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Active volcanoes in Shikotsu-Toya National Park

An overnight trip in a volcanically active area near Sapporo

Under an hour west of central Sapporo, the capital city of Hokkaido, is the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. Two large caldera lakes formed many millennia ago, Lake Shikotsu and Lake Toya, are the namesake of the national park, and they are surrounded by active volcanoes. The volcanically active region offers visitors hiking opportunities, hot springs and scenic views, and its proximity to Sapporo makes it a convenient overnight trip away from the city.

I went on an overnight road trip to the Shikotsu-Toya National Park, visiting both the Lake Shikotsu and Lake Toya areas as well as the hell valley between them. My trip included a couple of hikes, staying overnight in a hot spring town and getting a firsthand look at some preserved ruins from a recent volcanic eruption.

Day 1

I started my day in the Lake Shikotsu area, heading straight to Mount Tarumae at the southern end of the lake. Formed about 10,000 years ago, Mount Tarumae has a crater with a smoking lava dome in its center and is ranked as one of Japan's most active volcanoes. Its most recent eruption was in 1981, not too many years ago!

Hiking on Mount Tarumae is an activity that can be completed by beginner or casual hikers and does not require any technical skills or gear, although it is recommended to wear sturdy shoes and be adequately prepared with wet or cold weather gear and drinking water. Additionally the trailhead is situated about seven-tenths up the mountain and accessible by car. Hiking on Mount Tarumae makes for a nice half day activity, and it was also the perfect opportunity to walk on an active volcano.

Once on the trail, it didn't take long before I was greeted with a panoramic view of Lake Shikotsu and the surrounding mountains and forest. The landscape quickly became very rocky about 10 to 15 minutes past the trailhead, and I was reminded of the images I had seen of the landscape on Mars. It took me about an hour to reach the summit from the trailhead, and I felt a sense of achievement at the peak after conquering the somewhat steep ascent. Note that the trail has many steps and loose rocks. Some sections of the trail may be more steep than others, and adequate care should be taken to avoid slipping or tripping.

It is prohibited to enter the crater due to poisonous volcanic gases, but there is a circular walking trail along the outer rim of the crater which allows visitors a 360 degree view of the smoking lava dome and different views of the landscape surrounding the mountain.

After a walk around the top of Mount Tarumae, I headed down and back to my rental car. The short but stimulating hike energized me, and I was looking forward to exploring more of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. From Mount Tarumae, it was a one hour drive west to Noboribetsu, my next stop for the day.

Noboribetsu is the most famous hot spring town in Hokkaido and known for its hell valley which is the source of the hot spring waters. The jigokudani or hell valley is located at the northern end of the hot spring town, and there are a number of walking trails connecting the hell valley with hot sulfuric ponds and streams.

I went on a walk in Noboribetsu, making a circular route starting from the hell valley, which took about an hour. It was a very pleasant route which offers a variety of sights. Starting at the jigokudani, I found it to be very impressive as it bubbled and vented sulfurous steam into the air. Seeing all that volcanic activity made me anticipate the hot spring baths at my accommodation after the walk.

Continuing on, I made my way through a nice forested area and reached Oyunuma, a sulfuric pond, after about 20 minutes. From there, it was another 15 minute walk in a forested area along a hot spring stream, where I would have the unique experience of a natural hot spring footbath in the river. It was an easy stroll to my accommodation from the footbath along the river, and I was back in no time.

After checking in at my accommodation, I went straight to relax in the hot spring baths before dinner. Soaking in the baths felt especially nice after a day of walking and driving.

Day 2

After breakfast, it was off to Lake Toya, the other namesake of the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. The drive from Noboribetsu to Lake Toya took about an hour via the beautiful Orofure Toge, a mountain pass. I took a small detour and stopped for a short break at the Orofure Toge Observation Deck, which is at an elevation of just under 1000 meters. There, I was treated to beautiful panoramic views of Lake Toya and the surrounding mountains, including Mount Orofure and Mount Yotei, an active mountain which bears a resemblance to Mount Fuji.

Lake Toya was formed over 100,000 years ago and is the third largest caldera lake in Japan. The scenic lake is surrounded by active volcanoes like Mount Yotei and Mount Usu, of which the latter is quite active having erupted four times in the last 110 years or approximately once every 20 to 35 years. At the southern end of Lake Toya lies Toyako Onsen, a popular hot spring town whose waters came to be after a Mount Usu eruption over 100 years ago.

I arrived in the Lake Toya area about 40 minutes after the short scenic break, and made a beeline for the Usuzan Ropeway, which runs along the eastern side of Mount Usu. A curious sight beside the ropeway station is Showa Shinzan, a rocky mountain jutting out from the earth. This young mountain is an active volcano, which rose about 200 meters through the flat farmland from 1943 to 1945 due to volcanic activity from Mount Usu. Showa Shinzan is still venting fumarolic gases today.

