Canoeing, Snowshoeing, and Getting Naked With Strangers in Japan

Embracing “slow adventure” among the lakes and mountains of Eastern Hokkaido.

Aerial view of Lake Kussharo covered with mist  from Bihoro Pass in the winter, with small island in center

Lake Kussharo is the largest caldera lake in Japan and the second largest in the world.

Photo by Tatsuo Nakamura/Shutterstock

Winter canoeing. It sounds absurd, right? Two words smashed together—like sardine gelato—that don’t make a lick of sense. Yet here I am, seated in the bow of a twin canoe 5,000 miles from home, navigating a semi-frozen lake in the dead of winter. Snow covers the shoreline and cold-plunging swans sashay in the misty expanse, figure 8s fading in their wake. In fairness, it’s not that cold out: The sun is shining and the sky is plasticine blue. My gloves are shoved in my coat pocket and my hat is back in the van. This is not normal weather for February in Hokkaido, Japan—thank you, global warming—but it sure is beautiful.

Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost island and the biggest and wildest of its 47 prefectures. I’ve been here before, but it was years ago and I mostly hung around Sapporo, a city known for its beer, seafood, and proximity to bucket-list ski towns like Niseko. Ringed by three seas and blessed with primeval forests, cobalt lakes, and snow-capped mountains, Hokkaido feels a million miles removed from the surging crowds and seizure-inducing billboards of Tokyo. While domestic tourism peaked on the eastern side of the island during the pandemic, you’d hardly know it tooling around there now: It’s not unusual to drive half an hour and never pass another car.

There are three national parks in Eastern Hokkaido, and it’s on Lake Kussharo in Akan-Mashu National Park that my winter adventure begins. Kussharo is the largest caldera lake in Japan and the second largest in the world. In summer, its trout- and carp-packed waters are popular with anglers, sailors, and windsurfers. In winter, it’s mostly Satoshi Yoshida, cofounder of Kussharo Eco Tours, and other intrepid outdoors types who share his love of nature.

Originally from Hiroshima but drawn north by Hokkaido’s crystalline lakes and mountains, Yoshida has spent 15 years exploring this remote corner of Japan. After suiting up in waders, we paddle as deep into the lake as we can before bumping against a sheet of sparkling lake ice. From there, Yoshida points the nose of our canoe toward serene Kushiro-gawa, the lake’s only connecting river. It meanders for 62 miles before pouring into the Pacific Ocean, but the longest outings Yoshida leads are just over four miles. Our coskippers for today’s jaunt are sister pups Aki and Yuki, a pair of preternaturally calm border collie mixes dressed in heart-print pajamas.

With Yoshida’s X-ray eyes trained on the river banks, we spot a white-tailed sea eagle perched like a monolith high atop the trees. Also: furry green moss cloaking gnarled trunks, wasabi leaves growing wild, and a naturally felled Manchurian ash that Yoshida says would be perfect for making baseball bats. Hokkaido’s menacing Ussuri brown bears, I’m relieved to learn, are still hibernating, but Yoshida isn’t taking any chances; he wears a can of bear spray on his hip. The real white whale for nature enthusiasts, however, is the elusive Blakiston’s fish owl—the largest species of owl on earth and a native in these parts. At one point we hear the owl hoo-hoo-hooing in the canopy, but she never shows her face.

For winter, the canoeing is quite comfortable—“soft adventure,” as Yoshida calls it. Instead of sitting on a wooden bench seat, we’re in slouchy folding chairs (the same kind people bring to lawn concerts). Each guest is handed a paddle so they can look useful, but everyone knows Yoshida is doing all the work—steering the boat and hopping out in his galoshes to push it whenever the water gets low. The guests never break a sweat, yet we gather like famished POWs around a chabudai-style portable table Yoshida sets up on a rocky spit at snack time. On the menu: almond butter rusks his wife baked this morning and a thermos full of hot chocolate mixed with creamy Hokkaido milk. (The prefecture is known for its dairy cows.)

Although we’ve only been on the water for an hour or so, it feels like an eternity because we’re moving at such a glacial pace. All the better for observing our surroundings, says Yoshida, and that’s exactly why people come to Eastern Hokkaido: to slow down and zen out—something I rarely take the time to do in my harried day-to-day existence but thoroughly embrace under the circumstances.

