The fuming Iōzan

From the lovely lake Kussharo, we drove into the mountains towards Mount Io, also known as Iōzan. Gradually the landscape changed as the forest of Sakhalin Spruce gave way to the rocky surface of Iōzan. Only a few dwarf stone pines and heathberry plants can be seen in the vicinity.

Shitona, our tour guide kept us entertained with legends and mythical folklore of the area. But she only spoke Japanese. These are the times I deeply wish I had learnt a bit of Japanese. I so love to hear stories…

As we got closer it seemed like a thick cloud had engulfed the side of the mountain.

Japan is full of volcanic islands. Due to high volcanic activity one can find numerous rich hot springs spread all over the country. Iōzan (硫黄山) is one such place.

Iōzan, also known as the “Sulfur Mountain” is an active volcano in the Shiretoko Peninsula. In native Ainu language the Iōzan is called “Atosa Nupuri“, which means “Naked Mountain.” Sulfur was mined on Mt. Io from 1865 to 1867 and again in 1887-88. The 1889 volcanic eruption resulted in a sulfur flow of some 80,000 tons of the mineral. Over the next decade most of the sulfur was taken out thereafter the mining stopped. Its yellow, sulfurous vents can be viewed from close proximity as visitors are allowed to walk around near the steaming area.

As we got down from the White Pirika bus, I could smell the sulfur, drifting in the air. The path up the mountain was covered in snow. We walked carefully towards the steaming vents. As we neared the vents, we could hear water bubbling. As hot volcanic gases escape from these volcanic vents, they cool rapidly, depositing sulfur as fluorescent yellow crystals around the openings.

Although I was a bit scared at first, I walked up to some of the smaller vents. The smell was overpowering near the fuming vents. The strong gases from the vents exerts an enormous influence on the surrounding vegetation. Mt. Kabuto, right next to Iōzan, differs significantly with regard to the vegetation. Standing amidst these steam bellowing vents and yellow crystallize rocks it felt like we were on a different planet altogether.

Up towards the summit, there were many bigger vents but for tourist safety a thick rope blocked access to those areas. Mount Io has about 1,500 such vents on its reddish rusty mountain surface. While the composition of the discharge will differ depending on the fissure, water vapor and volcanic gases are constantly being emitted as white smoke. The mountain has been vastly subdued and the last recorded eruption of liquid sulfur happened in 1936.

After some time we walked back to the bus. Near the parking lot, one can find the Iozan Visitor Center, that also offers some refreshments. I have heard they serve eggs cooked by the natural heat of the mountain. It was almost lunchtime and we headed towards Kawayu Onsen station for lunch. Lunch is arranged by the Akan Bus operators, but the cost is not included in the tour package.

After lunch, we wandered around for a bit. Near the station we discovered a souvenir shop and went inside. In the shop was a big black cat and I chased after him 🙂

We came back to the bus early. Others were still not finished with lunch. We got back to our seats and waited for them to arrive. Within a few minute they slowly trickled in one by one. Once everyone was aboard we were off to Lake Mashu.

The Swans of Lake Kussharo

We woke up to a beautiful morning. It was our third day on the enchanting island of Hokkaido and I was looking forward to our tour of Akan National Park. We were lodged on the 9th floor of the Prince Kushiro Hotel and I could see the wide sea from our window. The roads were deserted and snow had created a carpet of white over the town. The thought of walking to the docks and capturing the sunrise did cross my mind but I controlled the temptation and prepared for the day’s trip.

At 8 am, Mani and I, went down to the reception and picked up our tickets for the White Pirika sightseeing bus. The White Pirika sightseeing tour offers an all-day round trip of the most popular nature spots in Akan National Park including Tancho Crane Reserve, Swan viewing at Lake Kussharo, Sulfur spewing Iōzan, Lake Mashū and Lake Akan. The tickets cost ¥4600 per person. The bus leaves from Kushiro station at 8:30 am. It makes a stop at Prince Kushiro Hotel so we just waited outside the Hotel for the bus to pick us up.

Hokkaido is one of the top winter birding and wildlife photography locations. The Akan National Park is home to a number of eye-catching iconic species: the resident Red-crowned Crane and Blakiston’s Fish Owl. In the winter you can also find the Whooper Swan and Steller’s Eagle. I was hoping to at least catch some of these today.

