The Best Outdoor Adventures in East Hokkaido - Outdoors Magic

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The Best Outdoor Adventures in East Hokkaido

We've put together the ultimate road trip around one of the most dynamic, unique, and challenging adventure destinations there is

Hokkaido is one of the best regions for adventure tourism on the planet. It’s a single island in the north of Japan, and yet it is home to a huge variation of natural settings (and all the adventure possibilities which come with them). We’ve already covered Hokkaido’s best ski resorts as well as a handful of adventures around Sapporo, but with an island this big, we’ve still barely scratched the surface. So, we’ve decided to narrow down our list to the very best outdoor adventures in just the eastern quarter of Hokkaido.

To make the most of the area, you’ll want to go in Winter. From Europe, the most convenient way to get to Hokkaido is still the Finnair direct flight to New Chitose Airport (see the official Finnair website for the latest flight information). This route has cut the journey down significantly, as travellers can simply take a 9-hour direct flight instead of transferring at Tokyo which can waste an extra full day of your trip – that’s crucial for an adventure like this one!

Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media

We’ve found the most thrilling, inspiring, and unique outdoor activities in east Hokkaido, and we’ve designed this guide so that an intrepid adventurer could hit all of them as they journey from the north coast to the south coast. You’ll want to grab a 45-minute flight from New Chitose to Memanbetsu Airport. As soon as you step out, you’ll find that the Okhotsk region is like a different world. The snowy climate, mountainous topography, and unspoiled nature will truly make you feel like you’re earning your explorer badge.

Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media

From here, the world is your oyster! This region is fantastic for solo exploration, and you’ll be certain to find yourself a transformative experience wherever you go. But, just in case you don’t fancy a totally structureless wonder through the Japanese wilderness, we’ve gone ahead and provided a comprehensive guide to the best adventures in east Hokkaido – from north to south! Grab a pad and pen, have a read, and start making notes for your own itinerary.

Shiretoko Five Lakes

While some may choose to explore Hokkaido’s wilderness in the Spring, true adventurers will arrive in winter to hike through the powder-covered majesty of Shiretoko national park. This peninsula covers the northeastern corner of Hokkaido and is one of the most remote areas in all of Japan – large sections are only accessible on foot or by boat. To boost the authenticity of this particular adventure, Shiretoko’s elevated boardwalks are closed during the winter, so you’ll have to plan your expedition with a guide; we’d recommend taking the Goko Eco Tour.

Photo: iStock

This tour weaves in and around the iconic cluster of five lakes formed long ago by the eruption of nearby Mount Io and fed by underground springs. The lakes are stunning to admire amongst the snowy scenery, looking just beyond them reveals the mystical, icy Sea of Okhotsk, and in the lakes reflective surface you’ll see the epic surrounding mountain range. Tradition holds that these lakes were left by God’s five fingertips.

Furupe-no-Taki Waterfall

The Furupe-no-Taki Waterfall (also known as Maiden’s Tears) springs from the top of a coastal cliff almost as if by magic. It is fed by ground water which doesn’t surface until it reaches the western coast of the Shiretoko Peninsula, meaning Furepe is all fall and no river. Because of this, during the winter months, the entirety of Furepe waterfall is transformed into a sparkling, spikey, frozen sculpture.

Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media

The best way to encounter this striking cliff face is during a Snowshoe & Wildlife Watching Tour. Book a morning or afternoon slot and be transported by your guide to the mystical forests on the edge of Shiretoko. Aided by your snowshoes, you’ll greet the great frozen falls with the Shiretoko mountains as their backdrop. Behind you, a sea of ice islands stretches out to the horizon.


Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media
Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media

Along the way, you’ll have the chance to meet beautiful local wildlife which you’ll only ever find on foot. Herds of Ezo deer gather in deep winter, as well as noble red foxes and Hokkaido’s incomprehensibly adorable ezo momonga – a Siberian flying squirrel (pictured). You could even see the infamous Stellar’s sea eagles diving into the icy water for dinner.


