Spend a Memorable Winter Adventure Among Japan’s Indigenous Ainu Traditions at Snowy Lake Akan

Lush powder snow, frozen lakes, iced panoramas of astonishing beauty, and a multitude of great winter activities make Hokkaido’s Lake Akan stand out as a winter paradise perfect to experience some of Japan’s best snowy adventures and unwind in the welcoming hot spring town of Akanko Onsen. With great access by plane from Tokyo, majestic Lake Akan covered in ice not only offers the setting for the winter escape of your dreams, but is also home to the indigenous Ainu village of Akanko Ainu Kotan. Follow us—the editorial team of tsunagu Japan— to Lake Akan to uncover unique cultural activities, a deeper understanding of Ainu traditions, and the charms of this land of snow and ice.

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*This article was written in collaboration with Kushiro City.

Who Are the Ainu People?

Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu, have been living in the unspoiled lands of Hokkaido for innumerable generations. As the bounty of nature was fundamental to their lives, the Ainu strongly believed in the harmonious coexistence with it. By hunting in the luscious forests of Hokkaido and fishing in its pristine rivers and lakes without contaminating them, Ainu revered the natural world that provided them with food through respect for the “kamuy” (Ainu deities).

The Ainu people not only have their own unique system of beliefs but also treasure a rich tradition of oral literature, produce distinct, intricately embroidered garments and exquisite traditional crafts, as well as speak their own language which is still used today in traditional settings and events. You can learn all about them at the Lake Akan Ainu village, Akanko Ainu Kotan!

Read more about the Ainu culture and traditions here and here

Experience Lake Akan’s Winter Daily Life With These Top Outdoor Activities

Ice Land Akan - Try Your Hand at Smelt Fishing and Other Winter Activities on Frozen Lake Akan

This was our third time at the charming hot spring town of Akanko Onsen, and yet our first during winter. Enriched by the seasonal beauty of this frosty period of the year, we found the scenery of Lake Akan beautifully changed into a winter wonderland. In February, the lake is completely frozen, stretching into the distance like a picture-perfect glimmering winter dream, with the forests standing on its shores blanketed in white and the roads and traditional buildings of Akanko Ainu Kotan adorned with piles of fluffy snow.

Where the now snowy Mt. Oakan would normally reflect its towering figure on water, there’s instead a winter amusement area called Ice Land Akan. Open only during the winter months from the beginning of January to the end of March on Lake Akan’s frozen surface, Ice Land Akan allows visitors to enjoy winter activities that can only be enjoyed somewhere like Akanko Onsen. So, put on your warmest winter wear and snow boots and get ready to enjoy attractions you can’t experience in many other places in Japan.

One of the most distinctive activities to experience at Lake Akan is ice fishing. Lake Akan is naturally rich in “wakasagi” or smelts which are also a local delicacy usually eaten as tempura and often savored together with a delicious bowl of soba. To taste this specialty even in the colder months when the lake is frozen, locals and visitors alike can try their hand at smelt fishing by renting all the fishing equipment and a tent at Ice Land Akan. All the tents come equipped with holes in the ice, so we could get started right away and just focus on enjoying our time there while chatting and fishing. Ice fishing is even more enjoyable when done with a group of friends or family, and as there’s no time limit, you’ll easily spend a couple of hours in your cozy fishing tent without even noticing!

The rental fee includes a tempura frying service at nearby Kaihei, a restaurant located on the shore right in front of Ice Land Akan. The good news is that even if you don’t catch that many fish like us, the generous owners of the restaurant will still offer you an abundant and warm portion of fried smelts to snack on after a day in the cold.

But the fun at Ice Land Akan doesn’t end at fishing! From early morning until sunset, the area offers a large variety of winter activities such as cross-country skiing and ice skating which allow you to soak in the vast nature and appreciate extensive views of the lake while leisurely touring the surroundings. Those who love speed can hop on a snowmobile or ride a snow buggy to explore its frozen surface. We were up for some adrenaline, so we decided to go for an exciting ride on a banana boat towed behind a snowmobile and experienced drifting through frosty Lake Akan. The ride took us further away from its shores, so we got to admire the glimmering spectacle of Mt Oakan from a distance.

