Yumi Asano, Nature Conservation Tour Guide of Shiretoko

Nature Conservation Tour Guide with Stuffed Animals

Yumi Asano is a kind of woman who projects an image of being active and gets attention easily when she talks.
It was November, 2003 when I first met her at the Ninth National Gathering to Bridge between Forests and Citizens 2003 in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the Japan’s largest island located to the north of the main island. She was lecturing about a theme “How to Play with Bugs” at one of its working sessions called “Getting Along with Forest Life.”
I was impressed to see her talking earnestly holding high up a big stuffed ant over her head. It seemed that she had a strong will to convey something to audience through her lectures. The stuffed ant was elaborately designed, and she used it to explain that ants have constricted waists.
I guessed from her lecture that she made the ant by herself. There was also a stuffed springtail. She said she made them morphologically same as real bugs and animals. They were more like accurate replicas than stuffed animals. She explained about ants’ constricted waists to the audience using these animas. The audience then nodded and laughed while she was lecturing.

Leaving for Shiretoko

Asano belongs to Shiretoko Nature Center of Shiretoko Nature Foundation. She usually used the stuffed animals to explain visitors about natural environment of Shiretoko. I thought it would be fun to learn about nature with those authentic-looking animals.
I was also interested in characters of the place. It is famous for Shiretoko One Hundred Square Meters Movement and is a pioneering land in nature conservation movements in Japan. It is now on the UNESCO List of World Natural Heritage Sites and remains one of the most valuable natural environments in the world. It is also one of the major tourist spots in Hokkaido with a number of huge hot-spring hotels.
I left for Shiretoko in the end of March of 2006 when drift ice was still there to find out how they conserve its natural environment and how to find jobs related to its conservation.

Utoro with Drift Ice

I exchanged some e-mails with Asano before I left for Shiretoko. I asked her when to visit there in early spring, and she recommended to come in March to see drift ice or in leafy month of May.
I arrived at Shiretoko on a sunny day in the middle of March on her advice. When I checked weather report in Tokyo, they said temperature of Shiretoko was minus two degrees Celsius during the day and minus twelve degrees Celsius at night. I thought it would have been bitterly cold. It was sunny and comfortable actually when I got there. I felt the warm sunshine through the cold air, and the blue sky was so clear and bright.
There was no ice in Abashiri which is about half an hour drive from Memanbetsu Airport where my airplane landed. They said the ice disappeared a long time before I arrived there. There were sightseeing ice breaking vessels “Aurora” docked at the harbor quietly.
It is about two hour drive toward Shiretoko Peninsula from Abashiri to Utoro, where the Shiretoko Nature Center is. I passed the central area of Shari town, which covers north area of the peninsula, and drove along a coast toward Utoro. . The ports in Utoro were still blocked by drift ice. White massive ice covered the sea so far as to the point where buoys would have been set to show the area in which people are allowed to swim if there was a bathing beach.
There were some places on the ice where people gathered. They say people dive under the ice. If they are lucky, they can watch cliones, known as sea angels. It is a new highlight of experiences in natural environment of Utoro at this time of year.
A couple of huge hotels are built in the center of Utoro, which are as luxurious as those in Tokyo. I was amazed to see those brand-new hotels standing contrastively in the great natural environment of Shiretoko.

