It’s a cold February morning on the banks of Lake Poroto in Shiraoi, Hokkaido. A white blanket of ice and snow covers the water — only footprints lead toward the center of the lake, where holes have been drilled into the frozen surface.

These are spots for freshwater smelt fishing, an ancient tradition which, like so many others in Hokkaido, has been passed down from the indigenous Ainu people who have for centuries called this island home.

Shiraoi’s name also comes from indigenous Ainu language, where shirauoi means “a place of many horse flies.” This small town of around 16,000 residents and one of several active Ainu communities in Hokkaido was also chosen to host the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, which opened its doors on the shores of Lake Poroto in July 2020, becoming Japan’s only national museum north of Tokyo’s metropolitan area — and the only one dedicated to Ainu culture.