NORTHERN AND EASTERN HOKKAIDO borders the Sea of Okhotsk, a very cold body water, so cold in fact that it can become almost completely covered with ice during the winter months. Ice flows in the Sea of Okhotsk originate off the coast of eastern Russia and can be up to 20 meters in diameter. Early in the season the ice flow masses are two to three kilometers wide and 50 kilometers long.

Northern Hokkaido is the southernmost point in the northern hemisphere, where pack ice accumulates. This phenomena is made possible by the Amur River in Russia and China which releases great amounts of fresh water into the sea and makes it easier for water to freeze (fresh water has a higher freezing point than salt water). In most years the ice pack is visible from late January or early February to mid or late March.

Cruises to check out the ice run several times a day and cost ¥3,000 for adults and ¥1,500 for children. Sometimes the trips are canceled because of high winds or waves many times visitors don’t see any ice. Meakandake, a 1,499-meter-high volcano in eastern Hokkaido experienced a small eruption in March 2006. It was the first time it erupted since November 1998.

Forests and mountains cover parts of the interior. Wildlife includes red-crested white cranes, Stellar sea eagles, white foxes, swans, brown bears and flying squirrels. Most of the flat land is used as pastures for grazing animals such as cows or horses or as fields for agriculture. Hokkaido is now Japan's breadbasket, producing much of the country’s wheat, potatoes, corn, rice and dairy products.

Even though Hokkaido encompasses 20 percent of Japan's land area it only contains five percent of the people. Most of the island's residents are descents or people who have arrived from other parts of Japan in the last one or two generations. The Ainu---an indigenous people that look as Caucasian than Japanese and once dominated Hokkaido and northern Japan, still live on Hokkaido but their numbers have dwindled to a few thousand.

Hokkaido was the last major island of Japan to be developed. Until fairly recently, it was ignored by the Japanese and left to the Ainu. When it finally was developed it initially served the same purpose for Japan as Australia did for England: it was a place where convicts, misfits and illegitimate offspring were sent to be out of sight out of mind. Today the population of Hokkaido is among the fastest shrinking on Japan as its people get older and its fishing villages die out and less people want to be farmers.


Visiting Hokkaido

During the summer, especially in August, Hokkaido is packed with hikers and campers. In September and October many people come to check out in the autumn leaves. In the winter, many skiers come to check out Hokkaido's legendary powder.

There are number of flights to Hokkaido from Tokyo, Osaka and other cities in Japan. Tickets are cheaper than they used to be as new no frills airlines Skymark and Air Do have begun flying there. Cheap flights and package deals are advertised in the English-speaking newspapers. Trains---including the 16-hour sleeper service from Tokyo and the 21-hour sleeper service from Osaka---pass the through the 31-mile-long Seikan Tunnel from Honshu to Hokkaido. Ferries to Hokkaido can be taken from Tokyo, Niigata, Nagoya, Sendai, and Maizura as well as across from the Tsuruga Strait from Aomori

As for getting around Hokkaido, there are a couple of good train lines but traveling this way can be expensive. The bus network services many more destinations than the train. If you can afford it is worthwhile to rent a car. Many people also explore the region by bicycling or hitching.

Websites: Hokkaido Tourism Organization Visit-Hokkaido ; Wiki TravekWukitravel ; WikipediaWikipedia

Daisetsuzan National Park

Daisetsuzan National Park (80 miles northeast of Sapporo) is the largest and wildest national park in Japan. Covering 2,309 square kilometers and popular with skiers and hikers, it contains volcanos, mountain ranges, lakes, forests, white birch glades, fields of wild primrose, mountains veiled in mist, lovely Alpine scenery and Hokkaido's highest mountain, 2,229-meter-high Mt Asahi-dake. Mountain ash and Japanese stone pine beginning turning brilliant red and yellow in Hokkaido’s Daisetus mountain range in early to mid September and peak in late September or early October.

Worth checking out are gorges and ravines carved out by the Ishikari River, and the spas at base of Daisetsuzan Peak (Sounkyo, Shirogane, Yukomambetsu and Shikaribetsu). Sixteen-mile-long Sounkyo Gorge is sided by 500-foot-high volcanic cliffs with columnar joints that rise up from the river. Every winter a temporary “village” is set up on Lake Shikaribetsu in Shikaribetsu, Hokkaido to attract tourists. There are buildings made of ice and a bath filled with water from a hot spring close to the lake. The bath is kept going until the end of March.