Just below Shiretoko park, you’ll find the coastal town of Utoro which offers an experience like no other. This coastline, while fairly remote, is actually one of the most accessible sports to see the unique phenomenon of drift ice (流氷, ryūhyō). During the winter, a large frozen sheet stretches for miles from where the coastline usually gives way to the Sea of Okhotsk. On this sheet, you can take the unforgettable drift ice walking tour.

Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media
Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media

We’d never recommend carelessly leaping onto the drifting snowy desert, but find yourself a guide, some safe gear, and prepare to leave Japan completely.

Walking on sea ice is like walking on the moon, but the commute is way shorter, and you don’t have to wear a helmet. You do however have to strap on a dry suit, and if you’ve got the stones for it, you may have a chance to participate in a ice floe diving tour.

Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media

Doing a cold plunge like this may be intimidating, but it can also be highly restorative and refreshing; we bet you’ll feel better once you take the leap! If getting wet really isn’t for you, though, there’s a lot of fun to be had jumping between the drifting platforms. Once you return to Utoro, head up the surrounding hills to discover the large onsens and wind down in relaxing natural hotsprings.


Abashiri is a coastal town a little further south of Utoro, close to Kitami. You may also notice the name belonging to Lake Abashiri, and the Abashiri Quasi-National Park, both of which we’d highly recommend exploring. The coup de grace of this area, though, is the drift ice. Rather than donning another dry suit and walking on yet another ice sheet, you must instead go on a quest to reach the summit of mount Tento where you can experience the drift ice from a whole new perspective. A spacious viewing platform, a castle and slide built from packed snow, and a kids’ tobogganing area will meet you at the mountain’s peak which you can reach via public transport services or a seriously challenging hike.

Photo: iStock

At the centre of these amusements is the Okhotsk Ryu-hyo Museum, a sleek and modern building with wildlife exhibits displaying the diverse biosphere which resides in the sea below the ice sheets. Ah yes – the ice sheets:

Enter this remarkable exhibit and examine up close the fascinating cross-sections of mammoth chunks of drift ice, plucked from the ocean by an undoubtedly huge crane. These chunks, now residing in a –15C room in the museum, display the unique patterns and colours that emerge from seawater freezing while spiraling with the tides. Look near enough and see the tiny floating creatures that live under the ice in a tank – they’re called ‘Sea Angels’. One surprisingly fun aspect of the ice room is being allowed to walk in with a warm, wet flannel, then pinwheel it around and watch it freeze into a hard sculpture in mere seconds. This may be handy for keeping little kids entertained, since they’re allowed to dash out, grab another towel, and do it again!

Photos: tripadvisor

If the museum leaves you itching for something more action-heavy, you’re in luck. Head back to Abashiri’s coast and come aboard a powerful Aurora Icebreaking Ship. These vehicles charge headlong into the Sea of Okhotsk, taking their passengers into the thick of the ice sheets and letting them gaze across the islands in all directions. The interior of the ship is warm and cozy with a coffee lounge and shop, but we doubt you’ll spend much (if any) time down there. From the observation deck, you can watch the bow of the Aurora part the ice with huge force, and once the ship slows down, you may spy some seals and other unique wildlife which thrives in these extreme conditions.


Tsurui Village

For those looking to see more unique wildlife: tear yourself away from the sparkling coastline and dive inland to Tsurui Village. While small, this village has a lot to offer for adventurers, and would work great as a daytrip location since its only half an hour from Kushiro city and airport. The main attraction is the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe the native red-crowned cranes. These majestic tall birds were pulled back from the brink of extinction when a dairy farmer, Ito Yoshitaka, began feeding and caring for the dwindling population in the 1960’s. Today, there are around 1000 red-crowned cranes living in the northern Kurshiro Marsh.

Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media
Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media

You’ll want to visit the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary, a feeding ground established by the Wild Bird Society in Japan with the cooperation of Ito Yoshitaka, that very same dairy farmer, and his wife, both of whom cared for the cranes their whole lives, and whose efforts are continued to this day. See the cranes arrive in the early morning to feed, take some beautiful pictures, and be sure to stay until they take flight – a truly unique and graceful sight to behold. For a slightly less touristy encounter, head about 6km south of the village centre to Tsurumidai. This is a feeding field with no building, where you can help feed the cranes in the morning and afternoon in their unspoiled natural environment.

Photo: Niseko Sea and Summit Media

Lake Akan

The Akan Mashu national park is one of the oldest and largest parks in all of Hokkaido, spanning over 900 square kilometers. It is home to some awe-inspiring geographical formations thanks to the volcanic activity rumbling around underneath the place (which also gives it natural hot springs – bonus points for those). The national park is worth spending a week or more exploring, but if you’re considering a shorter visit, then you it’s imperative that you see Lake Akan. This beautiful volcanic crater and the woodlands around it are home to hiking trails, water activities, mountains ready for climbing, and a unique, deeply historic town ready to be discovered.

Photo: iStock

The Ainu are the indigeonous people of the lands in east Hokkaido; they continue to live within the forests and practice rituals which bolster a deep connection with nature. Ainu Kotan is a small Ainu village near Lake Akan – head there to embark on a Forest Time Guided Tour of the “iwor” (living territory) woods. You’ll learn about the Ainu’s customs, their reciprocal relationship with the forest, and have an opportunity to play the traditional Ainu instrument, the Mukkuri, all while hiking through the beautiful green landscape and catching awe-inspiring views of the lake.

Photo: ja.kushiro
Photo: iStock

While you’re in the area, you must also see the remarkable Frost Flowers. Of all the unique experiences we have mentioned, this phenomenon is by-far the rarest. The conditions have to be perfect. During only the coldest months, and only when the wind has calmed completely, and only when the surface of lake Akan is frozen over but without snow, a field of delicate ice crystals will bloom, each taking on the appearance of an elegant white flower.

The result is breathtaking, microscopically intricate crystals stretch across the thin, fleeting field, threatening to disperse with the wind at any moment.

Photo: hokkaido-labo

Kushiro Wetland

For the final adventure on our list, we’ve combined all our favourite aspects of east Hokkaido: nature and wildlife, active water sports and ice shenanigans. It’s the pinnacle of adventure tourism. To start, you’ll want to make it to Kushiro city, located on the opposite coast to Abashiri, just a 45-minute flight from New Chitose Airport. The city would also make a good basecamp for excursions to Lake Akan. This adventure, however, is more about the winding wetlands than a stationary caldera – book a place on the Kushiro Wetland Nature Canoe trip and find yourself admiring an ever-changing landscape while you glide through the serene natural waterways.

Photo: Mark Brazil
Photo: Mark Brazil

Your guide will collect you from Kushiro station or a nearby hotel and you’ll be whisked to the canoe dock at the Arekinai River. From there, you’ll peacefully paddle north up the wide meandering rivers, heading for Lake Toro. At the start of your journey, tall trees and thick shrubbery will line your path; since the river is far from any roads and your canoe will drift silently across its surface, you’ll likely see some beautiful wildlife, Ezo dear are common, perhaps even a bear or two.

As you continue to travel, the woodlands will fade away, and you’ll find yourself in a totally alien environment, occasional landmarks emerge from the fog, hoarfrost glitters in the riverbanks, you follow nature’s highway, isolated. Then, the frozen Lake Toro! Experience walking on the largest river in the Kushiro wetlands, a huge open space to remind you of the scale of these natural wonders. Your guide may show you some lesser-known observation spots, and you’ll get to try out ice digging, and take home a unique (albeit temporary) souvenir!

Photo: 946river

After you’ve enjoyed the ice plane and paddled back down the river, you’re free to take a train from Toro station either back to Kushiro or up to Mashu and Kawayu to continue the adventures there. In either case, you’ll watch the snowy landscape zip by and see it morph as you move through the natural wonders of Hokkaido and return to the city.

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