Roadtrip to Hokkaido: Looking for the natives (Pt. 1)

If you are good with hints, then you probably noticed already that a post about Hokkaido was long overdue. In previous posts, you already got a sneak peek of what spring roads look like in the far north, as well as understood more about the climate of the northern parts of Japan (use google-translate if your Greek is rusty). The key takeaway about the history of Hokkaido is that 1) it is the second-largest island of Japan, bigger than it looks on the map, 2) it is close to Russia and Sakhalin island, 3) it was officially annexed by Japan some 100+ years ago, so the native population remains on the island. It is shaped like an inverse triangle, with 3 airports at the corners, namely at Chitose, Kushiro and Asahikawa. We arrive at the southernmost one, New Chitose airport, and head straight north-east, to the marvelous Ainu mountain ranges. The goal is lake Akan, hidden away between Mt. Oakan and Mt. Meakan, with its partner Mt. Akan-Fuji. A pair of deer in the middle of the road welcomed me (more like they were checking me out) to the village.

Map of the area around Mt. Akan
View of Mt. Meakan and Mt. Akan-Fuji on the way to Lake Akan

In the past, Hokkaido was called Ezo and it was inhabited by an indigenous population, the Ainu, who referred to their lands as Ainu Mosir (Quiet land of the people). The land of the people is in contrast to the land of the spirits, Kamuy Mosir. The Kamuy can manifest in the human world, usually as bears or owls. Specifically, the Ussuri brown bears play an important role in Ainu culture and are the center of the important but violent Iomante ceremony (a bear cub is killed with arrows so that the spirit is separated from its wordly flesh and returns to the spirit world). The way of the Kamuy dictates that everything happens for a reason. If you spill orange juice on the floor, you don’t need to fret over it, the kamuy wanted some juice and took it. You might have seen photographs of Ainu, of women with tattoos around their mouths, the pain of the ink being a way to prepare them for the pain of childbirth.

Poster for the theatrical performance ‘Lost Kamuy’

The Ainu were living quietly, having trade relationships with northern Honshu, until around 14th centuries when a conquest started by Takeda Nobuhiro and Ezo fell to the hands of Matsumae clan. Wars continued and peaked with Shakushain’s revolt during the 1600s, when the great leader organized all the Ainu tribes against the Matsumae. The Ainu lost to the samurai, surrendered and Shakushain was murdered by the Matsumae while drinking with them after the peace talks. Although the Ainu enjoyed mutual trade for many years, gradually they became underlings, were extorted and considered inferior. The policy of the Tokugawa shogunate was to forcibly assimilate Ainu, resulting in a great decrease in their numbers. Japanese people moved en masse from Honshu in order to relocate to Hokkaido, disrupting the power balance and hindering the bread-winning activities of the Ainu. After some hundreds of years, during Meiji Restoration, Hokkaido was officially annexed. For long, it has been the wild west of Japan and needed to be properly incorporated to the rest of the country. The Ainu were forced away from their lands, discriminated and driven to the despair due to poverty, while being considered proper Japanese citizens at the same time. Their name, ‘Ainu’ was used as a derogatory slur. Now, most Ainu behave, dress and speak the same as Japanese, but try to keep their culture alive. Eventually, in 2008 the Japanese government recognized the indigenous status of the Ainu and apologized for their previous treatment. It is not that the problem is fixed, but it’s a start; now more people are taking interest in Ainu, their language and culture.

Lake Akan with a view towards Mt. Oakan

I arrive at the lake on a cool afternoon, after hours of monotonous driving through Yubari (famous for auctioning melons) and Obihiro towns, including a stop for melon/milk flavored soft cream. The city looks empty and japan-bred bob-tailed cats are hanging around a street sign to Ainu Kotan. The word “Kotan” means settlement in Ainu language (See more about Ainu language in a previous post).

