In a Lesser-Known Part of Japan, Outdoor Adventure Awaits

Explore bubbling volcanoes, primeval forests, and fantastical wildlife in the far east of Hokkaido.

Pond in green field reflecting cloudy sky, with mountains in background at Shiretoko in Hokkaido

In addition to three national parks, eastern Hokkaido is lined with volcanoes that result in dozens of natural hot springs, or onsen. The area is also known for its dairy cows.

Photo by T. Kingfisher/Shutterstock

When most travelers imagine traveling to Hokkaido, the northernmost—and wildest—of Japan’s four main islands, they may picture themselves skiing on fresh powder (“Japow”) in famous ski towns like Niseko and enjoying the eponymous beer in Sapporo, the prefecture’s capital.

While winter in Hokkaido is always a good idea, the island is worth a visit any time of year. Last September, I traveled to the prefecture to attend a travel industry conference: specifically, the Adventure Travel Trade Association’s annual World Summit in Sapporo. The week prior, eight attendees had the opportunity to visit one of Japan’s quietest corners: Hokkaido’s far east.

In other parts of Japan, such as Kyoto’s Gion district and Mount Fuji, new regulations are limiting entry due to overtourism. Not so in eastern Hokkaido. Here, you may see fishermen drying kombu on rocks at low tide or sacred red-crowned cranes crossing the street, not unlike four Englishmen on the cover of Abbey Road. There are three national parks to explore, wildlife to sight, bits of Indigenous Ainu wisdom to glean, dozens of onsen to enjoy, and insanely creamy soft-serve ice cream to eat (Hokkaido is famous for its dairy cows).

Over the course of a week, I was floored by the diversity of landscapes I witnessed. I visited a volcano so sulfuric that it causes local cars to corrode. I trekked through an old-growth forest more commonly frequented by Ussuri brown bears. I walked on a boardwalk through the country’s largest wetland system. From a moody cliffside, I was overjoyed to watch an otter do otter things. And most evenings, I was able to treat myself to an onsen bath—across this region, they are highly varied in their pH levels and mineral contents.

It was a slow, immersive experience into a side of Japan that, seemingly, few travelers even know exists.

Shiretoko cliffs viewed from water (left); fisherman standing in doorway on Shiretoko Peninsula (right)

Left: The best way to see the bluffs that line Japan’s Shiretoko Peninsula is by boat. Right: Fishermen sometimes take travelers out to Cape Shiretoko; along the way, they may spot Ussuri brown bears.

Photos by Sarika Bansal

Shiretoko National Park

The most visually stunning place I visited in eastern Hokkaido was the Shiretoko Peninsula, whose name comes from the Ainu word “siretok,” or “end of the earth.” The moniker checks out: The narrow spit of land juts into the Sea of Okhotsk, and the majority of the peninsula consists of Shiretoko National Park.

In 2005, the area was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its richly integrated ecosystem. During the winter, a large amount of sea ice forms in the marine area, creating nutrient-rich waters and phytoplankton blooms that sustain diverse species, including whales, seabirds, bears, and deer. (As is the case worldwide, the sea ice here is under threat due to our warming planet.) In addition to the fauna, visitors can explore dense forests, dramatic bluffs, and a series of volcanoes, including Mount Rausu, which has an 8.3-mile out-and-back hiking route.

Before the trip, I was most excited about the park’s Five Lakes Walk, which winds through a primeval forest and offers views of the Shiretoko Mountains and five small lakes. At the visitor center, my group was first treated to a thorough bear safety lecture and video. (Additionally, many signs warn visitors that this is bear territory.) Once outside, before the trek, everyone was instructed to clean their shoes with a wire brush to ensure they wouldn’t mistakenly introduce any seeds or bugs to the park. This was one of many moments on the trip that showcased the Japanese reverence for nature.

The safety instructions ended up lasting longer than the walk. Perhaps 100 yards in, a few hikers came from the opposite direction, informing us that they spotted a bear and, in accordance with park regulations, the entire loop needed to close for several hours. Well, we were definitely in bear country! Luckily, there was a beautiful, albeit short, wooden elevated walkway built for times like these. Electric fencing ensured humans were separated from our ursine friends and I was able to enjoy the park’s natural beauty.

Shiretoko National Park was even more spectacular on the water. From the nearby seaside town of Rausu, I hopped on a whale watching boat that went into the middle of the Nemuro Strait. Everyone on board shrieked with delight when we saw a sperm whale come to the surface to breathe for a few minutes, after which it gloriously displayed its tail and dove down at least 2,000 feet to search for food for the next hour.

