Article updated on May 20, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
Only a curtain of fog separates the Russian Kuril Islands from Japan along the narrow Nemuro Strait bordering the sea of Okhotsk. The Ainu people, an indigenous ethnic group of people who have inhabited Hokkaido (Japan’s second largest and northernmost island) and the Kuril and Sakhalin Islands belonging to Russia since the 13th century, call it sir-etok, literally meaning end of the Earth.
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I shiver when I get out of the car at the harbour of Rausu on the East coast of the Shiretoko peninsula that has been registered as a World Natural Heritage site for its irreplaceable biodiversity and wildlife habitats. It is mid-August, the middle of the summer and it is barely 12°C at 8 a.m. and the drizzle makes it worse. Nonetheless, the harbour is quite busy for such a remote corner of the world: it is the high season for salmon fishing.
Fishermen know where to throw their nets: this is the time of the year when salmons start to gather in the sea, about to swim upstream of the rivers to where they got born.
Even if it is still a bit early in the year as the salmons usually start making their way up the rivers in Autumn, we take our chances and drive about one hour inland to Sakurano-taki, a waterfall on one of the many rivers of Hokkaido.
While it would be a lot easier to observe the salmons from the Chitose Aquarium we opt for the wild. Finding the right river is not that easy, but as soon as we arrive and start scouting the water, we are rewarded with a spectacular show of salmons trying to jump up against a waterfall. Their instinct keeps pushing them to desperately make it up in order to spawn, but it appears to be quite challenging. Their jumps are impressive: some go quite high, about 1.5 metre (4.5 feet) out of the water, some try a more horizontal approach while others seem to have a death wish merely smashing themselves into the rocks! They just keep trying: after jumping, the salmons, some brown and some bright pink of colour, swim to a slower current area to get some strength before another attempt.
Some will never make it to their place of birth though, and in this way nourish the rivers and forests of Hokkaido. They become food for birds of prey or the many brown bears that roam the area and need the nutrients to fatten up before hibernating. The Ainu who formerly mainly lived of salmon that they call shipe, meaning “the real thing we eat,” caught and ate salmons with care. The Ainu lived in harmony with nature, only catching the amount they needed to survive, either before spawning for immediate consumption or after as the salmons being fat and full of eggs do not preserve well.
The life cycle of salmons naturally ends in the rivers where they were born and a new life cycle begins to be repeated again, making these salmons an essential part of the food chain of many at this end of the Earth in northern Japan.
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