Asahi-dake is an impressive volcano. In the winter smoke rises from hollows in the snow, leaving behind yellow sulfur deposits on fumaroles. In the autumn ash trees form bright red patches among thickets of creeping pine at the foot of the mountain.

Among the popular hiking routes are: 1) from Mt. Asahi-dake cable car station over several peaks to Sounkyo; 2) from Asahidake Onsen through the forests to Tenninkyo Onsen; 3) and hikes in Soubkyo Goree area.

The main gateways and accommodation centers are Ashikawa and Kamikawa in the north, Kitami in the east and Obihiro in the south. The only real bus service is between Kitami and Kamikawa and Asahikawa. The main hiking access points are Sounkyo, Asahidake Onsen, Tenninkyo Onsen, Furano Tokachidake Onsen. Website: Daisetsuzan Guide Daisetsuzan-guide ; Photos Kamui Mintara; Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan

Furano (between Sapporo and Daisetsuzan National Park) is another one of Japan's most famous ski resorts. It has a dozen ski lifts and is regarded as having some of the best powder skiing in the world. Websites: Furano Tourism Association furano-kankou ; Ski Furano Ski Furano ; Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Akan National Park

Lake Mashu
Akan National Park (eastern-central Hokkaido) is a large park made up almost completely of composite volcanoes and forests. Covering 905 square kilometers, it features scenic crater lakes, hot springs and marimo (green algae balls), which are very rare and found in only a few other places in the world. The park is lovely in the autumn when the leaves change. In the winter the mountains are covered in deep snow.

Some marimo are smaller than tennis balls Others are larger than volleyball. It was originally thought that it took 900 years for these balls to reach the size of a basketball. Studies however reveal that can grow as much as 10 centimeters in five years. The balls form the bed of Lake Akan from clumps of threadlike algae. Marimo can be found in six locations in Japan and 70 around the world but nowhere but Lake Akan do the balls grow to such a large size,

Lake Akan is a 42-meter-high caldera lake that covers 1,300 hectares and has a circumference of 2.6 kilometers. It is situated between two volcanos 1,371-meter-high Mt. Oakan and 1,499-meter-high Mt. Meakan. It is not clear why the marimo grow to such a large size in Lake Akan. Influencing factors include spring water that feed the lake, the gentle topography of the lake and soil rich in lapilla lava fragments. Marimo can be observed at only two locations in the lake. Perhaps the best place to see them is at the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center on Chunui island in the lake.

Mt. Iozan is a 512-foot-high volcano with hissing vents, clouds of steam and bright yellow sulphur deposits. Vendors sell eggs boiled over the vents. Popular hiking destinations include 1,371-meter-high Mt. O-Akan-dake, with views of Lake Penketo and Lake Panketo; 1,499-meter-high Mt. Me-Akan-dake, an active volcano and the highest mountain in the park; and the preservation platform on Mt. Hakuto-zan.

The park attracts over 5 million visitors a year. The main gateways to the park are Kitami and Bihoro in the north and Kushriro in the south. The main accommodation centers inside the park are Kawayu Onsen, beautiful situated among old growth forests, and Akan Kohan, a touristy center that attracts a lot of bus tours. Many visitors see the main sights on sightseeing excursions sponsored by the Akan Bus Company.

Boat tours of Lake Akan are offered. A show entitled “Fire Festival for Sending Spirits Off” by indigenous Ainu people is performed every night at the Akan-ko Ainu Kotan lakeside village.

Websites: Akan Tourism Association Akan Tourism Association ; Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Lake Mashu and Lake Kussharo

Lake Mashu (in Akan National Park) is known as the "Lake of the Devil" to the Ainu. The second clearest lake in the world, with visibility over 200 meters, it features 1,000-foot-high cliffs and spectacular views. Hikers often set out for 855-meter-high Mashu-dake, a craggy volcano whose crater ridge was altered by a 1993 earthquake. The crater itself was created around 4,000 to 5,000 years, with water filling in gradually until it reached it present level about 1,000 to 5,000 years ago. In 1966, a popular ballad made the lake famous. Unfortunately much of the lake is off limits to everyone but researchers.

The water is so clear in part because of a shortage of nutrients---particularly nitrogen and phosphorous---that certain light-blocking plankton need to grow. In August 1931, transparence was observed to a depth of 41.6 meters, a record at that time. These days the transparency in August is between 26 meters and 29 meters. The transparency is measured by dropping a 30-centimeter white disk into the water and measuring the depth in which it is no longer visible.

