Take a scenic drive around the Doto area
Outdoor activities and adventure tourism in a national park
Seafood, beer, whiskey—taste the best of Hokkaido
Experience Ainu traditions
A two-hour flight from Tokyo, Hokkaido is the perfect getaway with its lush wilderness and cool climate. For an efficient way to explore the area, start from Kushiro or Memanbetsu Airport and leave from Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport.
Day 1: Drive around Akan-Mashu National Park and feast your eyes on the area’s pristine caldera lakes.
Day 2: Enjoy outdoor activities like canoeing and immerse yourself in Ainu culture before heading to Sapporo. Top off your night with refreshing drinks at a beer garden.
Day 3: Hop on a train and head to the Otaru Morning Market or the Yoichi Distillery. Shop and dine at Chitose Airport before you board your plane back.
|Required time||Game + 3 days|
|Distance traveled||app. 900 km|
|Transportation||Airplane, rental car, train, bus|
Into the wild: The spectacular Akan-Mashu National Park
Hokkaido is one of the most popular destinations for a summer getaway in Japan. Located in the northernmost part of the country, Hokkaido has a mild, dry climate and stays cool even in summer. It’s the perfect spot to enjoy a variety of outdoor activities.
Hokkaido’s natural landscape encompasses vast plains, mountain ranges, and pristine lakes. The Doto area, set in the eastern part of Hokkaido, stands out for its beautiful, untouched nature—it is home to World Natural Heritage Site of Shiretoko, the stunning caldera lakes, Akan and Mashu, and Japan’s first RAMSAR site, the Kushiro Wetlands.
The Doto area is about an 1 hour and 40 minutes’ flight from Haneda Airport. You can access the area from both Kushiro Airport or Memanbetsu Airport. Kushiro Airport has more frequent flights, but it’s best to choose the airport closer to the areas you want to visit to save time.
Rental cars are a convenient way to move around Hokkaido since public transportation tends to be infrequent. The roads are relatively clear, making Hokkaido a great place for drivers. You can rent a car at the airport and leave it there on your way back.
If you prefer to take public transportation, opt for buses. The Akan Bus runs between Kushiro and Lake Akan, as well as Memanbetsu Airport and Lake Mashu. There is also a network of highway buses that run between major cities in Hokkaido.
While the Shiretoko National Park and the Abashiri area are not included in this particular itinerary, they are great places to visit for rich and diverse wildlife. If you are planning to travel around the area for a few days, opt for the Akan Bus 4-day Free Passport.
Spend your first day in Akan-Mashu National Park, a scenic area with clear, enchanting lakes and lush forests. At the heart of the park sit three caldera lakes—Akan, Kussharo, and Mashu—that were created by volcanic eruptions in ancient times. They are encircled by mountains and forests. As you drive around the area, keep your eyes out for wildlife such as the Ezo red fox and Ezo deer.
Lake Akan is an hour’s drive from Kushiro Airport. This tranquil lake is home to marimo, balls of freshwater green algae. This unusual species of algae is designated a National Special Natural Monument. To observe them, you can take a ship to the Marimo Exhibition and Observation Center located on an island on the lake.
Lake Kussharo, located north of Lake Akan, spans a total length of 10 km, making it Japan’s largest caldera lake. It’s an hour’s drive from Memanbetsu Airport and an hour and 40 minutes from Kushiro Airport. You can take in stunning panoramic views of the lake from the Bihoro Pass, Tsubetsu Pass, or the Mokoto Pass. There are hot spring foot baths located along the sandy lakeshore, but you can try pioneering your own hot spring by 20 to 30cm into the sand. If you’re lucky, you might hit a gush of hot spring water!
Lake Mashu, located east of Lake Kussharo, is known as one of the clearest lakes in the world. In the native Ainu language, it is known as Kamuy-to, meaning “lake of the gods.” This mystical lake is almost always enveloped in mist. On clear days, you can observe it from any of the three observatories set atop surrounding mountains. Each of them are accessible by car. While you’re in the area, drop by the beautiful cobalt blue Kami-no-Koike Pond. Lake Mashu is a 2 hour drive from both Memanbetsu Airport and Kushiro Airport.
Volcanic activity and hot springs go hand in hand. The Doto area is dotted with hot spring towns where you can spend the night.
The largest one is located along Lake Akan’s south shore, the Akanko Onsen Resort. This hot spring town has mostly large, well-equipped hotels and is usually bustling with visitors.
Kawayu Onsen town is located between Lake Mashu and Lake Kussharo. Here you can bathe in the hot spring waters produced by the active volcano Mount Io, known as Atosanupuri in the Ainu language. The hot spring area itself is located 3 kilometers from the volcano. Expect a tranquil stay with top-quality baths.
