Tazawa-ko: Akita’s Deep Blue Jewel
Facts, Logistics & Fun
Tazawa Lake in Akita Prefecture is a near-perfect circle – and a perfect representation of Akita itself: unassuming, unspoiled and sublimely spectacular. Surrounded by mountains and laced with legend, this million-year-old volcanic crater offers the comfortable beauty of natural Japan without all the crowds.
Upon closer examination, we also see that unassuming Tazawa is quietly decorated with quirky details. But first…
A FEW FACTS
Initially thought by some to be an impact crater from a meteorite, research into the lake’s depths uncovered geological evidence of a tremendous volcanic eruption 1.4 million years ago that led to the lake’s present form. With no natural inflow or outflow, Tazawa’s waters consist entirely of eons of rain and snow.
Snowy scene: Tazawa-ko Never Freezes
With a surface area of roughly 10 square miles (26km2) Tazawa-ko sits well down the list of Japan’s largest lakes. But at 423 meters (1,388ft) she is Japan’s deepest. Drop Tokyo Tower into the lake and the top would still be 90 meters below the surface. Lake Tazawa sits at 249 meters above sea level, which means the deepest parts of the lake reach down lower than the waves crashing into the shores of Honshu. This translates into the lake never freezing over, no matter how harsh the Tohoku winter.
Both the Akita Shinkansen and the local Tazawako Line stop in Tazawako Station, just east of the lake. A quick bus ride from the station brings you right to the water and a modest oasis of convenience sprawling lazily around the lake area’s sole traffic light. The Tazawako Youth Hostel, the Tazawa Lodge and the Kashintei Shirahama Hotel can all be reached on foot in the time it takes to unwrap a store-bought rice ball. If you need something a bit more substantial look around for the ubiquitous ramen, soba and udon flags.
Head to the Dock for a Ride on the Lake
Here on the eastern shore you’ll also find the Senboku Shiei Tazawako Campground, complete with concessions, canoe and kayak rentals and as much grass as you’ll find anywhere this side of Yoyogi Park. It is also interesting to note that this campground is located in the perfect spot, geographically speaking; whether you take the road around the north side or the south side of the lake, you are 10 kilometers away from Tatsuko, the star of the western shore (we’ll talk about her in a moment). If you prefer a room with a view of the lake head north from the traffic light to the Tazawa Lakeside Hotel, located across Route 38 from the actual side of the lake.
This eastern shore area is also the jumping off point for most of what Tazawako has to offer. Bicycles are available for rent; lake cruises embark from the dock halfway between the traffic light and the campground; or jump on a bus and set off on a semi-circumnavigation of what the Ainu called Tapukopu, the ‘hill with a raised circular top’.
AND NOW FOR THE FUN
A well-kept and relatively flat road runs around the 20-kilometer perimeter of the lake. If you want to make your way around Tazawako’s entirety you’ll need a bicycle or a car; the buses pull a U-turn at Tatsuko and return the way they came. There is always the (illegal) option of sticking out your thumb but chances are walking would be faster.
Find a Spot to Get Your Feet Wet!
Making your way toward the northern side of the lake brings you first to the 300-year-old Horai-no-Matsu pine tree. 300 years doesn’t break any records but it’s a really nice tree. Route 38 itself is nice too, running through patches of forest that give way to wide views of Tazawa and, if the weather is cooperating, the mountains beyond.
The View from Gazo-no-Ishi
Goza-no-Ishi Shrine sits along the north shore on a small wooded hill, separated from the lake by the road. On the grassy banks of the lake stands an orange torii. Take in the serenity and the same view of the surrounding mountains that the feudal lords of centuries past enjoyed. If you’ve opted for the sightseeing boat to get around, this will be your first stop on the route.
Continuing around to the western shore you’ll see a lot more forest than lake until reaching Katajiri and the famed golden statue of Tatsuko, the central figure in the Legend of Tatsuko which, after many generations of oral tradition, has become shrouded in mystery; only the common theme of a beautiful girl-turned-dragon persists across the many variations in existence. Make sure, by the way, to have your camera ready. A shot of Tatsuko with the lake behind her and Mt. Komagatake rising up in the distance is perhaps the penultimate Tazawako panorama.
The Penultimate View
As the de facto symbol of Tazawa, Tatsuko comes across as rather diminutive, moreso when you consider the tourist trappings that have risen up around her – or, to be more exact, to her left. Tatsuko stands off to the side, appearing to gaze in wonder over at the tour buses rumbling into the vast parking lot of the Rose Park Hotel, tourists stumbling in and out of the Sakurada Noodle Shop, Saito’s Filial Piety Liquor Store (there’s got to be a story behind that) and the ‘Rose Food & Gift’, which is approximately twenty times the size of her neighbor, the waterside Ukuki Shrine.
If you’ve taken the bus, this is where your tour ends as your coach will do a U-turn and head back around the north side of the lake and back to the traffic light. If you are touring by boat you will be headed back as well. Only by bike or car will you see the southern half of the 20-kilometer loop around Tazawako and, since Tazawa Lake is surrounded by mountains, plenty of lightly-trodden hiking options.
Onsen: Relax High Above Tazawa
If you are at the mercy of the boat or the bus, don’t despair. The most popular high-altitude destination is Komagatake, accessible by buses running from the eastern oasis right up into the hills – and then up a winding 12% grade that, while possible by bicycle, is recommended only with some hesitation. As you near the trailhead – which doubles as Tazawako’s ski area in winter – you’ll find more overnight accommodations as well as several onsen, with a rotemburo at Mizusawa Onsen. Jump off the bus at the parking lot terminus and head on up the trail for some views that will make you glad you came all this way.
As long as the weather is cooperating.