The bus was a few minutes late. As it stopped, a charming lady in a blazing red suit, got down to greet us. Her name was Shitona, she was our tour guide. She was not acquainted with English and spoke only in Japanese. It was quite helpful that Mani is fluent in Japanese and she translated most of what was said during the tour.

We took our seats towards the front of the bus. The bus was almost full and I was glad I had made our reservations from before.

Note: The White Pirika bus does not operate beyond March 6th.

The lady guide handed us a pamphlet and informed everyone about the route we would be taking along the tour. After a few turns, we left the city behind and entered the Kushiro Marshlands. Kushiro Marshland is a breeding ground for many animals including Japanese cranes. It is also a wildlife sanctuary registered under the Ramsar Convention. We didn’t stop at the observation point since there was nothing to see in the snow. In summers one can try walking on a boardwalk or even go canoeing in the marsh.

The Tancho Crane Reserve in Kushiro: Tsurui-mura

About 30 minutes into the drive, we reached the Tancho Crane Reserve. It is a popular spot for viewing Japanese cranes.

The Tancho have been believed to be a bird of good omen. It is very much respected by the local Ainu as Sarurunkamui (god of the marshland) since ancient times. In 1935, Tancho’s habitat was listed as one of Japan’s natural monument. Later in 1952 it was upgraded to “special natural monument.”

Within a few minutes, a couple of cranes flew into the park from nowhere. The couple played around in the snow. In-between one of them would give out a loud shrieking call. Hearing the call, another bunch of cranes came by, for our view pleasure.

Red-crowned cranes are said to form partnerships for life. They may be forced to part in the rarest of cases when one crane becomes badly injured or ill to breed. This bond between red-crowned crane partnerships is so strong that the red-crowned crane is used as a symbol of happy relationships in Japan. They are also considered a symbol of long life, as they can easily survive for 20 years in the wild or 40 years in sanctuaries like Tancho.

The Tancho are non-migratory in nature and use the Kushiro marshland as their nesting ground. In recent years, the red-crowned crane population has grown rapidly due to careful protection measures, but this has also resulted in an increase in the damage to local farmers’ crops. The wetlands that were initially breeding grounds have become too small, resulting in cranes breeding near residential areas. These cranes then help themselves to farmers’ crops or get into their barns and eat the cows’ feed, because it’s much easier than searching for the food they are meant to eat.

Despite these problems, the locals love them. In winters when food is scarce, the locals bring in corn for the birds. Due to the warm affection of these loving people, the Tancho numbers have increased year after year. Currently there are confirmed 600+ birds living in the area.

After capturing some of these beautiful birds, we were back at the bus stand, getting ready for our next destination. There is a cafe near the entrance to the reserve so If you are feeling the need for it you can enjoy a warm drink.

Lake Kussharo

After spending some time watching the cranes playing in the snow, we left for Lake Kussharo. Lake Kussharo is the largest of the three caldera lakes that make up Akan National Park. As with most geographic names in Hokkaido, the lake derives its name from the Ainu.

The Ainu word “Kuccharo,” means “The place where a lake becomes a river.”

Lake Kussharo is thought to have been formed over 100,000 years ago as a result of volcanic eruptions. Volcanic activity is still active in these parts and if you dig the sand near the banks, you can find hot water.

Myth surrounding Lake Kussharo

The lake is also known as Japan’s Loch Ness, after some reported sightings of a lake monster in early 20th century. The monster is referred to as Kusshii, most likely borrowed from that of Loch Ness’s Nessie.

Lake Kussharo is about an hours drive from the Tancho Crane Reserve . It appeared mostly frozen as we got off from the bus. We couldn’t find any shops or eateries nearby, so if you are going using your own vehicle make sure you pack the essentials.

As we neared the lake. I was amazed by its breathtaking beauty. The banks of this vast lake are lined with Sakhalin spruce, found only in Japan & Russia. Across the white lake in the far distance, I could make out the sprawling Mt. Mokoto.

Whooper swans of Lake Kussharo

Geographically Hokkaido is very close to Eastern Russia but, unlike that area, Hokkaido is readily accessible year-round, safe and with excellent infrastructure. Situated on the East Asian Flyway, a migratory route connecting northeast Asia with Southeast Asia and Australasia, Hokkaido offers various avian residents an enchanting break during their long journey.

