Lake Shikotsu (支笏湖) is a beautiful caldera lake in the southwestern Hokkaido, Japan. The lake is surrounded by amazing mountains from all sides and is part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park, which is the closest national park to Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido. Also, the largest airport in Hokkaido, New Chitose Airport, is located about half an hour’s drive away from the lake (far enough not to disturb the peace at the lake).
The Lake Shikotsu area is known for its magnificent nature and versatile recreational activities. Lake Shikotsu itself is a large, deep caldera lake on which you can try for example boating, canoeing, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), and other watersports. The solemn mountains surrounding the lake offer wonderful opportunities for hiking and trekking. At the great Chitose River—the outflow of Lake Shikotsu—you can enjoy rafting or fishing.
In this blog post you can read all about Lake Shikotsu and the area around it: What’s special about Lake Shikotsu, the wonderful nature of Shikotsu-Toya National Park surrounding the lake, and how to get the most out of your trip to Lake Shikotsu. You can read more about other areas of Shikotsu-Toya National Park in our earlier blog posts Toya: An adventure among volcanoes, Kutchan, Kyogoku, Kimobetsu, and Makkari: The Towns and Villages around Mt. Yotei, and Noboribetsu: The City of Onsen Hot Springs.
The Lake Shikotsu area of the Shikotsu–Toya National Park
Lake Shikotsu and its surroundings are a part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park (支笏洞爺国立公園) (an outbound link), a national park that consists of five different sites close to each other in southwestern Hokkaido: the Lake Shikotsu area, the Lake Toya area, the Noboribetsu area, the area surrounding Mount Yotei, and the Jozankei area in the southern parts of Sapporo. The national park is characterized as a “living volcano museum”. In the case of the Lake Shikotsu area this refers to the fact that Lake Shikotsu is a caldera lake created in a huge volcanic eruption thousands of years ago, the presence of one of the most active volcanoes in Japan—Mount Tarumae—and, of course, a selection onsen hot springs and onsen spas to enjoy soaking the hot water.
The Lake Shikotsu area was designated a national park in 1949. Before the nature park was established, there were some industrial activities, such as lumbering and mining. A paper mill was built in Tomakomai city and the forests around the lake were used as raw material for the paper. To transport the logs from the lakeside to the mill, the Yamasen railway line was built in 1908. Parts of the railway line can still be seen in the area, for example, the Yamasen railway bridge (山線鉄橋) crossing over the Chitose river at the lake shore near Lake Shikotsu onsen hot spring spa. There were also some mines in the area, such as the Bifue gold mine, and some of them continued operating even after the opening of the national park but now all the mines are closed.
Even if they are far from anything city-like, Lake Shikotsu and its surroundings are actually a part of Chitose city. The city center is to the east of the lake. The lake and the city are connected by the Chitose river which is an outflow of Lake Shikotsu. The distance between the Chitose station and Lake Shikotsu Visitor Center (an outbound link) on the eastern side of the lake is about 30 minutes by car or 25 km (15.5. miles) and reaching the other side of the lake, for example, Shikotsu lakeside Bifue campground takes an additional 15 minutes or 17 km (10.5 miles). The travel time from New Chitose Airport to Lake Shikotsu is about one hour or 50 km (31 miles). Even though the lake is quite close to the airport, there is no aircraft noise and the area is very peaceful. Sapporo, the capital of the island of Hokkaido, is also only about an hour-long drive away, so this wonderful area is very accessible from the major traffic hubs of Hokkaido.
Hokkaido is home to the indigenous Ainu people and there are still many Ainu living in Chitose as well as all around Hokkaido. Most of the place names in Hokkaido come from the Ainu language and Shikotsu and Chitose are no exception to this. What’s interesting, they both come from the same Ainu name! The Ainu name for Lake Shikotsu is si kot, that is, a large (si) hollow (kot), which of course refers to the fact that the lake is a caldera lake. Now, how did si kot turn into Chitose? The Japanese pronunciation of si kot—shikotsu—sounds like the phrase ‘dead bones’ (shikotsu/死骨), so it is not considered a very auspicious name. That’s why the River Shikotsu flowing out of the lake was renamed Chitose (‘a thousand years’ 千歳). The name comes from the saying ‘a crane lives for a thousand years, a tortoise lives for ten thousand years’ (鶴は千年、亀は万年), and the name was chosen because many red-crowned cranes lived in Shikotsu. So, Chitose resembles the original name Shikotsu but has a better vibe. Chitose city is named after the river. The lake was not thought to be such an important place that its name should be turned into something else, so it was able to keep a name that is closer to the original Ainu name.
