The Gateway to Hokkaido
Muroran, 130km south of Sapporo, overlooks the Uchiura Bay and is surrounded by mountains. It’s the access point for the island of Hokkaido and its capital. With a population of nearly two million, Hokkaidō’s vibrant capital Sapporo is the fifth-largest city in Japan.
It’s worth lingering, as the city is generously endowed with parks and gardens. The mountains that attract skiers and snowboarders rise up to its south, and the dramatic coastline around the Shakotan
Peninsula is less than thirty minutes away. Sapporo is also synonymous with its beer, which has been brewed here since 1891; a visit to the handsome, late nineteenth-century Sapporo Beer Museum and Bier Garten is a must, as is a stroll through the grounds and museums of the Hokkaidō University Botanical Gardens, which date from the same era.
Follow the picturesque coastal road around Uchiura Bay from Muroran and you’ll reach the eastern side of the Shikotsu-Tōya National Park, one of Hokkaidō’s prettiest lakeland and mountain areas, but also the most developed, thanks to its proximity to Sapporo. Both the park’s two main caldera lakes – Tōya-ko to the west and Shikotsu-ko to the east – are active volcanoes and surrounded by excellent hiking trails.
Between the two lakes lies Noboribetsu Onsen, Hokkaidō’s largest hot-spring resort, worth visiting to soak up the otherworldly landscape of bubbling and steaming Jigokudani (Hell Valley).
Pretty as the location is, the best reason for visiting Tōya-ko is to see the nearby active volcano Usu-zan, around 2km south, and its steaming “parasite volcano” Shōwa Shin-zan. You can also take a bus to the Nishiyama Crater Promenade, a 1.3km boardwalk across the recent break in the earth’s crust that ends at an eerily abandoned elementary school.