Kunashir Island, Kuril Islands

Photo: Kremlin.ru [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0) or CC BY 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
There’s a string of islands that developers are eyeing in the western Pacific Ocean. The islands were formed by still-active stratovolcanoes. Frequent seismic activity produce fumaroles, hot springs, and even earthquakes. Rocky beaches and crater lakes, alpine tundra and dense forests cover the rest of the land. While the surrounding waters are among the most productive (meaning lots of marine life) in the north Pacific.

The Kuril Islands sound like a nature lover’s dream. Hiking trails could wind through nature reserves to dramatic lookout points. Cross-country skiers could use the trails during the long, snowy winters. They could stop to take a dip in the hot springs along the way. Photographers would love the foggy summers, especially along the steeply sloped coastline. The seabirds—tufted puffins and kittiwakes—who live there would be a big draw, too. Plus ecolodges, similar to new ones in the Nordic countries, could add an element of luxury to the remote islands.

So what’s the problem? It all boils down to ownership. The Kuril Islands were originally the home of the Ainu people. Then Japan and Russia arrived. They’ve fought, sometimes ferociously, over the 56 islands ever since. Technically, the Soviet Union acquired the islands at the end World War II. They’re considered part of Sakhalin Oblast, in the Russian Far East. But Japan refuses to give up its long-standing claim over the two southernmost islands.

Kunashir Island, the absolute southernmost island, lies just 24 kilometers off the coast of Hokkaido. You can see the island across the Nemuro Strait. It was formed when the lava of four volcanoes, all still active, blended together. Lakes and more hot springs now sit in between them. Its mountains are covered with birch trees. Kuril bamboo and herbaceous flowers grow underneath them. Yuzhno-Kurilsk, the largest settlement, already has a thriving port. There’s an airport, too.

It’d be the ideal spot for a zen retreat. You could escape the ski crowd in Hokkaido. You could spend all day in the wilderness without seeing another person. You could sip tea, eat fresh sushi, and sleep in front of a fireplace on a tatami mat. It’d be the perfect Japanese escape—if Russia would just get out of the way.

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