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Comparisons: Hokkaido - Scotland

During my last trip to Japan, in which I had the good fortune of exploring Hokkaido (Nov-Dec 2023), I couldn't help compare the landscape with that which I've encountered in the Highlands of Scotland. I am primarily comparing Shiretoko, the wild north-eastern region of Hokkaido, to that of the North West Highlands and Cairngorms National Park. Both Hokkaido and Scotland have very diverse landscapes throughout their respective territories. Out of pure curiosity I did a bit of Googling; Scotland has an area of 77,910km sq, Hokkaido 83,454km sq; Number of mountains in Scotland 730, in Hokkaido 1162; population of Scotland 5.5 million, Hokkaido 5.1 million. As these figures suggest, they are quite similar indeed in terms of scale and population. Hokkaido does have some much higher mountains, however, many of which are active volcanoes. Additionally, in the height of winter the sea freezes around the Shirtetoko region. Hokkaido also gets more snow than pretty much anywhere on the planet. It was once attached to Siberia and still gets the winds from the region which deposit huge dumps of snow. Hokkaido is therefore more extreme than Scotland. Additionally, Hokkaido has much more tree cover, with dense, vast forest covering much of its wild areas, with comparatively very little, in the Highlands of Scotland.

The wildlife of Hokkaido is also on another level to that of the Highlands of Scotland. Although Scotland has many key species which are absent in most other parts of the UK, such as pine marten, golden eagle, crested tit, capercaillie etc, it is lacking any form of top/apex predator. Hokkaido has one of the largest bear to human populations on the world. Whilst hiking in Hokkaido I have to admit I had a huge sense of fear, pertaining to a very heightened sense. I had never experienced this previously. At first, it was a very unnerving feeling; eventually it became quite normal and after a few days I felt a lot more relaxed. I found this heightened sense to be something primeval, a sense which is dormant in most of us. It is actually a very special feeling which gave me an even deeper respect for the landscape I found myself in. Every aspect of the forests and mountains took on a greater, mystical beauty. We did eventually have close encounters with bears. I am not a wildlife photographer, despite my passion for the natural world (I studied for a degree in conservation!). I was kicking myself for not bringing a big lens as we were within 50 metres of a family of bears at one point. Believe me, that was close enough, but such a special moment. Next time I will take a big lens.

The magnificent Shiretoko mountain range. There be bears...

These similarities, which I found myself constantly comparing, left me feeling a little sad that the Highlands have become so depleted. I hope that one day we will see predators reintroduced to the Highlands, most likely the Cairngorms, beginning with the lynx. I fully understand the controversy and admire anyone who chooses a career in conservation as it can be like banging one's head against a brick wall. This is a huge topic about which I won't go into any detail here. I simply wanted to share my feelings. That magic of true wildness simply doesn't exist here in the UK anymore. I feel we have lost a large part of ourselves with this absence. As I type I am reminded of those feelings, a deep connectedness to the earth which I can feel in the pit of my stomach.

Cairngorm pine forests. Could this habitat one day contain large predators?

Of course, culturally, Hokkaido and Scotland are worlds apart. I do think however that there is growing realisation of how important these wild places are, and that they do need protection and planning for future. When in Hokkaido I visited Akan village. Although it has become quite commercialised this is home to many Ainu people (the native people of Hokkaido). The Ainu are deeply connected to the landscape, with ancient beliefs, revering the animals of their land. In my experience, although culturally very different, there is something of the proud Highlander in Scotland, those who wish for nature to flourish.

Akan village; the steam is from natural hot springs, evident throughout the village.

Ainu woman and cat in traditional home.

Sea eagle & eagle cloud. How amazing is that?!

The densely wooded hillsides of Hokkaido are a perfect habitat for many species.

A sulfurous stream runs through ancient other-worldly forests.

I hope you enjoyed this brief blog post. I felt I really needed to share these thoughts. I've put some links below to further reading if you're interested in any of these topics.

If you've enjoyed this, please feel free to comment and share.

Ciao for now!


Scotland: The Big Picture - rewilding Scotland

Ainu Culture - wiki link

My footprint against the bear's paw print. Next time I take a BIG lens!

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