A beautiful lake can be enjoyed all year round, of course. But having grown up on the Great Lakes, I know how fun going to the lake is in summer. The near unbearable (for someone from a colder climate, at least) heat and humidity of Japanese summers will only get worse, so spending time on the water is an excellent way to stay cool outside this season.
Luckily, Japan has no shortage of beautiful lakes. The Fuji Five Lakes offer spectacular views of Mount Fuji, and Hokkaido boasts some of the clearest lakes in the world. And as home to about 10% of the world’s volcanoes, many of Japan’s lakes are volcanic lakes—either caldera lakes, formed in a collapsed volcano, or created by volcanic dams.
However, most of the large natural lakes in Japan are distributed throughout north and central Japan, so those in southern regions like Tokyo will have to travel to access them.
Don’t know where to start? Here are five lakes in Japan great for staying stay cool this summer.
1. Lake Toya
This caldera lake in Hokkaido is one of Japan’s best-known lakes, particularly for its transparency. It was formed from a volcanic eruption 110,000 years ago, forming a nearly circular caldera with Nakajima Island located right in the middle, giving the lake a donut shape.
Due to its depth of up to 180 meters, the lake’s surface never freezes over despite Hokkaido’s harsh winters. The name “Toya” comes from the Ainu expression to ya, meaning lakeshore. It is part of Shikotsu-Toya National Park and also features Mt. Usu, an active volcano located on the lake’s southern edge which last erupted in 2000.
Lake Toya was the location of the G8 summit in 2008, and the Windsor Hotel Toya Resort and Spa served as the host. But the lake and its surroundings offer much more than fancy hotels and picturesque views. There are many opportunities for hiking, camping, and fishing in the area, and many onsen in the town of Toyako offer lake views. You can also take the ropeway to the peak of Mt. Usu to get panoramic views of the lake.
2. Lake Tazawa
The deepest lake in Japan at 423 meters is a caldera lake in Akita Prefecture that was created after a massive eruption 1.4 million years ago. It is also known for the changing color of its water, which can appear indigo or jade depending on the season, and for the bronze statue of Tatsuko, a local legend. Tatsuko was a young woman who prayed for eternal youth and beauty but was instead cursed to turn into a dragon. She then became the lake goddess after plunging herself into the lake. Another famous landmark is the torii gate to Goza no Ishi shrine, where local lords used to come for inspiration from the striking blue water.
Much of the area around the lake remains undeveloped, but plenty of shops and restaurants are located on the lake’s eastern side. From here you can also board sightseeing boats that operate tours from April until November, or rent a bike to take the two to three-hour ride around the lake. The area around the lake also offers hot spring resorts and camping, as well as Akita’s largest ski resort overlooking the lake.
3. Lake Chuzenji
Not discovered until 782 by a hiking priest, Lake Chuzenji near Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture is Japan’s highest natural lake. It was created 20,000 years ago when Mt. Nantai, Nikko’s sacred volcano, erupted and blocked the Yukawa River. This also created Kegon Falls, the most famous of several waterfalls in Nikko and the only exit for the lake’s waters. The falls are located in the hot spring town Chuzenji Onsen on the eastern side, and on the eastern shore are the Italian and British Embassy Villas. During the late 19th and early 20th century Chuzenji became a popular spot for European embassies to build vacation homes, and today these two villas are open to the public.
Lake Chuzenji was a fashionable spot for villas due to its high elevation, which makes it a refuge from the summer heat. But it is also a particularly popular spot in autumn due to its spectacular foliage, as most of the lakeshore is forested and undeveloped. Hilly hiking trails circle the 25-kilometer circumference of the lake, and sightseeing cruises are popular as well. For a view, a winding road up in the mountains leads to observation decks with panoramic views of the beautiful lake and surrounding mountainous scenery.
4. Lake Motosu
One of the Fuji Five Lakes, Lake Motosu offers a spectacular view of Mt.Fuji reflected on its surface. Of course, so do the other four, but a particular view of this lake is currently featured on the 1000 yen bill, and used to be depicted on the ¥5,000 bill, as well. Motosu is less popular and its shore less developed than the nearby Lake Kawaguchi, making it the better option for hiking, camping, and water sports. Windsurfing is a popular activity on the lake, and visitors can also ride a small cruise boat with underwater windows that resemble a yellow submarine.
Compared to the other four Fuji lakes, Motosu is the deepest and in the middle for surface area. Along with Lake Sai and Lake Shoji, it used to be part of a much larger lake, but after an eruption of Mt. Fuji in the 9th century, massive lava flows split the prehistoric lake into three. The three lakes are still connected by underground waterways, and there is a hiking trail leading from Lake Motosu to nearby Lake Shoji, with viewpoints along the way.
5. Lake Biwa
No list of lakes to visit in Japan would be complete without its largest lake, Lake Biwa. Located in Shiga Prefecture and comprising 1/6th of the prefecture’s area, Lake Biwa is also an ancient lake at 4 million years old, and according to estimates, it is the 13th oldest lake in the world. Throughout Japanese history, it has frequently been referenced in Japanese literature, particularly poetry and battle accounts, due to Kyoto’s proximity to the lake. It is believed the name comes from a stringed instrument called a biwa which resembles the lake’s shape.
Because of its sheer size, there are countless activities and experiences available around Lake Biwa’s 235 kilometers of shoreline. Its most famous spot is the floating torii gate of Shirahige Shrine. Nearby, the scenic Omi-Maiko beach in Otsu is pristine as well as easily accessible, and windsurfing and barbecue pits are available there. Around the lake, there are several cruise boats and ferries, including the glamorous Michigan cruise offering food and entertainment. Otherwise, all around there are plenty of spots for camping and fishing, and for renting canoes or kayaks.