The area encompassing Kushiro, Akan and Teshikaga in eastern Hokkaido is a must-see for nature lovers. There are two national parks to explore - Kushiro Shitsugen National Park and Akan Mashu National Park - with natural wonders including Lake Akan, famous for its marimo moss balls; Lake Mashu, one of the clearest lakes in the world; Lake Kussharo, Japan's largest caldera lake; and the Kushiro Shitsugen Wetland. Eastern Hokkaido is home to a wealth of wildlife including the red-crowned crane, which came back from near-extinction in this very area.

Kushiro Shitsugen Wetland

Where the iconic red-crowned crane came back from the brink of extinction

The red-crowned crane is deeply entrenched in both Japanese and indigenous Ainu culture. Known as a symbol of peace and longevity among Japanese people and as gods of the wetland in Ainu spirituality, this bird appears in many folk tales and works of art, and even as the logo of Japan Airlines.

But this iconic bird was once thought to be extinct. Overhunting and habitat loss had a devastating impact on red-crowned crane populations, and by the beginning of the 20th century there were none to be found. Miraculously, in 1926 around 20 surviving cranes were discovered on Cape Kirakotan in what is now Kushiro Shitsugen National Park.

Eastern Hokkaido is now playing a central role in initiatives to regrow the population of this iconic bird. Sanctuaries were opened to feed the cranes during the winter when food is scarce, and numbers have now climbed to a little over 1000 in Hokkaido.

You can see these elegant birds for yourself at facilities such as the Tsurui Ito Red-crowned Crane Sanctuary, Akan International Crane Center [GRUS] and the Kushiro Japanese Crane Reserve. The best time to see them is in winter (around November to March) when they come to feed at the sanctuaries. Particularly spectacular is the dance that pairs of red-crowned cranes perform as a bonding ritual, leaping into the air and raising their wings with grace that will take your breath away.

Red-crowned cranes spending the winter at Akan International Crane Center [GRUS]

Breathtaking sunsets among the top three in the world

Kushiro is said to be one of the top three places in the world for beautiful sunsets. Nusamai Bridge, Nusamai Park and Yonemachi Park offer popular vantage points for viewing the stunning colors of the sky, but the very best views are from the water. A sunset cruise departs from Kushiro Port shortly before sundown, taking you out onto the ocean where there's nothing but the vast, vividly colored sky and seagulls soaring above you, casting a beautiful silhouette against the setting sun. You can book tickets up to 15 minutes before departure on the same day.

The best place to admire one of Kushiro's incredible sunsets is from the water.

Robata-yaki: a delicious meal and a cultural experience

Robata-yaki, a style of cuisine invented in Kushiro, is not just a meal but an experience. Diners sit around an open hearth and grill a wide range of fresh and delicious local seafood and vegetables. Kushiro's famous Fukutsukasa sake is placed next to the hearth and warmed to around the same temperature as the body, then drunk by ladling it from the pot into your cup. There's a wonderful sense of camaraderie to be found as you enjoy a good meal and a chat around the warm hearth with friendly locals.

Robata-yaki has been a tradition in Kushiro for over 50 years. On discovering that a restaurant called Robata in Sendai, Miyagi Prefecture grilled vegetables over a hearth, restaurateurs in Kushiro decided to try this method for the abundance of fresh seafood caught in the region. There are now plenty of robata-yaki restaurants to choose from in Kushiro. Many have been in business for generations, and the very first robata-yaki restaurant, Robata in Sakaemachi 3-chome, is still standing today. In some restaurants you can enjoy grilling the food yourself, while others have a master chef who grills each piece of seafood to perfection.

Seafood grilled on an open hearth

Fukutsukasa Sake Brewery: Sake made the eastern Hokkaido way

One of Kushiro's best-known brands is Fukutsukasa Sake. Its name is said to come from fuku wo tsukasadoru, an ancient Japanese concept of inviting good fortune. Founded in 1919, almost a century ago, Fukutsukasa Sake uses mostly Hokkaido-grown rice and Kushiro's pure groundwater to brew sake that complements local cuisine and cannot be imitated anywhere else.

Fukutsukasa offers a wide range of sakes that have been popular among locals for generations. A local confectioner even sells a cake soaked in Fukutsukasa sake.

