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Visiting Hokkaido: Journey to Lake Akan, Home to Unique National & Cultural Treasures!

Visiting Hokkaido: Journey to Lake Akan, Home to Unique National & Cultural Treasures!

Date published: 17 January 2019
Last updated: 15 February 2019

Located in eastern Hokkaido, Lake Akan is surrounded by gorgeous natural scenery and high-quality hot springs. It is the home of the special natural treasure, "marimo," and filled with the charm of the indigenous Ainu culture. Here we will take a look at some of the best and most popular sightseeing locations around Lake Akan, which draws in many visitors from both locally and around the world.

The Marimo of Lake Akan form into a beautiful spherical shape, and have become famous as a mascot of the lake. (Photo by Akan Tourist Association)

Hokkaido’s Lake Akan: A Beautiful Lake Surrounded By Nature

Lake Akan is located in Kushiro City of eastern Hokkaido. Born from a volcanic eruption in the Akan caldera approximately 158 years ago, it was designated as Akan Mashu National Park, together with the neighboring Lakes Kussharo, Mashu, and Onneto.

Its size is approximately 13 square kilometers, and 26 kilometers around. While ranking 11th in size amongst the lakes of Hokkaido, it is equal to about 280 Tokyo Domes. You can access the lake by car from Tancho Kushiro Airport in about 60 minutes.

Lake Akan overlooking Mount Oakan. Volcanic activity still continues in the surrounding mountain areas. (Photo by Akan Tourist Association)

Because of the volcanic activity in the area, the surroundings are abundant in hot springs and hot spring resorts. The town is also famous for being one of the few natural habitats of the marimo (algae balls), as well as the largest settlement in Hokkaido of the indigenous Ainu people. With its beautiful natural landscapes and its four seasons, it also boasts popularity as an attractive and versatile tourist destination.

With the rich Ainu culture and the varying faces of the natural landscape, Akan is a lake of both charm and mystery. (Photo by Akan Tourist Association)
During mid-winter (around December to March), you can observe a natural phenomenon called "Frost Flowers," in which frost crystals stretch across the lake, resembling blooming flowers.

I was happy to visit these locations and experience the charm unique to Lake Akan!

A Spectacular View from the Lake, and the Mystery of the Marimo: Pleasure Boat Cruise

When visiting Lake Akan, you may want to catch a ride on the Akan Kanko Kisen (a sightseeing boat) and take in the magnificent views from the lake itself. Before returning, the cruiser makes a stop at Chuurui Island, a small island floating on the north side of the lake. You can learn about the ecology of the marimo by visiting the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center on the island.

The length of the cruise is approx. 85 minutes. This little boat voyage allows you to fully enjoy the charm of Lake Akan.
The pleasure boat route. We headed towards Chuurui Island to observe the marimo while enjoying the spectacular view from the lake.

There are two places where you can access the pleasure boat on the south side of the lakeshore. The first is Marimo-no-Sato Pier, which is the start and end point for one route, while the boat at Koun-no-Mori Pier is a mid-route stop. Both are located in the hot springs village, and both have the same boarding fee (¥1900 adults, ¥990 children, tax included), so they are convenient and easily accessible from most accommodation facilities.

Marimo-no-Sato Pier, the start and end point. This is where I boarded the boat from.

The period of operation is from April 15 to November 30. Departure time and frequency may vary seasonally, so I recommend checking the Akan Kanko Kisen website (www.akankisen.com) in advance.

I boarded the Suzuran-maru pleasure boat. This was a particularly comfortable cruise, with two stories and a 390-person capacity guest room, equipped with vending machines for drinks plus a bathroom.

About 5 minutes after departure, we arrived at the other stop, the Koun-no-Mori Pier. Once the passengers board here, the real tour begins.

After leaving the pier, the boat heads towards the east side of the lake. A guide offers commentary during the trip about the view and about Lake Akan. The first thing we saw was Mount Oakan, right in front of us in the direction we were headed. We also noticed the thickness of the trees surrounding the lake, and the majestic landscape of the mountains towering in the background.

Mt. Oakan overlooks the lake at an altitude of 1,371 meters. It is a currently active volcano.

Looking back towards the hot springs village from atop the lake you will see a pair of other mountains looming in the background. These are Mt. Akan-Fuji and Mt. Meakan. According to Ainu legend, Mt. Meakan is called "Pinneshiri," or "man's mountain," and Mt. Akan-Fuji is called "Machineshiri," or "woman's mountain." Together, these represent and are regarded as a couple.

