The secret world of Kasugayama Primeval Forest

I had a great time in Hasedera the day before. The temple grounds were lovely but what struck me most was the abundant hydrangeas blooming all over the garden. I had been to Nara Park several times, but each time I always used to miss visiting the Manyou Botanical Garden, located near Kasuga-Taisha shrine bordering the Kasugayama Primeval forest. The garden contains a Wisteria Garden, Camellia Garden, Iris Garden, Ajisai Garden and a Five Grain Garden. With the Ajisai blooming all over Nara, I decided it was the perfect time to check out this garden.

The garden can be easily accessed by entering Nara Park and walking on your right towards Kasuga Taisha shrine.

The Manyou Botanical Garden (萬葉植物園) opened in 1932 and contains over 300 species of plants and trees mentioned in the Man’yōshū, the oldest existing collection of Japanese poetry, compiled sometime after 759 AD during the Nara period. The foundation for this garden was laid by a botanist by the name of Honda Seiroku. He visualized the creation of this recreational botanical garden by utilizing the land set aside for the Nara Imperial Villa in Nara Park towards the end of the Meiji period. However it wasn’t until 1927, when a proposal was forwarded to create the Manyo Garden. Sasaki Nobutsuna, a scholar of Japanese literature, formed an organization to champion the idea of establishing the Manyo Gardens where the exact varieties mentioned in the poems of the Manyoshu would be grown.

I have compiled a gallery of all the flowers and other interesting experiences of the garden. Some of the flowers were easy to identify, others are still a mystery to me. If you recognize any, please add it in the comments.

Honestly, I would not suggest visiting the gardens in Summer if you are mostly a flower person. If you only want to experience Ajesai, there are loads to take pictures of. If you are tired of all the walking one has to do visiting Kasuga Taisha, this is a nice place to come and rest. There is a small pond full of Koi fishes. The colorful fishes stalked me as I stood near the edge of the pond expecting some food from me. After a couple of hours of lazy wandering, I made my way back out of the garden.

Thank you for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the shots.

Lovers Sanctuary on Mount Moiwa

We woke up to a beautiful sunny day. The grey clouds from the day before had cleared up. It was the last day of our Hokkaido trip. We lazed around at the hotel discussing the amazing places we had been to on this trip. It wasn’t until noon that we left the hotel for Mount Moiwa.

How to reach Mount Moiwa

Mount Moiwa or Moiwa-yama (藻岩山) is one of several small, forested mountains southwest of Sapporo. The mountain is known for the spectacular view of the city from an observation deck at its summit. From here one can view a spectacular panorama of the streets of Sapporo, Ishikari Bay and the Shokanbetsu Peak.

We were staying at a hotel was near Nakajima-koen Park. From there, we took the subway to Odori Station. From Odori, the streetcar took us towards the Iriguchi Ropeway stop. The streetcar costs a fixed ¥170, wherever you are going. It keeps running in a loop and is very frequent. If you are catching the streetcar from Odori, note that you should catch the counter-clockwise loop. The clock-wise streetcar takes a longer time.

During our visit they were giving a discount coupon for the ropeway. One can obtain it at the tourist information counter, or pick it up in the streetcar itself, like we did.

From the Iriguchi Ropeway tram stop, there is a shuttle bus that leaves every 15 minutes. The ride on the shuttle bus is free. The bus took us right up to the entrance of the ropeway. It appears no one goes to this place in the daytime. We were the only couple on the shuttle.

Mount Moiwa Ropeway

We bought our tickets and waited at the lounge while the Gondola came down to pick us up. The tickets are priced at ¥1500 per person. The Mt. Moiwa Ropeway climbs from the base of the mountain to about three-quarters up the mountain to a transfer station. The Ropeway opened way back in 1958. It is around 1.2-kilometer long ride. Renovated in 2012, one ropeway cabin can hold about 60 people.

I was happy to see some other visitors at the base station. The gondola arrived soon. Its cabin has large glass sides and it was quite thrilling to see the wild forest and the city as we went up the snow covered mountain.