If you are staying in the Akanko Onsen area, head out for a nighttime forest adventure with KAMUY LUMINA. This interactive digital art installation was created by Canadian multimedia studio MOMENT FACTORY and is held in the summer and autumn seasons. The installation takes you along a 1.2-kilometer promenade through the forest, where you can immerse yourself in Ainu-inspired stories. It is open from sunset to 10:00 p.m, and takes about an hour.
Adventure sports in the daytime, beer garden at night
Walk up early the next morning for spectacular views of unkai—a sea of clouds drifting between the mountains. This phenomenon only takes place in specific conditions. Chances of seeing unkai are high from June to August, when the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be taking place.
The best places to view unkai are the Tsubetsu Pass, Bihoro Pass, Mount Mokoto, and the Lake Mashu observatories. While sunrise time may vary according to the location and season, it is generally between 4:00 and 5:00 a.m in the summer. The phenomenon lasts from dawn to around 9:00 a.m.
Unkai can come about from a number of varying factors, such as the temperature difference between the water and the air, or cold air currents carrying mist from the Sea of Okhotsk. Your hotel can give you details about the ideal local conditions.
If you are staying in the Akanko Onsen area, head to 950-meter Mount Hakuto in the south. You can climb up to the observatory in about 40 minutes from spring to autumn. Alternatively, you can drive to the Akanko Ski Resort, and walk to the observatory in 10 minutes.
After breakfast at your hotel, get energized with some fun outdoor activities!
The Doto area is a mecca for eco-tours and adventure sports. You can choose from trekking volcanoes, canoeing in wetlands, birdwatching in lush forests, fishing, and cycling. There’s something for every kind of outdoor enthusiast.
Find activities in the Kushiro and Akan area: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/todo_category/activity-en/
Trek through primeval forests
Take a canoe tour accompanied by an eco-guide well-versed in the local ecology. As you move along the Kushiro River which snakes through the enormous Kushiro Wetlands, look out for Japanese cranes, white-tailed eagles, and Ezo foxes. A number of companies offer guided canoe tours in the area.
The Doto area offers endless options for trekking. The Akan area, home to a primeval forest with trees that are over 800 years old, is perfect for a light hike. For a more challenging hike, scale the 1,500-meter Mount Meakan or trek to the Onneto Yunotaki hot spring waterfall. Guided tours are also available.
Set in the Akanko Onsen area, the Akanko Ainu kotan has over 100 inhabitants and is the largest Ainu settlement in Hokkaido. The ceremonial performances that take place in Ainu Theater Ikor are designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. At the theater you can enjoy traditional dances combined with digital art. You will also find restaurants and souvenir shops selling handcrafted wood carvings, embroidered pieces, accessories, and other unusual mementos in Akanko Ainu kotan.
After getting your fill of outdoor activities in the morning, make your way to Hokkaido’s biggest city, Sapporo.
Chitose-Eniwa JCT, which leads to Sapporo, is about 258 kilometers from Akan JCT on the Doto Expressway. This scenic 5-hour drive will take you past idyllic landscapes like the Tokachi plain, famous for its farmlands. Stretches of corn, potato, beet, and melon fields stretch out under the shadow of the Yubari mountains and the Hidaka mountain range, making for a spectacular view.
If you are planning to rent a car for more than a week, go for the Japan Expressway Pass which will give you unlimited access to toll roads at a fixed rate. Although you won’t find many cars on the road, make sure you drive safe and stay within speed limits!
There are also buses connecting the Doto area with Sapporo. Akan Bus Starlight Kushiro runs four times a day between Sapporo and Kushiro. The journey takes about 5 hours and 30 minutes. Note thatreservations are required.
Return your rental car in Sapporo. Once you’ve settled down, head out for a leisurely stroll around the city.
Odori Park stretches from east to west across the city center, and serves as the start and end point for the Olympic marathon as well as the venue for the racewalking competitions. In the park, you’ll find iconic sites such as the Sapporo Clock Tower and the Sapporo TV Tower.
Top off your night with drinks at a beer garden! Sapporo has a long history of beer brewing and is home to the breweries of many major Japanese beer companies. Most of the city’s beer gardens remain open throughout the year and offer a wide range of beer and snacks.
Some beer gardens are open exclusively in the summer, offering outdoor seating so you can make the most of the cool summer nights.
*Note that venues and hours may be subject to change due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions related to the Olympic Games. Please be sure to check the latest information.