Mt. Akan-Fuji (1,476m) is seen on the left side, and Mt. Meakan (1,499m) is on the right. Mt. Meakan is also designated as one of the "Hyakumeizakan", or the One Hundred Famous Mountains of Japan.

The boat then entered the bay from a passage through the trees called Takeguchi, a scenic spot where you can see various flowers as well as beautiful autumn foliage depending on the season. Entering this seemingly unexplored area was very exciting, and started to feel like a real adventure!

Takeguchi, surrounded by deep, thick trees. The mid-October autumn foliage offered an especially spectacular view.

Hokkaido’s Chuurui Island and the Secret of the Marimo

Hokkaido’s Chuurui Island and the Secret of the Marimo
About 40 minutes following departure, the island of Chuurui becomes visible. The building in the center is the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center.

After reaching a dead end at the backside of Takiguchi, the boat turns around and continues towards Chuurui Island on the north side. Landing on this island, we stayed for about 15 minutes to check out the various exhibits on the ecology of the marimo.

The roof of the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center is a space with a spectacular background view of the mountains and lake, making it a great photo spot.

After walking about 3 minutes from the island pier, we arrived at the observation space overlooking Mt. Akan-Fuji and Mt. Meakan. This is the rooftop of the exhibition center, from which we head downstairs and enter the building. The admission is included with the fee paid to ride the boat.

There is a huge aquarium in the hall. It is a reproduction of Lake Akan in which you can see natural marimo collected from the lake.

Marimo were first discovered in Lake Akan in 1897 by Mr. Tatsuhiko Kawakami, a botanist of Sapporo Agricultural College (now Hokkaido University). In 1921 they were designated as a natural monument of Japan, and later as a special natural treasure in 1952. They are currently protected, as their natural habitat is very limited to only a few lakes and therefore uncommon to see, however you can easily observe them by visiting this center.

As you approach the aquarium, you can see tons of marimo, both big and small!

Marimo have been confirmed to exist in various parts of the Northern Hemisphere in North America and Europe. However it is believed that Lake Akan is the only such lake in the world that boasts marimo with a diameter of 30cm or more. It is a phenomenon of nature that is both precious and inspiring.

Exhibition of marimo about 20cm in diameter. Lake Akan is the only lake known to have such large marimo.

There was a panel exhibition that explained the structure of the marimo. While these adorable, spherically-shaped green algae balls are the most well-known kind of marimo, they are not limited to this form alone. In fact, the green algae you find on rocks, the cottony algae at the bottom of the lake, and every filament of green algae is an individual part of a marimo.

A velvety-looking specimen of marimo spread at the bottom of the lake.

The filaments of algae, when rolled around by the movement of the waves, gradually grow into a rounded shape as they combine with other filamentous bodies. As the marimo balls age, they hollow out, causing the shape to collapse. However eventually, once these collapsed particles recombine at the bottom of the lake, they are rolled around by the waves again, forming back into a new marimo ball once more.

Through their repeated growth and collapse, these spherical balls are continuously made.

Exactly why these marimo balls of Lake Akan grow so round and so large, and why there are so many of them, has not yet been discovered. Because of this mystery, they have attracted the attention of people from all over.

The marimo of Lake Akan are indeed a miraculous treasure of nature.

Now we board the pleasure boat once again, and return to Marimo-no-Sato Pier via the Koun-no-Mori Pier. Although short, it was a very thorough boat trip that allowed me to fully experience the mysteries of the nature and marimo of Lake Akan.

Another recommendation for travelling about the lake is by motorboat. It can charter up to 2 people, and offers a different kind of charm than the pleasure cruise. (It departs from Marimo-no-Sato Pier and goes up to the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center. ¥2500 per person, tax included.)
  • Akan Kanko Kisen (Akan Sightseeing Cruiser)
    阿寒湖観光汽船
    • Address 1-5-20 Akan Lake Onsen, Akan-cho, Kushiro-shi, Hokkaido
    • Phone Number 0154-67-25511

    Period of Operation: April 15 - November 30, annually
    Departure Times: Varies by season. Please visit official website (www.akankisen.com) for details.
    One-Day Cruise Fee: ¥1900 adults, ¥990 children (tax included)
    *Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center included in admission fee

Enjoying Traditional Cuisine in the Ainu Settlement

Along with the marimo, another charming aspect of Lake Akan is without a doubt the culture of the Ainu of Hokkaido. As of 2018, there are about 36 homes which house about 130 people living in Hokkaido's largest Ainu Kotan, or settlement, located in one corner of the hot springs village. There is a museum dedicated to Ainu traditions and culture, craft shops selling hand-carved wooden products and more, restaurants that serve traditional Ainu cuisine, and even a theater showing traditional dance performances.