As temperatures dip towards freezing in late autumn and early winter, migrant swans like the Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swan, arrive in angelic flocks trumpeting their stirring calls as they fly. While the Bewick’s Swans will pass through bound for Honshu, many of the Whooper Swans will linger, gracing the ice-free areas of the larger lakes and marshes through the winter months.

The whooper swan pronounced as hooper swan is found predominantly in the colder areas of the Northern Hemisphere. They have a deep honking call and, despite their size, are powerful fliers. The swans can migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles to their wintering sites like this one at Lake Kussharo.

The surface of the lake was frozen, but along the sandy beach, where the hot springs prevent any ice from forming, the swans were enjoying a nice swim in the water.

Far away from the city noise, this place is truly relaxing. Ignoring the few of us, the swans swam around enjoying nature at their own pace.

The Whooper Swan has a pure white plumage. The webbed feet and legs are black. Half of the beak is orangey-yellow (at the base), while the tip is black. These markings on the bill differ and individuals can be recognized by their bill pattern. The male is called a “cob,” the female “pen,” and their chicks are known as “cygnets”.

Swans feed primarily on aquatic plants; but they also eat grain, grasses, and crop foods, such as wheat, potatoes, and carrots – especially in the winter when other food sources aren’t readily available.

Their long necks give them an advantage over the short-necked ducks, as they can feed in deeper waters than geese or ducks by uprooting plants and snapping off the leaves and stems of plants growing underwater.

In addition to whooper swans, I also noticed some Mallard ducks. This one below is a male with a distinctive green head, yellow bill, chestnut breast, and gray body. Females are mottled brown with orange and black splotches on the bill.

Lake Kussharo is a lovely place to put up your feet and relax. In contrast to the historical and cultural aspects of mainland Japan to the south, Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido offers Japan’s wilder, more outdoor, side. It is ideal year-round for nature travel, and especially for birders, birdwatchers, and bird photographers. I have heard in summers this place is also great for hiking and camping.

Hokkaido’s night birds are dramatic too, and none more so than the world’s largest owl and one of the world’s rarest species – Blakiston’s Fish Owl. I hope to come down again to capture some more.

We wanted to stay back a little longer but this is the problem with set tours, they allow very little time to enjoy a place truly. So, off we went back to the bus. Our next stop: the sulfur spewing Mt Io.

The Igloo Village of Shikaribetsu

Our first day on the beautiful island of Hokkaido. I was excited and looking forward to spending my next week surrounded by snow. Coming from a land where temperatures frequently touch 50° Centigrade, it is like a fantasy coming to Hokkaido in winter.

It was going to be a long day. We were headed for the city of Kushiro, almost 300 km away. On the way, we had planned to take a break at Obihiro, and visit the phantom ice village on Lake Shikaribetsu.

Phantom?? Because nobody actually lives in that village. Shikaribetsuko Kotan (然別湖コタン) is a winter event held from late January to mid-March at Lake Shikaribetsu, located in the northwestern part of Obihiro. The lake freezes in winter and the people from the nearby village build igloos on the lake using ice creating an experience of an Eskimo village. The kotan (village) exists only during the winter months and melts away with the onset of spring.

Kotan means village or settlement in the Ainu language. The Ainu are the indigenous people who live in the northern regions of Japan, especially Hokkaido.

Sapporo to Lake Shikaribetsu

We had already purchased our special JR Hokkaido passes the day before, which were valid for unlimited travel in Hokkaido for the next 7 consecutive days.

The 7 day JR Hokkaido Pass costs ¥26000 and can be bought at the JR ticket counter at Chitose Airport

We left the warm comforts of our hotel at 7 am and walked down to the Nakajimakoen park. In daylight, the park looked lovely, covered in snow. The snow had tapered down from the previous night and it was relatively easier to walk. Curiously, even though I was surrounded by snow almost 3 ft high, it didn’t feel very cold. Maybe I was just very well protected.

From the park, an underground passage directly connects with the Nakajimakoen Station. From there it is just a couple of stops to Sapporo Station.