A pack of street-smart northern cats

The kotan in lake Akan is the biggest on the whole island, with two dozen Ainu-owned shops featuring souvenirs and woodwork crafts, a folk house museum and the theater ‘Ikor’. According to the official website, approximately 120 Ainu reside here. Most of them are involved with culture and tourism in some way, assisted by governmental incentives. Some of them are performing in the theater at 4 shows per day on holidays. They have prepared a handful of performances, which bring to life oral legends about the fire god, other kamuy and religious rituals. If you’ve ever watched interviews of Ainu people (such as Hideo Akibe), you would be surprised to see them performing in the theater. Some also perform in a recent film titled ‘Ainu Mosir’ (2020), directed by Fukunaga Takeshi. Instead of ‘such a small world’, it is a painful reminder of the low numbers of remaining Ainu.

The entrance to Akanko ainu Kotan (アイヌコタン)
Shops at Ainu Kotan main street
Traditional AInu food at Banya

At the entrance to Akanko Ainu Kotan, one is welcomed by a Cikap-Kamuy, the great owl that watches over the village. There are another two owls, facing people as they enter or exit the shopping street. Both sides of this main street are occupied by shops. Most of the shops are selling wood carved decorations, furniture and jewelry, while others focus on textiles painted with traditional Ainu patterns. The shop Kuroyuri-ya sells handmade small artifacts, created by a now 80+ year old grandma. There are three restaurants serving authentic Ainu cuisine, namely Banya, Marukibune and Poron’no. I visited the latter for hot coffee, cakes made of fermented potatoes (Poche-imo) and venison soup with mountain vegetables (yuk ohaw). The interior was warm, cozy, decorated with traditional Ainu patterns and handmade wooden furniture. They were playing (and selling) a music CD with folk songs, that reminded a lot of the trance-inducing American Indian music albums.

The interior of restaurant Poron’no, decorated with traditional Ainu patterns
A snow-white Ainu Kotan on the second day of the trip
Folk houses at the Ainu heritage museum

Speaking of American Indians, at first glance it is impossible to look at the Kotan and not be reminded of them. I don’t know whether this association is because of the overtly touristic appearance, the shamanism or the wooden totems. Maybe it is the way to promote the village as an attraction, or maybe there are actual similarities between nature-loving natives across the globe. Nevertheless, the culture of the Ainu is unique in its own, shaped by the many years of conflict with Japan and the harsh winter weather of the snow country.

The Ainu theater, Ikor
Images from previous performances

At the Ikor, which was founded only in 2012, I watched the performance of a yukari (epic song) titled ‘The epic story of the fire kamuy’. The show opened with a grandma ‘hucci’ singing an old song, preserved by recording of her own grandma Yae, a hucci of the previous century. The show consisted of three parts; the song of the fire god ‘Abeyatenna’, the poem ‘Funkofunko’ about a Blackison’s owl Kotankoro Kamuy and a messenger jay, and finally ‘Kararat’, a representation of a ritual held at the lake related to the tree god and marimo moss balls. For the Ainu, dancing (including among others ‘upopo’ and ‘horippa’) is not reserved only for celebrations, rather it is a way to express emotions daily, functioning even as proof of respect to ancestors. I couldn’t understand a thing, because Ainu is a separate language from Japanese, but the song’s tonality coupled with the dancers moves was describing a story. It was the story of people harming nature, causing animals to die, until the fire god appeared to save everyone and teach the correct path. It is a message the resonates even stronger now, as the human is destroying the habitats of wildlife, adding obstacles to the peaceful coexistence of people with nature, which Ainu were used to until the Japanese brought industrialization.

A shop with a large wooden crane at its facade
A manhole with a crane
Woodwork outside a closed shop

Apart from owls and bears, cranes are also an important animal to the Ainu. There are several sanctuaries and preserved habitats for cranes around the island.

The area around lake Akan is really nice to leave because of an abundance of volcanic hot springs from nearby volcanos. Thus, one can visit Ainu Kotan while staying at one of the resort hotels on the lake shore, making it an ideal tourist destination. I stayed at New Akan Hotel, which boasts terrace onsen pools with unobstructed view to the lake and the mountains. While the original plan was to climb Mt. Meakan to see the small lake at the volcano crater, the sky kamuy decided that it was a good day to snow. The plan was ruined, but it was a nice chance to dip into the warm water while looking at the snow at the outdoor pool. As a half board hotel, the breakfast and dinner buffet were more than I could ask, offering anything from western pizzas and chinese baoban to fresh crab and Hokkaido specialty Genghis Khan BBQ.