Sapporo Beer Garden, located in Higashi Ward, is a former brewery. It is made up of five individual beer halls and offers local delicacies such as “Genghis Khan” mutton and crab sushi. You’ll also find a shop selling Sapporo-exclusive souvenirs and a beer museum in the premises. It’s open year round, and since it’s an indoor garden, you don’t have to worry about bad weather.
This beer garden is a Sapporo summer tradition. While Odori Park is usually quiet, it transforms into a lively beer garden through July and August. Beer companies from all around Japan set up shop, and you’ll even find authentic German beer and food in the venue. It’s open from the afternoon.
The Hokkaido University Campus is located near both Sapporo Station and Odori Park. It hosts a beer garden for one week in July, open to everyone. Expect to find plenty of affordable food and drinks.
Feast on fresh seafood
Hokkaido is known for its fresh, affordable seafood. Start your day with a visit to the port city of Otaru, located just a 35-minute train ride away from Sapporo, to sample some delectable seafood dishes.
The morning market is set right in front of Otaru Station and has a history of over 70 years. It’s open every day and draws in visitors from all over Hokkaido. Vendors sell crabs, scallops, sea urchins, and other kinds of seafood, all at an affordable price. Prices are usually negotiable, so feel free to ask for a discount. There are also a few restaurants in the market, offering fresh sushi, rice bowls, and seafood-packed set meals. They are usually open from 7:00 a.m to 5:00 p.m.
If you have some time on your hands, take a walk around the Otaru Canal. You’ll find retro warehouses that were built in the early days of Hokkaido’s development.
After having your fill of seafood, head to Yoichi, three stops from Otaru Station. The area is also accessible by bus, and takes about 35 minutes to reach.
The Yoichi area is where Nikka Whiskey, one of Japan’s leading whiskey makers, was founded. The founder Masataka Taketsuru had studied how to make whiskey in Scotland. When he returned to Japan, he founded the Yoichi Distillery in the hopes of making whiskey in a climate similar to Scotland. The site covers a whopping 150,000 square meters, and here you can observe the manufacturing process and sample free apple wine. At the adjoining restaurant, you can dine on dishes that pair well with whiskey and wine, and sample some premium whiskey (not free).
Yoichi Station is a 3-minute walk from the distillery. From here, you can take the train to the New Chitose Airport, passing through Otaru and Sapporo. The journey takes about two hours.
New Chitose Airport is the major gateway to Hokkaido, and has flights going to Tokyo, Osaka, and other cities around Japan. The airport also has been adding more international flights in recent times, mostly on Asian routes.
The New Chitose Airport goes above and beyond your conventional airport—it’s packed with recreational facilities, from restaurants and souvenir shops to hot springs and even a movie theater.
The airport has its very own ramen street, the Hokkaido Ramen Dojo, where you can find ten of Hokkaido’s most popular ramen shops. You can choose from classics such as miso ramen with butter and corn to extravagant crab or shrimp bowls.
Families with children can visit themed cafes like Hello Kitty Happy Flight or Doraemon Waku Waku Sky Park. The winter-themed Snow Miku offers a variety of fun souvenirs for anime fans.
If you have time to space, check out the movie theater, museum, or soak in the airport hot spring.
If you’re planning to extend your stay, take a day to get to know the indigenous Ainu culture. There are plenty of places around Hokkaido that offer cultural experiences.
The National Ainu Museum and Park Upopoy just opened in summer 2020, and feature immersive exhibits for all ages about the creation, revival, and co-existence of Ainu culture.
The word Upopoy means “singing together in a large group.” Faithful to the name, the museum offers visitors a chance to understand the culture through traditional Ainu dance and instruments. You can also join cooking and embroidery classes.
The museum is located by Lake Poroto in Shiraoi Town, 65 minutes from Sapporo Station and 40 minutes from New Chitose Airport.
The Ainu people inhabited Hokkaido and Sakhalin from the 17th to 19th century. They have their own distinct language, religion, and culture. Many names of places in Hokkaido originate from the Ainu language.
After the 19th century, when the Japanese government moved to develop Hokkaido, many Ainu people were forced to assimilate with Japan and were deprived of their lands. In recent times, with international efforts being made to protect and revive indigenous cultures, Japan is also taking initiative to respect the history and culture of the Ainu people, and live co-exist with them. The museum is one of those initiatives.
Lake Akan Ainu Kotan
Kushiro Marsh Observatory
Sapporo Beer Garden
Sapporo Odori Park
Otaru Sankaku market
Nikka Whisky Yoichi Distillery
New Chitose Airport
U-popo-y Ainu Museum