In recent years the water in Lake Mashu has started clouding up, with its transparency measurements sometime falling below 20 meters. No one is sure why . In the late 1920 rainbow trout were released in the lake. In the 1960s and 70s kokanee trout were released. The trout fed on small creatures that feed on animal plankton that feeds on plant plankton, which has helped keep the water clear, Without the fish the water starts clouding up. Other factors that have affected visibility including erosion of sand into the lake and the mixing of deep water with shallow water in December and May.

Mashuko is a caldera lake like Crater Lake in Oregon. No rivers flow in or out of it. Its only sources of water are rain and snow. Some air pollutants arrive form China. The level of the lake never varies more than 40 centimeters. It bedrock floor acts as a sink. A fissure in the crater walls just above the surface prevents water from rising above that level.

During much of the summer the lake is covered in mist. Most winter the lake freezes over, Some years it partially freezes. But in 2002, 2004 and 2007 it didn’t freeze at all, Water has begun to collect in the crater of Mount Mashudake, suggesting the possibility of a mini-Mashuko developing over the next several thousand years there. Website: Akan Tourism Association Akan Tourism Association

Lake Kussharo (in Akan National Park) is said to be the home of Lochness-like monster named "Kussie." Since 1973, more than 100 local people in the town of Teshikga have reported seeing the long black creature. At Sunayu Onsen on the eastern shore there is a beach warmed by hot springs. At Wakata Onsen on the southern shore there open-air pool warmed by hot spring water. Website: Akan Tourism Association Akan Tourism Association

Kushiro Shitsugen National Park

red-crowned crane
Kushiro (near Akan National Park, 5 hours by train from Sapporo ) is an industrial town with 200,000 people. The most interesting placed to visit is Washo market. Specializing in seafood, it is not only a place where one can gawk over the staggering variety of sea creatures and sea creature products it is also a place where you can eat them. Some stalls have sushi with toppings that you choose. Other have huge tanks filled with king and horse hair crabs that you can select and have boiled for you on the spot. Many of the specialties are seafood delicacies found almost exclusively in eastern Hokkaido.

Websites:Kushiro Tourism Association kushiro-kankou Map: Kushiro Tourism Association kushiro-kankou Hotel Websites: Kushiro Tourism Association kushiro-kankou Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Kushiro is accessible by air and by bus and by train from Sapporo and other Hokkaido cities. The trip between Sapporo and Kushiro on a limited express train is five hours. By bus it is six and half hours. The Shiretoko Peninsula is three and half hours away by bus.

red-crowned cranes
Kushiro Shitsugen National Park (near Kushiro) is a vast marsh with a nesting area for the rare black and white red crested cranes, which numbered only about 20 in 1924 but now number between 400 and 500. The birds. Also known as Japanese cranes, are most easily seen in the winter when they are fed in designated areas. Other wildlife seen here include Hokkaido foxes, zoshika deer, kingfishers, great spotted woodpecker, Steller’s sea eagles, white-tailed sea eagles, and Siberian salamanders. In addition to sedges, wild cherry trees, grasses and reeds you can also see Kushiro hanashinobu plants, believed to have been around since the Ice Age.

Kushiro Shitsugen is Japan’s largest wetland area. Shaped like a left hand palm, it covers 18,000 hectares and extends 36 kilometers from north to south and is spread out over 25 kilometers from east to west, with the Kushirogawa and Chiruwatsynaigawa Rivers running through it. Kushiro Shitsugen National Park covers 27,000 square kilometers and included the wetlands and the alder forests around it. Some areas have been damaged by farm development and flood control project in the 1960s that straightened the Kushirogawa River.

Several kilometers of wooden plank walkways wind through the marshes. Many people stop at the Kushiro Marsh Observatory on the west side of the wetland. Some people explore the area on the backs of native Hokkaido horses. Other glide though the wetlands in canoes and kayaks.

Websites: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Akan Tourism Association Akan Tourism Association ; Kushiro Tourism Association kushiro-kankou Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Abashiri Quasi-National Park (north of Akan National Park) extends along the coast of the Sea of Okhotsk and features a number of large and small lakes, natural flower gardens and sand dunes along the beach. The city of Abashiri in the middle of the park is a major fishing and agricultural center.

Beicho is town popular with visitors in some because of the large numbers of flowers that bloom in the fields here. A train runs through an area with lots of flowers. In some places farmers use their tractors to pull tourist-filled carriages through sunflower fields.

