Flying to the Fisherman’s Town of Kushiro for Birdwatching and Hiking Expeditions (Part 2)

Hiking to the base of Mt. Io where volcanic gases spew from vents.

After a lovely first evening of exploring the central streets of Kushiro and having a whole rental apartment complex to myself, the next I departed on a full day bus tour to all of the major sightseeing points of this area. The White Pirika Bus I selected for this trip runs from January – March and will take you on a journey to see rare species of birds, famous lakes and mountains, and hot springs too! I really recommend this tour because I was able to see everything I wanted and it was cheaper than renting a car. The guides only speak Japanese, but will show you the best spots for birdwatching and hiking so you know exactly where to go without wasting any time. As someone who loves photography and listening to guides to practice Japanese, this was the optimal tour for me. I would advise booking this tour at least a week in advance online because it has limited availability.

The major spots that are covered in this tour are: Tsurumidai (for viewing the cranes), Sunayu (for viewing the swans), Mt. Io, Lake Mashu, and Lake Akan Hot Springs

Afterwards you can request to be dropped of at Kushiro Station, Kushiro Airport, or your accommodation.

If you come during the warmer seasons to Kushiro, you can reserve similar buses on the Akan Bus website, but the swans and cranes rarely appear. I recommend coming here during the winter because you can do and see the most!

Tsurumidai

The very first place we stopped on our tour was Tsurumidai, which is a popular lookout spot for the Japanese Red-crowned Crane (also known as the “Japanese Tanchou”). The Red-crowned Crane is one of the largest East Asian cranes and one of the rarest species of crane in the world. This bird is said to bring good luck and is a prominent symbol in many folklore and legends. It also appears in Japan Airlines’ logo! I enjoyed watching these cranes spread their wings and honk at one another. They seemed completely unbaffled by the presence of so many humans watching them from the other side of the fence. They were a lot bigger than I had initially anticipated, and that made watching them all the more fun. After March they usually migrate to other countries such as Russia and China. I was extremely lucky to catch sight of them this year!

Sunayu

The next stop of this tour was at Sunayu, which is a hot spring that oozes out of the sand for both humans and birds! Sunayu is located on the east side of Lake Kussharo, and is a popular campsite during the warmer months. During the winter, whooper swans flock to the warm waters for comfort and a number of people come to watch them. A few years ago, a group of my Japanese friends came here for photography and one of them created this melodic track called “Whooper Song” that was inspired by the sight of the whooper swan. Since then I wanted to come to Kushiro and see the bird for myself, so I’m extremely grateful I had this opportunity!

Here are more photos I took of the beautiful whooper swans. They truly are serene:

Mt. Io

Our third and perhaps most adventurous stop was at Mt. Io, which is an active volcano in Kushiro. It is famous for erupting sulfur and volcanic gases from its vents, and has a lot of characteristic geological formations. Climbing is prohibited, but you can hike up to the fenced area and get extremely close to the vents. I watched a Japanese couple stick their hands into the fumes and was concerned they were going to get burned, but it is safe to do this at the base! I tried it myself and found that the temperature was comfortably warm; kind of like a steam sauna. You can buy eggs cooked by the steam at the souvenir shop which I highly recommend, because they are healthy and delicious!

Lake Mashu

Our next destination was a brief stop at Lake Mashu, which is a caldera lake formed by an active volcano in Akan Mashu National Park. It has been called “the clearest lake in the world” and is considered Japan’s post beautiful lake. It is also one of the deepest lakes in this country. Visitors are not allowed to go down to the lake, but can view it from multiple observatories. I was thankful to have the tour guide here to point me in the right direction of to where to take the best pictures. Its waters truly were beautiful and reflected the surrounding winter scenery.

Lake Akan Hot Springs (and Lunch)

Our last stop was at Lake Akan Hot Springs where we were given an hour of free time to do whatever we wanted. Here you can choose to ride a banana boat, rent winter sports equipment, go shopping, or bathe in a hot spring bath. If you know me, you know I love hot springs so I naturally went to the nearest one at a hotel adjacent to the bus stop. The entrance fee was only 1000 yen and it included a towel and shampoo. I had the whole outdoor bath to myself so that was a plus! It felt so good to clean up after all the hiking I did this day. I also walked around the hot spring town and looked at the little shops. I enjoyed seeing all of the wood carving places and cafes, but unfortunately not a lot of things were open. I did enjoy how private this area was though; there was hardly anyone here except for our tour group and that was nice!

Right before this stop we were given a delicious bento lunch that contained fish or meat (I chose fish), and I ordered hojicha gelato for dessert. All of the food in Hokkaido is cheap and tastes amazing so you really can’t go wrong with what you eat here!

Final Thoughts

Overall this was one of the best tours I’ve ever been on in Japan because not only did it include lunch and entrance fees to all of the parks, but it also took me to every single place I wanted to see in Kushiro! I had a fantastic time seeing the birds, active volcanoes, and lakes this part of Hokkaido had to offer⁠—not to mention the hot springs! I feel extremely fulfilled to cross yet another dream destination off my list. I would recommend Kushiro to travelers who have already seen all of the major cities of Hokkaido and are looking for something more secluded and unique. I hope to come back to Hokkaido again during the summer for some more photography, because this island has a lot of untouched nature and exciting places to see. I feel so relaxed after getting out of the city for a while too!

Thank you for reading my Kushiro article series. I plan on going to Nara this year to see the cherry blossoms, and possibly Shimane and Yamaguchi too if I have time. Please expect more exciting articles from me!

Flying to the Fisherman’s Town of Kushiro for Birdwatching and Hiking Expeditions (Part 1)

Rare appearance of Whooper Swans at Sunayu in Kushiro, Hokkaido.

