Ainu culture in Hokkaido's Akan National Park

by Chris Bamforth

When Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912) government concluded that the country had a manifest destiny to commence full-scale colonization of the hitherto barely developed northern island of Hokkaido, it set about the task assiduously.

Much as with the American frontier, people from other parts of the country were enthusiastically encouraged to settle in the new territory and help tap its great economic resources. As for Hokkaido’s indigenous Ainu people, who had been laboring under the misconception that the place belonged to them, the government magnanimously gave them plots of their own land back. Unlike parts of the United States today, though, where Native American culture is very much evident, that of the Ainu has been almost completely eradicated. One of the few places where it is possible to get a slight taste of who the Ainu were and what they were about is in Akan National Park.

Located in eastern Hokkaido, around 60 km north of Kushiro, Akan National Park is a deeply forested area that is centered on the three caldera lakes of Mashu, Kussharo and Akan. It is by the shores of Lake Akan that the park’s only town, Akan Kohan, is situated. The lake itself is pretty enough, dominated as it is by the twin volcanic peaks of O-akan-dake and Me-akan-dake, but the main interest here is Ainu Kotan (Ainu Village).

The biggest Ainu settlement in Hokkaido, Ainu Kotan is home to a couple of hundred Ainu, almost all of them of mixed blood, but with their near-Caucasian features, they are instantly distinguishable from other Japanese. Many of them find employment in the two dozen souvenir stores that line the one street of Ainu Kotan, which for all the world seems less village than shopping arcade.

For the most part, the near-identical wares in the shops are objects made from the wood that the Ainu were proficient in crafting. Such items, though, do not bear any resemblance to anything that the Ainu would once have created, such as the prayer wands (inau) artfully carved from a single piece of willow and used in their religious ceremonies, but the exuberant tourist tat of carved foxes, eagles and bears, designed to appeal to mainstream Japanese tastes. One constant atmospheric feature of Ainu Kotan, though, is the music of the people who once had Hokkaido all to themselves. Sounding over the village PA here are the distinctive, angular, twanging tones of the mukkuri, the Ainu jew’s-harp that was usually played only by women. Also heard are the rhythmic, haunting, almost-chanted sounds from the rich Ainu tradition of vocal music.

Music certainly features in the building that is the best reason for visiting Ainu Kotan. In the hall called Ainu Chise (Ainu House), traditional performances are presented by the local Ainu in their distinctive geometrically patterned robes.

Among the dances performed are ones related to hunting by the men, while the women execute ones imitative of the birds and beasts that once dominated their cultural landscape. The dancers do not deliver tired and wooden renditions, but spirited performances, injected with feeling and very often humor. Naturally, it is all a touristy reconstruction. But beneath that contrived shell, a certain sense emerges of the age-old vibrant culture that once existed.

Visitors with an interest in small balls of slime will find much to admire at Lake Akan. The lake is home to marimo, which are unusual spheres of filamentous green algae, and the lake is one of the very few places in the world where such algae flourish.

Growing at a leisurely rate of around 5 mm a year, these balls can attain hefty diameters of 20 to 30 cm. Visitors who believe, however, that, when it comes to algae, size isn’t everything, will find no lack of choice of marimo of more modest dimensions, bottled and on sale in lakeside stores.

If the lake by Akan Kohan is the one that offers the greatest cultural interest, the national park’s loveliest body of water is Lake Mashu. One of the most scenic spots in all Hokkaido, Lake Mashu is ringed by steep 200-meter crater walls dropping straight into the water and distinctly displays its volcanic origins. After Russia’s Lake Baikal, this lake’s waters are famous for being the second clearest in the world, though the general area is otherwise not known for its clarity, the lake very often being shrouded in mist.

The frequent fogs lend the lake a mysterious quality and because of this and the fact that no river enters or leaves it, Lake Mashu was held in particular awe by the Ainu. Somewhat less awe inspiring is the Rest House by the lake. Though this has an observation platform that provides a fine view of Lake Mashu, it is also crammed with souvenir stalls like those at Akan Kohan. On sale here too are any number of wooden carvings. And among the vast number of carved bears (a creature that was particularly venerated by the Ainu), if there was one without a salmon clenched between its jaws, I certainly was unable to spot it.

Hokkaido has, of course, no lack of national parks, and visitors looking for nature on a grand and rugged scale will tend to head for places like Daisetsuzan or Shiretoko, the latter being Japan’s latest entry to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. But Akan is not to be missed. Get away from the popular spots and good hiking is to be had among the fir and silver birch forests. The serendipity factor can run high as you suddenly encounter a deer or red fox.

By a lakeside, you might come across an Ainu altar (nusasan) — which is a fencelike structure made up of inau and adorned with deer skulls — unmarked, unnoticed and clearly not there for any visitors’ delectation. And finding the latter does lend a little hope that Ainu culture could not be the terminal case that it may otherwise seem.