FISHERMEN BELOW MISTY OAKAN (雄阿寒岳), Lake Akan (阿寒湖), Kushiro (釧路), Hokkaido (北海道), Japan, 2019.06.20
Day 6 (1/3).
During our Hokkaido trip, it was hard not to get up early when sunrise happened daily at around 3:30am. An early start to the day allowed us to enjoy the refreshing beauty of Hokkaido’s volcanic landscape under the morning mist. To enjoy the most of Lake Akan before leaving, we took a morning walk before breakfast. By the lake, we passed by the pier where staff were preparing passenger boats for the first tourist cruises of the day. Behind the pier a small trail led us into a forest towards the famous hot mud pools known as bokke.
In front of our hotel, Lake Akan was blanketed with mist in early morning.
At the tourist pier, staff were preparing the passenger boats for the first cruises of the day.
Behind the pier, a small path led us into the lakeside forest.
The path ended at a series of hot mud pools known as bokke (bubbling mud). The area around the bokke remains relatively warm and snow-free in winter, when the rest of Akan is covered in a metre of deep snow.
Occasionally, we saw people standing in the icy water of Lake Akan.
We soon realised the people in the water were actually fly fishing. We later found out that Lake Akan is the most popular venue in Japan for fly fishing.
A recreational fisherman approached us and spoke to us in Cantonese. It was his 18th consecutive year making fishing trips to Lake Akan. We followed him to a narrow path beyond the tourist trail.
Further into the path, we could see dozens other fishermen in the lake.
As well as the majestic Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳) at the back.
Standing in the water of Lake Akan and fishing in front of the volcano must be a fantastic experience.
At this hidden location beyond the tourist trail, we could enjoy the perfect volcano view along with the fishermen.
As the sun rose, the mist began to retreat.
Minutes later, the fog almost disappeared completely.
Along the lake, there were a number of hotspring where boiling water came out from the ground and flowed into the lake.
On our way back to the hotel, we passed by a number of hotspring streams.
The hotspring footbath (弁慶の足湯) at the trailhead attracted hikers to rest their feet after their walks.
Ten to fifteen minutes on the road took us to Lake Onnetoh, a small lake where Mount Meakan (雌阿寒岳) and Akan Fuji stood along with their perfect reflection.
We hiked up a nearby hill to enjoy the scenery of Lake Onnetoh and the two stratovolcanoes.
After Lake Onnetoh, our journey in Eastern Hokkaido had come to an end. We were ready to move on to Central Hokkaido.
Day 5 (3/3).
About 60km southwest of Lake Mashu, we arrived at Akankohan (阿寒湖畔), our second destination in Akan Mashu National Park. Under the shadow of volcano Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳), the onsen resort village Akankohan (阿寒湖畔) right by Lake Akan or Akanko (阿寒湖) is another great place in Eastern Hokkaido to experience the beauty of the region’s volcanic landscape. While may not be as crystal clear as Lake Mashu, Lake Akan, also a crater lake, is nonetheless also famous for its pure water. In fact, the pristine quality of the lake water has enabled the famous lake inhabitant, the marimo, to thrive in Lake Akan. Marimo, a rare ball-like algae, may grow up the size of a football if left untouched for centuries. Unlike Lake Mashu, Lake Akan has a much bigger human presence especially along the waterfront of Akankohan, where modern ryokans with all kinds of onsen baths, and shops, small museum, and cultural centre about the local Ainu people are established.
We stayed at Akankohan for a night to have a short visit of the lakeside onsen resort. We didn’t take the tourist cruise boat for a marimo museum visit on a small island in the lake; nor did we do a long hike up to one of the beautiful volcanoes around the lake or visit the Ainu cultural centre. We did however make a morning forest walk to the boiling bokke mud pool east of the resort village, enjoy a starry night standing on the lakeside boardwalk, and cleanse our bodies and souls in the mineral rich hotspring water of Akan.
At Akankohan, the waterfront is lined with resort hotels and docks for tourist cruise boats.
Located at the waterfront, our hotel Tsuruga Lake Akan Lodge Turano is a comfortable pet-friendly guesthouse with nice views to the lake.