The brewing process in action

Three fascinating lakes with qualities unlike any other

The jewels in the crown of Eastern Hokkaido's nature are its three lakes: Lake Akan, Lake Mashu and Lake Kussharo.

Lake Akan is best known for being one of the only places where marimo, a species of algae commonly referred to as moss balls, can be found. Formed as a result of unique natural conditions such as the wave patterns of the volcanic lake, these soft balls of algae can grow up to 30cm in diameter. You can see marimo up close at the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center on Churui Island in the lake. In winter, Lake Akan freezes over with ice thick enough to drive on. You can enjoy a variety of activities on the ice, including snowshoe tours and smelt fishing through a hole in the ice.

The Lake Akan Bokke sightseeing trail in winter

Lake Mashu is one of the clearest lakes in the world, with a deep, clear blue that is so distinctive that it has been dubbed "Mashu blue". The 7000-year-old caldera lake owes its clearness in part to the sheer 400m cliffs that surround it, preventing direct contact by humans. There are also no rivers flowing in or out, preventing outside elements from being washed in, and its volcanic properties act as a natural filter. There are several lookouts around the lake where you can admire the spectacular color of the water.

Lake Mashu

Lake Kussharo is the largest caldera lake in Japan and the sixth largest of all Japan's lakes, with a circumference of 57km, an area of 79.3km2 and a depth of 117.5m at its deepest point. Like Lake Akan, it freezes over in winter, and expansions and contractions of the ice make ghostly sounds known as okami-watari (crossing of the gods). A great way to explore the lake is on horseback, with a forest and lakeside trail that takes you into terrain that cannot be accessed by any other means. The horse trek provider, Megere Farm, places great importance on allowing you to get to know your horse - before you set out, you'll brush and saddle the horse yourself, with help from an expert guide. Many tourists are reluctant to part ways with their horse when the tour ends!

Horse trekking around Lake Kussharo

Captivating wood sculptures by distinguished Ainu sculptor Takeki Fujito

Like many other parts of Hokkaido, this area offers various opportunities to learn about the culture of the indigenous Ainu people. One such place is the studio of Takeki Fujito, an Ainu sculptor who is highly respected both in Japan and overseas for his traditional wood sculptures.

The Ainu people believe that gods exist in all things, including animals, plants, natural phenomena and implements related to human life. Fujito's animal sculptures capture the spirit of the animals and evoke images of their movement. Fujito jumps straight into his work with no drafts, as he feels that the wood already contains the masterpiece and he merely carves it out.

Takeki Fujito works on his latest masterpiece

Kawayu Hot Springs: A 100% natural hot spring resort with stunning views

Hot spring lovers can get their fix at Kawayu Hot Springs in Teshikaga. Located near Mt. Io between Lake Mashu and Lake Kussharo, this small hot spring resort boasts one of the only 100% natural hot springs in Japan, with a distinctive sulfur smell. Open-air baths in facilities such as Meitonomori Hotel Kitafukuro offer stunning views of the two lakes and primeval forest during the day and stars as far as the eye can see at night.

Like many hot spring resorts, some of the hotels and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) open their bath facilities to non-staying guests, and a free public foot bath can be found near the Eco Museum Center. You can even bathe in the hot spring river that flows through the resort, or dig your own bath next to the river. Early evening is a particularly beautiful time to enjoy bathing, as the cool mountain air causes mist to rise from the warm water.

Meitonomori Hotel Kitafukuro, Kawayu Hot Springs

Travel back in time on a steam locomotive

An iconic winter tradition in Kushiro is the Fuyu no Shitsugen (Winter Wetland) Steam Locomotive. The train runs north from Kushiro Station to Shibecha, passing through the snow-covered wetland. Built in 1940, the train's interior harkens back to that era with box seats and an old coal stove that you can use to grill dried cuttlefish sold onboard. A local nature guide gives a free talk about the wetland, and if you're lucky you might see wildlife such as red-crowned cranes or Yezo deer from the window.

The Fuyu no Shitsugen Steam Locomotive

With its spectacular natural beauty and abundant wildlife, Eastern Hokkaido is the place to go to immerse yourself in untouched nature.

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