Amazing views and out-of-this-world landscapes are what Japan is known for. And Lake Toya offers them both! This lake formed within a caldera is already a unique feature itself, and added in with the beautiful scenery and the hot springs — it makes for a lovely day-trip, or a quick stay, or even a long extended vacation just to rest and relax.
My Hokkaido Road Trip (Pt.3 of 3)
I was in Hokkaido in the summer of 2019 with my mother and her friends. I was tasked as their ‘guide’ — to drive the ladies all around Hokkaido, to take them to the local attractions and have them sample the most delicious Japanese food. It wasn’t that I knew much about Hokkaido, it was only my second time heading back to this northern Japanese island. However, I love planning and taking charge of my trips, so I figured that this would be an interesting (and very different) travel experience on the road! The laketown of Lake Toya was the last stop on our tour around the island — and the final part of this three-part series of articles on my road trip around Hokkaido. The other two places that we visited were the flower fields of Hokuryu, Furano and Biei, and the onsen ‘hell’ town of Noboribetsu.
Lake Toya (洞爺湖)
Lake Toya is a natural wonder located in the Shikotsu-Toya National Park on the western portion of Japan’s Hokkaido Island. This volcanic caldera lake is almost circular, measuring 10km from east-west and 9km from north-south. It sits between the towns of Toyako and Sobetsu. Mount Usu, an active stratovolcano that last erupted in 2000, lies on the southern rim of the lake’s caldera; and there’s also an island in the center of the lake called Nakajima. Lake Toya is said to be the second most transparent lake and third largest caldera lake in Japan, and it never ices! The volcanic activity that surrounds this area makes it another popular hot spring (onsen) spot in Hokkaido.
Lake Toya is located about two hours from Hokkaido’s capital city of Sapporo. However, we were traveling from the nearby Noboribetsu, so our journey to the Toyako Onsen town on the lake’s southern bank only took about 45 minutes.
Toya Kanko Hotel
We drove straight to our hotel in town, the Toya Kanko Hotel. It was still bright when we arrived, so we could still see the lake in front of the hotel. I wanted to sleep and wake up to the view of Lake Toya, so I deliberately chose this particular hotel (despite it being a little costly); and I have to say, what a gorgeous view it was! We booked the ryokan-style room, and our beddings were the thick and comfy traditional Japanese futons. Our room also came with its own private bathroom; even though I took my showers at the hotel’s onsen (because a hot spring dip in the evening and morning is the way to go)!
The hotel stay included dinner and breakfast. Dinner was a delicious set meal — we had shrimp salad for starters, sashimi, rice and meat hot pot as mains, and a dessert fruit platter. And I paired my meal with the local Sapporo beer. Breakfast was an amazing buffet spread — Japanese style.
Lake Toya Summer Fireworks
During summer (from May to October) at 8.45pm every evening, there is a beautiful fireworks display that happens on Lake Toya. Most visitors head over to the lakeside to admire this nightly spectacle; but since we were staying at a hotel by the lake, with a room facing it — we were rewarded with the most amazing view from our room. The fireworks display was no simple one either — it was actually pretty spectacular! I sat by the window and watched the entire performance in comfort.
A Day in Lake Toya
We started the next day pretty early. After filling ourselves with the buffet breakfast in the morning, mum and I walked out for an exploration of Lake Toya. The other ladies had decided to laze in and head to the onsen — but for me, there were just so many things to see and do in the lovely weather outside!
Lake Toya Cruise
First activity of the day — a pleasure boat cruise around the lake! The cruises around Lake Toya depart from Toyako town two times an hour; and goes around the lake for about 50 minutes. It’s amazing to just sail along its calm waters while admiring the island of Nakajima in the middle, as well as the views of volcanic Mount Usu and the Showa Shinzan lava dome in the distance. We started off riding on the Espoir, which resembles a floating castle; and then returned after our stop at Nakajima on a smaller boat. The pleasure boats also do cruises on the lake at night. The day cruise cost JYP1420 (US$13/MYR57) for adults, and half the price for kids.
The cruises make a quick stop at Nakajima Island, and we had the choice to disembark on the island. Mum and I decided to explore the island for about 20 minutes until the next boat comes along for our ride back. Nakajima Island is actually a cluster of four small islands — Bentenjima, Kannonjima, Manjujima and Oshima. Three of them are inhabited, and we were dropped off at Oshima, the biggest of them all. The island is home to a small museum, the Toyako Forest Museum; but we noticed that everything was in Japanese so we decided to skip it. Instead, we just walked along the shore of the island, soaking in the serene atmosphere and the view in front of us. We only had 20 minutes after all! There was hardly anyone around.
After the pleasure boat ride, mum and I decided to take a stroll along Lake Toya to enjoy the morning views. We found a signboard marking a spot as one of the ‘eight views of Lake Toya’. From there, we could see the lake, Nakajima, and also another mountain I assume to be the Mt. Yotei active volcano… in the far, far off distance. We also passed a hot springs hut that allowed visitors to soak their feet in its waters — a free foot bath if you want! There are also many sculptures, statues and signboards dotted along the lakeside.