Compared to other lakeside resort hotels, Tsuruga Lake Akan Lodge Turano is much more causal.
There was no hotspring facilities at Tsuruga Lake Akan Lodge Turano, we were invited to use one of Tsuruga’s other hotel’s facility. Recommended by the hotel staff, we went to Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga for its onsen facilities. During our visit, men were assigned to use the three-level bathing facilities at the lower floor while women at the 8/F outdoor infinity pool facing the lake.
It wasn’t the darkest and clearest night for stargazing, but chilling out in the cool air at Lake Akan after a hearty buffet dinner was delightful.
Clouds and fog moved quickly across the sky. Stars were still visible in between.
At Akankohan (阿寒湖畔), Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳) has a dominant presence to the scenery.
Dusk fell upon with a soft touch of orange cast on the moving clouds.
In comparison, the artificial lights from the lakeside hotels looked overwhelmingly bright.
Various boardwalk structures extend out to the lake for small boats and tourist photos.
Last erupted in 2008, Mount Oakan is a shield volcano rises about 900m from the lake.
Swan like recreational boats looked quite out of place in the natural surrounding.
Most multi-level buildings in Akankohan are resort hotels. Behind the lakeside hotels, a shopping street lined with souvenir shops forms the main thoroughfare for the village. The entire village looks completely dependent on tourism.
Near our guesthouse Tsuruga Lake Akan Lodge Turano, the lights from the lakeside hotels looked far more overwhelming than the mighty volcano, which sat in tranquility in the background waiting for its next moment of eruption.
Day 5 (1/3).
Leaving Shitetoko behind, we drove southwest towards another natural marvel of Eastern Hokkaido, the Akan Mashu National Park (阿寒摩周国立公園). On the lush green plains, stratovolcanoes emerged from the horizon, revealing the violent past of the local geology. Hot springs, crater lakes, and stratovolcanoes define the characteristics of the area, and have led to the creation of the national park in 1934. Just 15 minutes of drive from the Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu (摩周湖), we checked in at Masyuko Youth Hostel (摩周湖ユースホステル). That night, we woke up at 2:30am and drove to the Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu to watch the sunrise, a famous scenic sight in Hokkaido. In the summer, the sun rises at around 3:30am in Hokkaido, leaving us little time for sleep.
On our way to Akan Mashu National Park , we could see stratovolcanoes rose from the horizon in a distance.
Masyuko Youth Hostel offered us a comfortable place for a short rest before venturing out again to watch the sunrise.
Arriving at Viewing Platform 1 of Lake Mashu, we were stunned to see a sea of clouds blanketed over the area of Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉).
Looking down from Viewing Platform 1, the water of Lake Mashu appeared like a crystal clear mirror.
Claimed as the clearest lake in the world (with transparency measured at 41.6m back in 1931), Lake Mashu is a beautiful crater lake where visitors can enjoy the scenery from two viewing platforms along the crater rim. The clarity might have slightly declined in recent decades, but Lake Mashu is still nevertheless an extremely beautiful water body.
Occasionally sea of clouds would appear over Lake Mashu, but not during our visit.
Soon the sun emerged behind the distant mountains to the east.
We enjoyed moments of tranquility at the viewing platform.
Several tourists and photographers stood among us at the viewing platform to watch the sunrise.
While the sun gradually rose over the crater lake, the moon still lingered in the sky behind us.
When the sun was up, the blue water and lush green surroundings changed the ambience of Lake Mashu into a different picture.
The deep blue Mashu Lake looked mysterious and surreal, almost too beautiful to be true.
The rim of the crater lake is now covered by dense vegetation.
On the other side, clouds and fog continued to cover the foot of Mount Iō (アトサヌプリ) and the Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) area.
The entire Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) area was blanked in thick fog.
Over to the southwest we could see the stratovolcanoes near what could be the Lake Akan area.
Down in Lake Mashu, the small island stood like a feature sculpture at the centre.
The sea of clouds at Mount Iō (アトサヌプリ) and Kawayu Onsen (川湯温泉) subsided a little as the sun rose further up.
