For Japanese visitors, one of the most popular activities in Akanko Onsen is a boat cruise of Lake Akan, which provides a close-up view of the mountains, islands, and shoreline, all stunningly beautiful. Lake Akan is famous for its very rare spherical green algae, a spongelike ball of duckweed called marimo that's been designated a Special Natural Monument. Found in only a few places in the world, marimo is formed when many separate and stringy pieces of algae at the bottom of the 43m-deep (144-ft.) lake roll around and eventually come together to form a ball, gradually growing larger and larger. It takes 150 to 200 years for marimo to grow to the size of a baseball; some in Lake Akan are as much as 29 centimeters (12 in.) in diameter -- meaning they are very old indeed. Supposedly, when the sun shines, the marimo rise to the surface of the water, giving Lake Akan a wonderful green shimmer. On the Marimo Discovery Cruise you'll make a 15-minute stop at Churui Islet to see the Marimo Exhibition Center with a few tanks of marimo. One-hour cruises operate from May to mid-November and cost ¥1,750 for adults and ¥920 for children, including the exhibition center. Boats depart every hour or so, with the last boat departing at 5:30pm in summer. Less frequent is the 45-minute Akan's Scenic Cruise, which departs three times a day and travels through more scenic narrow passages between islands and into islets (but not to the Marimo Exhibition Center). This costs ¥1,350 for adults and ¥680 for children. If you want to see both the Marimo Exhibition Center and the narrow passages, there's the 35-minute High Speed Cruise, which costs ¥3,500.
I hope you'll boycott the motorboats, which disturb the peace and quiet of this nature's wonderland -- but maybe the price alone will deter you: ¥1,000 for 5 minutes.
To get a real feel for Akan Lake at duck and goose level, take a canoe trip in a two-person Canadian canoe, available May to October. For beginners, a 45-minute trip costs ¥2,100 for adults and ¥1,600 for children. There's also a 90-minute Adventure Course for ¥5,300 for adults and ¥3,700 for children that goes farther afield, while the 2 1/2-hour Yaitai island course includes a trip to uninhabited Yaitai island in the lake. You may see carp spawning, deer, or -- if you are really lucky -- bear. Make canoe reservations at the Akan Nature Center (tel. 0154/67-2801), shown on the English-language map.
Lake Akan is one of Japan's most famous fishing lakes. In addition to kokanee salmon, said to have originated in the lake, sport fish include rainbow trout, steelhead trout, and white spotted char, a native fish. If you want to fish, contact Fishing Land (tel. 0154/67-2057), located beside the New Akan Hotel Shangri-La. A fishing permit costs ¥1,500 per day and includes fishing in Akan River and Hiotan Pond, as well as the lake. A rental rod and lures cost ¥1,000. Add ¥3,000 if you want to be dropped off at a fishing spot by boat. Fly-fishing season is from May to the end of November, except from mid-July to mid-August when it's too hot. From January to March, you can ice fish.
Akanko Onsen's easiest walk begins and ends right in town. Start at the Akankohan Eco Museum Center at the east end of town, where to the left you'll find an easy, 30-minute footpath leading through a primeval forest of pines and ferns, past bokke (volcanic, bubbling mud), and along the lakeshore. It ends at the boat dock with cruises of Lake Akan. If you want to make this an hour's hike, take the steps to the right of the Eco Museum Center leading uphill at the orange torii gate to the Inari Shinto Shrine and follow the path through woodlands along a ridge before descending to the lake and joining the path described above. Both paths are shown on the English-language pamphlet describing the Akankohan Eco Museum Center.
For more serious hiking, while out on your boat trip you'll see two cone-shaped volcanoes: Mount Oakan (Oakandake) to the east and Mount Meakan (Meakandake) to the south. Both are surrounded by virgin forests and are popular daylong destinations for hikers. Mount Oakan (called "male mountain" by the Ainu for its supposed manly features) is dormant, with a summit about a 4 1/2-hour hike from Akanko Onsen. You can reach the trail entrance, Takiguchi, in 5 minutes via one of the buses going in the direction of Kushiro (get off at the Takiguchi stop). Plan about 6 hours for the ascent and descent. Mount Meakan (which the Ainu called "female mountain") is an active volcano, so check before you go. It's the highest mountain in the Akan area at 1,500m (4,900 ft.) above sea level and is covered with primeval forests of spruce and fir. There are three hiking trails up Mount Meakan. If you're hiking the entire distance, the trail access closest to Akanko is located at the west end of town, where you can follow the Furebetsu Woodland Road, a former transport road, to an old sulfur mine for 3 hours to get to the trail entrance, from which it's another 3 hours to the peak where you'll be rewarded with panoramic views of the surrounding area. Otherwise, there is bus service from Akanko Onsen to beautiful Lake Onneto July through September, from which it's about 2 1/2 hours to the summit. Pick up English-language alpine guides with maps to Mount Oakan and Mount Meakan at the tourist association.
A shorter hike follows a trail to Mount Hakuto-zan, from which you also have a good view of the town and lake. It takes about 20 minutes to reach Akan's skiing area and another 50 minutes to reach Mount Hakuto-zan observatory, a grassy and moss-covered knobby hill that remains slightly warm throughout the year because of thermal activity just below the surface. The woods of birch and pine here are beautiful, and what's more, you'll probably find yourself all alone. Stop at the local tourist office for directions to the trail head and a map in Japanese.
In winter, Lake Akan freezes over and becomes a playland for winter sports. International marathon ice-skating races -- 200km (125 miles) -- have brought attention to the area's natural riches. Cross-country skiing (rental equipment ¥1,000 for 2 hr.), ice-skating (¥1,000 for 1 hr.), and ice fishing (¥1,500 a day) are popular sports. For downhill skiers, the Kokusetsu Akan-kohan ski ground (tel. 0154/67-2881) is blessed with a magnificent view of Mount Oakan rising behind Lake Akan. The F.I.S.-certified slalom course attracts ski teams and individuals in training, while the intermediate and beginner slopes are popular with less demanding skiers. A day pass for lifts costs ¥2,500; ski-rental equipment costs ¥3,000 per day.
In February, illuminated ice sculptures, traditional dance, nightly fireworks over the frozen lake, and stalls selling food make for a fun midwinter festival. Contact the tourist office for more details.
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.