Words and Photos by Sam Beltran
For a country with some of the most prominent tourist places, not much is known about Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands. Sure, there’s skiing, snowboarding, and all those wonderful winter activities associated with thrill-seekers. But there’s more to the island of Hokkaido than its gentle slopes, powdery snow, and snow-capped mountains during this time of year, with its own indigenous history and culture.
Take for instance the Ainu tribe, the group of people indigenous to Japan, specifically Hokkaido and Russia. The Ainu people have a distinct set of cultural traditions and mores than of the Japanese in the mainland — they were primarily hunters and relied much on the forest to give them life, centering many of their beliefs around it. They also spoke a different language, purely oral with no written texts, though the Ainu language has risked extinction over the years.
To appreciate Hokkaido in its entirety also means to understand the ways of the Ainu — even the name Hokkaido is derived from the Ainu language. The Ainu Kotan or Ainu Village located on the shore of Lake Akan in the city of Kushiro in eastern Hokkaido, is a quaint settlement that is home to several attractions, from a theater that showcases traditional dance, to restaurants and souvenir shops peddling Ainu handicrafts. A colleague described the Ainu village as reminiscent of Oaken’s Trading Post in Frozen, and that could not be a more accurate description. Wooden posts, hand-carved signages, and an array of cottage-like buildings gives this tiny village a kind of offbeat charm, one that’s worth visiting especially if you’re on your way to Lake Akan for some snowmobile riding.
Visiting the craft shops
One of the most worthwhile things to do at the kotan is to walk around the aisles of quirky shops. Woodcraft is the Ainu’s central folk art, and Ainus are some of the world’s best woodcarvers. Each shop sells their own variety of unique handicrafts, from adorable keychains and stationery materials, to everyday household items like mugs, bowls, lanterns, and wooden statues. If you’re lucky, you can even witness their master carver in action. It’s the perfect place to get ahold of one-of-a-kind souvenirs for friends and loved ones, or if you’re looking to add to your household collection.
Learning the craft at a wood carving class
Wood carving is an intricate work of art, and there’s no better way to realize that than trying your own hand at a wood carving class, which can be easily arranged at the village. Taught by an expert carver, you get your own chance to etch (or more realistically, hack away) on a wooden block after choosing from one of their many pre-made designs as a guide.
A taste of Ainu cuisine
For lunch, we headed into a tiny café decked with Ainu crafts and some other trinkets here and there. Poronno is a quaint little place that serves traditional Ainu cuisine, as well as their own twist on the region’s flavors. Ainu cooking uses little seasoning, and so we tried a traditional simmered venison (deer meat) soup, a clear broth with potatoes and some vegetables to warm us up from the freezing temperature outdoors. They also have their own take on pizza, the Poche Pizza, made with poche potato, wild vegetables and mushrooms, which may be a more appetizing order. The bigger surprise here, however, is the little bar just slightly hidden at the back housing a decent collection of Japanese and foreign liquor that can seat about five.
Lake Akan might be the main attraction in Kushiro, but with the Ainu village just a stone’s throw away, it’s worth making the short trip and discovering a whole other side of Japan.
To explore this side of Hokkaido and uncover other unique adventures in Japan, you can fly from Manila to Haneda via Japan Airlines on an overnight flight, with an early morning arrival that will connect you to Japan’s many domestic hubs. JAL operates three daily flights to Manila. Visit www.ph.jal.co.jp for more details.
Read more on our Hokkaido trip:
Part 1 here
Part 2 here