Breakfast in front of lake Akan at New Akan hotel
The hotel’s yukata (robe) has cute marimo moss balls on it

Among the flora of Hokkaido, an important species is a green, fluffy ball of moss called ‘marimo’. It forms in cold lakes in the north or at high altitudes. Marimo grows at lake Akan, is revered with water rituals from the Ainu and has a devoted museum on an island in the middle of the lake. The marimo sits quietly in the shade and grows a few milimeters as the years pass. I already had two tiny marimo balls from lake Kawaguchi at Mt. Fuji, the southernmost place that it grows in Japan, but now I have one from lake Akan that is 4-times the size of the Fuji-ones. Let’s hope it will grow more than the others.

My three marimo babies
An inscription about marimo next to the lake

The cause of the existence of the lake is the violent past eruptions of Mt. Oakan volcano, some hundreds of years ago. Two big eruptions resulted in a collapsed caldera, lake Akan, lake Panketo, lake Penketo and others. The native names of Mt. Oakan is ‘Pinneshiri’, in contrast to Mt. Meakan that is called ‘Machineshiri’, a pair of male and female mountains, respectively.

View of Mt. Oakan from the lake
View of Mt. Meakan from the lake

Another attraction at lake Akan are the mud volcanos by the shore. There is a small road ‘Mori no komichi’ taking you from the town to the mud volcanos and around the mountain (remember to bring a bear bell, cause bears). Trapped sulfur gases exit to the mud, resulting in non-stop tiny explosions of super-hot mud. In Japanese these are called Bokke, a derivation from the Ainu word ‘pofuke’ that means ‘to bubble up’. This is the warmest place around the lake and snow melts quickly, with species of crickets that are able to survive only here, specifically because of the extra heat.

Mud volcano in action
Mud volcanos with lake Akan and Mt. Oakan in the background
The birch forest
View of the resorts from the side of the lake

The forest path ends next to the Eco Museum Center, which describes all about the morphology and wildlife of the area. The pond surrounding the center was full of freshly growing ‘mizubasho’ (Lysichiton camtschatcensis or commonly Asian skunk cabbage) sprouts, an endemic plant of Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands, Sakhalin and Japan. It didn’t smell as band as the name suggests, maybe it was not yet at full force. I also saw some sprouts of fuki (Petasites japonicus), a plant which grows large circular leafs. According to the Ainu legend, the previous residents of the area, the Korpokkur, used fuki leafs as rain cover. Eventually, the path ends at a stair with vermilion torii gates, leading to two small shrines of Akan-jinja. I was surprised to see that these unmanned shrines were offering a goshuin in the form of an ink stamp, like in train stamp rallies.

Mizubasho (top) and fukinotou (right) plants, which grow in the wild during spring. The latter is edible.
A row of torii gates in front of the inari shrines

This was the story of the Ainu and their settlement at lake Akkan. Stay put for the next part, a visit to ‘Japan’s most beautiful village’ Biei and Asahidake. Until next time!

Other posts from this trip

The roads of Hokkaido

Japan is made up of 4 main islands and thousands of smaller ones. One of the latest acquisitions is the northernmost island of Hokkaido, “courtesy” (more like genocide) of the indigenous Ainu. In the past, it used to be refered to as Ezo by Japanese and Ainu Moshir…

Roadtrip to Hokkaido: All is white (Pt. 2)

At the end of last post, we left lake Akan to head towards Biei, which presents itself as ‘the most beautiful village in Japan’. tldr; it may well be, but I visited in the wrong season. Nevertheless, despite being known mainly as a hot photo spot for the…

Roadtrip to Hokkaido: The stinky valley (Pt. 3)

A surprise to no one, it seems like Hokkaido’s north is pretty cold, even when judging from spring’s average weather. That’s why, it is time to head to the south, where belated hanami blossoming (compared to the rest of the country) awaits. The first stop is Noboribetsu (登別),…

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