Moisture and thin mist emerged over the water of Lake Mashu. The mist moved rapidly over the water as if dancing. At one point thicker mist gathered over the small island like a cotton shield.
The mist over the island soon dispersed into thin air. As the sun reached high in the sky, we returned to the hostel for another few hours of sleep before coming back to Lake Mashu for hiking later in the day.
Day 4 (2/2).
Whale watching was the final act of our Shiretoko experience. The 2-hour outing in the Nemuro Strait turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of our trip. Located at the eastern coast of Shiretoko Peninsula, Rausu is the most popular spot in Japan for whale watching. Depending on the season, various kinds of whales might be found in the waters just off Rausu, including minke whales, sperm whales, orcas (killer whales), humpback whales (rare), Dall’s porpoises, giant beaked whales, and several types of dolphins. In the summer months, there would be a good chance to spot Orcas, also known as killer whales. Orca is the biggest member of the oceanic dolphin family. They are highly social animals that hunt and wander the sea in pods.
After three days of poor weather, the strong wind and rough sea had finally died down despite the overcast condition over Nemuro Strait. Returned from Shiretoko Pass, we went immediately to the office of Gojiraiwa Kanko Eco Tour (ゴジラ岩観光) in Rausu to make our cruise payment, get a quick snack near the tourist office, parked our car at the dock, and followed one the three queues to get on our cruise boat.
After three days of stormy weather, the sea was calm as we were about to set sail for the whale watching cruise.
Looking back towards the dock, we could see Mount Rausu rising beyond the village of Rausu.
After seeing several black dorsal fin dolphins popped out of the sea in the first ten minutes, our boat captain received the news that orcas had been spotted by the other cruise boats ahead of us. Soon we reached cruise boats and had our first encounter with the magnificent orcas of Nemuro Strait.
While the whales roam in the water of Nemuro Strait, Stellar Sea Eagles and White Tailed Eagles rule the sky.
Lies between Hokkaido’s Shiretoko Peninsula and the controversial Russian Kunashir Island (国後島), Nemuro Strait is one of the best place in the world for whale watching.
Orcas often appear in a pod. We were fortunate to follow a pod of around a dozen of orcas, even with a few juveniles.
Sometimes, the pod would get pretty close to one of the cruise boats.
Eventually, the pod of orcas broke up into a few smaller groups. Our boat followed one of the groups towards the direction of Rausu.
Each boat followed a different group of orca.
Seeing one of the juvenile killer whales in the pod was very exciting.
In a few moments, the whales swam really close to our boat.
A few of them even swam under our boat.
From a close distance, we could truly appreciate the true scale of the orca’s dosal fin.
Some scientists can identify different orcas just by studying their distinctive dorsal fins.
For most of the time, our boat continued to follow a small group of orcas.
It was the first whale watching cruise that we ever experienced. We were grateful that the cruise turned out to be a fruitful one.
After about 1.5 hour chasing the whales, it was time for our boat to return to the dock.
The majestic Mount Rausu signified our arrival of the village of Rausu.
Most fishing boats were parked behind the sea wall at the dock.
It seemed that most fishermen were staying away from the sea for another day. Whale watching offered us the perfect finale to for our Shiretoko journey. We picked up our car at the dock, had another seafood lunch at Jun no Banya (純の番屋), and left Shiretoko altogether for our next destination: Mashu Lake.
Day 4 (1/2).
It was the fourth day since we arrived in Shiretoko. Finally we woke up to a fine morning. Clouds gathered atop the Shiretoko Mountain Range northwest of Rausu. We had made reservations for an afternoon whale watching cruise. Our plan for the morning was to head up to Shiretoko Pass, and do a bit of hiking near Rausu Lake. It would be quite unfortunate if we were to leave Shiretoko without seeing Mount Rausu (羅臼岳).
At 1661m in height, Mount Rausu is an active stratovolcano that sits above Shiretoko Pass, the highest point on Road 334 between the villages of Utoro and Rausu. Also known as the Fuji of Shiretoko, Mount Rausu is one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. Hiking up the volcano takes 6-8 hours round trip, but given our limited time and lack of snow crampons, we would have to leave the hike for another time.