The next day, I traveled as far north as possible to a tiny town called Aidomari. From there, I took a fishing boat to the tip of Cape Shiretoko. The cliffs, waterfalls, and royal blue water were only made more magnificent by a surprise sighting of a mother bear fishing with her cubs.

Left: A view of Lake Akan, with Mount Oakan in distance. Right: Guide Kengo Takiguchi on trail and holding umbrella.

Left: Lake Akan, a crater lake located in eastern Hokkaido, is home to many people from the Indigenous Ainu community. Right: When Kengo Takiguchi is not serving as an Ainu guide, he is a professional wood carver.

Photos by Sarika Bansal

Lake Akan (Akan Mashu National Park)

About 100 miles southwest from Rausu is Lake Akan. This area, within Akan Mashu National Park, is a stronghold of Indigenous Ainu culture. The most meaningful activity I participated in during this week was a guided walk by the lake with Kengo Takiguchi, an Ainu guide (with Anytime, Ainutime!) and a wood carver. The Ainu people, who traditionally followed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, inhabited Hokkaido long before the Japanese. To date, they retain their own language, culture, and beliefs.

However, as with many Indigenous groups around the globe, the Ainu are still working to be respected in modern Japanese society. The Japanese government only recognized them as an official Indigenous group in 2008. To date, there are no official numbers of Ainu people—surveys claim there are between 13,000 and 25,000, although the actual number could be much higher. Many people hide their Ainu heritage due to economic and social marginalization. As a result, UNESCO claims the Ainu language to be “critically endangered.”

Takiguchi hopes to counteract the discrimination against his community in part by introducing his culture to visitors. Donning a jacket with characteristic Ainu swirls, designed to ward off evil spirits, he explained the animistic beliefs that guide their relationship with the world. “We hate words like abundance,” he said. “Things belong to everyone, not only humans.” Everything has kamuy, or a divine spirit, and deserves to be treated with care and respect. He picked a shikerebe berry, which is grown from a cork tree, tastes like mandarin orange peel, and can treat stomach ailments. The bark, Takiguchi said, can be used to treat sores.

I later learned, through the Adventure Travel Tourism Association, that at one point, some private investors considered building a casino in Lake Akan to boost the area’s tourism. This ended up being scrapped in favor of a more naturalistic form of adventure tourism, which is what visitors can enjoy today.

Neon yellow fumaroles steaming on sulfuric Mount Iō in Hokkaido, Japan

In the Ainu language, Mount Iō is called Atosa-nupuri, which means “naked mountain.”

Photo by Sarika Bansal

Mount Iō (Akan Mashu National Park)

The next day, I traveled 40 miles east to check out the fumaroles of Mount Iō (which translates directly to “sulfuric mountain”). Months later, I still vividly recall the neon yellow stones, made of pure sulfur, sitting beside billowing plumes of white smoke and gurgling hot springs. I felt like I was on the set of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The sulfur content is so high that not only does it smell intensely like rotten eggs but also, my guide Kazuhiro Arai told me, most metal goods in the region begin to corrode after a couple of years. “Secondhand cars from here aren’t worth much,” he joked.

Back in the parking lot, located adjacent to the most impressive steam vents, I took note of a large concrete divot that extended from the volcano outwards. In case the active volcano erupts again, Arai said, authorities created a path for the lava to (hopefully) flow. Between the bear lecture and the lava path, I began to appreciate how seriously the Japanese government considers safety.

From Mount Iō, I strolled along the Tsutsujigahara Nature Trail, where the sulfur dissipated before my eyes. Close to the volcano, the only flora were hardy shrubs that could withstand the high acidity levels. Over the 1.5-mile-long trail, I excitedly took note of every new species of grass that took root. Toward the end, I found myself surrounded by trees that could not survive closer to the volcano.

At the end of the trail, I encountered one of many public onsen across Hokkaido. This one, the Kawayu Onsen Foot Bath, is more acidic than apple cider vinegar—but Arai promised that water with a pH level of 1.5 is in fact a great treatment for any dead foot skin. (I’m happy to report that I emerged from the onsen with two feet firmly attached to my body, though they were slightly red.)

Left: A white boardwalk over the marsh at Kushiro-shitsugen National Park; Right: A cliffside in eastern Hokkaido

Left: Travelers can explore the vastness of the Kushiro Wetland on a boardwalk that is nearly two miles long. Right: Otters often play near the waters at the Kiritappu Cape.

Photos by Sarika Bansal

Kushiro-shitsugen National Park

The southernmost of the national parks I visited in eastern Hokkaido was Kushiro-shitsugen. It was established in 1987 to preserve the country’s largest wetland and the endangered cranes that call the area home.

