Hooked on Notsuke Hanto

Hooked on Notsuke Hanto
PHOTO: Valerie Tay

Using the GPS navigation system in our rental car, we found our way easily to the Notsuke Peninsula Nature Centre, which is located on a hook-shaped peninsula on the east coast of Hokkaido in Japan.

After parking the car, my family walked in for a visit.

Besides the regular exhibits about the peninsula, there was also an exhibition of drawings by Japanese elementary and middle school children featuring the wildlife in Hokkaido.

These intrigued my children much more than the regular exhibits, as they were immediately drawn to what their peers did.

Later, we walked out to the green fields of Notsuke Hanto.

Notsuke Peninsula (Hanto) is a sandspit shaped like a fish hook.

Sandspits are landforms formed by waves depositing sediment off the beach under certain conditions, including the waves hitting the beach at an oblique angle.

Here, at this end of eastern Hokkaido, the result is a 28km-long hook-like peninsula jutting into the Nemuro Strait.

We walked along the well-trodden path through the green fields, which were sprinkled with little yellow, purple and white wild flowers here and there, as if to accompany us. The sea lapped the marshes at the edge beyond the grass fields.

I heard the soft chirping of birds. Every spring and autumn, some 20,000 migratory birds are said to make a stopover here to visit the fields and marshes of Notsuke Hanto, making it a popular bird-watching spot.

Soon the fields got sparser. The marsh was progressively gaining dominance as we intruded farther and the path became a narrow, worn boardwalk, so visitors like us did not have to tread on soft, muddy ground.

Weirdly beautiful

We reached a wooden, weather- beaten signboard with the words "Todowara", written in Japanese, which means Fir Tree Woods, but the scenery before us was anything but that.

After years of being battered by seawater, the fir trees that once grew on this peninsula eventually died.

Some tall, stark stumps still stood defiantly upright, though many had fallen, lying shattered on the marshy ground. They showed no signs of life - no leaf, no bud, no hint of green on their skin bleached white by the sun.

It was a weirdly beautiful scene. The scattered, lifeless stumps were a reminder of death and decay as they lay juxtaposed against a vibrant, sunny blue sky dotted with cottony clouds.

We walked farther towards the tip of the fish-hook-shaped peninsula, now whittled down to a strip of land barely wider than the boardwalk under our feet.

Soon, even the strip of land was submerged and we were walking over the sea, the boardwalk elevated on wooden stilts.

The wind was rougher out here and teased my daughter's long tresses. Other than the occasional, muffled rush of wind and the soft gush of the waves, it was a quiet and tranquil place.

The desolate beauty of Notsuke Hanto cannot be fully experienced when it is crowded with tourists.

We were lucky there were no other human beings around on the day we visited, and we enjoyed the area's haunting quality in perfect isolation.

The boardwalk is interrupted abruptly by the Todo Bridge, built in Showa 48 (1973), as a plaque informed us.

Even in a seemingly barren place, life emerged from the sides of the bridge's steps. Long green grass clung tenaciously to the footholds on the steps.

After traversing this short, wood and cement bridge, a final stretch of boardwalk connects to the thin sand bar that makes up the sharp end of the fish hook.

We walked along the sliver but did not feel like staying long. It is not the kind of place where you want to have a leisurely picnic.

It was a little unnerving, to be so far out at sea with nothing but a thread of dirt under our feet.

The vast sea flanked us on both sides, and we felt tiny and insignificant.

I could not trust that the sea, though deceptively calm that afternoon, would not swallow us with a quick swipe.

We retraced our steps slowly through the lonely, unusual landscape, as the sun sank lower behind us.

There are places that fade away quickly in my mind after I visit them. And there are places that take hold of my memory in a tenacious grip.

I know I will always remember the afternoon we spent in hauntingly beautiful Notsuke Hanto.

Guidelines

We flew from Singapore to Osaka on Cathay Pacific, with a connection on Peach Aviation to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. We then rented a car and drove to Notsuke Hanto.

Notsuke Hanto Nature Centre is open all year round from 9am to 5pm (until 4pm between November and April).

The inner bay of Notsuke Hanto is shallow and an abundant seagrass bed thrives there, creating an ideal spawning ground for fish and shellfish. One of the main catches here in summer and autumn is the Hokkai (North Sea) Shrimp. Local fisherman use a type of small fishing sailboat to catch the shrimps as the bay is too shallow for engines. The fishing season and quantity of catch is strictly regulated. The shrimp is usually eaten raw or cooked in broth.

- Notsuke Hanto Nature Center: http://en.visit-hokkaido.jp/travelPlanner/details.php?code=6410008000393

- Notsuke Peninsula: www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/regional/hokkaido/notukehantou.html

This article was published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.


This article was first published on September 22, 2015.
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