On the eastern side of Hokkaido, in the interior, lies three large lakes; lake Akan, Kussharo and Mashu, forming the Akan national park. And right in between those lakes lies the Kussharo Genya youth hostel, which happens to be run by a friend of Ritsuko's and his family.
You may expect a largely depopulated wilderness area akin to Sarek or Abisko national parks in Sweden, but that is not quite the case. Hokkaido is just too densely populated to really support large swaths of wilderness, and Akan is criss-crossed by roads and dotted with farms and fields, vacation homes, guest lodgings and other facilities. That said, the area is very beautiful, roads and all, and a welcome change from Osaka. In a way, the landscape reminds me a bit of northern Dalarna in Sweden, with its mountains and fields.
Of course, any similarity to Scandinavia is superficial. The Scandic mountain range is old and geologically inactive; Hokkaido, like most of Japan, is young and still very active, with hot springs, gas vents, earthquakes and calderas. New volcanic eruptions are possible and likely inevitable. The mountains and the three lakes are all the result of relatively recent seismic activity.
The trip to the area is by a small two-car, then one-car train (the kind called "rälsbuss", "rail bus" in Swedish). From what I understand the tourist high season is in summer, with swimming, canoeing, bicycling and general frolicking around the lakes; but even in the dead of winter was the train pretty much packed with people going to Akan or towards Shiretoko national park on the north-eastern tip of the island. JR also runs a couple of old-style tourist trains along the coast, a diesel train and an old steam train; on the way back we took the green-painted Norokko train, with wood stove-heated cars and amazing view of the coastline. Fun, and arguably more comfortable than the rather stuffed rail bus.
Our reason for choosing Akan wasn't the area itself, beautiful as it is, but that one of Ritsuko's friends runs a youth hostel there with his family. The Kussharo Genya hostel (more information on the Japanese site) is located right in the middle of the park, in between the three lakes. It is a fairly original octagonal design, with a round main room, major areas (kitchen, dining room, baths and so on) radiating out on the first floor, and the guest rooms spread out around the second. The place actually works more like a wilderness hotel than a normal hostel, offering various tours and guided sightseeing. Also unlike most normal hostels in Europe there is no guest kitchen but breakfast is included and you can order dinner. The dinner, by the way, is a multi-course menu I can't recommend warmly enough. Kazuhito is a trained chef from Osaka and worked in traditional Kyoto restaurants before he relocating in Sapporo and on to Akan to build the hostel. As a result the food, as you can imagine, is excellent.
The hostel interior, with its high-ceilinged main room. Yes, that is me relaxing after dinner in the center, and Ritsuko is in both the left and right images.
During winter there's plenty of cross-country skiing of course (the hostel will happily lend you gear); you can go for outdoor hot spring baths; and there's tours to the lakes and other scenic areas. But if you're lucky with the weather - and you're likely to at this time of year - the single most enjoyable thing you can do is simply to go for long walks in the snow-white sparkly landscape and soak in the hot-spring bath in the hostel. The area is criss-crossed with small, well-maintained roads and the nearest lake, Kussharo, is only a few kilometers away by foot. We went on a car tour to Mashu and Kussharo lakes the first day, but apart from that we simply spent our time enjoying the winter weather, not doing anything at all.
Lake Mashu. It's a caldera with steep cliffs and no natural beaches. And as it's a protected area no construction is allowed so there is no access to the lake itself; the closest you get is two view points around the lake.
Kussharo lake is easier to access than lake Mashu. It's still volcanic, though; the lack of ice near the shore is due to hot water and gases percolating up from beneath the sandy bottom around the beach. The swans evidently appreciate the warm water a great deal too.
The flights both from and to Osaka were near-full and the airport was crowded. The hotels in Abashiri were alve with people and when we booked the Aurora icebreaker tour three months earlier most trips were already sold out. The train to Akan was standing room only both coming and going. The hostel was just about fully booked, with a group of Australians, several single Japanese travellers (this is very common) and, well, us. lake Mashu had more tourist buses and their occupants than you can shake a stick at, and at the shore of lake Kussharo the main problem was to find a vantage point that wouldn't frame a fellow photographer when you tried to shoot the gathering birds.
And yet, many of the few shops and restaurants in the area were closed for winter or permanently. JR will apparently no longer run the train to Mashu station, stopping earlier on the line. I kind of wonder why the area doesn't seem to be able to live on the kind of visitor interest that evidently exists. This level of interest is probably as good as it gets. I suspect the train service and other businesses are still largely meant to support the local agricultural business, not tourism, and this reflects the state of the former industry rather than the latter.
A final observation at the airport: Two years ago, a Hokkaido manufacturer of cookies and pastries was caught cheating with best-before labelling on "Shiroi Koibito" cookies. Unlike many other companies, they reacted quickly and decisively, withdrawing the product until they'd completely revamped their business procedures. "Shiroi Koibito" vaulted into the public conciousness, and now the company can't produce enough to meet demand from Hokkaido tourists looking for omiyage. The airport had throngs of passengers roaming from store to store looking for them.
Fun trip. We'll be back; next time perhaps in summer. More pictures in my Akan photoset.