Toyako Visitor Centre
After that, we returned to the hotel to join the rest of the ladies and to check-out. All our luggage went into our extremely packed trunk (too much shopping, really), and we were off to the next stop on my list in Toyako town. I heard that the Toyako Visitor Centre has an interesting volcano museum, and I thought that we’d go check it out.
The Toyako Visitor Centre has a very pretty modern wooden exterior, but unfortunately it was under construction during our visit. Inside, we were greeted with a pretty impressive exhibition area that displays comprehensive information of Lake Toya, its formation, and the organisms found in the lake and its surrounding areas. And it was only when I walked up to the second-floor of the building (it’s an open concept) that I noticed that the floor on the first-floor displays a gigantic aerial photo map of the area around Lake Toya. That was pretty impressive.
Volcanic Science Museum
The museum within the visitor centre is called the Volcanic Science Museum. I had an interesting visit; learning about the volcanic Mount Usu and its history of eruptions, how it erupts, the destruction it has brought throughout the years, and preventive procedures currently in place against a future disaster. There are photos, models, actual items that survived the eruptions, and a video presentation that shows the eruption of year 2000. Entrance into the Toyako Visitor Centre is free; but the museum entry costs JYP600 (US$5.5/MYR25) per adult, and half price for children.
Wakasaimo Sweet Shop
Time to shop for some local souvenirs! I have to say that the Japanese really know how to make, package and market their sweets and desserts — it is so hard to resist buying these goodies to bring home. In Lake Toya, Wakasaimo is the area’s most popular locally-made snack. Sold in Lake Toya since 1930, it is a white soybean paste ‘cake’ that tastes like sweet potato.
History says that it used to be difficult to grow sweet potato in Hokkaido, and therefore the founder decided to ‘create’ his own sweet potato. He used Ofuku beans (grown around Lake Toya) as the paste, added seaweed to replicate the texture, and then baked it with egg soy sauce as the top layer. This Wakasaimo recipe is exactly the same now as it was back then. A box of 6 Wakasaimo costs about JYP778 (~US$7/MYR31); and it’s sold in 9’s and 12’s too. The shop also sells other popular Hokkaido sweets and snacks.
Lunch: Ramen at Ippontei
Buffet breakfast that morning was pretty filling, so our lunch time was slightly later than usual. I was craving for some ramen noodles, and Lake Toya has a famous ramen restaurant that was included in the Hokkaido MICHELIN Guide for a couple of previous years. It is called the Ramen Ippontei. Located along Yosomiyama-dori Street, the only thing marking the restaurant is a small banner and a door along a single-storied empty building. The place is tiny, so it was packed when we arrived. The counter tables only seat single or double patrons, so our group of five were led into a cramped Japanese-style room.
I ordered their signature Black Soy Sauce Ramen; and the ladies decided to all go with a different choice — the Salt Ramen, Miso Ramen, Spicy Miso Ramen and the Red Soy Sauce Ramen. We also added a plate of Gyoza, so I suppose we had a taste of almost everything on the menu! And boy, was it deliciously good. You hardly can go wrong with ramen in Japan. A bowl of ramen at Ippontei costs about JYP700-800 (~US$7/MYR30).
After lunch, we drove about 10 minutes out of town towards the foot of Mount Usu, the active volcano of Lake Toya. There is a ropeway that takes visitors close to the mountain’s summit — and I was excited to head up yet another active volcano! The Usuzan Ropeway costs JYP1800 (US$17/MYR73) for a return trip. The first observation deck that we arrived at offers panaromic views of the beautiful Lake Toya and beyond; as well as the nearby Showa Shinzan, a lava dome (also active) that was created after the 1945 eruption of Mount Usu.
After lingering for a moment to really soak in the views — we then followed a trail up a long flight of stairs that led us to the volcano’s second observation deck. From here, we were greeted by gorgeous views of the ocean; and Mount Usu’s largest crater, formed in the 1977 eruption. By the time we made our way back down the volcano, it was almost closing time — marking the end of our adventures around Lake Toya.
The End of the Road Trip
We then drove the 1.5-hour journey towards the city of Chitose — our final transit stop in Hokkaido. We stayed at the Air Hostel LLC that night. The hostel room we booked had a double-decker bed with four futons underneath — just enough to fit the five of us. Facilities were basic, and it was sufficient enough for our quick stopover. I had decided to spend the night in this airport city as our flight was extremely early the next morning; and we also needed to return the car before heading to the New Chitose Airport for our flight home. I really didn’t want to leave!
I had a wonderful time at Lake Toya. It was the last stop of our summer road trip around Hokkaido, and I’m glad that it was spent in this serene and peaceful lake. Lake cruises, lakeside walks and breathtaking views at every turn — isn’t that the best way to slow down after a fun-filled few days exploring?
And once again, I fell in love with Hokkaido (my first time on the island was also amazing); and I’m so so sure that I will be back again soon. I really need to explore the island in yet another season! Read about my other Hokkaido adventures here.