Ice Land Akan Homepage: https://www.koudai-akan.com/iceland.html (Japanese)

Ice Land Akan Homepage: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/3534/  (English)

Enjoy Frozen Lake Akan at Night - Extend the Fun With These Activities After the Sun Goes Down

Added to the winter scene of Lake Akan this year, a Finnish barrel sauna provides a moment of relaxation after a day of excitement in the snow! Open until 9:00 pm, this private sauna allows you to chat some more with your family or friends even after sunset, as it can accommodate up to 6 people, as well as enjoy the night landscape of the lake without having to worry about the freezing temperatures! Powered by a Finnish löyly stove that lets you adjust the temperature and humidity according to your preference by pouring water on it at your own pace, the sauna wasn’t as hot and humid as other Finnish saunas we’ve tried before, making it a cozy and warm retreat to spend a winter night in!

Thanks to the natural materials it’s built with, the sauna is imbued with a wooden scent that gives you the impression of being in a lush forest amid fragrant trees. Taking advantage of its beneficial effects, we didn’t miss the opportunity to warm our bodies up before spending some time in the cooling area. Located right outside the sauna barrel on the ice of Lake Akan and featuring comfortable chairs, greenery, and ample space, the cooling area is designed to offer a gentler approach to the traditional Finnish sauna experience (which would involve taking a plunge into the frozen lake water) without losing the typical refreshing sensation and blood circulation boosting properties.

If you happen to unwind in the sauna at night as we did, don’t miss the beautiful “Winter Flowers Fireworks Display” held every day at 8:10 pm during the winter months. Fireworks are usually considered one of Japan’s summer charms, but here at Akanko Onsen, they’re a winter staple providing a twist on the displays offered anywhere else in the country. Launched on the frozen surface of Lake Akan in the crisp and clear air of the night when the temperatures are sub zero, the fireworks show tinges the surroundings in a myriad of colors, covering the ice with shining reflections, and blooming in the dark sky in time to music for a wonderful choreographic effect. Without the crowds and air pollution of the city, we got to admire the fireworks up close and fully immerse ourselves in the colorful display!

Next to the sauna, you can also enjoy two more of Lake Akan’s winter-only attractions. Enrich your night by strolling under the lights of Tenen no Mori, an illumination event and skilfully designed snowy winter garden that, instead of flowers, nurtures the sparkles of winter with almost 30,000 LED lights, star lasers, and moving lights. Then, head to neighboring Tenen Cafe, a cozy nook inside a wooden tent that is only open during the period of the light-up event. Here, we drank hot chocolate and coffee by the fireplace, enjoying the aroma of wood chocks burning while some others roasted marshmallows on the fire. We couldn’t imagine a more satisfying winter activity than this after a day full of adventures!

Finland Barrel Sauna Homepage: http://ja.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/16443/ (Japanese)

Finland Barrel Sauna Homepage: https://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/16470/  (English)

 

Winter Flowers Fireworks Display Homepage: https://www.tsurugagroup.com/plans/fuyu_hanabi/ (Japanese only)

 

Tenen no Mori Homepage: https://ja.kushiro-lakeakan.com/news/16321/ (Japanese only)

Tenen Cafe Twitter Account: https://twitter.com/TenenCafe_Akan (Japanese only)

Bokke Mud Pools - Explore Lake Akan’s Snow-Covered Volcanic Area

Southeast of Akanko Onsen is the Akankohan Eco-Museum Center, a facility that served as the starting point for our walk in the woods as well as introduced us to the rich nature of Lake Akan. Part of the vast Akan-Mashu National Park, the Akan area boasts unique flora and fauna, primeval forests, and even calderas. We ventured into the forest in search of one of Lake Akan’s most distinctive volcanic areas, the Bokke, a series of bubbling mud pools boiling up from the magma below that can be spotted along the Bokke Walking Trail.

