Hokkaido Outdoor Fun in Akan-Mashu National Park: Hiking, Canoeing, and More!
One of the biggest appeals about traveling to Hokkaido – apart from the excellent climate and food – is the island's ruggedly beautiful, seemingly untouched natural terrain. Akan-Mashu National Park, one of Hokkaido's six spectacular national parks, is the epitome of the region's said beauty.
A land filled with plenty of outdoor adventures and activities, culture, history, volcanoes, and hot springs, Akan-Mashu National Park is perfect for lovers of the outdoors and those who just want to get away from it all. Paddle canoes along the pristine lakes, go deep, trekking through mysterious forests, scale sulphuric mountains, embrace Ainu culture, and meet marimo moss balls–Akan-Mashu National Park is an adventure playground just waiting to be explored!
Akan-Mashu National Park: Geography, History, and Highlights
To call Akan-Mashu National Park 'diverse' would be doing a disservice to the sheer variety of landscapes on offer here. From lush, primeval forests punctuated by steaming, muddy onsen pools – known locally as 'bokke' – to pristine, glassy lakes that reflect the surrounding deep green mountain peaks, Akan-Mashu is the epitome of Hokkaido's rugged perfection.
The landscape is like a living history book, where guests can practically read the island's formation in its topography. Volcanic eruptions from around 150,000 years ago formed the Akan Caldera, which could be considered the starting point of the park's current incarnation. In the years that followed – and still to this day – volcanic activity shaped and altered this 91,413-hectare national park, home to unique ecosystems and fascinating flora and fauna (including the region's famous bears).
Akan-Mashu was officially designated a national park in 1934. However, since the beginning of time, the Ainu people, Hokkaido's indigenous culture, have called this area home, working with and caring for the land as farmers, fishermen and women, hunters, and the like. Although the population of Ainu people may have dwindled, their culture, customs, and traditions are still evident and admired in Akan-Mashu National Park through businesses like Ainu Kotan village and the local's way of working and respecting the land.
The Main Attractions of Akan-Mashu National Park
Given just how expansive Akan-Mashu National Park is, one of the best ways to plan out the park's best features is to separate the park into its three main lakes and the attractions surrounding each of them.
Starting from the west side is Lake Akan (locally known as Akanko), the hot spring town of Akanko Onsen, and many of the park's most popular tourist destinations.
Photo from Pixta
One of Lake Akan's best-known features is its 'marimo,' a rare species of algae that forms into the shape of cute, fuzzy balls. Lake Akan’s marimo have been designated a natural monument because of their sheer size; they can grow up to 20 or 30 cm in diameter. These marimo are a protected species, so if you wish to see natural ones, take part in the Lake Akan Sightseeing Cruise, which stops by the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center. Some of the souvenir stores in Akanko Onsen sell small, farm-raised marimo that can be purchased as souvenirs.
Many ryokans and hot spring facilities are located in this onsen town, which sits on the southern part of the lake.
The area is also home to a small Ainu village known as Ainu Kotan. Here guests can learn more about the area's traditional culture through handicrafts and culinary offerings.
Surrounding Akanko's central town area are many outdoor attractions, including the scenic Bokke Walking Trail, a forested path with bubbling onsen mud pools. This trail leads to the Akankohan Eco Museum Center, where guests can visit to learn more about the area, ecosystem, and attractions.
Another nearby highlight is Mt. Hakuto Observatory, which reaches a peak height of 950 meters, and in the morning is a spectacular place to witness Lake Akan's neighboring Mt. Oakan submerged in a sea of clouds. To witness the area from another perspective, you can always hop aboard one of the regular cruises that run along the lake.
Photo from Pixta
Ask any of the locals which of the park's three lakes is the most beautiful, and there's a good chance the incredibly clear, mountain flanked beauty Lake Mashu will make the top of the list. Often covered in fog, it retains a strong almost mystical attraction. Situated in the east of the park, Lake Mashu is best enjoyed from the surrounding observation decks, as to maintain its pristine conditions, visitors are unable to enter the lake itself.
A little tip, observation deck three, which sits on the lake's western rim, is an idyllic place to witness the mirror-like reflections of Mt. Mashu, which stands tall and proud looking over one of Japan's deepest lakes. If you want to take in the sights a little more, follow the hiking trail from observation deck one, which wraps around the lake to Mt. Mashu's summit. The journey takes about two to three hours each way.
Photo from Pixta
Finally, sitting in the center of the park is Lake Kussharo, the largest of the three lakes and a host to some truly out-of-this-world views. The area that surrounds Lake Kussharo is so juxtapositional it's hard to believe how close these diverse landscapes are. The lake itself is crystal clear, flaked by rich greenery, the waters still and tranquil and aquatic life abundant. Guests are welcome to explore this stunning body of water more intimately by hopping in a canoe or renting a SUP (stand-up paddleboard).
Heading a little further east, towards the town of Kawayu Onsen, you'll reach the harsh, moon-like terrain of Mt. Io, an incredibly volcanic mountain exhaling endless streams of volcanic gas. Like something from a science fiction film, this spectacular mountain is open for guests to explore more intimately via professionally guided tours.
Around Lake Kussharo are other trails and mountains worthy of exploration, including the 1,000-meter high Mt. Motoko to the north, which has three walking trails. For something a little easier on the legs, there's also the Wakoto Nature Trail to the south of the lake.
