Sightseeing Bus Tours of Akan National Park
If you're not renting a car, the best way to see Akan National Park's most important natural wonders is aboard a sightseeing bus. The Akan Panorama bus departs Lake Akan daily February to early October, making stops at several scenic spots along the way, including Mashu and Kussharo lakes. Mashu, a crater lake that is considered one of Japan's most beautiful lakes, was called "lake of the devil" by the Ainu because no water flows either into it or out of it. Surely Mashu is one of Japan's least-spoiled lakes: Because of the steep, 200m-high (660-ft.) rock walls ringing it, the lake has remained inaccessible to humans (the bus stops at an observation platform high above the water). Kussharo is one of Japan's largest mountain lakes, but what makes it particularly interesting is its hot-spring waters right on the beach; in summer, you can see people digging holes to sit in the hot springs. The bus also stops at the foot of Mount Iou with its sulfurous caldrons and at Bihoro Pass (a scenic overlook) before reaching Bihoro Station north of the park (where you can catch the train to Sapporo). Note: Frequent fog often eliminates scenic views, there are tacky souvenir shops at every stop, and tours are in Japanese.
Sightseeing buses, costing ¥3,760 to Bihoro Station, depart Akan at 8 or 9:25am, depending on the season, and arrive at Bihoro Station about 5 hours later (be sure to check departure times beforehand, as bus schedules change throughout the season). You can also do this tour in reverse; called the Kuroyuri-go tour, buses depart Bihoro Station at around 10:40am and arrive in Akan at around 4pm (this same bus returns to Bihoro after a 2-hr. stay in Akan). Finally, you can also tour Akan National Park from Kushiro May through October by boarding the White Pirica bus outside Kushiro Station at 8:30am, arriving at Akan around 2:10pm (cost of this tour is ¥3,200). Children pay half fare for all tours. For more information, call Akan Bus Company at tel. 0154/37-2221.
Red-Crested Cranes & Bus Tours of Kushiro Marshland National Park
Red-crested cranes, the official birds of Hokkaido, are regarded as both a good omen and a national symbol of Japan. Because they mate for life, they're also considered a symbol for love. Once threatened with extinction, these graceful and beautiful creatures now lead protected lives in and around Kushiro Marshland National Park (Kushiro Shitsugen), Japan's largest marshland. If you don't have a car, the best way to see the marshlands and catch a glimpse of the cranes in their natural habitat is via sightseeing bus. Tours are conducted in Japanese only but traverse the marshland and make stops at observatories and Tancho-Tsuru Koen. The Akan Bus Company (tel. 0154/37-2221) offers tours of the marshland that begin and end at Kushiro Station once or twice a day (8:25am and/or 2pm) from May to October; the 4 3/4-hour tours cost ¥2,870 for adults and ¥1,330 for children. From July to September 20, there's a daily 4 3/4-hour bus and train tour (aboard the Norokko-go steam locomotive), departing Kushiro Station at 8:25am and costing ¥3,500 for adults and ¥1,440 for children. For more information, contact the Kushiro Tourism Association (tel. 0154/31-1993; www.kushiro-kankou.or.jp/english).
If you prefer sightseeing on your own, the best place to learn about cranes is at the excellent Akan Kokusai Tsuru Center (Akan International Crane Center), 23-40 Akan (tel. 0154/66-4011; daily 9am-5pm). In addition to a film showing their beautiful courtship dance and nesting habits, it has fun, interactive displays with lots of English-language explanations. You'll learn just about everything you'd ever want to know about red-crested cranes here, from why they fly to how much an egg weighs. Best of all, however, is adjacent Tancho-no-Sato, an excellent observatory on private land where 200 red-crested cranes live, court, and mate November through March. This is a great place to photograph the birds in action, and you'll be surprised at how large they actually are. Admission to both the International Crane Center and Tancho-no-Sato is ¥400 for adults, half-price for children. Plan on staying at least an hour in winter, less in summer when the birds have returned to their native marshlands. The International Crane Center is some 40 minutes from Akanko Onsen by bus; get off at the Tancho-no-Sato stop (fare: ¥1,570). Incidentally, the bus that stops here is the same one that goes from Akanko Onsen to Kushiro Airport and Kushiro Station, so it's possible to stop here, visit, and then catch the next bus (buses are infrequent, however, so get the schedule beforehand).
In summer, your best bet for observing cranes outside the marshland is the Japanese Crane Reserve (Tancho-Tsuru Koen), Kushiro-cho (tel. 0154/56-2219; daily 9am-6pm, to 4pm in winter), a marshy area set aside in 1958 for breeding and raising cranes. It now has some 20 cranes -- some of them second and third generation -- living in natural habitats behind high meshed fences. They are fed three times a day, at 9:30am and 1 and 4pm. Admission is ¥400 for adults and ¥100 for children. Also on the way to Kushiro airport and station, it's located 1 hour by bus from the Akanko Onsen bus terminal; get off at the Tsuru-koen stop. If all you want is a quick look, note that one bus a day en route to the airport makes a 15-minute stop at this park, which is enough time to see some of the birds before you continue on.
Attractions in Akanko Onsen
Although the Ainu originally lived near Kushiro, not Akan, they have built the Ainu Kotan Village in Akanko Onsen (tel. 0154/67-2727) and now number about 130 individuals, making this area Hokkaido's largest Ainu community. Although the Ainu Kotan Village itself is just one street lined with souvenir shops (selling mostly woodcarvings), it leads to a thatched-roof lodge, where you can see Ainu performing traditional dances and playing bamboo mouth harps. This is the most professional Ainu production I've seen, and because the dances aren't the same as those performed at Poroto Kotan in Shiraoi, these are highly recommended even if you've already been to Poroto Kotan. Thirty-minute shows are performed five times a day in summer (including evenings), less frequently in winter. Admission is ¥1,000 for adults, half-price for children. Alongside the performance lodge is the Seikatsu Kinen Kan (May-Oct, daily 10am-10pm), an Ainu home and outbuildings that display various Ainu utensils and crafts. Admission here is ¥300 for adults and ¥100 for children (skip it if you've been to Poroto Kotan).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.