Hokkaido is definitely different from the rest of Japan. For one, there is an abundance of sparsely populated space, and therefore also of wildlife (read bears, foxes, deer and owls). Also the vegetation is very different from the rest of Japan. I actually found many plants familiar to me from Switzerland. If it weren’t for the very active volcanism, I would have almost felt at home. Since Hokkaido has been settled systematically only in fairly recent times, also the absence of Japanese culture and history is noticeable. The only old culture present is that of the native Ainu.
The Akan National Park is a volcanic hot spot. Is has everything from active volcanoes, crater lakes and hot springs to sulfur vents.
Our first stop was the emerald green Lake Akan (阿寒湖) which lies at the foot of the looming Oakan-dake, an active shield volcano. The lake is home to the curious algae balls called Marimo and is the only known place on earth where they grow to the considerable size of up to 30cm diameter.
Apart from the marimo, the largest remaining settlement of Ainu can be found here. The indigenous people of Hokkaido have been largely assimilated by the Japanese. Nowadays, the remaining people specialize in wood carvings, mostly of the wildlife living in the region. Their craftsmanship is really extraordinary, and their shops, in which many of them work on their carvings so people can observe them at work, are an endless source of temptation. The people we met were very friendly and approachable.
Our next stop was Lake Mashu (摩周湖), which counts as the most beautiful lake in Japan and the most transparent in the world. This lake seldom shows itself without a layer of mist (to the point that seeing is without is considered unlucky). But when we arrived, the clouds and fog were so dense that the water could not even be seen from the look-out on the caldera rim that forms the shore of Lake Mashu. Later, the fog lifted to the point that we could catch a glimpse of the water to convince ourselves that down there was a lake indeed. Our experience fell somewhat short of expectations, but according to the video which was shown inside the premises of the view point, the scenery is really amazing.
A different, but no less interesting experience you can find in Kawayu-onsen (川湯温泉) and its surroundings. Home to the sulfur-spouting Mt. Iou (硫黄山), it is notable for its very acidic (and smelly) hot springs of which we made due use. A nature trail leads from the hot spring town to the sulfur vents through an otherworldly tundra-like vegetation which is adapted to the high acidity of the soil. We were lucky enough to pass by just when the Labrador Tea (イソツツジ) was in bloom. You can see the sulfuric fumes of Iou-san rising from far already.
The vents themselves can be approached quite closely and are quite a spectacle. The gases escape from their yellowed vents with hissing and roaring noises and the dead landscape looks like from another planet.
We were a bit unlucky with the weather and ended up skipping a visit to the third notable lake of the National Park, Lake Kussharo, which is famous for the hot springs that can be reached by digging a hole in the sand on the shore.
Akan National Park is an interesting mix of volcanic phenomena, untouched nature and Ainu culture. If possible, it would be best to rent a car to get around, since public transportation ranges from very sparse to non-existent.