Shiretoko National Park

Abashiri is a transport hub with access to Shari and Shiretoko National park. Home to about 45,000 people, it contain the Prison Museum, Museum of Northern People and the Museum of Ice Floes. Some people come from December to March to see the ice floes that close the harbor. Many visitors come in the winter and take a boat trip on the Sea of Okhotsk and check out the pack ice, which is sometimes there and sometimes isn’t. A number of animals such as Stellar sea eagles depend on the pack ice as they search for food.

Websites:Abashiri City site Abashiri city Map: Abashiri City site Abashiri city Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Websites: Abashiri City site Abashiri city Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Abashira is accessible by air from major cities in Japan and connected by bus and train to other cities in Hokkaido. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Lake Tofutsu (between Abashira and Koshimizucho) is a famous spot where 2,000 whopper swans migrate in the winters. They are usually seen between late September and early October. Other kinds of bird can be spotted here throughout the year.

Shiretoko National Park (northeastern Hokkaido) occupies the scenic Shiretoko Peninsula. Covering 490 square kilometers (190 square miles), it embraces volcanic peaks and large tracts of wilderness and is still relatively undeveloped and has one of the densest bear populations in the world (one bear per three square kilometers). Shiretoko means “end of the earth” in the Ainu language. It is situated at the southernmost point in the Northern hemisphere reached by seasonal winter ice.

Among the park's attractions are a rich variety of animals, plants and birds, unspoiled open-air hot spring baths, many splendid waterfalls, small lakes and picturesque forest. There are nice walking trails on wooden planks around Shiretoko Five Lakes. Cape Shiretoko-misaki features sea-eroded cliffs that are hundreds of feet high. Around Kamulwakka-no-Taki Falls you can hike up a hot water stream and waterfall to some wonderful open-air baths with ocean views. The park is famous for its autumn colors.

Many visitors come to check out the 600 or so bears that live on the peninsula. They can be observed feeding on Pacific salmon returning to the Rusha River and are also often seen around Shiretoko Goko Lakes and the Kamulwakka-no-Taki Falls. Hikers are advised to exercise caution while hiking in bear country. There have been attacks by so-called new-generation bears that have become accustomed to humans, It is a good idea to wear a bell or other noisemaking devices that prevent you from startling bears and stay clear of mothers with cubs. See Nature, Animals

Because of increased concerns about brown bears, starting in May 2011 visitors to Shiretoko Goko Lakes have been required to a pay for a guide to accompany them during certain seasons. About 500,000 people visit the area and use the boardwalks to walk to the lakes. People often see bears. There have been no reports of injuries. The new rules were put in place as a precautionary measure. Other wildlife found at Shiretoko includes foxes, deer, Blakiston’s fish owls, white-tailed eagles and Stellar sea eagles. offshore, especially where there is pack ice, seals, sea lions, whales and killer whales are regularly observed. Several species of salmon spawn in the rivers.

Shiretoko became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. More than 2.3 million people visit it annually. Most of them visit in the summer. Some years the snow doesn’t melt until June. Popular hiking destinations include 1,661-meter-high Mt. Rausu-dake, 1,562-meter-high Mt. Iozan and Shiretoko-toge Pass. The town of Shari is the gateway to the region and Utoro is the main accommodation center.

Websites: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Wikitravel Wikitravel UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Hotel Web Sites: Accommodation can be found in the nearby towns of Shari and Utoro Onsen. Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Shiretoko National Park is remote and hard to get to. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Nemuro and Eastern Hokkaido

Stellar sea eagle
Nemuro is Hokkaido's easternmost city. It is a jumping off point for scenic places and wildlife-viewing areas. A number of ecotours are organized by local authorities and tour companies. Nemuro is a 1½-hour ride from Nemuro-Nkakshibetsi airport.