The unique Lake Shikotsu
Lake Shikotsu (支笏湖) (an outbound link) is the second largest caldera lake in Japan formed in a volcanic eruption about 32,000 years ago. Caldera lakes are formed in the depressions, that is, calderas of volcanoes that have been active in the past. The depression is typically formed when the volcano collapses or experiences a major eruption. The calderas/depressions are usually extremely deep and have very steep sides. This is also true for Lake Shikotsu.
Lake Shikotsu’s circumference is 40.4 kilometers (25.1 miles) and the lake is surrounded by forests and mountains on all sides. There is a road tracing the shoreline on large portions of the lakeshore but there is a lot of completely untouched nature as well. Like most of the caldera lakes, Lake Shikotsu is very deep: the deepest spot on the lake is 363 meters (1,191 feet) and on average the depth is 265.4 meters (870.7 feet). This makes the lake the second deepest lake in Japan.
The depth of the lake also contributes to the fact that Lake Shikotsu is the northernmost lake in Japan that doesn’t freeze during most of the winters. The volume of the water in the lake is so huge that the water temperature stays constant and the lake doesn’t freeze even if the air temperature drops way below zero Celsius (32 Fahrenheit). In addition, the water at the bottom of the lake is relatively warm because of the geothermal activity in the area. However, if freezing cold weather continues for several weeks, the lake might freeze, at least partly. In comparison, there are some lakes on Japan’s main island, Honshu, that do freeze regularly during the winter even if they are not as far in the north as Lake Shikotsu. That is because those lakes are much shallower and have less water in them.
Another unique feature of Lake Shikotsu is its extremely clean and clear water. There is very little sediment flowing into the lake, so its water doesn’t become muddy and the lake’s plankton levels stay low. That’s why the lake has a high degree of transparency, an average of 15 to 20 meters (49 to 65 feet). In fact, it’s one of the most transparent lakes in Japan (number one is Lake Mashu in Teshikaga). When the sunlight touches the highly transparent water, the blue light is scattered more than in water with more sediment in it. That’s why the water of Lake Shikotsu appears extremely blue in color. The lake’s distinctive blue color is so famous that it has its own term, ‘Lake Shikotsu blue.’
If you are also interested to add a tour of some other lakes in Hokkaido to your tailor-made itinerary, you can find inspiration in our earlier blog posts Toya: An adventure among volcanoes, Lake Shikaribetsu: Crystal Clear Waters and Peeping Pikas, Akan-Mashu National Park: Hot Springs and Caldera Lakes, and The Teshikaga Area: Sustainable Traveling and Ainu Culture.
Indulge yourself in the nature of the Shikotsu area
In addition to the charming lake itself, the Lake Shikotsu area boasts beautiful mountain scenery with rivers and smaller lakes. The area is known for its stunning natural landscapes and diverse array of plant and animal life. The mountains surrounding the lake are covered in lush forests and there are many animals living in the area, for example, the Ezo shika deer that you can meet on the lakeside road, especially during twilight (drive carefully!). Here you can read more about the natural attractions around the lake.
The Moss Cave/Moss Gorge/Moss Corridor
Close to the Lake Shikotsu shore, at the foot of Mt Fuppushi, there are several deep and narrow gorges. In one of the gorges, a visitor is greeted by an amazing sight: the Moss cave (Koke no domon/苔の洞門) or rather Moss gorge or canyon or corridor, since the place is under the open sky (there doesn’t seem to be an entrenched English name for this place). The place is just out of a dream: it’s a green tunnel of 10-meter-high moss-covered walls rising high to the sky right out of a fairytale. The gorge is currently closed to the danger of falling rocks and to protect the moss, but the place can still be viewed from a platform.
Lake Okotanpe (Okotanpeko / オコタンペ湖) is a small lake or a pond at the foot of Mount Eniwa about 7 kilometers to the northwest from Lake Shikotsu. Lake Okotanpe was formed during an eruption of Mount Eniwa and it has a circumference of about 5 km (3.1 miles) and a maximum depth of 20.5 m (about 67 feet). Lake Okotanpe is 300 meters (984 feet) higher than Lake Shikotsu. The lake is known for its unique color: When the weather is clear, the lake is cobalt blue and emerald green during cloudy weather.
There are no inflows to the lake but the outflow of Lake Okotanpe is the Okotanpe River: a 3.5 kilometer-long swift river that flows down to Lake Shikotsu. The name of the lake and the river have their origins in the Ainu language. Okotanpe in Ainu means there is a village (kotan) down at the river (o…pe). There used to be a small Ainu village at the point where the River Okotanpe reached Lake Shikotsu. There is a nice natural onsen hot spring at the spot, so the Ainu had their fishing village close to the onsen so that they could enjoy the relaxing baths, too.