We stayed at Hotel Taito, whose owner Masahiro Wada is a professional nature photographer. On display throughout the property were photos of cranes, which are at their most elegant in the winter, when they gather at feeding sites and dance in pairs.

I enjoyed experiencing the wetland through the wheelchair-friendly wooden boardwalk that begins at the Onnenai Visitor Center, located on the park’s western edge. This walk gave me the sensation of floating above water of unknown depth. At one point, Arai pushed a long pole entirely into the marsh, and a few minutes later, his colleague Yuka Obitsu pointed to the poisonous plants, such as water hemlock, that were rooted nearby. I decided to stick to the middle of the path.

Another vantage point to appreciate the park is to hike to Cape Kirakotan, which is only accessible with special permission. (It is possible to receive permission through some local hotels, including Taito, tour operators, or by contacting the local Agency for Cultural Affairs.) The path weaves through wild shrubs, within which you may be lucky to find a Sika deer—or less lucky to encounter a brown bear. The trail ends at the marsh’s “inner sanctum,” a viewpoint of the capillary of riverbeds that comprise the ecosystem.

Directly to the east of the national park is another marsh, the Kiritappu Wetland. Though not officially a national park, it feels just as untouched as Kushiro-shitsugen. My group was able to ride canoes within the Biwase River area, which is home to nearly 200 bird species and many types of flowers, including iris, hydrangea, and sessilifolia. Kiritappu, which translates to “place of fog,” is home to a cape of the same name, where I was lucky to spot an otter.

Where to stay

Across this circuit, we stayed in locally run ryokans, most of which provided excellent meals and onsen facilities.

I particularly enjoyed Hotel Kifu Club Shiretoko, which features bright, spacious guest rooms and a do-it-yourself tempura dining experience that was equal parts fun and stressful. Imagine a fondue dinner, except you first dip skewered vegetables or seafood in batter and then in a small pot of boiling oil. The onsen facilities here are superb: In addition to the public indoor onsen, there is a private one located underneath a star-studded sky. The hotel offers fantastic access to Shiretoko National Park, as well as the nearby Mount Rausu.

Closer to Kushiro is the picturesque village of Tsurui, famous for its population of endangered cranes, its dairy products, and its seafood. Here, stay at Hotel Taito, which is popular among nature photographers looking to capture the perfect shot of a red-crowned crane. Hotel Taito boasted the most elaborate onsen on the trip. It was here that I discovered that cold plunges aren’t so scary when they can be immediately followed by a dip in hot water. In contrast to the Kawayu Onsen Foot Bath, the water here is alkaline (with a pH of 9), which leaves skin feeling silky smooth. The restaurant featured some of the freshest ice cream I have ever tasted.

How to do it

My trip was organized by Adventure Hokkaido, a locally owned adventure tour company that runs trips across the prefecture’s six parks. Our guides, Kazuhiro Arai and Yuka Obitsu, were incredible naturalists who patiently answered my questions about Japanese forestry, Ainu culture, and vegetarian food options.

Given how remote the parks are, and how little English is spoken in the small towns that dot Hokkaido’s far east, I would recommend visiting this region with a Japanese speaker, if not a full-service tour operator. Public transportation is limited within and between the national parks, so a private vehicle would make for a smoother journey.

My group started in the port city of Kushiro, the most populated metropolis in eastern Hokkaido. There are direct flights to Kushiro from Tokyo and Osaka. Otherwise, Kushiro is a three-hour train ride from the island’s capital, Sapporo. From Kushiro, our group took a bus in a clockwise direction (to Lake Akan, Mount Iō, Kushiro River, Shiretoko National Park, and Kiritappu).

In a country known for its bullet trains and megacities, this trip was a reminder that Japan is not a monolith. I appreciated the opportunity to experience so many dynamic landscapes in a single week. There are few places in the world that contain volcanoes, marshes, and mountains in such short distances—as well as such varied wildlife. And my experiences with the Ainu community in Lake Akan further cemented my belief that Indigenous wisdom is always worth seeking and heeding.

Perhaps what will stay with me the longest from this trip (aside from the overwhelming sensory experience of Mount Iō) is how Japan respects its natural bounties. The visitor centers in every park offered a wealth of information about the flora and fauna in the region so that travelers could truly appreciate what they had the opportunity to see. We were constantly reminded to not remove material from the park, to not introduce foreign pathogens into the ecosystem, and to keep a respectful distance from animals. In other words, enjoy the wild things, but keep them wild.

Sarika Bansal is the editorial director of Afar Magazine and editor of the book Tread Brightly: Notes on Ethical Travel.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR