Follow the coastal road or rail line around Uchiura-wan from Hakodate and you’ll reach the eastern side of the SHIKOTSU-TŌYA NATIONAL PARK (支笏洞爺国立公園), one of Hokkaidō’s prettiest lakeland and mountain areas, but also the most developed, thanks to its proximity to Sapporo, some 80km to the north. Both the park’s two main caldera lakes – Tōya-ko to the east and Shikotsu-ko to the west – have gorgeous locations, are active volcanoes and are surrounded by excellent hiking trails. Between the two lakes lies Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaidō’s largest hot-spring resort, worth visiting to soak up the otherworldly landscape of bubbling and steaming Jigokudani (Hell Valley).
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The beautiful caldera lake of Tōya-ko (洞爺湖) is punctuated dead centre by the conical island of Nakajima. Its southern shore is home to the tired-looking resort Tōya-ko Onsen (洞爺湖温泉), where you’ll find most accommodation and local transport connections. Between April 28 and October 31 spectacular fireworks (nightly 8.45–9.05pm) illuminate the lake. Pretty as the location is, the best reason for visiting Tōya-ko is to see the nearby active volcano Usu-zan (有珠山), around 2km south, and its steaming “parasite volcano” Shōwa Shin-zan (昭和新山).
East around the coast from Tōya-ko, and nestling amid lush green mountain slopes ripped through by a bubbling cauldron of volcanic activity, is NOBORIBETSU ONSEN (登別温泉). Hokkaidō’s top hot-spring resort may be peppered with lumpen hotel buildings and tacky souvenir shops, but its dramatic landscape is definitely worth seeing and there’s ample opportunity for some serious onsen relaxation.
Birth of a volcano
Birth of a volcano
On December 28, 1943, severe earthquakes began shaking the area around Usu-zan and continued to do so until September 1945. In the intervening period a new lava dome rose out of the ground, sometimes at the rate of 1.5m a day. By the time it had stopped growing, Shōwa Shin-zan, the “new mountain” named after the reigning emperor, stood 405m above sea level. The wartime authorities were desperate to hush up this extraordinary event for fear that the fledgling mountain would serve as a beacon for US bomber planes.
Fortunately, Shōwa Shin-zan’s daily growth was carefully documented by local postmaster and amateur volcanologist Mimatsu Masao. After the war, Mimatsu bought the land on which the mountain stood, declaring, “I purchased the volcano to continue my research uninterrupted. I did not buy it to make money. Nor did I buy it for tourists to gawk at.” His efforts were rewarded in 1958 when Shōwa Shin-zan was made a Special Natural Treasure by the government.
Nevertheless, Mimatsu never turned away tourists – but nor did he charge them admission, a practice still upheld. The Mimatsu Masao Memorial Hall (三松正夫記念館), tucked behind the ghastly row of giftshops at the base of the volcano, contains an interesting collection of exhibits on the history of the fledgling volcano.