The lake is surrounded by a virgin forest and there is only one road leading to the lake and down to the lakeside. Japanese people love to name places or sceneries with the pattern of ‘the best 3 xxx’ or ‘the big 3 xxx’ and it happens that Lake Okotanpe has made its way to one of the listings. It is considered one of the three mysterious lakes in Hokkaido or best kept secret lakes in Hokkaido (the other two being Lake Onneto in Ashoro near Akanko onsen village and Lake Shinonome near Lake Shikaribetsu in eastern Hokkaido). In addition, there is a marshland at the lake’s western shore and because the marshland has special flora and fauna, Lake Okotanpe is a specially designated protected area in the Shikotsu-Toya National park with no access to the public.
The three mountains surrounding Lake Shikotsu: Mt. Eniwa, Mt. Fuppushi, and Mt. Tarumae
Lake Shikotsu is a caldera lake formed in a volcanic eruption, so you can expect to see some volcanoes around the lake, too. The three largest peaks around the lake are Mt. Eniwa (Eniwadake/恵庭岳) on the northwestern side of the lake and Mt. Fuppushi (Fuppushidake/風不死岳) and Mt. Tarumae (Tarumaesan or Tarumaezan/樽前山) on the southern shore. All three are volcanoes, but while Mt. Fuppushi is already extinct, its close neighbor, Mt. Tarumae, is still an active volcano, and there is some volcanic activity on Mt. Eniwa, too, so it’s considered an active volcano.
Mt. Eniwa (1,320 m/4,330 ft) is the highest peak of the three large mountains surrounding Lake Shikotsu. The Ainu call the mountain een iwa ‘sharp rocky mountain’ because of the sharp rock formations at the top of the mountain. The beautifully colored Lake Okotanpe lies at the foot of Mt. Eniwa. There used to be a gold mine at the mountain but it was closed in 2006. Now, the mountain can be used for recreational purposes and there are several hiking trails to the mountain. The most famous of them is the Poropinnay trail that starts at the north side of the mountain. Other popular routes are the Nishizawa trail starting at the shores of Lake Okotanpe and the Takizawa trail with its trailhead at Marukoma onsen.
Mt. Fuppushi (1,102 m / 3,617 ft) on the opposite shore to Mt. Eniwa is the cone-shaped mountain standing right at the southern shore of Lake Shikotsu and dominating the landscape. It’s the oldest of the three volcanoes and is already extinct. There are several deep and narrow gorges at the foot of the mountain and one of them is the so-called Moss cave or Moss gorge introduced above. The name of the mountain comes from the Ainu language hup us i and means ‘a place where Sakhalin fir grows’ but most of the trees fell in a typhoon in 1954, so the appearance of the mountain changed drastically. The most common hiking trail to Mt. Fuppushi comes from Mt. Tarumae but there is also a trail starting on the north side of the mountain.
Mt. Tarumae (1,041 m / 3,415 ft) is the lowest of the three mountains but probably the most popular for hikers and trekkers. It’s also the youngest of the three Lake Shikotsu volcanoes and that’s why there is not much forest at the top of the mountain but there are numerous alpine plants. The mountain stands on the border of Chitose city and Tomakomai city and there are trails starting from both sides of the mountain. The mountain has a distinctive shape: the top of the mountain is flat and there is a lava dome (Tarumae Lava Dome / 樽前ドーム) at the top created in the eruption in 1909. Mt. Tarumae is an A-rank active volcano, which means it is most likely to erupt in the near future (counting in volcano time). The mountain is constantly surveyed and it’s considered safe for visitors, so you can climb the mountain with no worries.
The Chitose River
The Chitose River (Chitosegawa/千歳川) is the only outflow of Lake Shikotsu with its headwaters right next to Lake Shikotsu Onsen Resort. The 108-kilometer-long river then flows east all the way through Chitose city then turns north to reach the Ishikari River, the largest river in Hokkaido, and then finally empties into the Sea of Japan. The Chitose River used to flow to the Pacific Ocean but there was a volcanic eruption and the course of the river was turned and it became a tributary to the Ishikari River. The Ainu call the Chitose River si kot pet or ‘large (si) hollow (kot) river (pet)’. In the name of the river, the hollow doesn’t refer to the caldera of Lake Shikotsu but rather the deep valley the river has carved out in the mountains. As explained earlier, the Japanese changed the name of the river to Chitose because the original name Shikotsu was thought to bring bad luck.
