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Winter in Hokkaido is a snow lover's paradise. During the snow season, Japan's northernmost prefecture offers wintry landscapes, lots of snow and activities that are unique to the season. Not only is the cold weather fantastic for skiing and snowboarding, it also presents favorable conditions for natural formations like frost flowers and hoarfrost to develop. National parks are some of the best places to be immersed in the vast outdoors, and six of the 34 national parks in Japan are located in Hokkaido.

Visitors who would like to experience a winter wonderland should definitely consider a visit to one of Hokkaido's national parks in the winter period between December and April, with the peak of the cold season starting from end January through February. While any one of the parks is a good choice, perhaps one that offers an assortment of fascinating landscapes is the Akan-Mashu National Park.

The Akan-Mashu National Park is located inland in the middle of eastern Hokkaido. Consisting of three caldera lakes: Lake Mashu, Lake Kussharo and Lake Akan, and a number of volcanic mountains, the national park offers nature lovers volcanic terrain and forests that host an abundance of wildlife and flora, including some that are native to the area.

I spent two days and two nights in the snow-covered terrain and experienced a whole new world within the national park. Some highlights of my trip included canoeing down the Kushiro River, walking on water, seeing wild animals and learning about the aboriginal Ainu culture.

This trip would be perfect for those who want to do a side trip while holidaying in Hokkaido or as a long weekend tour from the major cities of Tokyo or Osaka, which was what I did. Note that a rental car is recommended as public transportation is virtually non-existent.

Day one

The day before, I flew into Memambetsu Airport from Tokyo, picked up my rental car at the airport and drove for about an hour to the hot spring town of Kawayu Onsen, where I stayed the night.

Located inside the Akan-Mashu National Park, the smell of sulphur permeates Kawayu Onsen town, and the acidic waters are said to soothe and heal a variety of ailments. There are a number of accommodation facilities with their private baths as well as a public bath in town. Staying overnight in a hot spring town was a great place to kick off my trip, and I was looking forward to the activities the next day.

I woke up bright and early on Day 1, and got started on my incredible trip. I could not have asked for better weather; the skies were blue, and it was forecast to be sub-zero temperatures all day, which raised my expectations for seeing some wintry landscapes.

My first stop was Mt. Io, an active volcano with sulphurous vents, a five-minute drive from Kawayu Onsen. The steaming vents were visible from a distance against the blue sky, and I was excited to be able to walk right up to them. It is not very often that one gets a chance to walk right up to steaming sulphur vents. It seems that outside of winter, eggs that have been cooked by the steaming vents are sold in the nearby shops.

After that, I got back in my rental car and drove for about 30 minutes to the first observatory of Lake Mashu. The popular observation deck offers a panoramic view of Lake Mashu, the sixth largest caldera lake in Japan. Lake Mashu is known to have some of the clearest waters in the world with a recorded visibility of up to 20 meters in recent years. It exists as a lake with no exits and completely reliant on precipitation, and consequently, does not have much impurities and sediments that rivers tend to bring in. The lake has a circumference of 20 kilometers and a depth of 211 meters at its deepest point.

I was treated to a snowy landscape, and stayed for a while taking in the views. As I was there pretty early, for a brief moment, it truly felt like I had uncovered this new world and made humanity's first ever footprints in the pristine snow.

From the observatory, it was another 30 minute drive to Kussharo Eco Tours, where I would participate in a canoe tour down Kushiro River. The Kushiro River starts in Lake Kussharo, flows about 150 kilometers down south through the Kushiro Marshland before emptying out into the Pacific Ocean. Canoeing downstream, even in the winter, is a popular activity, and advance reservations are advised as spots can be filled up.

I arrived at the departure point and straight to the pre-departure briefing. All participants are required to wear a drysuit, warm outer layers and boots fit for the sub-zero temperatures, which were all thankfully provided by the tour company. It was not long before we were all dressed up and ready to rock the boat.

The canoe activity was hands down one of the best experiences I did this trip. We departed from Lake Kussharo, the largest caldera lake in Japan and the largest of the three lakes in the Akan-Mashu National Park, before heading down Kushiro River and visiting one of its sources en route. My English-speaking tour guide was also extremely knowledgeable about the local flora and fauna, and pointed out some of the phenomena that can only be seen in the winter. During the two hour tour, I got to check of almost all of the natural formations I was hoping to see, specifically, hoarfrost and frost flowers.