The Usuzan Ropeway took me from the bottom of Mount Usu to near the top where there are a few observation decks and hiking trails. The gondola has large glass panels, which allow for panoramic views of the surrounding area during the six minute journey, and commentary of the landscape is also played. Upon arrival at the upper station, I went to the Mount Usu Terrace, a newly opened terrace area which looks down on Showa Shinzan and Lake Toya. Not only were the views spectacular, the terrace was also outfitted with comfortable couches and tables for visitors to enjoy the scenery in a luxurious fashion.

From there, I headed to the Mount Usu crater observation deck, which was about ten minutes away on foot. That observation deck affords views into Mount Usu's large smoking crater that was formed when the mountain erupted in 1977. A walking trail along the outer rim to yet another observation deck starts from the crater observation deck, and the walk takes about 40 minutes one way. After getting my fill of seeing smoking craters, I went back down on the ropeway and drove to the Toyako Visitor Center in the hot spring town.

The visitor center in central Toyako Onsen has displays relating to the flora and fauna of the Lake Toya area, as well as information about Mount Usu's volcanic history. It was a good addition to my visit after seeing Showa Shinzan and the smoking craters atop Mount Usu, and in preparation for my walk to come.

As mentioned earlier, Mount Usu has erupted four times in the last 110 years, and as an active volcano, it is monitored for potential eruptions. The last two which happened in the last 50 years were nothing short of terrifying as huge plumes of volcanic ash were spewed into the air while the pyroclastic surge damaged anything in its way.

There must be an unspoken attraction to living in the the Lake Toya, as residents in the vicinity continue to live there despite knowing that volcanic eruptions occur once every (aproximately) 20 years. The residents live with the knowledge that they have to be prepared to evacuate at a moment's notice. Disaster preparedness, including emergency evacuation plans and crisis management, is key to surviving a volcanic eruption. It is with this readiness and preparedness that resulted in zero fatalities in the last eruption in 2000.

Now, the western side of Mount Usu was where the eruption in 2000 occurred, and new craters were created. Additionally, the pyroclastic surge destroyed many structures in the vicinity. A number of these structures have been preserved, and walking trails have been created for visitors to see first-hand and up-close the destruction. My walk started from the back of the Toyako Visitor Center, where the ruins of an apartment block, a bathhouse and part of bridge, which was dragged about 60 meters from its original position, remain.

The trail continues from there into a forested area sandwiched by a couple of newly formed craters, and there is an observation deck along the way to look into one of them. Passing the craters brings one to another area where the aftermath of the same eruption was left as it is. I saw sunken and warped roads, power lines and cables knocked askew by the pyroclastic projectiles. My walk ended at a ruined kindergarten, which has since been taken over by nature.

I found it incredible that no lives were lost given the vast damage I saw along the walking trail, but it just goes to show how good disaster management can prevent the loss of lives in such situations. This trip to the Shikotsu-Toya National Park illustrated the tremendous power of Mother Nature in a volcanically active region. On the one hand, we are blessed with good things like fantastic hiking opportunities, scenic views and hot spring baths to relax in, but on the other, Mother Nature can also get scary when she arises from her slumber.

About national parks

Shikotsu-Toya is just one of the 34 national parks located throughout Japan, covering an impressive 6% of the country's total land. Established in 1931 to designate areas of scenic beauty and protect delicate ecosystems, they include a wide range of environments from volcanoes to marine habitats.

Each national park is managed by a dedicated workforce of park rangers. From administrative functions like zoning and authorizations to conducting wildlife surveys or working to actively restore threatened habitats, these are the men and women who ensure that Japan's natural heritage is both accessible to the public and protected for future generations.

To plan your own adventure in Japan's national parks, head over to the official website or check out our own info page. Guided tours to learn more about volcanoes in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park are currently in the process of being finalised, and visitors can look forward to educational and informative trips once the borders reopen.

Access

The closest airport to the Shikotsu-Toya National Park is New Chitose Airport, which has frequent flights from Tokyo. The one way flight from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to New Chitose Airport starts from around 15,000 yen. Flight prices are cheaper when flying with a low cost carrier.

Noboribetsu, Lake Toya and Lake Shikotsu are served by public transportation. However, a rental car is a convenient way to get to and around the Shikotsu-Toya National Park. Rental car outlets can be found at New Chitose Airport or in central Sapporo. It takes less than an hour to drive to Lake Shikotsu in Shikotsu-Toya National Park from New Chitose Airport or about an hour from central Sapporo.

All staff involved in the making of this video took the necessary precautions against the spread of the coronavirus as outlined by the government. As the sale of alcohol is not permitted during the state of emergency, non-alcoholic beer was consumed in the video.