Posted: December 10, 2023
The first thing I notice as I look out of my hotel room window in Lake Akan’s Tsuruga Wings is the silence – the quiet of a stunning nature vista occasionally interrupted by the splash of the water along the lake shore and the song of a bird in flight. It is a stark difference from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, where I landed a mere 24 hours earlier. My hotel, Tsuruga Wings, is a stylish but contemporary ryokan (Japanese inn) in the Lake Akan region in Eastern Hokkaido, famous for its world-class onsen (public baths), nature therapy, and restorative living. It attracts visitors from all corners of the island, and it's easy to understand why – there's a sense of inexplicable grounding in the picture-perfect postcard view I have here. With towering mountain ranges, ancient forests, and the crystal-clear blue waters of the lake, it's the very essence of tranquility.
Stillness along Lake Akan in Eastern Hokkaido. (Photo by Murray Bartholomew)
And I am eager to explore. Donning a traditional yukata (cotton kimono) that is provided for every guest, I set out to tour my surroundings. My guide, Hiromaru Sasazaki, tells me that almost every traditional ryokan in Japan provides yukatas for their guests to wear during their stay. “Wearing a yukata normalizes both travelers and locals as one, almost as if we are level-setting the playing field independent of social status, wealth, or nationality,” he adds. I learn that guests can wear the yukata in the room, around the ryokan, during communal meals, and even outside the hotel. If it is cold, a tanzen (outer robe) is provided for you to wear over your yukata. And not that I am complaining. Made of soft linen, it is breathable and very comfortable as I make my way to the lobby, which boasts an impressive collection of Ainu sculptures made by Indigenous artists. My destination, of course, is the hotel’s world-famous onsens. There are two public baths to choose from, and depending on the time of day, they are allocated for either male or female guests. Both onsens have a choice of several treatment rooms and pools, including a hot water cave, bedrock pool, and open-air pool overlooking the lake, as well as a glass-covered rooftop sauna with panoramic views of the mountains surrounding the lake.
One of many pools and treatment rooms at Tsuruga Wings. (Photo courtesy of Tsuruga Wings)
The area around Lake Akan is a lesser-known adventure spot well off the tourist track. I hardly saw any Westerners among the guests at the hotel or in the town’s main square. This area boasts miles of hiking, mountain biking, fly fishing, and cycling, along with some of the best seafood in the region. But for me, the most exciting and intense activity is the one-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hike the 10-kilometer loop trail to the top of Mount Meakan - an active stratovolcano in Akan-Mashu National Park and the tallest mountain in the Akan Volcanic Complex.
Misty mornings along the lakeshore where the mountain glows from the soft rays of the sun. (Photo by Murray Bartholomew)
The next morning, after a hearty and elaborate breakfast of traditional Japanese dishes like natto (fermented soybeans), tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), and nori (seaweed), I laced up my hiking boots and head out for a trek to the summit of Mt. Meakan, an active volcano, rising to 1499 meters. My hiking guide, Kenichiro Nishida, a descendant of the Ainu people, shares a captivating local legend with me. He explains that the mountain, known as Machineshiri (woman’s mountain in the local Ainu language), embodies the spirit of a woman who harbors deep resentment toward her spouse, Mt. Oakan, located approximately 28 kilometers away. Periodically, much like a scorned lover, she expresses her displeasure through the billowing smoke that escapes from her craters.
A lookout platform from here you can get 360-degree views of the valley and Lake Akan. (Photo by Murray Bartholomew)
This is a technically challenging hike with many different terrains. The first section traverses a forest trail with a gentle incline, but in many sections I find myself stepping over tree roots resembling boulders attesting to the age of this area. For the Ainu of Lake Akan, the forests played an important part in their daily lives as a source of food and materials for creating clothing and tools. As a result, they believe that souls reside in all things, including plants, animals, and nature, and hold them dear.
The last section of the hike up to Mt Meakan is technically challenging but ropes guide the steep ascent. (Photo by Murray Bartholomew)
Further, along the ascent, I notice sulfur crystals along the trail as I approach the volcanic landscape beyond the tree line. At the summit, the scenery around the crater shows the magnificent scale of volcanic activity with colors of yellow, red, and white mixed into the rock face. The highest part of the trail has a very steep incline, with sections blocked off by rope to protect the fragile ground around the crater. But the view at the summit takes my breath away, along with all my aches and pains from this strenuous 10-kilometer hike. No wonder this is one of the most popular hikes in this region because you get a panoramic view of the area’s natural scenery of lakes, volcanoes, and forests on a single hike.
View of Mt Meakan caldera from the summit. (Photo by Murray Bartholomew)
On my way down, Nishida also points out other volcanoes like Mt. Akanfuji, and Lake Onneto, which means “old swamp” in the Ainu. I even get to see hikari goke (bioluminescence moss) that grows in old tree stumps that glow beautifully when exposed to light. That night, my onsen session hits the sweet spot even more – the soothing smell of eucalyptus rising from the hot steam room and sauna, along with the cold plunge pool, does wonders for my aching joints.
I realize that this off-the-beaten-path adventure in Lake Akan is a perfect blend of cultural immersion, nature exploration, and personal rejuvenation. The memories of this trip, along with the breathtaking landscapes and the warm hospitality of Tsuruga Wings, will stay with me as a cherished chapter of my travels in Japan.
Find Your Japan Adventure
Karthika Gupta is a travel photographer, freelance writer, and podcaster based in Chicago, but originally from India. Contributing writers to this destination series were hosted on adventures throughout Japan as part of the Adventure Travel World Summit 2023 in Hokkaido, Japan.