Shiretoko Nature Center

The Shiretoko Nature Center that Asano works for is located at about seven kilometers away from the central area of Utoro, which is the entrance of the sightseeing area of Shiretoko. It stands at a fork of a national road leading to Cape Shiretoko and a road to Shiretoko Five Lakes, which is closed in the winter months. I was anxious about driving in the snow, but that concern proved unfounded. There is a youth hostel beyond the Nature Center, and roads to get there were completely cleared off.
The center is a base for providing information of sightseeing in Shiretoro. It has such a fancy video facility called dynavision where natural environments of Shiretoko can be shown on the large screen.
The building of the center belongs to Shari town, and its administrative operation is delegated to the Shiretoko Nature Foundation. The foundation was established by the local town, Shari, in 1988 to conserve natural environment of Shiretoko and to make use of it in harmony. One of the projects that the foundation is currently working on is to have research studies on the nature of Shiretoko, including “Survey of Brown Bears Behaviors”, for example.
The foundation is often commissioned by public organizations such as Ministry of the Environment, Hokkaido Government, and Shari town to do surveys on natural environments and conservation works.
The foundation runs four main projects: research studies, conservation and management; dissemination and public education; natural reproduction; and facilities administration and operation. The organization has an administrative director, a secretary-general, a deputy secretary-general, and below them are general affairs and management section, dissemination section, research on conservation and management section, and natural reproduction project section.
According to the project planning for the fiscal 2003, twenty four staff members are working for the foundation. Of these members, twelve nature conservation tour guides, five researchers and three natural reproduction members work in the field.
Asano’s title is a nature conservation tour guide of dissemination section for information.
Profiles of each member are described in the project planning papers, including a powerful lineup such as a person who lived in a village in Indonesia where people earn livelihoods by catching whales, and a person who learned hunting of caribou with the Inuit in the Canadian Arctic.

Tour to Furepe Waterfall

When I arrived at the Shiretoko Nature Center, Asano welcomed me in a grass green uniform.
All of the nature conservation tour guides looked well and smart in the uniforms. I asked her to show me around. There are three different tours at that time of the year, and I decided to go to see Furepe Waterfall. It is a waterfall flowing from piers facing the Okhotsk Sea. I thought I would have to keep walking if I chose other tours to go into forests. Therefore, I wanted to go to the waterfall and interview Asano while watching the Okhotsk Sea of winter.
I wore snow shoes that she prepared for me and started walking. They are sometimes called western kanjiki. Rings are equipped on their bottom to create more surface areas and to support your weight, and they enable you to walk on snow. The snow shoes and equipment for cross-skiing are rented at the center.
Many of those who work for the Nature Center use Ainu kanjiki. While Kanjiki used in Japan’s main island have saw-edged parts on their bottom to grasp snow, the Ainu kanjiki do not. Therefore, you can walk more lightly with them. One of the reasons why the members of the center prefer them to snow shoes is because the former are in themselves lighter than the latter.

Attracted by Natural Environment of Doto, Eastern Hokkaido

Asano had been working as a nature conservation tour guide going on three years at that point. She said there were still a lot more to learn. She is from Hachioji, Tokyo. Farming community was still there, and she liked playing in the fields of Hachioji when she was little.
She started thinking about what she should do in the future when she entered high school. She wanted to find a job that is related to natural environment. At that time, she could only think of a veterinarian who would be able to make his/her living after he/she learns about wild animals and nature at college. She decided to major in Agricultural and Environmental Ecology, Department of Agro-Environmental Science at Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine.
She spent her college days in Obihiro and totally fell in love with natural environment of Hokkaido, which is completely different from that of the mainland in terms of scale. Especially Doto, the eastern Hokkaido where Kushiro and Shiretoko are located at, was so inviting for her.
In spring, flowers bloom in moors as if they wake up after their long slumber. After short summer come fall with golden leaves. Then harsh winter comes. While Asano experienced turning of the seasons, her interest in nature itself gradually changed. As time went by, she became sure that she wanted to live there making a lifelong commitment to its natural environment.

