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Wild Hokkaido
In remote Japan, surrounded by volcanos and brown bears, chasing the fabled golden char.
By Jess McGlothlin

Lake Akan lies in eastern Hokkaido, and is home to a unique natural treasure, marimo algae balls, which form in the lake. It’s also renown for onsen (hot springs), and the charm of the local Ainu culture.

I’m lolling in near-scalding mineral water, a gusty southern wind kicking up steam. Somewhere to the southwest, a typhoon is speeding my way, proceeded by gusty winds and banks of dark clouds that, admittedly, are a bit ominous.

From my vantage in the natural hot springs, which are on the roof of the Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga hotel, it’s an impressive sight. Already, whitecaps are kicking up on the wide expanse of Lake Akan. For now, I settle a bit deeper into the steamy water, feeling my sore muscles protest; after 34 hours of flights from the United States, followed by a morning of two-handed casting, my shoulders are a bit cranky. A white-tailed eagle wheels overhead and I tip my head back, mulling the odd attractions that have drawn me to Japan, fly rods in tow.

The densely wooded country surrounding Kushiro and Lake Akan brings to mind broad, forested Pacific Northwest steelhead rivers, and the rugged countryside reminds one of parts of Russia. Those who imagine Japan only as city sprawl filled with businessmen and neon lights would be surprised—this is rural Japan, a land of Ezo deer, halcyon rivers, dense forests, towering active volcanos, and more than its fair share of large brown bears. Waterways are in abundance and a quick stroll through a local craftsmen’s market shows the fish that swim here are held in regard; carved wooden fish are everywhere, and vendors take great pride in the distinctions between each species. Chief among the carvings is the species I’m looking for—Lake Akan’s “golden” char.

These white-spotted char take on a particular golden coloration on their bellies, fins and jaws. That tint, termed proudly by locals as “champagne gold,” adds a nearly divine-looking glow. The fish fight well and take streamers and nymphs, although during my stay I had one rather spectacular take on an orange Stimulator in the midst of a torrential rainstorm.

Catching a golden char on a dry fly in the shadow of a volcano in the pouring rain is memorable, and that theme is prevalent when fishing the region. Most of Lake Akan’s golden char range from 16 to 20 inches, though fish as long as 36 inches are possible. The freshwater species is native to the area and is not supplemented by fish hatcheries—these char exist in the wild waters of Lake Akan just as they have for centuries. When hooked, their take is more subtle than other char species, but once on the line they show the grittiness of their kin regardless of the continent, char have a mind of their own.

The golden char, however, aren’t the only draw. Lake Akan also boasts populations of large rainbow trout, kokanee salmon and taimen. The surrounding rivers, especially the catch-and-release-only section of the Akan River, are stacked with large, happy and hungry rainbows and the occasional brown. One local angler said the odds of catching a brown are “one in every twenty fishes.”

Ancient volcanos line Lake Akan, and serve as a stark reminder that the island rests along the famed Pacific “Ring of Fire.” They also make for compelling background while fishing for char.

The river looks like something out of a fantasy feature film; overgrown ferns and trees lean precariously over the tumbling water, yielding to a rocky river bottom strewn with volcanic stones. The water is clear, lending itself to sight fishing . . . no blind-casting in these waters. At one point while fishing the river, I edge along a hole bordering a green bank and spy a veritable throng of fish stacked in the clear water—six large rainbows, a smallish taimen tucked in their midst, and three or four cruising carp, likely pushed down from the lake during the recent storm. I quietly back away and then, no more than five minutes later, cast into the pile-up. I immediately hook up. These fish are more than obliging.

“They love big fly… this area, these fish,” said Dameon Takada, my local host for the week. He grew up on these waters, fishing and hunting the local woodlands with his father. And after a stint living abroad in Canada as a rugby coach, he’s back and on the water. A veritable wizard at the fly-tying vise, Dameon knows what his fellow anglers favor—large (size 10-12), finely tied caddis, though an old series of Stimulators from my American fly box tempt the fish up as well. It’s one of those fisheries where casting accuracy outweighs pattern choice; one gets the feeling these fish will eyeball most anything reasonable that’s been presented well.

Summertime in northern Japan and on Hokkaido, which is Japan’s largest northern island and rests south of Kamchatka, means long days and good fishing. The season on Lake Akan runs from May 1 to the end of November, and the river season from May 1 through October.

“The middle of June until July 10 is very good,” Takada said. “We have big mayfly hatches—the first is larger insects; the second is smaller and orange.” Small midge hatches occur from mid-May to mid-June, and when conditions are right the terrestrial fishing is productive too.