As the path is well maintained throughout the winter, it’s easy to walk even for beginners and you can focus on enjoying the snowy scenery and reinvigorating atmosphere of the forest. Yet, there’s still plenty of powder snow along the way and we couldn’t help but play with it to test its praised softness ourselves. It’s indeed as soft and light as cotton fluffs!

Winter adds delicate layers of white to Lake Akan’s natural environment and during this period of the year, visitors get to experience the forest under a different light! The absence of leaves allows you to easily spot the local fauna, such as Hokkaido squirrels, on the trees. Also, aided by the mantle of snow, the sounds of winter echo even more beautifully along the trail. The crisp notes of the snow under your feet, the chanting voices of the birds, and even the bubbling music of the Bokke become sharper and clearer during the winter months.

The mud pools' presence itself stands out more evidently in winter than in other seasons too, with dancing columns of steam coming up the volcanic terrain made thicker by the cold winter temperatures. The power of the Bokke is so incredible that it even prevents snow from piling up in certain areas of the trail, so keep an eye on the snow condition along the road to find the areas where the volcanic activity is more visible. We suggest you explore the 1.5 kilometers of the Bokke Walking Trail to uncover the winter charms of Lake Akan’s forests—and don’t forget to stop midway at the Bokke Pier for the best panoramic view of frozen Lake Akan!

Bokke Walking Trail Homepage: http://ja.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/3733/ (Japanese)

Bokke Walking Trail Homepage: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/3806/  (English)

Akankohan Eco-museum Center Homepage: http://business4.plala.or.jp/akan-eco/index.html (Japanese only)

Kokusetsu Akankohan Ski Area - Test Hokkaido’s Praised Powder Snow On Skis

Conveniently located within a 5-minute drive by car or shuttle bus from the center of Akanko Onsen, Kokusetsu Akankohan Ski Resort, often also called Utara Lake Akan Hot Spring Ski Gelande, provides the opportunity to try Hokkaido’s renowned powder snow for yourself! Normally, you can rent ski and snowboard gear as well as ski wear at the rental facility but, due to prevention measures during the coronavirus pandemic, when we visited in February 2022, ski wear wasn’t available for rental. So, we suggest you check the facility’s website in advance when you visit.

We arrived at the ski resort on a snowy afternoon and the gentle snow twirling in the air assured we always had a fresh layer of powder to ski on. The powder snow allows riders a magical, smooth ride down the mountain,  so even though we hadn’t had the chance to ski in a while, we could easily get a hold of it after a few warm up rounds down the slopes. The ski lift, which stops midway through the course and then at the top of the mountain, lets you adjust the distance of your ride down according to your preference, while the course itself divides into a left wing for beginner and intermediate users and a right wing ideal for expert skiers, making it really simple to customize the course according to your level of skill.

Surrounded by luxuriant forests of conifers, Kokusetsu Akankohan Ski Area is also equipped with a board park popular among snowboarders, a kids park where children can enjoy sledding and playing with the snow, and an ample beginner course at the base of the mountain, all overlooking the majestic vista of Mt Oakan blanketed in snow and an all-embracing view of the white, frozen surface of Lake Akan. Gliding down the ski course admiring that panorama made our day in the snow even more sensational. Another great part about skiing at a ski resort located near a hot spring town such as Akanko Onsen is that after a day on the slopes, you get to jump right in an onsen bath and soak the fatigue away in the warm water, ending your day in the most relaxing way possible!

Kokusetsu Akankohan Ski Area Homepage: https://akan-ski.com/ (Japanese)

Kokusetsu Akankohan Ski Area Homepage: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/3547/ (English)

Akan Nature Center’s Frozen Lake Tour - Soak in the Beauty of a Peaceful Winter Sunrise

The Akan Nature Center promotes outdoor activities around Lake Akan throughout the year, introducing visitors to the seasonal wonders of the area. By joining their winter early morning private tour on frozen Lake Akan, we were anticipating an arctic adventure on the lake. And we were not disappointed! We met our guide before dawn with the goal of appreciating the sunrise on ice up close. Guided away from the town, along a quiet shore of the lake, we waited for the sun to come up and its nature-made show of lights to begin.