At Sapporo, we had a light breakfast. The Station is huge with dedicated rows of shops for clothes, food, and other stuff. We caught the 8.45 am Super Ozora train to Obihiro. For the next 2 hours, I was treated to some breathtaking scenery as the train chugged along the pure white landscape. I have never seen so much snow in my life. It was like the color green had been banished from the lands.

How to get to lake Shikaribetsu – Fusui Bus

We reached Obihiro at 10.40 am. At the station, we went directly to the tourist information center to obtain local bus schedules for Lake Shikaribetsu. The easiest and cheapest way to reach Lake Shikaribetsu is using the Fusui bus. The lady at the help desk informed us, one was leaving within 15 minutes at 11 o’clock. We literally ran to the bus stand since the bus intervals were far apart and it takes almost an hour and a half to reach the lake.

The bus was about half full and mostly filled with locals. It was a pleasant surprise for us when the driver told us that the ride to Lake Shikaribetsu was absolutely free for tourists going all the way to the Lake. However please note there are only 4 runs a day for the free bus.

As we drove across the city, it was clear that it had been snowing heavily for some time. The sidewalks were covered in huge mounds of snow. The roads had been swept of ice but they were still wet and cold steam was rising from the surface. The bus stopped at a few local stops before we left behind the little town of Shikaoi at the foot of the mountain and entered the forested area of Daisetsu National Park.

Daisetsuzan (大雪山) is Hokkaido’s largest national park. The vast mountainous area of unspoiled wilderness is larger than even some of Japan’s smaller prefectures.

Lake Shikaribetsu

The history of the phantom village of Lake Shikaribetsu goes back to 1980 when local residents began building igloos on top of the frozen lake for fun near the Shikaribetsu Kohan Onsen resort. They continued this yearly activity and as the news spread, people from all over Japan began coming to see the ice village during winter.

We reached the lake area at about 1.00 pm. Though the distance from Obihiro is a bit above 60 km, the driver took his time as the bus goes through many elevated sharp curves and snow-covered roads.

Even in this tough terrain, it feels great to see the buses and trains are so particular with time.

The bus dropped us off in front of Hotel Fusui. If you are planning to go back to Obihiro on the same bus, do not forget to collect the free return ride ticket at the reception of the hotel.

Hotel Fusui is located right on the edge of Lake Shikaribetsu. We obtained our return tickets and left our luggage in the care of the reception staff.

We were famished after the long ride, so we went into the restaurant on the ground floor. The restaurant seating is cleverly arranged so the guests can enjoy their meal, simultaneously basking in the breathtaking view of the lake. Recommended by the waiter, we ordered a local delicacy, cooked with the Dolly Varden trout, that is found in the Lake Shikaribetsu itself.

It was quite soothing sitting by the window in the soft sun, overlooking the huge, frozen lake. From time to time, clouds would pass by casting a moving shadow over the frozen lake.

Beside the restaurant, there is a souvenir shop selling locally made wooden artifacts and souvenirs. I made a mental note to come back for some souvenir shopping before boarding the bus back to Obihiro.

After lunch, we walked over to the lake. The place was very serene and peaceful. Far away, on the surrounding mountains, the spruce forests were draped in snow. The elevated landscape in a way cuts of the surrounding area making us feel as we were now on top of the world cut off from everything. Incidentally in the Ainu language, the name of the lake also means “Lake of the Sky.” I would completely agree.

At At 810 meters, Shikaribetsu has the distinction of being the highest altitude lake in Hokkaido

Lake Shikaribetsu Igloo Village

The construction of the ice village begins every year in early January when the ice above the lake reaches a thickness of about 15 centimeters. Local villagers and volunteers from across Hokkaido assemble and work for about three weeks to create this amazing village.

Apart from the scattered igloos, the ice village also features an ice cafe/bar, an open-air bath, and even a chapel – made entirely of ice. As we walked down to the village, the first ice structure we came across was the ice bar. We didn’t bother to go inside as neither of us was thirsty for a drink in the chilling cold.

Once in the center of the village, we spent some time admiring the igloos in this remote Hokkaido village. I kind of took a liking to this one 🙂 It was not very well made but it was kind of private and cozy.