“Morning and evening match the hatch; daytime terrestrial,” local chef and precision angler Masaaki Nofuji said, adding that the fishery sees a good October caddis hatch as well. He speaks very little English and I virtually no Japanese, but thanks to the oddly universal language of fly-fishing, we can still talk hatches.

I spend my last full day in Japan driving through the countryside with Nofuji and Takada, listening to them speak comfortably in Japanese while I hang out the rear window, shooting images of the surrounding countryside. It’s almost eerily comfortable; rolling hills are broken up by farmland and dairies, the horizon bracketed by a cozy layer of clouds promising more rain later in the day. We fish our way through several of Nofuji’s favorite rivers, stopping to cook up some midday ramen in the open air. This is small stream-tromping, 3-weight rod territory in tight quarters.

At one point we pause atop a bridge, skulking forward to peer through the tight trees into the clear waters below. Several rainbow trout fin beneath us, moving gently through the current. We later sneak down the bank, moving into position for a tight cast into the lane. Despite our efforts, the fish refuse to play. It goes to show that even in a fishery such as this, sometimes there are off days.

The winding country road back to Lake Akan takes us past more pastoral dairies and corn fields, swaths of the crop blown down in memory of the storm that blew in while I soaked in the springs. Military convoys canvas the roads; camouflage and utility trucks a harsh reminder of a reality beyond the farmland . . . 1,126 kilometers away lies North Korea. The week prior to my visit, alarms went off throughout Hokkaido as a ballistic rocket was launched from the neighboring country and flew over the island before crashing into the Pacific. The Independent recently termed Hokkaido as “the Japanese island most at risk from North Korean missiles.”

But the topic dwindles in the face of fishing. When I ask Takada how locals feel about the constant threat from North Korea, he shrugs, states plainly that Kim Jong-un is “crazy” and that he’s not going to let the threat of nuclear war affect his fishing.

That threat, and with Russia being only 47 kilometers away, makes residents of this idyllic countryside no strangers to the challenges posed to their beloved natural environment. While Japan feels like one of the safer locales I’ve visited in years, when an emergency alert alarm goes off in the hotel on the day of the typhoon I wonder if it’s a weather warning or if we have minutes until a missile hits.

This area of Hokkaido sees very few Western tourists and most travelers are from Japan, Korea and Taiwan. From the time I depart Tokyo’s Haneda airport to the time I return to the city eight days later, I’ve seen two other Westerners. The restful, small-town feel of the region is a powerful break from the bustle of daily life, and the relatively small community of local anglers, teamed with virtually no visiting angler traffic, means the rivers and lakes receive minimal angling pressure.

Today, worldwide, there are very few quality fisheries that have not been overly developed. More so each day, it’s common to compete against other anglers for fewer fish, and to see tired, over-fished species with markings from ill handling. One stroll through the woods flanking the Akan River serves as a reminder that wild places—and wild fish—still exist.

Late in the week, drenched by torrential rain after attempts to find coffee, I wonder if this area could become overrun by anglers, or worse, destroyed by nuclear weapons. For now, I’m not worried—in the relaxed pace of Lake Akan, it’s easy to accept that things are as they are. So I sip my canned coffee, watch the storm, and the world goes on.

Local culture is strong in Hokkaido, and the region sees very few American tourists. From celebrations of the local Ainu culture to the joy of a simple bowl of homemade ramen, celebrations of Japan’s northern island are plentiful.

Logistics

Getting There: The nearby airport of Kushiro (one hour from Lake Akan) is an easy, hour-and-a-half flight from Tokyo’s Haneda airport. Air Do, a local Japanese air carrier specializing in flights to and from Hokkaido, is easy to fly with and accommodated over-sized bags without fuss.

Lodging: Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga or its attached sister hotel, Tsuruga Wings, offer comfortable accommodations in both traditional Japanese or Western-style rooms. Lodging at both hotels includes access to the local natural hot springs. Fast internet makes it possible to stay in touch with the outside world if desired.

Guides: The Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga can connect visiting anglers with Takada, who has strong English skills and is a companionable guide. Junichi Okeya is the best local guide with the Lake Akan Commercial Fisherman’s Association and also has a shop a few blocks from the waterfront. Local lodges will readily connect anglers with Mr. Okeya.

The Akan Yuku no Sato Tsuruga hotel, home to comfortable Japanese-style rooms, various onsen hot baths, and excellent food. This was my home base during my trip to Japan.

Jess McGlothlin
For more than fifteen years, photographer and writer Jess McGlothlin has worked in the fly-fishing industry in several countries. Her work has taken her around the globe, leading her to chase fish on six continents, and she still somehow enjoys airports. See more at jessmcglothlin.com