I left the tour energized and made plans to return either in the summer or again when the weather is even colder for a chance to see some diamond dust, ice crystals in the air that glisten like diamonds against the sunlight.

Before leaving the Lake Kussharo area, I made a pit stop at Kotan Onsen, an outdoor hot spring bath not far away. The public onsen is well known for its view of Lake Kussharo and Whooper swans that converge in the warm waters next to the bath in the winter. As the bath is completely open, it is recommended that visitors wear bathing suits when going for a soak.

Moving on, I got back into my rental car and drove for about an hour to Akanko Onsen, a hot spring town where I would spend the night. I arrived in the mid afternoon and spent some time walking around the town before it got too dark.

The town is built on the southern shores of Lake Akan, and it is home to the Akanko Ainu Kotan, one of the last few surviving aboriginal Ainu villages in Japan. It was my first real experience with Ainu culture, having read and heard so much about it. I found most of the village experience to be fairly mainstream, with the exception of the Ainu Life Memorial Museum, a small museum which recreates a traditional house, and the Akanko Ainu Theater <Ikor>.

The Akanko Ainu Theater <Ikor> offers nightly performances showcasing the traditional song and dance, and the well-done Lost Kamuy show that tells the story of Ainu history and heritage through the combination of traditional and contemporary dance together with digital art. Discount tickets to the shows are available at the shops and accommodation facilities in the onsen town.

I took the opportunity to watch a series of ancient ceremonial dances and the Lost Kamuy shows after dinner. Needless to say, it gave me a whole new understanding of Ainu culture and impressed upon me the urgency to preserve this dying heritage. I would highly recommend a visit to the theater for those would like a glimpse into Ainu culture.

At the end of my big first day, I went to bed very content and satisfied with all that I had seen and done.

Day two

I got up before sunrise on the second day for a pre-dawn walk on Lake Akan with Akan Nature Center. I joined the tour not knowing what to expect, and am glad to report that it turned out to be a very informative and relaxing experience.

It was still dark when the guide picked me and the other participants up from our hotel lobby. Note that warm gear is not provided, and participants should be prepared and suitably dressed to walk in the cold. We set off in our guide's car and headed for the trail not far from the Akankohan Eco-museum Center, which I would visit later.

The guide brought us through the forest along the shore onto the frozen Lake Akan itself. Along the way, I learned about the local vegetation. The one that caught my attention was marimo, an algae that grows in fresh water, and the ones in Lake Akan are the only ones in the world that develops into a sphere.

The area where the marimo grow in the wild is off limits to the public, and as such, I was unable to see any. However, in the warmer months from May through to November, regular sightseeing boats depart from the pier in the hot spring town to the Marimo Exhibition Center on a small island in the lake. Visitors will have the opportunity to see some marimo there.

However, what I did see on my approximately one hour sunrise walk more than made up for the lack of marimo. We got to see huge omiwatari, a naturally occurring ice phenomenon in which an upheaval of ice is formed when the ice on the lake expands and contracts due to temperature differences.

In addition to that, we also got to see frozen bubbles stuck under the iced lake, and a spectacular sunrise in spite of the cloudy skies. I would definitely label this as a successful sunrise walk.

After breakfast back at the hotel and checking out, I headed back to the Akankohan Eco-museum Center. The museum has good displays with English descriptions of the flora and fauna, and to my delight, a small tank of spherical marimo algae. I found it very informative and an excellent place to get an overview of the nature in the region.

Finally to end my trip, I got back on the road and drove back to Memambetsu Airport, where my journey started, via the Bihoro Pass. The drive took me about two hours as I stopped along the Bihoro Pass Observation Deck for one last look at the national park.

I can safely say that this has been one of the most satisfying trips I have taken, and one which I would not hesitate to repeat. Despite the seemingly long first day, it was actually very manageable, and I had plenty of time to explore the Akan-Mashu National Park. Next time, I plan to visit in a different season for the different scenery, although I have to admit that "the cold never bothered me anyway", and winter in Hokkaido will always have a special place in my heart.

Access

The closest airports with daily flights from Tokyo to the Akan-Mashu National Park are Memambetsu, Naka-Shibetsu and Kushiro, which are all approximately equidistant from the national park. The one way flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to either one of these airports starts from around 12,000 yen.

Rental car outlets can be found at the nearby airports, and the cars come fitted with winter tyres during the snow season. It takes about 70-90 minutes to drive to the Akan-Mashu National Park from either one of the three airports.