Travel

Canoeing with a twist on Hokkaido's volcanic Lake Kussharo

by Melissa Devaughn

Contributing Writer

It is midmorning and the sun is just warming the day as we approach the entrance to Lake Kussharo, in eastern Hokkaido. The water is cobalt blue, and the surrounding mountains mirror off the calm surface. The sun glistens off the water, too, forcing me to put on my sunglasses with building anticipation.

The owners of North East Canoe Center, Kazuaki and Ai Hiratsuka, and their guide and friend Kaname Nagumo, work to unpack the vans with a practiced efficiency that showcases their many years of canoe guiding in eastern Hokkaido. Off the top of the vans come three canoes, followed by an assortment of homemade food, first-aid supplies, spare gear, life jackets and paddles. They stow everything in the boats in such a way to balance the weight, all while speaking rapid-fire Japanese, little of which I understand.

Despite the language barrier, I get the message: It’s going to be a spectacular day.

Hokkaido is to the outdoors what Tokyo is to big cities. To experience the best of canoeing in Japan, many choose Hokkaido for its wide-open spaces and relatively easy access to wilderness. Hokkaido boasts six national parks, 12 prefectural parks, and countless wetlands and undisturbed forests. Lake Kussharo is in Akan National Park and is the largest caldera lake in all of Japan.

On this early autumn day we have the area practically to ourselves. A few picnickers are set up at a nearby table and a hiker emerges from a walking path just as we set off, but the only distinct sounds are the occasional tap-tap-tapping of a distant black woodpecker (one of the region’s resident bird species) and the dripping of water off our oars as we paddle.

This 79-square-kilometer lake is one of the best places to paddle in Hokkaido, says Kazuaki Hiratsuka. His other favorites include upstream of the Kushiro River, Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, Bekanbeushi River and Kiritappu Wetland near the town of Hamanaka.

“Lake Toya, located in Western Hokkaido, is also good, although kayaking rather than canoeing is more enjoyable there,” he says.

The Bibi River, close to New Chitose Airport, is another recommendation. He continues: “Its streams are calm, and the surroundings are rich in nature. It is particularly good for beginners.”

Still, Kussharo is special. The active sulfurous vents, where hot volcanic spring water bubbles to the surface, are unique only to caldera lakes such as Kussharo. Paddling along the shoreline, it is not uncommon to look over and see fumaroles rising from the water’s edge. Not many lakes such as these are so accessible to the public.

A few minutes into our trip, we pull alongside the shore where overhanging trees disguise a private paradise. A circle of rocks forms a natural pool where a hot springs beckons. It would be easy to stop paddling right now and spend the rest of the afternoon soaking in this hidden lagoon, but we are eager to see more of this massive lake, and move on.

Fall is just beginning, and the leaves are changing colors, which gives the area a serene vibrancy. Indeed, late spring and early autumn are the best times to visit, says Nagumo, who owns his own guiding business and helps the Hiratsukas when they are busiest.

“I love the vastness of this place,” he says. “The lake is attractively different by season. In spring, we enjoy wild vegetables, in summer fresh greens, and vivid autumn colors in fall.” Winter tours of the lake are available too.

As we reach a sharp bend in the shoreline, our bows point into a headwind. In the distance are the telltale signs of rough water: Small whitecaps checker the lake’s surface, indicating strong winds and larger waves. While still easily manageable, Hiratsuka and Nagumo take no chances, and we search for a place to land. The lake is big enough that it can turn quickly dangerous, Hiratsuka explains. Because of that, renting equipment can be difficult.

“Because there was a fatal accident a couple of years ago on a canoeing trip, no company rents canoes without guides (for fear) of accidents,” he says. “Kussharo Lake is huge, and when winds suddenly become stronger, canoes can be toppled.”

Once ashore, the highlight of the day unfolds quickly: Ai Hiratsuka sets up a table brimming with meals prepared with locally sourced ingredients that speak to the region’s agricultural significance.

“I prepare meals for guests, imagining their happy smiles as they eat my dishes,” she says. “I sometimes take three days to prepare the food.”

The pork comes from locally raised pigs, the eggs from free-range chickens and the vegetables from a relative’s garden, she tells me. To prepare this cuisine on site, the Hiratsukas simply submerge the meals into the steaming pools of volcanic water and cook them on the spot. I watch, amazed and in awe of this special experience.

“Hokkaido is blessed with nature and cooking materials provided by nature,” Ai says, clearly pleased with the results of our shore-side picnic. It’s what she and her husband love most about sharing their home with visitors from around the world.

“My pleasure is serving guests from outside of Hokkaido meals that they can eat only in Hokkaido,” she says. “I believe eating homemade meals in nature will make guests happy and relaxed, which is difficult to experience in a big city.”


Get paddling

Canoe tours are offered by a number of tour companies in lakes across Hokkaido. To arrange a paddle, contact one of the following companies:

North East Canoe Center:
www.north-east.jp

Somokuya:
www.somokuya.com

River and Field:
www.riverandfield.com

ZZCanoe:
www.xn—i9ja3tueyj.com