Sapporo Peace Pagoda

Halfway up Mount Moiwa, I noticed a Stupa. The bulbous white stupa is more of a peace memorial, like the ones we visited in Hiroshima and in Leh. The pagoda was built in 1959 by the Nipponzan-Myōhōji monks to commemorate peace after World War II, and supposedly contains some of the ashes of the Buddha that were presented to the Emperor of Japan by Prime Minister Nehru in 1954.

After a thrilling ride we found ourselves at the first base, also known as the Moiwa Chufuku Station. If you want to get some souvenirs, this is the place to get one. You can also get a lovely view of Sapporo city from here.

After a small wait at the transfer station, we had to change to the green colored “Moorisu Car” – a mini cable car, that took us rest of the way up to the Moiwa Sancho Station at the summit.

Both the transportation’s are unique and fun. The mini cable car is called Moorisu, named after the cute mascot of the mountain.

Mount Moiwa in Winter

Mt. Moiwa, reaches an altitude of 531 meters. The original name of the mountain is “Inkarushibe” in the Ainu language and it was considered sacred by the Ainu. The mountain is home to some unique species such as the Ezo spruce and Moiwa linden trees. The mountain is a popular trekking destination during the summer weekends.

We reached the summit quite a bit before sunset. There is a Buddhist temple at the summit, but it was closed due to the heavy snow surrounding it.

Lovers Sanctuary on Mt. Moiwa

The summit was much colder. The summit deck was empty with maybe 4-5 other visitors apart from us. I thought there would be more. It was refreshing breathing in the fresh air of the mountain. On the deck there is a unique structure known as Lovers Sanctuary. It features a bell at the center. Beside it you can find some padlocks hanging by the sides on the handrails.

It is said that if the lovers attach the love padlock (sold at the shop in midway stop) to the handrails around the sanctuary, and ring the bell together, happiness will follow them into their future.

Lovers Sanctuary on the observation deck at the summit of Mt. Moiwa where couples pledge their love for each other by attaching a padlock and ringing the bell.

It’s a wonderful sight from the summit. On one side I could see the sprawling city of Sapporo and on the other side an amazing the panoramic views of Ishikari Plain and far mountains.

Surrounding mountains of Sapporo

The city of Sapporo is surrounded by many mountains. Towards the southeast, one can see the Yakiyama mountain in a distance. Skiing is a favourite past-time of locals in winter. Not surprising for a city where snow covers the ground 133 days a year. For the skiing enthusiasts, the Mount Moiwa Ski Resort lies on the mountain’s southeastern slope.

Note: it is approached from a different direction than the Mount Moiwa Ropeway.

I walked around in a circle around the observation deck, clicking photos of the beautiful scenery surrounding the mountain-top. Below you can see the Mount Kannoniwa on the eastern side of Sapporo.

As I came around the full circle. the lights had started to glitter over the city of Sapporo. Until the end of the Edo Period (1603–1868), Sapporo used to be a trading post between the Japanese mainland and the local Ainu population. There are various theories on the origin of the word “Sapporo.” The leading theory is that it derives from the Ainu (indigenous people of Japan) words “Sap (Dry) – Poro (Wide).”

The ski slopes on the far south at Fu’s Snow Area were also lit up. Fu’s is a small ski resort in the Fujino district with a range of trails, camps & lessons, a simple restaurant & lifts to the peak. During certain times of the winter, night skiing is also allowed on these slopes.

Gradually the sun set behind the mountains and the city started to come alive, twinkling like countless diamonds floating on a dark sea. On the other side the ski slopes near Mount Yaki were lit up like a flash-fire.

Occasionally flying flurries would start to hit our unprotected faces. The temperature was beginning to drop fast and we were freezing. Mani got us a cup of hot coffee from the vending machine inside the deck and it felt like I held heaven between my palms.

Mt. Moiwa is one of the Hokkaido’s top three night views, along with Mt. Hakodate and Mt. Tengu. We didn’t have time for Mt. Tengu in Otaru, the day before, so it was really nice to catch this one on Mt. Moiwa.

