Hiking Lake Toya: A Day on Nakajima

On the final day of last September’s hiking trip to Hokkaido, with a little more than half a day to kill before my train departed for Tokyo, my friend Ido and I headed out to Lake Tōya for one last hike.

Tōyako (Lake Tōya) is a volcanic crater lake in southern Hokkaido that measures 10km in diameter (west to east – it’s “only” 9km north to south). On a clear day, you get a nice view of Mt. Yōtei from the shore:

Mt. Yotei from the south shore of Tōyako

“Nakajima” (central island) is actually a group of four islands that sit at the center of the lake. Our target for the day was the largest island, called Ōshima (“large island” – creativity for the win).

Nakajima, with a Yōtei photobomb to the left

The usual way to access Nakajima–and the one we used–is by ferry; ferries leave from the dock on the south shore about every 30-45 minutes throughout the daylight hours.

Nakajima – can you see the ferry?

As the ferry headed away from shore, we looked back at Mt. Usu, an active volcano that last erupted in 2001. You can visit the crater via trails and a ropeway; unfortunately, I didn’t have time to make that climb this trip (but it’s always good to leave something for the next time…)

Mt. Usu from the ferry on Lake Tōya

Seagulls accompanied the ferry during the whole 30-minute trip. Before we set out, Ido mentioned that visitors regularly feed them from the ferry’s decks–both by throwing snacks in the water and by holding them up so the seagulls can swoop down and take them from people’s hands. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

One of our many winged escorts

Oshima sits to the north of one of the smaller islands, so the ferry sails between them before docking.

Heading between the islands en route to Oshima

The hike was our real reason for the trip, but it was worth it for the ferry ride alone.

Mt. Yōtei, half hidden in the clouds.

Tōyako is the second-clearest lake on Hokkaido, and one of the largest lakes in Japan that never freezes. Its original, Ainu name was Kimun-to (lake in the mountains), but the Japanese settlers renamed it Tōya after the Ainu words for “land beside the lake.”

The gulls stayed near the ferry for the entire 30-minute trip.

The ferry takes about 30 minutes to cross the lake–times vary a little depending on conditions, but on the day we went, the lake was calm, so the trip was fairly fast. (Apparently, they do cancel the ferries during storms, high winds, and in other dangerous conditions, so be sure to check before you go if the weather or the forecast is questionable.)

Foliage on Oshima

Although the foliage hadn’t yet begun to change color, some early yellows and hints of orange and red were appearing in the trees.

The ferry dock on Oshima

There are no hotels or ryokan on Oshima–it’s a day trip destination only; we arrived at 11 a.m., in order to have enough time to hike the longest of the island’s three hiking trails and catch a return ferry in time to make the 3:25 p.m. train* at Tōya station. (* I would not have made the train if I’d had to rely on public transportation from the lake–Ido drove me to the station in the Hokkaido Nature Tours van; if you rely entirely on public transport, check the schedules and plan to allow more time.)

Protected forest on Oshima

When the ferry landed, we wasted no time hitting the trail. All three of Oshima’s hiking trails start at the visitor center, where you have to sign in and let the staff know which trail you plan to hike. The shortest route takes only 30 minutes, while the longest one (which circles most of the way around the island) takes 2 to 3 hours, depending on your hiking speed.

All three trails follow the same path–the longer one just keeps going beyond the point where visitors taking the shorter two routes turn back.

We opted for the longest trail, which wound uphill through the forest, crossed through a meadow, and then headed uphill once more, toward the site of the famous Sakhalin Spruce that was once the symbol of Nakajima, and designated one of the “100 Forest Giants of Japan.”

Unfortunately, a massive typhoon knocked down the famous spruce in 2004; however, a sapling that grew from the original tree is now being tended on the site, as a replacement for its lost parent.

The first view of the lake through the trees

About 40 minutes after leaving the visitor center, and after visiting the site of the fallen tree, we caught our first glimpse of Lake Tōya through the trees from the trail. Oshima is so heavily forested that we couldn’t see the water from the trail at all until this point.

From there, the trail descended fairly quickly to the water’s edge–and then paralleled the coast all the way back around to the visitor center.

One of many beautiful spots–we stopped here for a snack.

The second half of the walk offered some of the best lake views I’d ever seen from a trail.

This spot really shows the clarity of the water.

We stopped to skip stones and admire the clarity of the water from one of the island’s pebbled beaches. (More specifically, Ido skipped stones and I watched. I’ve tried for years, but I just can’t make a rock do anything but sink.)

Early autumn foliage colors peeking through the green

It was easy to imagine how nice the foliage would look in a few more weeks, when the autumn colors showed up in earnest. The island closes in the winter, but it’s probably beautiful in any season.

A section of forested trail

Most of the trail is forested and nicely shady; between that and the proximity to the water, it’s probably nicely temperate, even in summer.

We reached the visitor center with just enough time to grab a bowl of spicy curry before our ferry.

One of the Tōya ferries

All in all, it was a great way to spend my last day in Hokkaido–Oshima is an easy hike, without much change in elevation and fairly smooth trails. I’d definitely hike it again, if I found myself in the area with time to make the trip.

Hike Info: 

Access/Trailhead: Nakajima Visitor Center (Via Ferry)

Elevation Gain/Loss: 127m / 128m

Distance: 6.8 km

Time Spent: 2.25 hours

Notes to the wise: Check the ferry schedule before you go; there’s a restaurant at the visitor center on Nakajima, which sells both lunch and dessert, but take food with you if you plan to eat on the trail, as there’s no place to buy “portable food” on the island.

2 thoughts on “Hiking Lake Toya: A Day on Nakajima

  • February 1, 2022 at 6:41 pm

    Hallo, Hallo Ms Spann,

    I wanted to send over a brief note to let you know I’m thrilled to hear about the 8th novel — I’ve lost track of several series over the past few years (2020-22) as a lot of different things were going on in my life personally whilst I returnt to work in 2021. Ergo, I didn’t realise the 8th was going to release – gives me good reason to get current on my readings of a series you already know love and can’t wait to revisit. Your photography always is inspiring to me and I’m just thankful to hear how much you’ve been enjoying being in Japan — as a writer and as someone who found her serendipity along the way, too. I can’t wait to hear more about what inspired this 8th volume of the series as much as I am grateful there are still more stories yet to be read/written as I am not yet ready to ‘let’ go of my beloved characters. Sending friendship and gratitude.

    • February 7, 2022 at 7:19 pm

      Hello Jorie! It’s delightful to hear from you – and I’m glad to hear you’re looking forward to the new Hiro book. I am too; it’s one of my favorite adventures with Hiro and Father Mateo, and I hope you like it too!

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