Because the Chitose River gets its water from the extremely clear Lake Shikotsu, also the water in the river is very clean and clear. There are numerous fish living in the river and every year the salmon rise all the way from the sea to lay eggs in the river. The river is known for its beautiful mountain scenery and diverse array of plant and animal life. The Chitose River is also an important source of the region’s agriculture because it provides plenty of water for irrigation and the river is also used to create hydroelectric power.
The Chitose River is extremely important culturally for the indigenous Ainu people. Before modernization, salmon was part of the Ainu staple diet and one of the most important foods for them: the dried salmon helped the Ainu to survive the long and cold Hokkaido winters. The Ainu living in Chitose still show their respect to the salmon every autumn when the fish migrate upstream to lay eggs. The Ainu culture suffered a huge blow when more and more Japanese from mainland Japan moved into Hokkaido and many of their old traditions were even prohibited by law. Catching salmon was one of the prohibitions. However, in recent years, there has been a strong cultural revival movement and the Ainu welcome ceremony for salmon or asir cep nomi (‘the ritual for the new fish’) has been held in Chitose city since 1991. The event is in early September, so if you happen to be in Chitose then, do go and check out the event.
Another interesting way to learn about the Chitose River is to visit the Salmon Hometown Chitose Aquarium. The visitors can view the salmon and other fish living in the river through a huge glass window in the underwater observation room. The salmon migrate upstream in September and October and during those months, the window is packed with salmon. On the other hand, it’s also fun to look at the fries swimming about in the spring before they start their long journey back to the sea.
The best things to do at Lake Shikotsu
So, now that you are hopefully convinced that the Lake Shikotsu area is definitely a place worth adding to your travel bucket list, you might wonder what exactly you can do at Lake Shikotsu. In this section, you can read about the intriguing activities you can engage yourself in at the lake and the sites around it. To make your visit nicer for yourself, other visitors, and the nature of Lake Shikotsu, please follow the Lake Shikotsu rules (an outbound link) before the start of your trip.
The best thing to do at a lake is of course to engage in some activities on the lake and Lake Shikotsu is no exception. And there are several ways to indulge yourself in the beauty of the lake, too. One of the best ways to enjoy the lake is to enter the lake itself and explore the lake by water with a canoeing or kayaking tour. What is even better, make it a clear kayak, that is, a kayak made of see-through material, so you can observe the lake bottom while kayaking. Since the lake doesn’t freeze, you can canoe or kayak any time of the year. Other fun things to do at the lake are stand-up paddle boarding or SUP boarding (which you can also do during any season, also in the winter), and fishing. You can also take a kayak tour on the Chitose river. If you don’t feel like doing all the paddling work yourself but you want to observe the views from the lake, there is also a tourist boat tour starting at Lake Shikotsu Onsen.
The mountains around Lake Shikotsu offer a wonderful chance to view the lake and the surrounding forests from above. The three main mountains around the lake and their surroundings are all hikable and trekkable, Mt. Tarumae being the most popular because it’s also suitable for beginners and children. Hiking Mt. Tarumae and Mt. Fuppushi can also include a visit to the moss cave/gorge/canyon/corridor, whichever you prefer to call it. The road encircling the lakeshore is also nice for biking and of course admiring the beautiful views of the lake. On the lakeshore, there are also some camping grounds, such as Bifue Camping Ground (美笛キャンプ場), that gives outdoor persons an opportunity to stay outside even longer.
Lake Shikotsu and its surroundings are abundant with nature and packed with awe-inspiring sceneries. The great views can be enjoyed anywhere in the area: from the shores of Lake Shikotsu, from a boat or kayak, or canoe from the lake, or from the mountains while trekking and hiking. The dreamlike green moss cave can be reached by a short walk from the lakeshore. Another great spot to enjoy the views is Lake Okotanpe. As mentioned earlier, there is no access to the shores of Lake Okotanpe but there is an observation deck, from which the visitors can enjoy the wonderful view around the lake and the beauty of the lake itself. If you are into photography, Lake Shikotsu offers you many wonderful places to shoot some amazing nature photographs.
Lake Shikotsu and its surroundings are also excellent places for autumn leaves viewing. The best way to enjoy the autumn colors is from the lake, which means going canoeing, kayaking, or boating on the lake. Lake Okotanpe is especially wonderful during the autumn leaves season; the combination of the unique changing color of the lake and the colorful fall foliage reflecting on the lake’s surface is just a breathtaking sight. You can read more about the fall foliage in Hokkaido and autumn leaves viewing especially in the Sapporo area in our earlier blog post Sapporo: The City of Spectacular Fall Leaves.
