An unspoiled frontier

“An unspoiled frontier, an escape from industrialized Japan and a chance to connect with nature …” or so says the Rough Guide to Japan (6th edition, September 2014).

We had experienced a bit of the city-scene in Hakodate, but the rest of our sightseeing of this untamed island had been limited to flashes as we drove (albeit slowly at a max of 80 km/hr or 50 mph) to Akkeshi. All this changed as we headed north to our third Hokkaido field site.

Takefumi Yorisue, a researcher at the Akkeshi Marine Station, was our guide and translator.


I’ll digress from Gracilaria for a moment to talk a bit about Take’s research on barnacle settlement pheromones. The proteinaceous pheromone SIPC induces conspecific larval settlement. This gregarious settlement becomes important for reproductive success as adults.

Take found variation in the SIPC genes and this variation might produce species specificity (Yorisue et al. 2012, Biofouling 28: 605-611). SIPC genes might also enhance the selectivity of settlement sites and thereby impact incipient speciation.

Take has now found SIPC genes under positive selection and potential links to diversification and adaptation in barnacles.

Contact Take if you are interested in the future directions of his work (

Back to field work and more pictures!

Take, Rob and I headed north to Abashiri on the Okhotsk Sea. Tourists flock to this town 350 km from Sapporo in order to see the drift ice (流氷, Ryūhyō). In Abashiri and Monbetsu, it’s possible to board ice breakers and see the southernmost spot in the northern hemisphere where drift ice appears.


The Drills of the Garinko-go, an icebreaker in Hokkaido ©

The Drills of the Garinko-go, an icebreaker in Hokkaido ©

The ice had long broken up by the time we got to our field site near Abashiri. Nevertheless, conditions were not ideal as the tide did not wish to cooperate. We spanned out and all three of us were frantically grabbing Gracilaria before the tide completely covered the rocky outcrop and only accessible area!

All ice boxes should have delightful anecdotes to brighten field work when it's freezing!

All ice boxes should have delightful anecdotes to brighten field work when it’s freezing!

Rob, myself and Take after the tide fought against us!

Rob, myself and Take after the tide fought against us!

We were then able to process our samples thanks to Dr. Susumu Chiba of the Tokyo University of Agriculture Laboratory of Fisheries Biology.

Lab work. Thanks to Dr. Susumu Chiba for providing lab space.

Lab work. Arigato Chiba-San!

Dinner at Sawa in Abashiri

Dinner at Sawa in Abashiri

The next day we were not as lucky on the seaweed sampling front …

It was cold.

Freezing, actually.

Not quite a gale, but when it’s warmer to be walking in the waves and you lose feeling in all extremeties, you know it’s cold.

The other added benefit of fording the angry brackish lake? It was possible to avoid some of the blasting sand.

After two hours of searching, I could only find approximately 30 thalli that looked like this:


Very sad seaweed and a very sad/cold Stacy. Rob and Take were better off having sought refuge in our rental car from the elements.

But, one of the great things about Japan are the konbini, or convenient stores!



They sell these little aluminum cans of super hot coffee. I was skeptical when we first encountered them. I couldn’t quite see the benefit of burning your hand for coffee that was less than noteworthy. This was until I realized the benefit of placing a can in each pocket to recover from near hypothermia!


With no seaweeds to process, we headed to the Shiretoko Peninsula, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Shiretoko Peninsula from the air in winter. ©

The Shiretoko Peninsula from the air in winter. ©

The peninsula is virtually untouched and one can even see brown bears!

Shiretoko wildlife

Shiretoko wildlife

Not the right kind of algae, but still pretty


Algal mascots!!

Algal mascots!!

Bamboo forests

Bamboo forests

Thank you to Take for translating menus and being a great field assistant/guide!

Akkeshi Bridge

Akkeshi Bridge

After returning to Akkeshi to collect our other gear, Rob and I headed to the Akan National  Park in order to see the marimo, rare balls of green algae. The name in Japanese literally means “ball seaweed” (毬藻). Colonies of marimo are only known to form in lakes in Iceland, Scotland, Estonia, Australia and Japan.

torii, 鳥居, at Akan-ko

torii, 鳥居, at Akan-ko


The algae are native to Akan-ko and are rare. It was thought to take up to 200 years for the marimo to grow to the size of a baseball, but recent research suggests it may take only a few years to reach 30 cm in diameter.

Marimo from Akan-ko

Marimo museum/aquarium in the middle of Akan-ko

More marimo for sale (yes, I bought one!)

Marimo for sale (yes, I bought a jar!)

One of our hosts at Akkeshi, Nakaoka-San took some students the week we after we had left Hokkaido to visit the team researching the lakes in the national park. They are trying to understand more about the lake and the marimo.

Marimo for sale with plastic Cliona!

Marimo for sale with plastic Clione!

In addition to see marimo mascots, there were sea angels, or Clione sp., on billboards and postcards throughout Hokkaido – and even in marimo jars! Sea angels are pteropods and live in the Arctic Ocean and the colder regions of the North Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

A shell-less sea snail (Cliona limacina), found beneath Arctic sea ice. © Russ Hopcroft/Census of Marine Life

A shell-less sea snail (Clione limacina) found beneath Arctic sea ice. © Russ Hopcroft/Census of Marine Life

We were fortunate to have a colleague point us to another site with Gracilaria vermiculophylla near Muroran since our second northern Hokkaido site didn’t pan out.

On the way to Usu, Rob and I stopped at Asahidake, Hokkaido’s highest mountain (2290 meters). Unfortunately, visibility was dismal so we didn’t take the ropeway to the top.

That didn’t stop us browsing the interesting candies and drinks on offer at the gift shop.



Temple near Asahidake

Temple near Asahidake


REALLY expensive melons! 3980¥ is about $34 USD!

REALLY expensive melons! 3980¥ is about $34 USD!

Our final site gave us a bit of an anxious moment as the tide was quickly sucked out of the little bay. We’re talking over 20 m in horizontal distance in the matter of minutes.

As the water was rapidly receding, there was a long, but calm long explanation over an intercom at the local fishing port. As it was all in Japanese, it was meaningless to Rob and I.

All the fishermen promptly disappeared. After numerous discussions by our hosts at each marine lab about the very real possibility of tsunamis, we decided it best to make a run for it. Half way through the muddy trek, I realized the temperature logger was left behind. All our temperature data were on that tiny logger! So, I went back for it.

At the car, we reassessed and realized the water was slowly flowing back in and the fishermen were slowly filtering back the docks.

It was the lunch break.

We probably are still a topic of laughter as the fishermen watched two people try to run through shin deep mud for no apparant reason … we were able to get the necessary samples, but it was a long, dirty day, including processing the samples on the steps much to the amusement of other locals.

Usu - at least we can laugh at ourselves


Hotel fridge algal storage ...

Hotel fridge algal storage …

Our final night in Hokkaido was spent in Sapporo before we headed south to Obama and the lab of Mitsunobu Kamiya at the Fukui Prefectural University.

Susukino in Sapporo

Susukino in Sapporo

Obama in Obama

Obama in Obama

In the next post, I have the pleasure to talk about some of the great research going on in Kamiya-San’s lab as well as our exploits in Kyoto and Obama!


About Stacy Krueger-Hadfield

I am a marine evolutionary ecologist interested in the impacts of seascapes and complex life cycles on marine population dynamics. I use natural history, manipulative field experiments and population genetic and genomic approaches with algal and invertebrate models in temperate rocky shores,estuaries and the open ocean.
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