As we ventured to the other structures, it was clear that the construction of these igloos was not amateur by any means. They were thoughtfully designed so one can also stay overnight in these igloos if they choose to. Although do note, the temperatures can get as low as minus 20 or 30 degrees centigrade at night.

Some of the larger igloos have seating arrangements made from blocks of ice. The space was good enough for a small group of 5-6 people. Contrary to what I thought, the igloos didn’t feel as cold as I had imagined they would.

On the northwest side of the village, one can find an open-air hot spring. The hot tub is installed in the water during spring. Once the lake freezes, the tub is no more visible, and with the surrounding snow and ice, it appears as though visitors are bathing in ice. What more can one ask for while bathing in warm spring water, surrounded by snow, mountains, and fresh air. It is a private area, guarded by walls and it didn’t seem decent to capture photos of the onsen with people. You have to come and see it for yourself 😉.

At the far end of the village lies an ice Chapel. The chapel looks like just another igloo from outside. But the inside was beautifully crafted. It must have taken great effort to build something so spectacular just out of ice.

The design of the intricately detailed chapel changes each year and if you check the old photos, the results are always no less than spectacular. From what I hear, many real ceremonies are also held here each year at the chapel.

After coming out of the Chapel, we explored a few more igloos. With clouds gathering, the weather had somewhat become gray by this time.

After investigating the village we wandered off to the far right where a gentleman was offering snowmobile rides. Those looking for a taste of adventure can ride the snowmobile along a pre-designed course over the lake for ¥1000. Neither of us had any experience of handling a snowmobile so the guide drove us across the lake. The guided tour costs ¥2000. In spite of the covered helmets, I could feel the bite of the freezing wind across my face as we drove across the huge lake.

After the cross-lake ride, we loitered around as we still had some time before our 4.10 pm ride back to Obihiro. We walked along a marked trail in the snow. We probably walked all the way to the center of the lake. Looking back, the hotel seemed pretty far.

The farther we walked, the more I realized, the vastness of the lake. With not a soul around, walking over the frozen lake is very refreshing. At some places, we would be almost knee-deep in the snow.

At about 3 pm it had begun to snow again over the mountains and we could no longer make out the summit of the mountains in the heavy snowfall. The snowfall was advancing towards us, fast and within a few minutes, the flakes were falling on us. It had started to feel bitterly cold, so we headed back to the refuge of the hotel.

Back at the hotel, we collected our luggage and relaxed on the couch in the lounge. The storm had subsided when the bus arrived at 4 pm. I could see the sun spreading its long shadows over the ice village. We reluctantly boarded the bus and were on our way back to Obihiro. I desperately wanted to stay back to experience one night at this mesmerizing lake.

It was almost 6 pm by the time we reach Obihiro Station. On the way I noticed, the winds had picked up speed. Accompanied by the snowing, it was already erasing all tracks created by vehicles on the road.

We caught the Super Ozora at 7 pm for Kushiro. It was going to be another hour and a half on the train. I mostly slept through the length of the ride. We reached Kushiro at 8.32 pm. The Kushiro Prince hotel was a couple of blocks away and we walked to it. I still have to get accustomed to the way the roads get so deserted in these parts. People in these northern regions sure shut down early.

We were also tired from all the walking, so right after checking in, we had a quick dinner and went to bed.

Lake Shikaribetsu igloo village was a memorable part of our trip to Japan. Spring will be here in a few weeks’ time and the village, like an ephemeral dream, will gradually melt away into the lake, but the beautiful moments I spent there and its surrounding mountains will forever be etched in my memory.

Thanks for reading. I would love it if you could take a moment and leave me a comment on my story. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. Tomorrow we go on a tour of Akan National Park arranged by Akan bus.

Time table for the free bus service from Obihiro to Lake Shikaribetsu

There are 4 buses scheduled every day for Lake Shikaribetsu from Obihiro Station. The timings are:
7:52 | 11:00 | 14:50 | 16:00

From where can I catch the bus for Lake Shikaribetsu?

Obihiro Station Bus Terminal 4 Bus Stop

How much time does it take to reach lake Shikaribetsu from Obihiro Station?

It takes about 1 hour 40 minutes by bus

What is the best time to see Ice Village at Lake Shikaribetsu?

Between February to mid March

Official Website for current information on Shikaribetsu Ice Village