Take a relaxing bath in an onsen at Lake Shikotsu
One very Japanese way to enjoy the lake area is to soak in an onsen hot spring bath. Onsen (温泉) is the Japanese word for hot spring and it literally means the same as the English counterpart: on/温 (hot) and sen/泉 (spring). Japan has countless hot springs due to volcanic activity all around the country: The hot magma of the volcanoes heats up the groundwater that gushes out of the hot springs. The onsen in Japan are so ubiquitous that the Japanese have developed a whole culture of their own centering around the hot springs.
Many famous hot springs are located in the mountains with beautiful views and onsen resorts have been developed into the best spots, so hot springs are part of sightseeing and tourism. The main function is not, however, to view the hot springs but to bathe in them. The resorts have several different kinds of baths that use the water from the natural hot springs. Different types of onsen waters are said to have different kinds of healing properties but many people take a soak in the baths not just for healing but for relaxation, relieving fatigue, and enjoyment in general. You can say that the onsen baths heal both body and soul. Hokkaido especially has many hot springs, which also means there are many famous onsen resorts on the island. And of course, since there is a lot of volcanic activity around Lake Shikotsu, there are several onsen hot spring spas at Lake Shikotsu, too.
The Lake Shikotsu Onsen (支笏湖温泉) is an onsen resort at the northeastern shore of Lake Shikotsu, at the mouth of the Chitose River. There are several hotels and inns with attached onsen spas in the Lake Shikotsu Onsen, so there are many options to choose from. In addition to the onsen spas, there are restaurants and souvenir shops in the area.
The onsens are open all around the year but in the winter there is something in the Lake Shikotsu Onsen you can’t see during any other season: The Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival (Chitose/Shikotsuko Hyoto Matsuri / 千歳・支笏湖氷濤まつり, literally ‘Shikotsu Lake Ice Wave Festival’) with its beautiful ice sculptures made of the clear blue Lake Shikotsu water. In the day, the ice sculptures appear to be blue, and during the night, there is a beautiful light-up. There is also a Shinto shrine made of ice (Hyoto jinja / 氷濤神社) and an ice slide for children and food stalls to buy some warm food and drinks. The festival has been held yearly since 1976 from late January to mid-February. Watch the video below to get an idea of what ice sculptures look like.
Marukoma onsen (丸駒温泉) is much smaller and very old onsen spa right at the edge of the water, at the western side of the lake close to the foot of Mount Eniwa. There is a wonderful rotenburo (an outdoor onsen bath) at the onsen: the bath is right next to the lake and the view of the lake is just amazing. The bath is at the same level as the lake and has gravel on the bottom, so it feels as if you were sitting in the lake itself, except you are surrounded by nice and hot onsen water instead of the cold lake water.
If you are interested in onsen hopping in Hokkaido, we have other blog posts that introduce the local onsen hot spring spas, too. Take a look at for example the blog posts about Noboribetsu or another post about Noboribetsu, Teshikaga (Kawayu onsen), Lake Shikaribetsu (Lake Shikaribetsu Hot Spring Hotel Fusui and the natural onsen pools), Toya (Lake Toya onsen resort), and Akan-Mashu National Park (Lake Akan onsen town).
Planning a trip to Lake Shikotsu?
Visiting Lake Shikotsu is great during any season. In the spring, the visitors can enjoy the beautiful sceneries from the lake by boating, kayaking, canoeing, or SUPping and of course, the wonderful onsen spas are open to visitors, too. In the summer, the activities centered around the lake—such as camping, SUP boarding, boating, kayaking, and fishing—are popular but summer is also the season for hiking and trekking Mt. Tarumae, Mt. Eniwa, and Mt. Fuppushi. In the autumn, especially popular attractions are the fall foliage and the salmon run in the Chitose river. In the winter, the visitors can enjoy the hot onsen baths and Chitose Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival, and also for example winter SUP boarding if the lake is not frozen. And the scenery is of course always as beautiful as ever.
Lake Shikotsu makes an enjoyable day trip from Sapporo or Chitose, or you can stay for longer and board at one of the local onsen hot spring spas or in the summer, at a camping ground. You can combine the best parts of Hokkaido and Japan in your trip to Lake Shikotsu: enjoying the amazing nature of this beautiful island and indulging yourself in an onsen and Japanese culture. If you would like to add a trip or tour to Lake Shikotsu to your travel plan, don’t hesitate to contact us. We can design together a tailor-made tour that suits best your travel wishes and schedule. Just send us a message from the contact link below and we can get started.