Driving Road 334 up to Shiretoko Pass, we could see the mountains were still covered in clouds.
On our way up, we passed by several covered road sections.
It was a disappointment again when we arrived at Shiretoko Pass (知床峠) and saw Mount Rausu covered in thick clouds.
Though the weather looked quite promising down at coast of Rausu. We hoped that the fine weather would stay for several more hours so that we could embark on our whale watching cruise in the afternoon.
It was 2.3km from Shiretoko Pass to the trailhead of Lake Rausu Trail. About five minutes after we walked down the road from the parking lot of Shiretoko Pass, the clouds began to disperse over Mount Rausu. We could finally see the beautiful volcano right behind us.
Some hikers would prefer taking the bus to cover the 2.3km journey to the trailhead, but there are only four buses per day on the route.
Looking down from the trailhead, the trail began at a marsh area.
We followed a narrow path down to the trailhead of Rausu Lake Trail.
The return trip of Rausu Lake Trail would take about 3-4 hours. Unfortunately our time was restricted by the afternoon whale watching cruise. We decided to do a shorter hike by turning back at Marsh 3.
As warned at the trailhead, the early section of the Rausu Lake Trail was flooded like a swamp. Rubber boots could be rented at the Rausu Visitor Centre.
We soon reached Marsh 2 after a short walk in the flooded path, but there wasn’t much water in the marsh.
Snow was still visible at certain parts of the trail.
After about half an hour from the trailhead, we reached Marsh 3, the destination of our short hike.
Mount Rausu and its reflection at Marsh 3 was the biggest highlight of the hike. While most hikers would continue on towards Rausu Lake, we had to turn back in order to make back to Rausu on time for our whale watching cruise.
Back to Shiretoko Pass, more clouds were visible over Nemuro Strait and the Russian controlled Kunashir Island. We were a little worried about the overcast conditions ahead of our whale watching cruise. After 2.5 days of rainy weather, even few patches of clouds would make us nervous.
RUSA FIELD HOUSE (ルサフィールドハウス), Rausu (羅臼), Shiretoko Peninsula (知床半島), Hokkaido (北海道), Japan, 2019.06.17
Day 3 (1/2).
We woke up to another stormy morning in Utoro. For the morning, we had seats reserved for a 3-hour Cape Shiretoko Boat Cruise to the eastern tip of Shiretoko Peninsula. Due to strong winds and heavy rain, not a single boat was allowed out in the sea that day. We had no choice but decided to leave Utoro earlier than planned, and crossed the Shiretoko Mountain Range to Rausu (羅臼) on the east coast of the peninsula. On our way, we passed by Shiretoko Pass, the highest point between Utoro and Rausu where we could see the full view of Mount Rausu if the sky was clear. Unfortunately, all we saw was rain, fog, fallen branches and flying leaves in the air. Beyond Shiretoko Pass, we gradually descended to Rausu, the remote fishing village which also served as the eastern entry point of the Shiretoko National Park. The rain began to cease as we approached Rausu. With extra time to spare in Rausu, we decided to check out Rusa Field House, the interpretation centre providing information on the famous residents of the Nemuro Strait: whales and dolphins.
We quickly put all our luggage in the car and left Utoro under stormy weather. We followed the Tran-Shiretoko Highway 334 heading towards Rausu via Shiretoko Pass.
As expected, we couldn’t see the mountain scenery along the way. Instead, we drove cautiously on the winding Highway 334 under heavy rain.
Blocked by Shiretoko Mountain Range, Rausu was actually pretty dry, though the wind was strong and waves were high.
High waves had also prevented any boats sailing out to the sea from Rausu.
Though we could at least step out of the car to enjoy the coastal scenery.
Near the end of coastal Road 87, we reached the Rusa Field House. It was very windy at the field house where strong wind from the Shiretoko Mountains channeled through the Rusa River Valley to the river mouth right by the Field House.
The Rusa Field House is a pleasant timber building facing the sea.
The Rusa Field House has a special focus on the wildlife at Shiretoko.
