eagle and Steller’s Sea Eagle. If you are looking for a little more excitement: and you visit Lake Tofutsu-ko between the middle of January and the middle of March, you can book a ride on the Aurora icebreaking boats that depart from Abashiri Port in neighboring Abashiri City.
The main attraction of a ride on an Aurora boat are the ice drifts called ryuhyou (Literally, ‘floating ice’) that form along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk. The ice drifts are a key element of the regional ecosystem. According to Mr. Hiromasa Takada, the head of the Tofutsu-ko Waterfowl and Wetland Center, the ice drifts bring in plant and animal plankton. This plankton nourishes the local fish, which in turn serve as the food source for migratory birds. The cold winter temperatures caused by the ice drifts also kill many agricultural pest insects, allowing local farmers to reduce their pesticide use.
I was surprised to see hundreds of people waiting in the Abashiri Port building for the next boat ride. The Aurora tourist ships boast large souvenir shops and stalls of freshly prepared food. After boarding the Aurora we walked up to the upper deck to get the best possible view of the ice drifts. Southerly winds had pushed the ice drifts off the coast, so the ship’s loudspeakers announced that we would need to ride out into the Okhotsk Sea for about 15 minutes. At first, I was a little disheartened by the constant background music and announcements. I feared this might be a repeat of the Norroko Train experience.
However, when we reached the ice drifts the announcements stopped and was replaced with soft, ethereal music, allowing us to enjoy the panoramic view in relative quiet. Perhaps due to global warming, the ice was somewhat thinner than in previous years, so the Aurora moved smoothly through the ice drifts. Gliding over a sheet of ice that extends as far as the eye can see is a difficult experience to describe. To borrow a phrase from legendary film critic Pauline Kael, the ice drifts off the coast of Abashiri inspire a “sense of awe and wonder”.