Lake Mashu and rime ice (frost) covering leafless tree branches in winter

The frozen tendrils of Lake Mashu in winter

Photo by Tatsuo Nakamura/Shutterstock

This decelerated approach—to nature, to life—is also what drives Shinobu Katase, a landscape photographer who has been leading snowshoeing tours around nearby Lake Mashu for a decade. Formed when a volcano erupted 7,000 years ago, this caldera lake, located eastward in Akan-Mashu park, is one of the clearest in the world. Volcanic rocks act as a natural filtration system, but what really keeps the lake pristine is the fact that humans (and their many motorized toys) are forbidden from going on, in, or even near the water.

This explains why we’re clomping like Clydesdales around the rim of the caldera in snowshoes, scrawny white birch trees forming a natural boundary between us and a perilously steep slide into the blue beyond. Katase points out rabbit footprints and sasa plants pushing through the snow, which is a disturbing 12 to 20 inches less than it should be for this time of year. Also a droplet of land in the center of the lake—what the Ainu, Hokkaido’s original inhabitants, dubbed the “island of the gods.” When we break for hot lemonade spiked with syrup that Katase tapped from his maple trees back home, we’re treated to a staring contest with wild deer. (We win.)

A reverence for nature is a recurring theme on my trip. For the Ainu people, who have inhabited the island since the 12th or 13th century, it’s a way of life, says Kengo Takiguchi, an Indigenous tour guide from Anytime, Ainutime! in the cultural village of Lake Akan Ainu Kotan. At 41, Takiguchi is his community’s youngest guide and he’s not exaggerating when he says both the language and culture of the historically marginalized group is endangered. Only recently did the Japanese government even recognize the Ainu as Indigenous; Takiguchi hopes a resurgence in pride will follow, but old habits die hard and some Ainu still obscure their true heritage to better assimilate into Japanese society. His goal: to preserve and celebrate the distinct Ainu language, cuisine, spiritual beliefs, wood carving, embroidery, and musical traditions. He even demonstrates the mukkuri, a twangy mouth harp, and invites me to do the same (to cringey effect).

Though Takiguchi’s tour starts the next day in town, about an hour’s drive from Lake Kussharo, he soon makes his way into the snowy woods, identifying different plants and their uses along the way: willows for carving animistic spirits, nettle fibers for fashioning fishing lines, and medicinal berries to treat belly aches. The Ainu, he explains, believe everything of this earth—the trees, the rivers, the lakes—are blessings from beyond, and a respect for nature is paramount to their practices and beliefs.

Water also plays an outsized role in how I experience Eastern Hokkaido. I see it in the sulphuric spewing of craggy Mount Iōzan, a billowing, bubbling hot mess of a volcano where chartreuse-colored fumaroles smoke and belch like a Cheech & Chong set, and the stench of rotten eggs hangs thicker than velvet drapes. It’s Iōzan’s geothermal rage that fuels the nearby hot springs town of Kawayu Onsen, which is my home base for the week. Nearly 7,500 people live here but you’d never know it shuffling through the empty, snow-blanketed streets or along the steaming stream that snakes through town.

Come nightfall, I cannot wait to soak in the open-air onsen at Oyado Kinkiyu Bettei Suikazura, a timeworn resort hotel with separate bathing areas for men and women. The water comes directly from Iōzan and is so acidic, it corrodes jewelry; locals, however, swear it does wonders for the skin.

Despite my initial reluctance to disrobe in public (onsen rules say no swimsuits allowed), scrubbing up on a tiny stool in the ladies’ bathhouse before slipping into the waters is a nightly ritual I come to relish. There are pools indoors and out, as well as an ice bath for people hardier than me. The outside spring is my happy place—not too cold, not too hot, and devoid of other bathers. Tipping my head back to search for my favorite constellations in the jet-black galaxy above, I finally understand why people travel so very far for such a simple experience: to feel whole again.

Ashlea Halpern is a contributing editor at Condé Nast Traveler and cofounder of Minnevangelist, a site dedicated to all things Minnesota. She’s on the road four to six months a year (sometimes with her toddler in tow) and contributes to Afar, New York Magazine, Time, the Wall Street Journal, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Bon Appétit, Oprah, Midwest Living, and more. Follow her adventures on Instagram at @ashleahalpern.
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