Earlier this week I flew to the small fishing village of Kushiro, Hokkaido, to live out my birdwatching dreams and see rare species that are exclusive to Japan and only gather during the early winter months. I have been to Hokkaido 4 times now (three times during the winter and once during the summer), and was happy to return since my last trip to the Lavender Fields of Furano. Kushiro is known for its delicious seafood, beautiful birds, and volcanic mountains with scenic lakes. There are various hot spring towns that surround the bases of the mountains attracting a number of tourists from outside of town each year. You can also partake in winter sports at Lake Akan which has rental gear during this season.

Overall I would describe Kushiro as a secluded getaway with many areas to hike through and enjoy year round. It was a much needed vacation from my crazy city life, and after completing this expedition I feel much more at ease and can think clearly now.

I would recommend Kushiro to those who have already seen the major cities of Hokkaido (such as Sapporo, Hakodate, and Otaru) and are looking for something different. This is definitely more of a remote area, so be prepared to travel a lot! Fortunately I have prepared a cost-efficient itinerary on how to best see Kushiro in two days without a car.

Getting to Kushiro from Tokyo

The best way to get to Kushiro is to fly directly to Kushiro Airport. The average cost of roundtrip tickets from Haneda Airport to Kushiro Airport is around 30,000 yen and takes about 1.5 hours. You can also take the train from Sapporo Station if you’re already in Hokkaido, but it takes over 4 hours and costs around 20,000 yen. Flying will save you a lot of time and stress, so I recommend looking for deals through Peach Aviation.

This time I decided to go with AIRDO Airlines because their flight schedule best fit my work schedule. My flight was very smooth, and my flight attendant noticed I had my Switch and Hisuin Growlithe plush with me so she gave me a free Pokemon postcard! This was truly exceptional service. I also enjoyed flying into the sunset on this trip and seeing all of the vibrant colors:

As you can see from the map, Hokkaido is close to Sakhalin, which is the largest island of Russia. At one time you could travel to Sakhalin by a five-hour ferry from Wakkanai, which is a port town at the tip of Hokkaido. For more information, see this writeup from Time Out Tokyo.

In 2018, there were discussions about the construction of a bridge from Hokkaido to Sakhalin that would connect Japan to Russia. I remember hearing about this in the news and thinking it was an interesting idea at the time, but the construction never happened (maybe for the better). With the way the world news is now, it’s truly shocking to believe that it was ever even a concept. My heart goes out to all of my friends in Europe and I hope for the safety of Ukraine.

Exploring Kushiro’s Main Street: Kita Odori

I arrived to Kushiro airport around 17:00, and took the Airport Limousine bus to the center of the city for 950 yen. The ride took around an hour and I couldn’t see much outside of my window because it was already pitch black. There was snow on the ground, but the temperature of Kushiro in March wasn’t really any different of how Michigan, my home town, is during this time of year. I would definitely recommend bringing warm clothes, a hat, and gloves, though! During summers in Kushiro, the snow completely melts and the temperature is more mild. However, I wanted to come in the winter specifically so I could see the rare types of birds that flock here.

After my bus arrived at Kushiro Station, the first thing I decided to do was eat some delicious seafood donburi which Hokkaido is famous for. I looked up a restaurant called 釧ちゃん食堂 釧路本店 that had phenomenal reviews so I took a 10 minute cab ride there and prepared to chow down. Trust me, I was not disappointed because I bought this huge bowl of fresh fish for only 2200 yen. The crab, sea urchin, and squid tasted so fresh and there were huge slabs of other fish included in this assortment too:

Address: 〒088-0623 Hokkaido, Kushiro District, Kushiro, Kowa, 4−11 2F

Another place where you can get delicious seafood is Kushiro Fisherman’s Wharf MOO which is right near the station, but it closes at 17:00 so be sure to get there early!

After filling my stomach and feeling completely satisfied, I decided to go to hot spring on top of a hotel called Paco Kushiro. This was within walking distance of my accommodation (see further below) and only cost 1000 yen to enter. It had a sauna, multiple spa baths, and an open air bath on the 12th floor that was perhaps the steamiest hot spring I had ever entered due to the cold temperature. I couldn’t take any pictures because it was public, but it greatly relieved my fatigue so I can’t recommend it enough!

When I awoke the next morning, I decided to go on a 4 mile run to get more acquainted with Kita Odori and the surrounding area. I first ran to Itsukushima Shrine, which was about a mile from my hotel. This is one of the biggest shrines in the area and is definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in them. I also passed by Yonemachi Park that had a lighthouse as a famous landmark. On my way back I stumbled upon Grace Church near the station. This is a tourist destination that also serves as a wedding hall, but I have seen many churches in the US so I wasn’t particularly interested in it. There was also a police station that had signs in Russian. The further north you go in Hokkaido, the more of this you will see!

After finishing my run, I decided to take a tour through the White Pirika bus company to see the major sights of Kushiro. I will be detailing and reviewing my experience in my next article!

Accommodation

This time I chose to stay in a brand new apartment complex called Kamuy Rera that is close to Kushiro Station. The average cost of single rooms is 4500 per night, but this is one of the nicest places I’ve ever stayed at and I was the only guest there! It was great having an entire lounge to myself, plus all of the rooms were equipped with powerful heaters. In the past, sometimes I’ve made mistakes of staying in guest houses that aren’t insulated very well and have had trouble sleeping. However, I slept like a baby here and was ready for a full day of hiking the next morning. I would recommend staying here because it is centrally located and very quiet.

This concludes my introductory article of “Cool” Kushiro. In my next article, I will be writing in-depth about the unique species of birds in Kushiro and where to find them, plus my recommended hiking areas. Please look forward to my future adventures, because I have a lot planned this year!