Travel Diary: The Mystery of Lake Mashu, Hokkaido, Japan

I awoke to Lake Kussharo. Pulling back the day curtains, I watched as the soft light of the early morning played on its surface a gentle soothing melody. There was a cream-colored wall to the right of my bedframe and where I’d slept, my toes were pointed towards the window. I propped myself up on my elbows so that I could get a better look. A few white swans hovered near the shoreline where we’d had set up a picnic of Japanese takeout the day before, but besides that, Lake Kussharo was a scene of quiet calm.

Lake Kussharo is the largest of the lakes in the Akan National Park, with Lake Akan and Lake Mashū lying to its southeast and southwest. The region has a mix of natural and manmade outdoor onsens (hot thermal springs) – some of which I thought were beautiful and others, not so. Ikenoyu was right along the banks of Lake Kussharo. It sort of reminded me of an ‘infinity’ pool, and going closer, I could see right through the water to the giant rocks beneath which formed an uneven, overlapping base, while the steam left the surface of the water from above, creating a soft mist. Personally, I don’t think I liked it very much – maybe because it was so quiet, and the steaming water which was an unusual intense blue-green had a bit of an unsettling effect on me. But that could just be me and my vivid imagination – I imagine a whole bunch of people could have a blast in that onsen. Note – whole bunch… (Safety in numbers haha)

Ikenoyu outdoor onsen Lake Kussharo Akan National Park Hokkaido

Lake Akan is famous for its marimo (essentially balls of moss which look like what they sound – round furry green things, but yes, surprisingly cute), and the whole town thrived on the lake’s claim to fame by selling all sorts of marimo souvenirs. Today’s itinerary was a short detour down to Lake Mashū, followed by a drive northwards to our next stop on the Shiretoko Peninsula where we would spend the next two nights. We began on Route 243 towards Teshikaga and then exited onto Route 52, which was a long straight road in an open field with a sprinkling of trees which stretched as far as the eye could see.

Lake Mashū, formed in the caldera of a potentially active volcano, is known for being the clearest lake in the world and also one of the deepest in Japan. The tricky bit was that the lake is also known for being frequently blanketed by a fog, so one might never really know what to expect.

Barely a third of the way on Route 52, I saw the start of the fog. It started like a wispy white mist, but very quickly withered visibility down to 60m and then to barely 30m where we slowed to a crawl, especially nearing the lake where the road had several kinks before it veered left along the left border of Lake Mashū, and also where the observation decks were located. At this point, we wondered if there was any point in making a stop at all because the fog was so heavy, but since there was no alternative route to Route 52 which would lead us away from Mashū, northwards and back in the direction of Shiretoko, we continued on.

There were few visitors that day, and if they’re fogged over most times of the year, I’d be surprised if they got any more than a handful on an average day. The road to the observation deck had been a constant uphill climb which took us pretty high up, and besides the headlights of occasional cars passing by us and down the pass from where we’d come, the drive through the quiet and thick blanket of a fog was a little unnerving for me, so I ended up talking and singing a lot in the car.

It’s funny how the only pictures of Lake Mashū on Google are of the lake on a clear day. Or perhaps, it was with good reason, considering we couldn’t see A THING when we got to the observation deck. Till this point I’d kept mum about the local legion which said seeing the surface of Lake Mashū was bad luck, just in case – but seeing (… or not) the lake like this, I decided it was an opportune moment and happily informed everyone of our fine luck.

So for everyone planning to visit Lake Mashū, this is what you can realistically expect on most days. Unless you like driving in fog and thrive on a sense of mystery, I suggest skipping the stop and turning back around should you encounter fog early on in your journey to the lake. For the rest of you, lucky(?) enough to catch Mashū when it’s in the clear, just forget about the local legion which I’d told you about – who believes that ancient stuff anyway… right?

Travel Diary: Shiretoko Pass (知床峠), Shiretoko National Park, Hokkaido, Japan

Hokkaido is full of untouched natural flora, and the UNESCO World Heritage site that is Shiretoko National Park located on the Shiretoko Peninsula, the northeastern tip of Hokkaido, is probably the prime location from which to witness Hokkaido’s beauty. There’s something about Shiretoko, something about it that’s so innocent, so special – I can’t quite put a finger to what it is.

Hokkaido is a fantastic place to drive about, and I don’t think there’s any better way to go about it besides renting a car and doing just that. Shiretoko, in particular, gave some of the most scenic, beautiful drives – its wide cement roads gently folding over the undulating landscape, with the most beautiful views of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Driving on mountain roads Shiretoko Hokkaido

They said the Shiretoko-tōge (known as the Shiretoko pass) would be quite a sight, and they were right. It wasn’t uncommon for us to suddenly slow to a crawl because there were deer standing right on or next to the road gazing at us, doe-eyed. Not with trepidation, however, but with more, oxymoronically, of a sort of disinterested curiosity – and the humans in the car starred right back. After all, we don’t see many deer from where we come from.

At the highest points of the pass, the scene was still blanketed in white snow. Winter in Spring time, is what I’d called it. We’d pulled to the road shoulder and had a mini snowball fight, after which I hopped farther into the winter wonderland and busied myself with recreating Olaf.Winter Snow in Shiretoko National Park UNESCO Hokkaido Japan

The pass was also the first place where I encountered a fox (featured picture). We spotted it walking on the edge of road and slowed to a gradual halt. I was seated in the front seat next to the driver, and so I saw it approach in the side mirror. With green eyes, it eyed our MPV, came closer, sat, and waited. Everyone was fascinated – a bunch of humans staring right back at a little red fox. We gathered it was hoping for some food (which our car was full of), but decided against it. I stuck my head out of the window to get a better look, and it turned to look straight at me before proceeding to walk along the length of the vehicle, its ears tilted forwards, alert, until it was right under my window. After a while, we drove on. I looked back, and the fox, disappointed, turned and walked off, with its thick bushy red tail swaying into the distance.