Wander trails along crystal-clear streams, canoe across a caldera lake, or scale a stratovolcano. Towada-Hachimantai National Park, easily accessible from Sendai, is packed with endless possibilities for adventure and relaxation.
BY Sameeha Anwar
The Towada-Hachimantai National Park in Tohoku is a treasure trove of lush wetlands, crystal-clear streams, and dramatic volcanic landscapes. The northern part of the park is home to Lake Towada—a massive caldera lake—and the magnificent Hakkoda mountain range. It offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities and is a great side trip option for visitors staying in Sendai for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
The scenic Oirase Stream, set in a dense forest of Japanese oak, maple, and beech, is a cool and refreshing summer destination. The 14-kilometer trail along the stream starts in the hot spring town of Yakeyama and takes you past cascading waterfalls, mossy boulders, and swift rapids before you arrive at Nenokuchi on the shores of Lake Towada. The entire trail is well-marked and relatively flat, with plenty of benches and observation decks along the way.
While the powerful Ashura and Samidare Rapids are among Oirase’s most iconic sights, the area is also dotted with waterfalls with whimsical names such as Soryu (double dragon) Falls, Shirakinu (white silk) Falls, and Kudan (nine steps) Falls. The massive Choshi Otaki Waterfall, which stops fish from swimming upstream, and the 20-meter Kumoi Waterfall are particularly impressive.
Oirase is known for its incredible collection of moss—the area is home to over 300 species. Visitors can take guided tours to observe moss growth or join a hands-on workshop to make moss balls. As you wander the area, look out for wild birds such as the crested kingfisher, winter wren, and ruddy kingfisher. To learn more about the local ecosystem, head to the Oirase Stream Museum in Yakeyama.
You can explore Oirase Stream on foot or rental bike. It takes about five hours to walk the entire trail, and it is best to arrive early to avoid crowds. Buses run parallel to the trails, so you can choose to complete a section before heading to your next destination.
The tranquil Lake Towada is a caldera lake that was formed by volcanic activity 200,000 years ago. It’s dotted with campsites, observation decks, and promenades, making it a hub for relaxation and recreation. Hour-long cruises that depart from Yasumiya and Nenokuchi offer great views of the lake as well as the surrounding beech and birch forests. Outdoor enthusiasts can also choose to rent a canoe or kayak, or join a fishing excursion.
The Yasumiya area on the south part of the lake has several places of interest, including a bronze sculpture of two women titled the “The Statue of Maidens” by renowned poet and sculptor Kotaro Takamura. The serene Towada Shrine is a short walk away. Built in the 9th century, the shrine is dedicated to a dragon god and has inspired many local legends and folktales. The towering cryptomeria trees that surround it add to the mystical aura.
After a day of lakeside fun, drop by a food stall in Yasumiya to sample some local fare such as grilled kokanee salmon or rice cake with miso paste. Apple is the regional specialty and you’ll find all kinds of apple-infused treats, from soft cream and bite-sized pies to savory apple soup.
The relatively new Towada Art Center is about an hour away by bus from Lake Towada. The museum’s permanent collection has over 30 major works, including open-air installations by contemporary artists such as Yayoi Kusama, Yoshimoto Nara, and Choi Jeonghwa.
The Hakkoda Mountains are a volcanic complex comprising 16 peaks. They are blanketed with a number of stunning high-altitude wetlands and a rich collection of alpine flora. There are several hiking trails leading to the highest peak, Mount Odake, which towers at 1,585 meters, and the adjoining peaks Mount Akakura and the well-shaped Mount Ido. Avid hikers can start their ascent at Sukayu Onsen, and cross the massive Kenashitai Marsh before reaching the summit. At the top, you can take in stunning views of Mutsu Bay, the Tsugaru Straits, Lake Towada, and the surrounding mountains. The course takes about four to five hours.
You can opt to skip most of the climb by hopping into the Hakkoda Ropeway, which will take you to an elevation of 1,300 meters in just ten minutes. The trail from the ropeway station passes through the cobalt blue ponds of Tamayochi Marsh before taking you to the peak of Mount Akakura. From there, you can choose to hike up to Mount Odake, or descend down to Sukayu Onsen. Guided expeditions are also available.
In summer, expect to see deer cabbage, clusters of snowy-white buck bean flowers, and plenty of butterflies and dragonflies. Ensure to stay on designated trails to avoid damaging plantlife. Note that the trails near the peaks are rocky, so it’s best to come with appropriate hiking gear.
Sukayu Onsen, a hot spring inn set in the heart of the Hakkoda mountain range, is the perfect base to explore the wetlands and trails of Towada-Hachimantai National Park. The inn itself has a history of over 300 years and retains an old-fashioned charm. It houses the enormous Sennin-buro, or “1,000-person bath,” constructed out of fragrant Japanese cypress and filled with aluminum-sulfate hot spring water. While the bath is mixed-gender, there are allotted time slots exclusively for female-bathers. The facility is also open to day visitors. Visitors can also opt to stay in the Sukayu Campsite, located opposite the inn.
Jigokunuma, literally ‘Hell’s Pond,” is a short walk away from Sukayu Onsen. It was created by volcanic activity and receives about 2,700 liters of boiling, acidic water every minute. The area around Sukayu is riddled with fumaroles and steam vents, reminding visitors of the volcanic forces beneath their feet.
The nearby Hakkoda Mountain Botanical Garden houses an incredible collection of flora. Depending on the season, you can observe hare’s tail cottongrass, arctic starflower and alpine azalea. Admission is free of charge. After an invigorating walk, take a break at Manjufukashi (bun steamer), a steamy outdoor gazebo.
In addition to Sukayu, the Hakkoda area has several other secluded hot spring inns: The historical Tsuta Onsen boasts a millennium-old history and a beech forest backdrop. Sarukura Onsen offers a quiet stay and private indoor baths. At Yachi Onsen, you can find milky hot spring waters and dishes made with locally-foraged wild plants and mushrooms.
Oirase Stream, Lake Towada, and the hot springs in Hakkoda can be accessed via the JR Mizuumi-go and Oirase-go buses running from Hachinohe Station and Shin-Aomori Station.
Lake Towada and Oirase Stream are about 1.5 hours from Hachinohe Station and the Hakkoda area is about an hour from Shin-Aomori Station by bus. The sights mentioned in the article can be done in any order. If you are planning to visit multiple places in the area, it’s best to do an overnight stay.
The buses are free for JR Pass and JR East Pass Holders. Alternatively, you can choose to purchase a two-day ticket for unlimited rides (5,000 yen adults, 2,500 yen infants).
I’m a freelance translator and writer working in the film and broadcasting industry. I enjoy good books and alpine treks.