The entrance to the Kotan (settlement). This owl that you see everywhere has been worshipped as a guardian of the village.

On the main street of the Kotan you will find many folk craft shops selling and displaying handmade items by the craftsmen, including woodcarvings and embroidery. It's amazing just to see it from the outside, but I took the opportunity to visit two of the shops and see it on the inside as well.

There were many wood carved owls in the shop called Nitayunkuru. Handmade items crafted with love are very popular as souvenirs. There are a variety of works available for purchase, ranging from affordable ¥1000 to major works costing hundreds of thousands of yen.

Nitayunkuru Owl Wood Products (Business Hours: Summer 9:00 AM - 10:00 PM, Winter 10:00 AM - 9:00 PM, Always Open)

In the shop called Sanramanto, there were many accessories such as necklaces and earrings featuring traditional Ainu motifs, as well as beautifully carved wooden goods of the Koro-pok-guru people of Ainu folklore.

The items in Sanramanto are mostly small, but perfectly capture the sense and traditions of the Ainu into their design, and are wonderful gifts. (Business Hours: 9:00 AM ~ 10:00 / Closed holidays)

The Kotan also has some of the only shops in Japan that offer traditional Ainu cuisine, such as Ainu Cafe Poronno. You can try various dishes, from traditional Ainu items to arranged meals.

Thanks to a recently popular manga that has to do with the Ainu, the number of visitors here have increased.

This time, I ordered the recommended set menu of the shop, "yuku ohau," a soup made with deer, (¥1000, tax included). Ohau is the Ainu's staple hot-pot dish, a stew including venison and vegetables such as "gyoja ninniku," a type of onion. The meal set also included "amam," which is a dish of cooked beans with leeks, and "mehun," a type of salted salmon.

The venison in the ohau (right) was collected by local hunters, and the wild vegetables were gathered by the shop owners themselves from the mountains.

The base of the ohau is simple, made with kombu (kelp stock) and seasoned only with salt, yet has a delicious, solid taste when eaten. This completely natural meal is packed with nutrients good for the body, paired together with the rich ingredients of the amam. The mehun is a delicacy that makes not only a good accent to the rice, but also goes well with sake.

The venison was softly simmered and didn’t smell like some game meats can, nor was it too tough.

I also ordered "kombu-shito" for dessert (¥450, tax included). "Shito" refers to dumplings made of rice flour, and these were made with "kombu-dare," a sauce made from the kelp found along the coast of Hokkaido. The flavor was very rich and delicious.

This dish is often eaten at festivals, which was introduced to the Ainu in the Hidaka region.

Other unique and delicious menu items you can try in Cafe Poronno include "pocchi-imo," or naturally fermented potatoes (¥450, tax included), and "yuk-don," a rice bowl with venison (¥1000, tax included), which are not only good, but good for you, too.

There are so many other types of food I would love to try. Please try these dishes yourself when you get the chance, and don't forget the special Ainu word "Hinna," which translates to "delicious" and shows special appreciation for your meal.
  • Ainu Cafe Poronno
    アイヌ料理の店ポロンノ
    • Address 4-7-8 Lake Akan Lake Onsen, Akan-cho, Kushiro-shi, Hokkaido
    • Phone Number 0154-67-2159

    Hours of Operation: 12:00 PM - 3:00 PM, 6:30 PM - 9:30 PM
    *Reservations required during Winter (Nov-Apr)
    Closed: Open daily

Because the Kotan shops are mostly open until 10PM, I was happy to be able to take my time walking around, even after having dinner at the inn and enjoying the hot springs.

Traditional Ainu Dance and Ceremonial Demonstration Theater

Anyone who knows about the Ainu culture knows the importance of song and dance. A people without a written alphabet, they have used stories to pass down their traditions from generation to generation. To keep these traditions alive, there are facilities in the Kotan that help pass them down. One of them is Lake Akan Ainu Theater Ikor.

Here you can see a statue of the owl guardian. Before the performance, a little car runs through the hot springs town to announce its start.

The main performance in this theater is the "Ancient Ainu Dance." (Admission ¥1080 adult, ¥540 kids, tax included.) You can see both the daily life and ceremonies of the Ainu through various scenes of song and dance. The way the performers express sadness and joy through their bodies and movement is amazing, and will draw you into their world for the entire 30 minutes of the performance.

