If you’re a major nature lover, one of the best places to visit is Tomakomai’s Lake Utonai. The area has a dedicated bird sanctuary set up for people interested in bird-watching. Not only that, you can also learn about the various wildlife in Hokkaido.
Tomakomai is a port city that is about an hour and a half drive away from Sapporo, if you take the highway. The city is also accessible by train, but getting to Lake Utonai and the Wildlife Center takes time since it’s located away from downtown Tomakomai.
It’s best experienced as a drive, as Lake Utonai has a michi no eki (道の駅), or a little service area that serves up local delicacies. It’s basically a rest stop. Tomakomai produces haskap, or huckleberry. It is about the size of a small strawberry and is blue or purple in color. Think oval-shaped blueberries. It is more tart and less sweet than a blueberry, but it’s still very delicious. But, I like berries in general.
The other delicacy from Tomakomai is hokki, which is a type of shellfish. It is served in a curry dish.
I went to Lake Utonai in the summer, when the weather was perfect for driving. However, some serious bird watchers go in the colder months when some of the birds from all over Japan and the world come to roost.
Lake Utonai is not so big, but there are interesting points to see. You can go up to the observatory and try to see if you can find different species of birds through the binoculars that are set up for visitors. These are free to use.
It’s also nice to sit here and look out at the lake. When I went, I didn’t need the binoculars to observe the pelicans flying over head. There was also a swan in its nest right at the banks of the lake.
Next to the observatory is the souvenir shop/rest area. There is a cafe inside serving the local cuisine and also a farmer’s market selling fresh produce. This is also a nice area to sit and take a break. I got a little hungry so I had a little snack.
The space is very open and set up like a food court. You can buy light snacks or meals and enjoy them on the tables. The windows to the side overlook the lake and there are also binoculars available to help you find the smaller birds or animals that live across the lake. Even without the binoculars, though, just looking out into the waters and enjoying the calmness was enjoyable. The views from inside the building are just as nice as from outside.
A few feet away, maybe about five minutes walk is the Wildlife Center. When I went, there were hardly any people inside, so it was really quiet and calm. The Center has a lot of displays about the animals and plants of the area.
It was all very inter-active. There were lots of things to see and touch. They even set up some equipment for viewing. This is a great place to take kids to learn about science. There’s lots of information readily available.
The upstairs was empty when I went, but they usually hold some kind of gallery featuring artists or other kinds of events.
I won’t say that this is a major tourist destination, but it’s a good place to spend an hour or two if you’re driving through Hokkaido. The area is also nice for kids to run around and explore nature to their heart’s content. The michi no eki has lots of souvenirs for sale selling local goods and products, so that’s always a bonus.