While for most international travelers Hokkaido is a destination most commonly reserved for winter, the locals and regular Japan visitors know it’s also a spectacular place to visit throughout the year. Home to cooler, mild summers, some of the best seafood in the world, and untouched national parks, it’s an outdoor adventure playground just waiting to be explored. Akan-Mashu National Park is one of Hokkaido’s six national parks and an excellent place to begin going deep into this northern island’s endless appeal. Home to pristine lakes, ancient forests, and a rich indigenous culture, it’s a side of Japan you might not have known existed but will be so glad to have discovered once you’ve found it.
The geography and history of Akan-Mashu National Park
Akan-Mashu sits on the eastern side of Hokkaido, and within its park boundaries, it houses a staggering variety of landscapes across its 91,413 hectares. It’s home to unique ecosystems and fascinating flora and fauna (including the region’s famous bears). Much of the area is exposed to Hokkadio’s four distinct seasons, making it a place that’s nearly unrecognizable from one season to the next.
A series of eruptions formed the park’s topography from around 150,000 years ago. These eruptions formed the Akan caldera, the beginning point of Akan-Mashu National Park. The park can be split into three main areas, with each area focused around the park’s lakes: Lake Akan to the east, Lake Kussharo in the middle, and Lake Mashu to the west.
Before Akan-Mashu’s official designation as a national park in 1934, the Ainu, the indigenous population of Hokkaido, called this area home. Today there are still remnants of this fascinating but sadly no longer largely existing culture. Ainu people subsisted on this land, working with the environment as farmers, anglers, and hunters, and the like. Today you can learn about the history of the Ainu people with a visit to Akan Mashu’s Ainu Kotan village.
Let’s break the area down by its three main lakes, as each of them is home to many of Akan-Mashu’s main attractions.
Lake Mashu is the area’s eastern lake. It’s considered to be the most scenically beautiful. With its ultra-clear water and near-constant fog, the lake draws many visitors with its mystical attraction. Unfortunately, to maintain the lake’s beauty, visitors can’t enter the water of Lake Mashu, but it’s a great place for a scenic hike.
There are three observation decks scattered around the lake. But observation deck No. 3, which sits on the lake’s western rim, is the best place to admire picture-perfect views of Mt. Mashu, reflected in the mirror-like water.
After, head over to observation deck No. 1, from which you can take the hiking trail that wraps around the lake to Mt. Mashu’s summit. The journey takes about 2–3 hours each way.
In the center of the park is Lake Kussharo, the biggest lake out of the three. If you want to explore the area up close, guests are allowed to enter this lake, and there are local businesses that run SUP, fishing, and canoe tours right by the water.
A little farther east of the lake toward Kawayu onsen town is one of the area’s other major attractions: Mt. Io, a rugged volcanic mountain pumping out endless plumes of sulphuric gas. There are guided tours that take trekkers up this mountain, and the best place to learn more about this is with a visit to the Kawayu Eco Museum Center nearby. Other trails and mountains are worthy of exploration around Lake Kussharo, like Mt. Mokoto to the north, which has three walking trails.
Lastly, but not at all least, to the west is Lake Akan, home to Akan onsen town, and an excellent place to set up a home base as it boasts plenty of tourist attractions. Lake Akan is also well known for its unique moss balls known as marimo. If you’ve never seen them before, go ahead and Google them. They’re strangely adorable for non-sentient creatures, and you can buy your own specially grown marimo from many of the souvenir shops in the area.
Surrounding Akanko’s central town area is plenty of outdoor attractions, like the Bokke Walking Trail, a forested path with bubbling onsen mud pools. There’s also Mt. Hakuto Observatory, which reaches a peak height of 950 meters and is best to visit in the morning as you can witness Mt. Oakan submerged in a sea of clouds.
Where to join outdoor adventures
Being blunt, hiking and trekking around Hokkaido can be dangerous, but that’s a large part of the fun. Akan-Mashu National Park is home to a pretty big bear population, and Hokkadio’s bears are big, much bigger than what you might find in Nagano and the like. So, the best and safest way to embrace the great outdoors is under the watchful eyes of a local guide.
In the Lake Akan’s onsen area, you’ll find local adventure tour company Tsuruga Adventure Base Siri, a relatively newly founded company offering unique experiences in deep Akan-Mashu. The company is overseen by Shigeru Takada, aka Dameon, an experienced local who speaks excellent English and knows the park better than most.
The company’s tour offerings vary depending on the season, but they do run year-round and have options for all fitness levels. Some of their guided activities include forest walks, fat-biking cycling tours, fishing expeditions, Nordic walks, hiking tours, and sunrise tours where guests can witness Lake Akan’s “sea of clouds.”
If you’re feeling confident enough to explore entirely on your own, then we’d highly suggest you put aside a little time to visit the Kawayu Eco Museum Center. A comprehensive park information center has plenty of trail guides, information booklets, and maps available for free here. Also, the staff is on hand to help trekkers with professional advice on hiking conditions and routes.
Where to stay
Central and surrounded by plenty of things to see and do, Lake Akan’s Onsen town is the perfect place to set up a home base while you explore the park in more depth. The area is situated on the southern part of the lake, and it’s easy to explore the area and its surroundings on foot. However, to access the Akan-Mashu National Park’s other lakes and highlights, it’s best to get around by rental car if possible. Within the Akan Onsen area, there are plenty of hotels, minshuku (Japanese b&bs) and ryokan (traditional inns) for all tastes and budgets.
How to get to Akan-Mashu National Park
From elsewhere in Japan, the closest airport to Akan-Mashu is Kushiro Airport.
|Tokyo => Kushiro||Peach||¥5,043 (US$46)||Details|
|Tokyo => Kushiro||Japan Airlines||¥21,551 (US$197)||Details|
If you’re traveling via public transport, there are buses that run between Kushiro Airport and Lake Akan (Akan Bus) multiple times a day. The journey takes an hour to 75 minutes and costs ¥2,750 yen each way.
To reach Lake Akan by car takes about an hour. There are plenty of car rental options near the airport.