Visiting Lake Akan Ainu Kotan in Hokkaido
I’ve been in Japan a lot of times, and I kept wondering why is that when people talk about Hokkaido, the first destination that comes to mind is Sapporo. Well, the truth here is that Hokkaido has a lot of places and definitely flourishing with more tourist spots waiting to be discovered by travelers.
Surprisingly, just like in any other culture-filled countries, Hokkaido steals the spotlight when it comes to wonderful landscaped grounds, mountainous terrain, and pristine wilderness where people can enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, canoeing, and fishing. One of the many places to visit in Hokkaido is the Lake Akan Ainu Kotan Village – Hokkaido’s largest Ainu village.
Who are the Ainu People?
The Ainu people are the indigenous people who have lived in Hokkaido since ancient times. They are the early inhabitants of Hokkaido who did not speak the Japanese language and were conquered by the Japanese early in the 9th century. The Ainu formed a society of hunter-gatherers, surviving mainly by hunting and fishing. They followed a religion which was based on natural phenomena. The Ainu is described as fair-skinned, and long-haired hunter-gatherer-fishering people.
As a matter of fact, last February 18, in article written by QZ, the government of Japan has approved a bill which includes provisions to make the country a more inclusive society for the Ainu, including measures to promote their culture and extend economic support to their homeland.
About Lake Akan Ainu Kotan
Lake Akan is located in Kushiro City of eastern Hokkaido. What you can see in the village is basically a small street with over 30 restaurants, local crafts stores, and souvenir shops lined up, all of which specialize in the creation of Ainu handicrafts and embroidered items. It is also called as the village of folk art and dance, where a lot of tourists can immerse into the rich culture of the Ainu people.
“Kotan” comes from the Ainu language which means, when translated to English is, “village” or “settlement”. Ainu Kotan is the biggest Kotan in Hokkaido, and what makes this a beautiful village is its location itself.
The village is situated at the shore of Lake Akan. There are many different attractions that tourists can do here. If you enjoy and appreciate traditional dances, their theatres offer some of the best performances of Ainu culture.
If you’re looking for a place to buy souvenirs, the shops here offer very creative wood carvings and embroidered items. And when you feel hungry, a lot of restaurants offer delicious tasting food that highlights Ainu Cuisine. There is even a museum where you can see and learn about clothes and utensils used by the Ainu in the past.
Believe it or not, the unique activities and experiences does not end there. After a short stroll, we visited Akanko Ainu Kotan Theather to learn wood carving, – an activity you will find difficult at first but deeply appreciate later on.
Wood Carving is a unique form of art that is deeply rooted in the culture of Ainu. Here in the Ainu Kotan, you can learn first-hand how to wood-carve. Of course, you can’t expect perfection easily, but this will help introduce the art and familiarity in wood carving.
A local Ainu guide gave us a black paint coated plank of wood and allowed us to select our preferred pattern. The guide also gave us instructions and a short lecture about the basics of wood carving and how each type of chisel is used. In less than an hour, we were able to finish our own masterpiece which we also kept as a souvenir.
After our wood carving activity, we proceeded to Cafe Poronno for a traditional Ainu food lunch. There are more or less 30 restaurants in the area but Cafe Poronno is highly recommended for those people who are adventurous enough to try unfamiliar cuisine. It is known for serving original dishes made with a modern twist.
Cafe Poronno offers Ainu and original dishes. For lunch, we sampled their “yuku ohau,” a soup dish made with deer meat. Ohau is the Ainu’s staple hot-pot dish, a stew including venison and vegetables such as “gyoja ninniku,” a local type of onion.
Ainu cuisine uses very little seasoning, allowing you to taste the real flavor of ingredients. We also sampled their local version of Pizza, made with Poche Potato topped with seasonal wild vegetables and mushrooms. Other dish you should try is the Pocche-imo.
The culture of the Ainu people is very much alive because locals here do their best to preserve it. The Government of Japan and even UNESCO has claimed the Ainu dance as a Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The village people do the dance as a way to represent their hunting and playing. And just like various tribes I have previously encountered, Ainu People has their own dances which mimic the rich wildlife in their area. But more than just dancing, the people also sing their hearts out during festivals. They respected their surroundings and nature so much, that through the way they act, talk, and live, it can be seen.
If you want to visit Hokkaido for a vacation and you want a unique cultural experience, then go on a trip to the Lake Akan Ainu Kotan to discover the culture and food of Ainu People.
Our Hokkaido Japan trip was made possible by Japan Airlines, JNTO (Japan National Tourism Organization) and Havas Media.
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