As the sun set, large groups of tourists started pouring in. It turned into a huge gathering in a few minutes. With the crowd came a team of video bloggers. They set up their big lights and cameras and blocked everyone. It was quite frustrating as they overran every photogenic spot at the summit.

Sapporo at Night

We stayed back until darkness set in. It was getting more and more crowded with every passing minute. Our heavy jackets were barely holding up to the cold. I took a last shot of the structure and then we headed back to the base.

The ride back downhill on the Gondola, felt like sinking into a sea of twinkling stars.

Sapporo nightscape is one the best night views in Japan. The others being Nagasaki and Kobe.

Being the last night of my Hokkaido trip, I felt deeply reluctant to admit that it was ending so soon. Hokkaido is really beautiful and a place to experience different things in each season. I’ll be back, I hope. Don’t know when, but definitely I will be back!!!

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I visit the lovely temple of Hase-dera in Nara. If you want to check out more night views of Japan, here’s the night-view of Hakodate and night-view of Yokohama.

Mt. Moiwa Ropeway Timings

1st April – 20th November 10:30 am – 10:00 pm
1st December – 31st March 11:00 am – 11:00 pm
New Year’s Eve (December 31st ) 11:00 am – 5:00 pm
New Year’s Day (January 1st ) 5:00 am – 5:00 pm

*Closed from November 21 – 30 for annual maintenance.

Ropeway Fee

Ropeway + Morris Car (Round trip): Adults ¥1,700

The mesmerizing Otaru Canal

It was the last stretch of our winter tour of Hokkaido. We were back in Sapporo, the most happening city of the Hokkaido Prefecture. I wouldnt call it a beautiful morning, but the frozen lake at Nakajima Koen, just outside our Hotel looked amazing.

The JR Station at Sapporo is huge and connected to endless shopping arcades. We hung around for a bit and then headed for Mt Moiwa. Mount Moiwa is one of the most interesting spots to see the city from, as it lights up in the evening.

On the way the weather started to go downhill, real fast. It began snowing heavily and a strong cloud cover enveloped Mt. Moiwa. In that weather it was a futile effort to go to Mt. Moiwa.

so we decided instead, to head to Otaru, about half an hour northwest of Sapporo, hoping for better weather there. It is said that during evenings, the Otaru Canal, adorned with Victorian-style street lamps, makes for a very romantic stroll.

Sapporo to Otaru

We had our Seishun 18 passes, so the train ride didn’t cost us anything. As we exited the JR Otaru Station, I could see the ocean right up ahead. Rather than going straight up to the coast, we took a right turn walking past some old stone buildings of this quaint city.

A brief history of Otaru

Otaru (小樽) is a small harbor city with a long history. Its old-fashioned buildings make it one of the very interesting places to see in Hokkaido. It was initially inhabited by the Ainu people who gave it the name, “Otarunai” or “Ota-or-nai” meaning “river flowing through the sand”.

Over the centuries the Ainu population has gradually dwindled to near endangered numbers. During our journey through eastern Hokkaido, we came across a couple of places where we learned a lot about Ainu settlements. The Museum of Northern People in Abashiri, specially provides an amazing insight into the lives of the Ainu. They are a unique race and perhaps on a future visit to Hokkaido, I will get a chance to learn more about their culture.

As time passed, Otaru grew to be a thriving herring fishing town. Glass buoys were used to light up fishing boats at night to attract herrings in Ishikari Bay. The glass industry thus flourished to support the herring trade. The canal prospered specially in the Meiji Period since Otaru was the only significant port on Ishikari Bay.

From the latter part of the 19th century to the late 1920’s the city made significant leaps towards becoming a commercial hub. Many financial companies were all gathered in Otaru and it was then known as the “Northern Wall Street” – named after that world financial center of the Wall Street in New York. At present many of these historical buildings built using stone in western style architecture can still be found crammed in between modern buildings. Some of these vintage buildings have small signs, pointing out and explaining their history.