To get a comprehensive view of the areas, their features, and attractions, visit the Kawayu Eco Museum Center. The staff are happy to offer guidance, suggestions, and some professional advice on hiking conditions before you head off. Also, there's a cafe and relaxing space on the second floor of the facility open to all.
Outdoor Activities and Unique Things to Do in Akan-Mashu National Park
One of the best ways to really embrace the culture and natural beauty of Akan-Mashu National Park is by joining the park's many unique adventure activities. There are plenty of activities to choose from for a variety of fitness levels and interests, but here are some highlights.
1. Hiking and Forest Walking
As mentioned earlier, if you'd like to embark on a solo hike, be sure to pay a visit to either Kawayu Eco Museum Center or Akankohan Eco Museum Center, to speak with the staff and pick up a few booklets outlining the best trails in the area.
For something a little more off the beaten track, consider a guided trek through 'Hikari-no-Mori' (the Forest of Light) located in the Akan area. This around one and a half to two-hour forest walk can only be done with a local guide to ensure the pristine conditions of the forest, and the safety of guests, because yes, there are bears and deer that live in Akan-Mashu National Park.
The forest, which is illuminated by dappled light that leaks through the canopies, is home to some incredible views, including the bubbling bokke swamp and rare foliage, like monotropastrum humile, also known as 'ghost flower.' The forest is overseen by the Maeda Ippoen Foundation; tours cost 4,200 yen per person and can be booked via the online form (Japanese only).
For English-friendly guidance and insight into the area unlike any else, be sure to visit Tsuruga Adventure Base Siri, which has its headquarters inside the Lake Akan Tsuruga Wings onsen complex. Tsuruga Adventure Base offers a range of guided activities, including forest walks, nordic walks, hiking tours, fat-biking trails, early morning explorations to witness Lake Akan's "sea of clouds," and the ever-popular fishing adventures. We warmly recommend their Onneto Hiking Tour, which takes you to explore the enchanting primeval forest surrounding Lake Onneto.
Their offerings run throughout the year, but some activities are seasonal, with more snow-centric options offered in the winter months.
The company's leader, Shigeru Takada, aka Dameon, has traveled the globe as an ex-rugby professional. He speaks excellent English and is a source of incredible knowledge and insight into Akan-Mashu National Park. If you're not too sure where to begin, be sure to pop by Tsuruga Adventure Base or hop online to see what adventures they have on offer – options for all fitness levels and interests – and book an adventure you won't forget.
If you plan to spend several days in eastern Hokkaido, consider hiking the 44-kilometer Mashu Kussharo Trail, which takes you to the volcanoes, lakes, and forests that make up the breathtaking caldera scenery specific to Akan-Mashu National Park. The trail starts at Kawayu Eco-Museum Center.
2. Encounter Ainu Culture at Kamuy Lumina
After dark, Akanko Onsen is also home to a very special, immersive nighttime show, 'Kamuy Lumina,' which blends state-of-the-art technology with the area's beautiful nature and rich traditional culture.
The walk runs for a little over one kilometer near the shores of Lake Akan and uses projection mapping to retell the story of traditional Ainu culture. A fascinating blend of local storytelling and modern innovation, it's a truly one-of-a-kind experience. The walk runs multiple times nightly, and guests can buy tickets online (2,800 yen for adults, 1,400 yen for children) or on the same day at the ticket counter (3,000 yen for adults, 1,500 yen for children; disability discounts are available for both online and on-site ticket purchases).
3. Canoeing on Lake Kussharo and Kushiro River
When you get to Lake Kussharo, there's one 'must do' activity, and that's canoeing the lake's spectacularly clear waters. Yoshida Satoshi from Kussharo Eco Tours is an experienced outdoorsman who heads up regular canoeing tours through the lake.
The company offers a variety of tours, from short (one hour and a half) routes to longer tours, and in July-September, you can also join one of their fishing and canoeing adventures. No matter which one you choose, what's guaranteed is an unforgettable time getting familiar with this fascinating caldera lake and its many aquatic creatures.
Tour prices range from 5,000 - 9,000 yen for adults (2,500 - 4,500 yen for children), and booking inquiries can be made via email. They also offer walking tours upon request and collaborate with a nearby facility that offers horse riding experiences for those interested.
Oh, and if you're not a strong rower, don't worry, Yoshida-san does most of the heavy work, so you can sit back and admire the beauty of the forests as you flow down the lake.
Where to Stay in Akan-Mashu National Park
If you're looking for something central but also a location with excellent onsen offerings and plenty of dining options, the Akanko Onsen area is an ideal place to stay. It's near many of the most exciting outdoor attractions, and the town is well-equipped with tourist facilities while still being surrounded by pristine nature.
Lake Akan Tsuruga Wings, and its adjoined Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga is an excellent option, as it's home to Tsuruga Adventure Base 'Siri' as well as plenty of shopping, dining, and bathing facilities, as well as a remote working space, and its views of Lake Akan are unparalleled.
Access to Akan-Mashu National Park from the Nearest Airport
Kushiro Airport is the closest airport to Akan-Mashu National Park. If you're traveling via public transport, there are busses that run between the airport and Lake Akan (Akan Bus) multiple times a day. The journey takes an hour to 75 minutes and costs 2,190 yen each way. To reach Lake Akan by car (there are car rentals near the airport) takes about an hour.
*Please note that the ticket prices and activity fees mentioned in this article are current as of August 2021. For the latest information, please visit the official website of each facility.