Websites: Nemuro Tourist Information nemuro-kankou Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Shunkunitai Wild Bird Sanctuary (near Nemuro) is one of the best places in Japan to see birds . It embraces Lake Furen, a 5,000-hectare brackish lake, and three long sand bars, one of which extends five miles into the Sea of Okhotsk and is covered by three rows of dunes . All three have been created in the last 3,000 years. Website:

About 300 species of birds have been spotted here. During the warm months red-crowned cranes can be seen in te marshes between the sandbars. In the winter Stellar's sea eagles, white-tale eagles and snow buntings can be seen. The eagles come to feed on fish scraps left out by fishermen. In October and November, birds which have just fledged chicks in Siberia, arrive in the area and move around in groups with between dozens and hundreds of birds. They eat a kind of water weed known locally as amamo. When the Lake Furen begins to freeze they fly further south and return in March and April to rest and load on food before their long journey back to Siberia. Occasionally people see very are Blakiston's fish owls, Website: Marimo.or Marimo.or

Odiato (near Nemuro) is place where sometimes in the winter you can witness an unusual sight: a square or hourglass rising sun. The sight only occurs a few times a year. The phenomena occurs in Nemuro Straight when the air is much colder than the sea and the water's surface is warming up, creating a layer of warm air that acts like a mirror. You are most likely to see on cloudless, very cold mornings.

Notsuke Peninsula (northeast Hokkaido) is the largest peninsula in Japan. Extending for 28 kilometers to within 16 kilometers of Russia, it is essentially a long sand bar covered by sparse vegetation. The main attractions are birdwatching, sailing and fishing.

Erimo (eastern Hokkaido) is home to the $16.2 million Wind Museum. It contains an observation deck with views of spectacular black rock cliffs and offshore islands, where seals hang out. The only problem is that the view during the peak tourist season, from April through August, is often obscured by fog. Website: Wikipedia Wikipedia

Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu Park

Wakkanai (northernmost Hokkaido) is a windswept port and access point for Rishiri-Rebun-Sarabetsu Park. Wakkanai Koen Park has some good views. It can be reached by cable car. About 20 miles from Wakkana is Cape Soya-misaki, the northernmost point of Japan. From late April to early September, ferries operate between Wakkanai and Korsakov on Russia's Sakhalin Island.

Websites: Wikitravel Wikitravel Lonely Planet Lonely Planet Hotel Websites: Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Rishiri-Rebun-Sarobetsu Park (reached by ferry from Wakkanai) is the northernmost tourist spot in Japan. The main features of the park are Rishuri and Rebun Islands and Sarobetsu Plain, a 27-kilometer strip of land on the Hokkaido mainland. The Sarobetsu Natural Flower Gardens in Sarobetsu Plain features wooden-plank walkways through swamps and scrubland that explodes with rhododendron, iris and lily flowers in June and July. Websites : Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Wikitravel Wikitravel

Sarobetsu-Genya Moor (40 kilometers south of Wakkanai in extreme northen Hokkaido) is one most important habitats for birds in Japan and is the largest flat area of wetland in the country. Located near the sea, the moor measures five to eight kilometers east to west and 27 kilometers north to south. Numerous pools and lakes are scattered around the area and dozens of varieties of flower bloom from mid-June through October. The wetland area is smaller than it was as large tracts of land have been drained for farms.

Rishiri Island
Most people live at the extreme north or extreme south of the moor. Most visitors arrive at the northern visitor center and enjoy a 20-minute walk on a boardwalk that penetrates into the moor from the visitors center. Birds stop off in the wetlands during their migrations in the spring and autumn.

Rishiri Island (in Rishiri-Rebun-Sarabetsu Park) is a round volcanic island with Mt. Rishiri, a 1,721-meter-high volcano, at its center. A road circles the island and provides access to rustic fishing villages. Many visitors come to climb Mt. Rishiri. There are trails to the summit. The most popular ones leave from Oshidormari and Kutsugata.

Websites: Rishiri Island Tourist Information kankou rishiri Hotel Web Sites: Rishiri Island Tourist Information kankou rishiri Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Camping : Rishiri Island Tourist Information kankou rishiri Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Rebun Island (6 miles north of Rishiri Island) is the northernmost island in Japan. Sometimes called "the Island of Flowers," it features 300 species of Alpine plants, some of which are found nowhere else in the world. Rebun is much flatter than Rishiri Island. The main draw here is the hike along the eastern coast, which passes charming fishing villages, conifer forest, rocky beaches, grassy slopes and spectacular sea cliffs. Website: Secret Japan Secret Japan Getting There: Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Mt. Tokushunbetsu (Otakimuru) is the home of cave that produced spectacular ice stalactites and ice pillars that form when stalactites reach the floor and freeze to it. The stalactites begin melting in mid March and disappear in May.

Image Sources: 1) Kumai Mintara 2) Wikipedia 3) 6) Nicolas Delerue 4) 5) Akan National Park 6) 7) 8) Wolfgang Kaeler, International Wildlife Adventures 9) 10) Rishiri Tourist Association

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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