The upper mezzanine offers visitors binoculars and telescopes for whale spotting in the sea.
This beautiful map of Shiretoko Peninsula in the Field House caught our attention. Although we couldn’t understand Japanese, we thought the map was showing two routes (winter and summer) over the mountains connecting Rausu and Utoro to the northwest.
While one side of the Field House overlooks the sea, the other side faces the Rusa River Valley that goes all the way up the mountains to Shiretoko Pass. In the building, we could feel the strong wind from the mountains sweeping through the valley out to the sea.
Standing at a column base, the taxidermy of an Ezo Red Fox reminded us that red fox is a common sight in Shiretoko.
The Field House also showcases what is probably the most famous product from Rausu: the Rausu Kelp, one of the three most precious kelp in Hokkaido.
A hand-drawn illustration that shows the hidden connections between the life cycle of local salmon and coastal ecosystem of Shiretoko.
The Field House provides visitors information on current weather and coastal conditions of the area. We could see the warning of high waves along the shore, urging people not to visit the coastal outdoor hot springs. We decided to give up our plan of visiting the outdoor baths of Aidomari Onsen (相泊温泉) near the end of Road 87.
After visiting the Field House, we drove to the fishing village of Rausu. At Rausu, the weather seemed fine and the sea pretty calm. We spent quite a bit of time searching for a place to sample the fabulous local seafood.
In the afternoon, we checked in at our onsen hotel Rausu no Yado Marumi Ryokan (羅臼の宿 まるみ). In the lobby, we were greeted by some of the most iconic animals of Shiretoko: Sperm Whale and Brown Bear.
Our guestroom offered fantastic panorama of the sea.
The dinner at Rausu no Yado Marumi Ryokan (羅臼の宿 まるみ) was probably the most satisfying hotel dinner of our Hokkaido stay. Other than the “compulsory” seafood on our table as shown in the photo above, there were also a wide range of dishes made with local seafood and vegetables served in a buffet.
From our room, the sea looked peaceful and beautiful in late afternoon. We silently wished for fine weather in the next day when we would have our last chance to sail out to the sea before leaving Shiretoko.
Day 2 (3/3).
The weather fluctuated throughout the afternoon. After lunch, we headed back up to Shiretoko National Park from Utoro to check out Shiretoko Nature Centre, the visitor centre near the park entrance. The centre houses a large screen theatre showing films of the park, service counters for hikers to obtain trail information, a cafe serving excellent coffee and ice-cream, and a shop selling all kinds of outdoor outfits and souvenir. After watching a film about a family of Ezo Red Fox at the theatre, we decided to do a short hike.
Only 20 minute of easy walk would bring us to coast of Sea of Okhotsk, where the The Virgin’s Tears or the Furepe Waterfall awaited us.
In the past few decades, efforts had been made to reforest the area after years of pioneer development.
Weather was changing quickly. At one moment, clouds and mist were moving away from the Shiretoko Mountain Range.
At Furepe Falls, we could only admire the cliff of the waterfall from the opposite side.
A small group of seabirds gathered at the tip of the rock cliff.
From the opposite side, we could see the top part of the Furepe Falls. The waterfall originates from ground water surfaced near the top.
A wooden pavilion was built across the cove from Furepe Falls as a lookout.
Despite the sun was out at Furepe Falls, clouds and mist continued to cover most of Shiretoko Mountain Range.
We slowly walked back to Shiretoko Nature Centre.
Back at Shiretoko Village Guesthouse, we had another tasty dinner after a pleasant bath at the inhouse onsen. That evening, we were served with local salmon ruibe. It had a delicate texture and would melt in the mouth.
Each of us was served with lamb nabe, herring with sea urchin miso, dried flounder, butter scallops, steamed razor clams, etc.
(Foreground) Ruibe, translates as “melted food”, is half-frozen sashimi. It is an Ainu culinary specialty from Hokkaido. Fresh fish was traditionally stored under snow during winter and eaten without defrost. (Background) Kichiji is a local fish with red skin and big eyes. We tasted the deep dried kichiji which was crispy and delicious.
Steamed razor clams were full of aroma of local sake.