To make the early start and the wait sweeter, our guide had some hot chocolate and scones prepared for us. We celebrated the arrival of the sun sipping this comforting beverage and snacking on the hand-made scones. One sip after the other, the clouds tinged in gold and the ice turned from white to a range of fiery colors with orange and pink hues reflected all over it. It was a matter of seconds but thanks to the ever-changing light, we had the impression that a thousand different panoramas had just been showcased in front of us. It was certainly one the most memorable breakfasts we’ve ever had!

Aside from experiencing an impressive sunrise, the tour aims to make visitors aware of all the unique scenes and alluring details that can only be witnessed here in the Akan area during the cold winter months. Mornings at Lake Akan can craft magical works of art such as trees beautifully covered in rime, frost flowers blooming on the lake surface, and ice bubbles trapped below it. We weren’t lucky enough to see these phenomena, as their appearance depends on the weather conditions, but we were so impressed by the tour that we would love to try our luck again next winter. Because the route is decided upon checking the weather and natural conditions of the lake, you always get to see something new and unexpected!

The final part of the tour was conducted in the snow-covered forest where we walked along untouched trails while the guide explained Lake Akan’s nature, giving us the opportunity to acquire some knowledge about the surprising local ecosystem.

Akan Nature Center Homepage: http://www.akan.co.jp/ (Japanese only)

Private Walking Tour on Frozen Lake Akan: http://www.akan.co.jp/snowmorning.html (Japanese only)

Utasa Matsuri - Celebrate a Festival of Artistic Exchange Where Ainu Culture and Different Forms of Art Come Together

Winter is a great time to visit Akanko Ainu Kotan. Celebrating the Utasa Matsuri, a festival that brings together Ainu culture and other forms of art, the Ainu village becomes a center of artistic exchange and unparalleled artistic performances. Started in 2020, the Utasa Matsuri has reached its third edition. This year, due to the coronavirus prevention measures, the festival was held as an online live event.

As in the Ainu language the word “utasa” means “to connect” or “to intersect,” the name of the festival itself manifests the purpose behind it. During the Utasa Matsuri, new unexpected connections and new exceptional discoveries take shape with collaborations between traditional Ainu music and other musical forms and the intersection of the Ainu way of life with that of Japanese artists feeling a sense of connection with Ainu culture.

This year, helped by the light effects and digital art projections of Akanko Ainu Theater <Ikor>, Utasa Matsuri brought on stage the beauty of Ainu dances, performed to the beat of modern guitars and drums; the captivating sounds of Ainu songs accompanied on non-Ainu instruments such as piano, “tabla” hand drums, or even didgeridoo; and the melodies of traditional Ainu instruments such as the “mukkuri” (Ainu mouth harp) or the “tonkori” (Ainu five-stringed instrument) but played in alternative ways. Attending the Utasa Matsuri, we were able to witness a truly unique merging of diverse traditions!

Utasa Matsuri Homepage: https://utasamatsuri.jp/ (Japanese only)

Hotel Akankoso - Replenish Your Energy at a Long-Established Hot Spring Hotel Amid the Snow of Lake Akan

Facing Lake Akan at Akanko Onsen is Hotel Akankoso, a long-running hotel with hot springs located amidst the bountiful nature of the Akan area. The hotel overlooks the lake as well as the forest where the Bokke Walking Trail stretches, making you feel a sense of coexistence with nature. With windows framing the snow-covered scenery allowing you to see the fireworks display at night from the comfort of your room, it’s perfect for those who don’t want to miss a moment of the spectacular snowy outdoors even when indoors.