Turning to Be Insects Girl from Kaiju Girl

Asano and I saw some tourists on our way to the Furepe waterfall. She seemed to know them and explained them snow condition of the season. “A lot of repeat visitors come at this time of year,” she said after they passed us. Some events for tourists sponsored by Utoro are held by the beginning of March in time for drift ice season. When they are all finished, large parties leave. Instead, a number of people who just like natural environment of Shiretoko and visit there several times a year increases instead.
After a while, students of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine carrying large scopes and tripods walked past us.
Asano and I talked about many things along the way. I told her about Tomio Nonoyama, who went so far as to Africa just to look for monsters and now lives on the Island of Yakushima (Yakushima, located to the south of Kyushu, is on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Sites). I thought that nature conservation guides differ greatly depending on where they work. Many of the guides on Yakushima are freelance, while many of those in Shiretoko belong to some organizations.
“I used to be a kaiju girl, too,” said Asano. “It is one letter away, though,” she added. She belonged to a research group to study harbor seals in university and graduate school and was absorbed in doing a research on seals. Kaiju means both marine animals and monsters in Japanese, but here she meant the former.
In Hokkaido, seals get into fishing nets and damage fish that are caught in them. There is a strong link between living environment of seals and that of human beings.
Asano did a research on the ecology of seals, and she also did a hearing investigation at fishing villages about the coexistence with seals and human beings.
Through these activities, she realized that she was not just interested in animals or insects as a single individual in natural environment but in a whole ecosystem. She found a big theme there, which is how human beings can co-exist with other living things.

When I’m in university, I researched on the ecology of seals, and I also engaged in activities to tell people that there are seals living in Hokkaido. We had exhibitions in towns where their habitat are found and at aquariums. We studied and tried hands-on exhibits, where people can directly touch items on display, and interpretation, which is to explain people about nature, culture, history, and messages behind them.
In my research, I compiled old search records from the perspective of what makes seals disturb (Disturb: to get off reefs .and dive into the sea. If seals often disturb in the breeding period, it can affect their nurturing).
At that time, some organizations came to think about relying on seals to promote tourism. Then I started looking for ways to gather a large number of tourists and show them the seals without giving a negative impact on them, which means without making them disturb. I draw upon whale-watching tours and the like.
In Akkeshi, people use fishing boats of local fishermen to tell tourists about their fishery industry. And at the same time, they were trying to show them seals living around Daikoku Island (Daikoku Island is one of the nation’s most popular breeding areas for harbor seals, and up to 300 of them get on shore of the island). I sought with the people in Akkeshi how we could bring about eco-tourism, and I sometimes got into a boat and guided the tourists. Through these activities, I realized it is important that doing research and conveying knowledge of nature produce a synergistic effect on tourism.
While I studied ecologic science at university, I was thinking about becoming a teacher. I worked part-time at some high school for the handicapped for three years to get experience. I felt that I wanted to work as a bridge between nature and people including the handicapped through conveying and teaching my knowledge. I was beginning to know where I wanted to go in the future
I then tried to find out if I wanted to be a high school teacher to teach students how interesting nature is, to be a tour guide to convey its interests extensively though I would have had less time to contact with nature, or to go on to a doctor’s course, get a career in research and to live a life as a researcher.

Anxiety about Getting a Job

The Furepe Waterfall was frozen and looked as if bluish white ice pillars were climbing up the black piers. We saw the students of Obihiro University of Agriculture and Veterinary Medicine who walked past us a while ago. They set the tripods and were watching something through the scopes. They said there were Steller's sea eagles. The Steller’s sea eagles are one of the most valuable animals that represent Shiretoko. The students let me watch them through their scope. I saw one of them standing still in a small space of bold cliffs. It looked like a well-made craftwork with a beautiful beak.

Asano visited the Shiretoko Nature Center when she was still not sure what she really wanted to do in the future. There are only a few organizations in Japan where staff members do research studies and also give explanations of natural environment to tourists at the same place. She became interested in the center and attended volunteering seminars that were hosted by the center. It was her turning point in her life.

(Comments of Asano)

I attended the volunteering seminars and learned “interpretation” there. They were good opportunities for me to enhance my skills, because I wanted to make my living as an interpreter in Hokkaido. I also thought that maybe I could hear about getting a job not from people of the center but from other attendants.
As I said, only a few organizations in Japan do research studies and give explanations of natural environments to tourists at the same place. I knew only two of them, the Shiretoko Nature Foundation and Picchio Wildlife Research Center, and I was trying to get a job at either of these two. So, when I attended the seminars, I wanted to look over the Shiretoko Nature Foundation beforehand and see if it is a good place to work for.
I started giving lectures as my field work since the fiscal 2003.

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