Lakes, hot springs, sulphur and monsters

It was glorious to arrive at our Airbnb – aptly named Relaxing House, on the shores of Lake Toya for many reasons. It was easy to find, it had a personal welcome note on the door, it was warm and each room had fresh flowers! I have used Airbnb in many places and always enjoyed them. Although it is great to eat at restaurants and I like Japanese food, I love porridge for breakfast and to cook so having a kitchen for three days was great. This house was well equipped and had a lovely view of the lake. Shame it was still too cold to swim in it.

The weather was sunny the next day, perfect for our cable car ride up the active volcano, Mount Usu. This volcano has erupted four times since 1900 – 1910, 1944 to 45, 1977 and most recently on 31 March 2000. It became Japan’s first designated Geopark, supported by Unesco in 2009. This recognises the geological and natural riches of Lake Toya and Mount Usu and the fact that the local population live in close proximity to an extremely active volcano. The 1944 to 45 eruption even created a new mountain or lava dome, called Showa-shinzan, as it formed during the reign of Emperor Hirohito, known as the Showa period. Initially the authorities kept quiet about the mountain as they thought it might be interpreted as an unlucky wartime omen, but the local postmaster, Masao Mimatsu, kept detailed measurements of its progress. A statue of him is at the foot of the mountain. It is still smoking today and is a raw reddish colour.

Mount Usu, too is still smoking and it was slightly eerie when, as we walked round the rim of the caldera to hear the noise of rocks rolling down its slopes. Doubtless caused by snow melting, rather than any trembling of a volcano, but it made me stop to wonder and look closely at where the steam was escaping. It was worth the effort of the steep steps to go to the far end of the track as the view of Mount Yotei in the distance. It last erupted in 1050BC.

We ignored the busy tourist resort of Toyako and returned to enjoy the peace and quiet of our Airbnb, just to read and sunbathe for once. Later we took a stroll to see the scenic beach and little pagoda at Ukimido Park a bit further round the lake shore. It also has an arch built of huge stones which frames the pagoda well in the evening sun.

The next day we continued the volcanic theme with a trip to Noborimetsu. The town is a rather ugly set of hotels, the largest hot spring resort on Hokkaido and at the busiest time of the year, Golden Week, we were thankful that we parked well away from the hotels and avoided a huge traffic jam. Jigokudani or hell’s valley is the attraction and they advertise it with ridiculous blue and Red Devil enormous statutes and sell lots of tourist junk adorned with them. The free hot foot bath was mobbed so we climbed further till we got to the main sulphuric area with a newly restored walkway down to it.

Leaving Lake Toya, we had a long days drive to our next stop, another lake – Lake Kussharo. Plenty of time to realise how important farming is to Hokkaido. On every flat valley, fields for wheat, potatoes or onions stretched into the distance and being spring, farmers were out on their tractors and people were weeding in the fields.

Lake Kussharo is a caldera lake and the sixth largest lake in Japan. It is also known as Japan’s Loch Ness due to numerous reported sightings of a monster in 1973. So being Scottish, I felt very at home, especially as the weather had turned bit grey. I couldn’t resist taken photos with Nessie’s Japanese cousin.

The weather remained grey the next day, but dry so we managed to enjoy a coffee and pizza at a lovely cafe run by a family who are kayaking enthusiasts. The man makes beautiful paddles. We tried the dig your own hot foot spa at the edge of the lake at Sunayu – the water was roasting!

Then we visited the excellent Kawayu Eco Museum. Some wonderful displays, explanations and interactive things for people to try.

No live bears were sighted, just stuffed and carved ones, some amazing insects and creatures made by visitors to the museum.

Then time for some more volcanic activity, a trip to Mount Io, another active volcano, known for erupting liquid sulphur – last in 1936. The smell was not too bad and the yellow colour and steam, very atmospheric. Then a walk round the Wakoto peninsula, where the hot water steams as it pours into the lake.

Lake Mashu, the other lake nearby is renowned for its colour and clarity, but sadly with the grey weather, we got deep navy blue.

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