There are different types of traditionally-styled rooms at Hotel Akankoso, all coming with quintessentially Japanese details and wooden touches that assure a peaceful and healing atmosphere. But if you have the chance, we suggest you try those furnished with an “irori,” a traditional Japanese sunken hearth. Irori are most commonly found in traditional Japanese inns’ communal spaces or halls and it’s extremely rare to get to enjoy one in your own private room, so it’s sure to add that extra special factor to your stay.

Even our meal time was made special by the attention to detail of Hotel Akankoso. At dinner, we could savor some of Hokkaido's luxurious food such as Hokkaido wagyu sirloin roast beef, prized fresh Hokkaido seafood served as sashimi and tempura, as well as hot dishes perfect for winter like “sukiyaki” (Japanese hot-pot dish with simmered meat and vegetables).

Hotel Akankoso also offers different options for your relaxation time in the hot springs. We could choose between the wide indoor bath with sweeping views of the lake on the 5th floor or go for the open-air bath on the 2nd floor facing the charming white forest. The open-air bath is particularly impressive for its natural setting as it reproduces, with a meticulous placement of rocks, the pond of a Japanese garden. Hotel Akankoso also provides the opportunity to experience your own private open-air bath. Based on the themes of the “fragrance of wood” and the “sound of rock,” a wooden onsen bath and one made of stone can be reserved at the front desk for 45 minutes of pure self-care. Both the private onsen and the open-air baths are located next to the forest, so we could soak in the healing water while listening to the calming melody of Lake Akan’s nature. 

Hotel Akankoso Homepage: https://www.akanko.com/  (Japanese)

Hotel akankoso Homepage: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/stay/4481/  (English)

Explore Eastern Hokkaido With a Day Trip From Lake Akan - Learn About the Nature and History of Abashiri

There’s a plethora of attractive spots in the "Doto” eastern area of Hokkaido, where Lake Akan is located. So, we jumped on a jumbo taxi and went to Abashiri, which is about 100 km north of Lake Akan, to enjoy a journey through nature and history.

Get a Deeper Understanding of Traditions in the Northern Regions of the Globe at the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples

As the homeland of Japan’s indigenous Ainu people, the cold region of Hokkaido is one of many subarctic areas of the globe that nurtured rich cultures and traditions since ancient times. The Hokkaido Museum of Northern People in Abashiri introduces the traditional everyday life of the Northern Peoples, showcasing not only Ainu artifacts but also objects coming from northern Canada, Greenland, Siberia, Scandinavia, and more. Through a carefully planned display, which divides the museum into thematic areas, we were able to enjoy a journey through the world of the Northern Peoples to see how they skillfully adapted their culture to the harsh environmental conditions.

From rooms presenting hunting activities and traditional means of transportation, to others highlighting traditional instruments and spiritual beliefs, visitors are able to gain insight into the Northern Peoples lifestyle. We were particularly impressed by the exhibition introducing the diversity of the Northern People, represented by their traditional clothes. The striking variety of patterns, colors, styles, and designs stood out as a beautiful reflection of these exceptional cultures!

Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples Homepage: https://hoppohm.org (Japanese)

Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples Homepage: https://hoppohm.org/english/ (English)

Abashiri Prison Museum - Learn About the History of Japan’s Most Notorious Escape-Proof Prison

Abashiri Prison was built between the late 19th century and the early 20th century and still stands today as the oldest existing wooden penological facility in the world, relocated and restored inside the Abashiri Prison Museum. The museum opened in 1983 as an outdoor space preserving 25 historical buildings and a relevant part of Hokkaido’s history. During the Meiji period (1868 -1912), in the race to develop Hokkaido in response to Russia’s expansionist policy, the government established prisons in Hokkaido, holding prisoners as laborers.

Built with architectural technology ahead of its time, the prison’s buildings reflect the style typical of Meiji government buildings, with the most intriguing feature being the design of the Prison House and Central Guard House. This building was designed with an octagonal watchhouse at the center of a radial, five-winged prison house, so that it could be monitored from a single viewpoint. The wooden corridors and high skylights create a surprisingly dignified effect.