Performance time and frequency varies by season, so please check the Ikor website (www.akanainu.jp) for details.

"Sarorun Kamuy Rimse" depicts cranes dancing and crying out
There is also a performance showcasing the distinctive melody of the traditional musical instrument, the mukkuri.

The last performance is the Iomante Fire Festival, held at 9:00 PM every night. (Admission ¥1080 adult, ¥540 kids, tax included, held from Dec ~ Apr 20.) A real flame is lit right on stage, while dancing and ceremonies create a sacred atmosphere.

The performance lasts about 30 minutes. The flames dancing on the center stage create a very powerful performance.

You can also visit The Ainu Life Memorial Museum Pon-chise to learn more about the Ainu culture. Unfortunately at the time I visited, this site was under renovation, so I checked out the hunting and lifestyle tools exhibit at the adjacent facility, the Ainu Bunka Denshokan Chise, instead.

The Ainu Life Memorial Museum Pon-chise will be restored by 2019. The word "chise" means "house" in the Ainu language.
The Ainu Bunka Denshokan Chise, or Ainu Cultural Preservation House, is located at the center of the Kotan's main street. There are exhibitions introducing the Ainu culture here as well.
This exhibit displays clothing such as the "attush," a shirt made of tree bark, and "cep-keri," shoes made of salmon skin. You can tell the Ainu made good use of all the nature around them in their daily lives.

If you visit Lake Akan, please check out the Ainu Kotan settlement, and learn about the Ainu culture. If you get the chance to talk with the residents of the settlement, I think you can learn a great deal from them.

  • Ainu Kotan
    アイヌコタン
    • Address 4-7-19 Akan Lake Onsen, Akan-cho, Kushiro-shi, Hokkaido

    Phone Number
    0154-67-2727 (Ainu Theater Ikor)
    Free to enter

Hot Springs and “Bokke!” More Things to Enjoy at Lake Akan

If you want to learn more about the nature of Lake Akan, check out the Akankohan Eco Museum Center. There is an exhibit that explains the topography around the lake, the flora and fauna that inhabit it, and more about the Ainu culture. There's even an aquarium where you can see marimo, and fish such as himemasu (kokanee salmon), making it an exciting place.

You can learn more about the nature of Lake Akan in this exhibit showing specimens of flora and fauna. (Open 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM, closed Tuesdays)

There is also a promenade near the Eco Museum where you can take a stroll around the lake. When you get closer to the lake, the "bokke" comes into view. Bokke is an Ainu word that means "boiling place," and refers to where mud and volcanic gas burst out from underground forming bubbles, also called a mud volcano. This is where you really begin to notice that this is in fact a volcanic zone.

You can hear the sounds of the bubbles popping as they rise to the surface of the bokke, which looks like a boiling, muddy swamp. The temperature of this boiling mud can be as high as 97ºC!

Lake Akan is also known for its hot springs. So when you are ready to relax leisurely in the hotels and inns, make sure to also enjoy the hot waters of Lake Akan in the hand and footbaths that you can enter for free.

The Benkei Footbath near the Eco Museum Center. It's a good idea to take a soak after walking around town.

I also recommend visiting Lake Akan during winter, when you can see the beautiful silver snow spreading over the landscape. Not only can you see the Frost Flowers blooming on the surface of the frozen lake, but you can enjoy activities such as snowmobiling and fishing for wakasaki, a Japanese pond fish. And soaking in a hot outdoor bath after being surrounded by the cold winter air is an experience like no other!

Snowmobiling on a Frozen Lake!

With the beautiful landscape surrounded by mountains and forest, mysteries of nature like the marimo, and the Ainu culture and it's preservation into the future, this trip to Lake Akan was abundant in amazing experiences. If you are visiting, I recommend staying a while to relax and enjoy the hot springs.

A healing experience of natural hot springs and Ainu culture, all at Lake Akan (Photo by Akan Tourist Association)
  • LakeAkan
    LakeAkan
    阿寒湖
    • Address Akanchoakankoonsen, Kushiro-shi, Hokkaido, 085-0467
    • Nearest Station Bihoro Station (Sekihoku Main Line)
    • Phone Number 0154-31-1993

Spots showcased in the article

  1. Akan Kanko Kisen (Akan Sightseeing Cruiser)
    阿寒湖観光汽船
  2. Ainu Cafe Poronno
    アイヌ料理の店ポロンノ
  3. Ainu Kotan
    アイヌコタン
  4. LakeAkan
    阿寒湖

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*This information is from the time of this article's publication.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
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