Hokkaido winters are world-famous with luxury ski resorts and waist-deep powder snow. However, alternative winter activities, such as canoeing, snowshoeing, wakasagi (smelt) ice fishing, Ainu culture—and even some lesser-known ski resorts—make Eastern Hokkaido, particularly the the Kushiro area, deserving of exploring as a stand-alone destination or an extension to a Hokkaido ski holiday.
Kushiro is the regional capital of Eastern Hokkaido, with a long-standing fishing industry and thriving market. Kushiro Shitsugen National Park is Japan’s largest wetland and hosts many endangered species, including the Japanese crane. The region is home to various indigenous Ainu communities as well. Visitors can learn about their history and traditions at Ainu Kotan near Lake Akan. Eastern Hokkaido is a fantastic destination for a rural, authentic winter nature experience away from the crowds.
My journey begins with a canoe tour on the edge of Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, where I meet Tosa-san, who owns Lakeside Toro. He has lived here his entire life, working as a guide and smelt fisherman. After breaking the ice (with the boat), we drift into casual conversation, Tosa-san pointing out kingfishers, hawks, eagles, and ducks. The scenery is sparse, and the wind at -10 degrees celsius bites, but something about the severity makes the scene beautiful.
Having a guide is always educational, and I appreciate the chance to ask questions. Tosa-san’s father began Lakeside Toro thirty years ago so fishermen could find employment during the slow winter season. Creating incentives for young people to work and stay in Kushiro remains challenging, and he worries about his daughter’s generation. The environmental conservation effort seems effective though, as we see various animal and bird species within an hour of paddling.
Tosa-san is Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. Nowadays, only a few Ainu can speak their language, and most are culturally indistinguishable from Japanese. Although this is their ancestral land, his people have faced discrimination over the years. Nevertheless, Tosa-san 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” made with modern materials similar to a Native American canoe. The Ainu people survived in Hokkaido’s harsh environment for millennia and it’s fascinating to see their traditions and ingenuity still being practiced today.
Next up is the Tsurui Ito Tancho Crane Sanctuary. 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 spirit for the Ainu.
The next stop is the Kushiro Washou fish market in search of the famous katte-don, which translates to “whatever you like” bowl. To try this dish, first, pay for the desired size rice bowl, next, explore the vendors selling cuts of fresh sashimi. They have everything imaginable, from sushi staples like salmon, tuna, and yellowtail, to Hokkaido favorites like salmon roe, scallops, crab, and sea urchin.
Choose what you like and then they arrange it into a beautiful rice bowl. Hokkaido is known for its fish, and the quality is exceptional, especially true considering the affordable price. After the delicious meal, it’s time for some shopping. Thankfully the vendors airmail fish anywhere in Japan, so travelers can continue enjoying Hokkaido cuisine long after leaving.
Lake Akan in Akan-Mashu National Park is the next destination. It is known for its rare ball-shaped algae called marimo, which are buried under 50 centimeters of ice in the winter. Bokke, the mud volcano walking path, is a pleasant 20-minute snowy walk along the lake shore, leading to bubbling mud baths that sound like water boiling. The sulfuric smell is overpowering but surprisingly pleasant, The onsen-like atmosphere will make you want a hot bath. 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 fishing for wakasagi. They also offer ice skating, snowmobiling, and banana boat rides on the lake. They provide fishing poles, bait, and a chair. Just choose an open tent and begin your quest to catch lunch. If you are unsuccessful in your attempts, don’t worry, Ice Land Akan provides insurance via a complimentary plate of wakasagi tempura included in the price of admission. 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. Nishida-san is a shopkeeper who performs in the nightly Lost Kamuy show. His wife recently adopted a stray cat named Chape (meaning cat in Ainu). She seems more interested in the cat than the customers, which I find charming.
Ushijima-san, another shopkeeper, is not Ainu but moved here five years ago to learn traditional woodcarving techniques. His interest lies in carving bears, and he tells me about the free gallery in the Tsuruga Hotel where famous artisans display their work. There, I find elaborate wood carvings of traditional Ainu images like bears and cranes and more modern carvings. The intricacy and craftsmanship of the hand-carved statues are immaculate. I cannot imagine how many years it must take to reach this level of mastery.
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. As a result, the Ainu lost their most important kamuy, said to descend from the heavens. The show is only in Japanese, but even for non-Japanese speakers, Lost Kamuy, and the Ainu traditional dance show prior, are cultural and educational experiences.
The final morning, I reserve a snowshoeing excursion through the Akanko Tourist Information Center. The overnight low is -17 degrees Celsius, so I dress appropriately. Yamazaki-san guides the group across the lake, pointing out natural phenomena and scenery. Although there are snowshoe rentals for solo excursions, I recommend hiring a guide on Lake Akan. Hot springs bubble to the surface at various points, creating holes in the ice, which can be dangerous. We also observe the frost flower effect, where ice crystals bunch together to form what looks like frozen flower pedals. Because it has to be so cold, Yamazaki-san says he sees the frost flowers less frequently.
Driving to Kushiro Airport, I reflect on the journey. My interactions with the Ainu people make me want to learn more about their culture. Thankfully there is a surge of interest in Japan, especially after the publication of the manga series “Golden Kamuy.” Interest in Ainu culture is recent, and I hope not too late considering the Japanese government only recognized Ainu as indigenous people in 2008.
Hokkaido’s pristine nature has also been a highlight of the trip. The scenery is so different from most of Japan—it almost feels like traveling abroad. And, of course, I enjoyed some of the best seafood of my life. I am looking forward to eating the rest upon returning home. But, above all, I am impressed most by the friendliness of the people and their desire to share Eastern Hokkaido. Japanese people joke that those with cold hands have warm hearts. The adage is especially true of the locals here.
Near Lake Toro
Prezzemolo makes delicious traditional Italian dishes with local ingredients such as scallops and salmon.
The Kushiro Washou Ichiba Market has a variety of market and sit-in style restaurants Web: washoichiba.com/en/
Near Lake Akan
Kitaro Club serves hot soup curry, ramen, and traditional Ainu food such as venison.
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 Hokkaido.
GATE TO HOKKAIDO
To learn more about Eastern Hokkaido, including recommended routes and information for travelers to Hokkaido, visit the website Gate to Hokkaido.