Travelers venturing beyond Hokkaido’s popular winter resorts will discover a land with a rich cultural and natural history, a proud indigenous people and a community striving to preserve their heritage.
Eastern Hokkaido’s Kushiro Shitsugen National Park is Japan’s largest wetland. It’s a popular place to visit in the green season, but in search of a break from the crowded ski resort, I visited mid-winter for a canoe tour on the edge of the park. My guide, Tosa-san, has lived here all his life as a guide, smelt fisherman and owner of Lakeside Toro.
After breaking the ice (with the boat), we drift into casual conversation as he points out kingfishers, hawks, eagles and ducks. The scenery is sparse, and the wind at -10 degrees Celsius is biting, but something about the severity of the scene is beautiful.
Tosa-san’s father began Lakeside Toro thirty years ago so fishermen could find employment in winter. Creating incentives for young people to work and stay in Kushiro remains challenging and he worries about his daughter’s generation. The environmental conservation efforts seem effective though, as we see various animal and bird species within an hour of paddling.
Tosa-san is Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. Few Ainu can speak their own language today; most are culturally indistinguishable from Japanese. Although this is their ancestral land, his people have faced discrimination. However, he does his best to preserve Ainu traditions and culture, primarily by continuing traditional activities such as fishing. His boat is an Ainu design called a cip, yet made with modern materials similar to a Native American canoe. The Ainu people survived in Hokkaido’s harsh environment for a millennia and it’s fascinating to see their traditions and ingenuity still being practiced today.
The Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary is my next stop. The resident population of red-crowned cranes was once thought to be extinct in Japan until the discovery of a flock in Kushiro Shitsugen National Park in the 1920s. Since then, the Wild Bird Society of Japan has fought to preserve their habitat, feeding them in winter because they can no longer find sufficient food in the wild. Even the local primary schools chip in by growing corn in the summer. These are still among the rarest cranes in the world and observing their graceful size up close is a memorable experience. It is easy to see why they are symbols of longevity and prosperity in Japanese culture, frequently appearing in folklore and mythology. They are also a kamuy, or sacred spirit for the Ainu.
Next on the menu is the Kushiro Washou fish market in search of the famous katte-don, which translates to “whatever you like bowl.” First, pay for your desired rice bowl size, then explore the vendors’ cuts of fresh sashimi, from sushi staples like salmon, tuna and yellowtail, to Hokkaido favorites like salmon roe, scallops, crab and sea urchin. Whatever you choose will be arranged into a beautiful rice bowl. Hokkaido is known for its fish, and the quality is exceptional and affordably priced. Vendors airmail fish anywhere in Japan, so travelers can continue enjoying Hokkaido cuisine long after leaving.
Lake Akan in Akan-Mashu National Park is known for its rare ball-shaped algae called marimo, which are buried under 50 centimeters of ice in winter. It’s a 20-minute snowy walk along the lakeshore walking path that leads to bubbling mud baths that sound like water boiling. The sulfuric smell is overpowering, yet surprisingly pleasant, and the view of frozen Lake Akan with white-capped Mt. Oakan in the distance is stunning.
Ice Land Akan has rows of tents with holes drilled in the ice for wakasagi fishing. They also offer ice skating, snowmobiling and banana boat rides on the frozen lake. Just choose an open tent and begin your quest to catch lunch. Fishing poles, bait and a chair are provided as well as insurance—in the form of a complimentary plate of wakasagi tempura if you are unsuccessful. Fried whole with a pinch of salt, the wakasagi are fresh, hot and crunchy.
Ainu Kotan is a collection of shops selling traditional Ainu wood products and crafts. The shopkeeper, Nishida-san, performs in the nightly Lost Kamuy show. Another shopkeeper, Ushijima-san, moved here five years ago to learn traditional woodcarving techniques, particularly carving bears. Famous artisans display their work at the nearby Tsuruga Hotel where I find elaborate wood carvings of traditional Ainu images. The intricacy and craftsmanship of the hand-carved statues are immaculate.
The Lost Kamuy show is the story of the Ainu people’s relationship with nature, particularly wolves. In the late 1800s, people hunted wolves to extinction and the Ainu lost their most important kamuy, said to descend from the heavens. Lost Kamuy, and the Ainu traditional dance show prior, is an opportunity to experience and learn about their culture and history.
The next morning, I’m up early for a snowshoeing excursion. The overnight low is -17°C, so I dress appropriately. The guide from the Akanko Tourist Information Center, Yamazaki-san, leads us across the lake, pointing out natural phenomena and scenery.
Although there are snowshoe rentals for solo excursions, hiring a guide on Lake Akan is recommended. Hot springs bubble to the surface at various points, creating dangerous holes in the ice. We also observe the frost flower effect, where ice crystals bunch together to form what looks like frozen flower pedals. Yamazaki-san laments he sees the frost flowers less frequently these days because it needs to be very cold.
Driving to Kushiro Airport, I reflect on my interactions with the Ainu people and want to learn more about their culture. Thankfully there is a surge of interest in Japan, especially since a manga called “Golden Kamuy” was published. I hope the resurgence is not too late considering the Japanese government only recognized the Ainu as indigenous people in 2008.
Hokkaido’s pristine nature has also been a highlight. The scenery is so different from most of Japan—it almost feels like traveling abroad. In Japan, they joke that those with cold hands have warm hearts; the adage appears especially true here in Eastern Hokkaido.
Domestic flights go directly to Kushiro Airport. There is public transportation from Kushiro Airport to Lake Akan and Kushiro City. However, renting a car is the best way to get around Eastern Hokkaido.