Hokkaido Kushiro Wetland Lake Toro & Kushiro River

A wilderness hidden in serenity: experience it by canoe

The indigenous Ainu honored the holiness of nature. That spirit has certainly been inherited and still exists today. What you feel when you set foot in the Kushiro wetland is a wilderness hidden in serenity. The water flows naturally from its springs, reeds grow thickly, and brown bears, white-tailed eagles, and Ezo shika (deer), living by instinct, help maintain a natural balance. The water chestnut that grows so abundantly in the lake is called bekanbe in the Ainu language, and apparently the local people used to celebrate its harvest with a festival called the bekanbe matsuri.

Ten thousand years ago, during the ice age, this area was solid land. Six thousand years ago, during the age of the Jōmon people, it was more temperate than it is now, and the water, two to three meters higher, was part of the ocean. As the remnants of pit dwellings have been found on the higher points in the area, we can surmise that it was quite a comfortable place to live. In the course of time, the sea level descended as the temperature dropped, forming the current coastline about 4,000 years ago. In the marshland of the inland areas, where water is easily retained, it is said that reed and sedge have accumulated and carbonized over several thousand years, creating an immense wetland.

I travelled the route from Lake Toro to the Kushiro River by canoe. I’d travelled the same canoe route about fifteen years prior. I couldn’t forget the sensation of moving as if gliding, surrounded by pristine nature and so I wanted to take a video of the scene from the canoe. When I boarded the canoe at 3:45 am on August 2nd, the previous day being unusually warm for this area, fog, produced by the difference between the temperatures of the air and the water, obscured the surface of the lake. It was exactly like being inside an ink wash painting. The canoe glided smoothly along in the mirror-like lake.

The only expression that fit the scenery was chimeric, so unreal did it seem. Slowly materializing like shadows from the depths of my vision in the white mist were the silhouettes of trees and grasses. Were they thickets of reed, willow, and the East Asian alders that grow in wetlands? The snaking river slowly erodes the vast peat layer, and before long, the trees and shrubs that grow along the banks will soon fall and be submerged at the water’s edge. The river in the wetland continues its endless meandering. A pair of whitetailed eagles have raised two chicks this year. They say that the chicks, raised well, are both bigger than their parents.

The town of Toro, midway between Kushiro and Shibecha, is very quiet. Perhaps it’s because they limited development, but there are neither large or small hotels. However, if you want to enjoy canoeing, I recommend a pre-dawn launch. Of course, the lake’s surface shimmering in full sunlight is also terrific, and the marsh in twilight is beautiful. We stayed in the guest house Toro no Yado, a geodesic dome built on high ground with a view of the lake. About eight minutes’ walk from here, there’s a pasta restaurant offering surprisingly delicious meals.