The Abashiri Prison Museum also tells about the daily life of prisoners detained in Hokkaido. Here, we learned about the incredible story of Yoshie Shiratori, also nicknamed the “Showa Era Escape Artist,” the prisoner who managed to escape a prison which was supposed to be impossible to break out of. Thanks to his inventiveness, Shiratori escaped a total of four prisons. When he was imprisoned in Abashiri, he fled by using miso soup to rust and break his handcuffs and the metal fittings on his cell door’s observation window.

Abashiri Prison Museum Homepage: https://www.kangoku.jp/ (Japanese)

Abashiri Prison Museum Homepage: https://www.kangoku.jp/multilingual_english/ (English)

Icebreaker Ship Aurora - Float Through Hokkaido’s Drift Ice to Witness Dreamlike Frozen Panoramas

As Abishiri is also the southernmost point where you can see the mystical “ryuhyo” or drift ice floating on the sea surface, we boarded the icebreaker ship Aurora for a cruise across the Sea of Okhotsk that promised to show us arctic scenery like we’ve never seen before.

Hokkaido’s drift ice starts its journey at the mouth of the Amur River, where fresh water enters the Sea of Okhotsk, lowering the salt concentration and causing the water to freeze at warmer temperatures, helped by the cold Siberian winds. Once drift ice is formed, it starts spreading south, getting thicker and thicker until, usually in early February, it reaches the coasts around Abashiri, providing the rare opportunity to view this fascinating phenomenon.

Weather permitting, visitors are typically able to see the drift ice in Abashiri between late January and early March. When ryuhyo shows up further away from the coast in January, it normally takes a form similar to lotus leaves; a scene considered particularly magical on days of sunshine. In February, the drift ice-filled sea gifts visitors with the view of a white expanse as far as the eye can see. Finally, in March, the contrast between the blue Okhotsk Sea and white drift ice fills the water with otherworldly emerald hues.

As the icebreaker ship proceeded through the floating ice, we felt like we were departing for an arctic research expedition. Following the line of the sharp Shiretoko Mountain Range emerging from the sea in the distance, we moved away from the coast exploring the frozen sea. As temperatures were particularly warm on the day we visited, the drift ice was quite thin, shining like gems from the sea and making the navigation very smooth. Even on warmer days, one should pay attention to the thicker blocks of ice. They might offer temporary shelter to the local wildlife such as eagles and seals. We saw more than one eagle taking flight which made our cruise even more extraordinary!

Abashiri Drift Ice Sightseeing & Icebreaker Ship Aurora Homepage: https://www.ms-aurora.com/abashiri/ (Japanese)

Abashiri Drift Ice Sightseeing & Icebreaker Ship Aurora Homepage: https://www.ms-aurora.com/abashiri/en/ (English)

Access - How to Get To and Around Akanko Onsen and Abashiri

Akanko Ainu Kotan can be easily accessed by plane from Haneda Airport, with the flight to Tancho Kushiro Airport only taking 1 hour and 40 minutes. From Tancho Kushiro Airport, the village can be reached by Akan Line local buses bound for Akanko Onsen Bus Center. The bus ride costs 2,190 yen one way and takes around 70 minutes.

All the attractions mentioned in this article are conveniently located within walking distance both from the Akanko Onsen Bus Center and the center of Akanko Onsen, except for the Abashiri area  which can be reached in approximately 90 minutes by car. To visit Abashiri and its attractions, we suggest you rent a car or reserve a taxi or a jumbo taxi (depending on the number of people) at the front desk of your hotel. A professional taxi driver will help you create a travel plan to explore Hokkaido to your heart’s content!

Experience a Winter Adventure Like No Other at Hokkaido’s Snowy Lake Akan

From healing onsen and vast forests covered in snow to extraordinary scenes of floating ice and the joy of activities unique to Lake Akan’s winter, this pristine area of Hokkaido has proved to be a paradise for snowy adventures! Next time you’re seeking for an extraordinary winter destination, visit Lake Akan and its surroundings to spend the most blissful of winter times!

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Hokkaido Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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