Along the road, you can find many restaurants in Otaru where you can enjoy Sushi with seasonal seafood caught on the coast line of the Sea of Japan.

The Otaru Canal

It didn’t take a lot of time, maybe around 20 minutes to reach the Otaru Canal. One of the tourist loop buses passed by us as we crossed from Sakaimachi Street into the Canal area. The retro green and red Otaru tourist buses leaves from Otaru Station and circles Otaru’s interesting places operating on frequent regular schedules. They charge a flat fare of ¥210. A one-day bus pass can also be obtained for ¥750.

The Otaru Canal used to be a central part of the city’s busy harbor in the first half of the 20th century, when large vessels had to be unloaded by smaller ships, which then transported the goods to warehouses along the canal. However, in the 1950’s, the herring fishing industry went on a decline. It indirectly put pressure on the glass industry, as the demand for glass buoys plunged. They were forced to divert their business to produce refined glassware, The result today are numerous glass shops along the Sakaimachi Street just before the canal. Now, turned into cheap tourist thrills, you can watch the amazing process for a small admission fee of ¥900.

Eventually, as time passed and modern dock facilities allowed for direct unloading of larger vessels, the canal started to became obsolete. A time came when it was scheduled to be land-filled but thanks to a citizens’ movement, a part of the canal was restored in the 1980’s. The warehouses along the canal were transformed into shops, cafes, museums and restaurants. The canal was chosen as the site of the town’s Snow Light Path Festival, when they light up the canal with the glass buoys.

The Otaru Canal is all about old world charm. It was still early evening so we walked leisurely along the canal. The canal is lined by old brick and stone buildings that appeared to be warehouses. Stone stairways, terraces, bridges and shops line up the old waterway. There is also a boat ride arranged for interested tourists. We reached a park at the end of the canal. Many boats were docked in beside the park.

After spending a few minutes at the park, we started our walk back towards the canal.

The dusk was setting in and the street lights were starting to light up. The scene looked straight out of a bygone era. The snowfall from Sapporo had caught up with us. The old buildings against the backdrop of falling snow and the beautiful canal made it look like an amazingly romantic setting. Soft tiny snowflakes were starting to fall on my eyelashes as I captured the memorable moment on my camera.

The illuminated Otaru Canal

As we walked back the gas-lights were fully lit and the illumination on old warehouses had converted this place into sheer magic. The snowing was getting heavy as I set up my camera to take some long exposure shots from the bridge over the canal. Within minutes, the snow flakes were beating down on us. In the frenzy, we zipped up, pulling our hoodies over our heads. I remember my palms were hurting like crazy from the biting cold. Every couple of minutes, I had to put them back in my pockets to bring back some warmth in them. I couldn’t wear gloves since they make my hands clumsy while handling the camera.

Thankfully the breeze was taking the flakes away from the lens and I was able to get the beautiful shot below. Because of the long exposure the flakes have created a mist like appearance in the photo. Covered in snow, we were laughing at each other. We stayed on the bridge for some time, admiring the thrill of the moment.

After a few minutes, the snow eased on us and we made our way back to JR Otaru Station. It was not very late but the stores had downed their shutters already.

All the way back the moments kept coming back when the snowfall had surrounded us at the canal. The moment was gone and will possibly never repeat for me, but I can still go back in time looking at my captures and live it again.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked the post or follow my story as I finally make it to summit of Mt Moiwa.

Whiteout at Cape Soya

Cape Sōya in Wakkanai, at a northern latitude of 45 degrees 31′, is Japan’s northernmost point. It’s not one of those scenic landscapes that I chase after, but I was keen to visit the absolute tip of the island country.

We had a day’s rest in Asahikawa and were going over the plans for the next day’s trip to Wakkanai. Looking at the train schedules we felt it was going to be very tight for us to go all the way to Wakkanai and come back on the same day. Express trains are few, and local trains are not a very good idea for long distances. We both came to the same conclusion and decided to head for Wakkanai on this day itself. That would enable us to get an early morning start for the visit to Cape Sōya and then, we could head back to Asahikawa by the afternoon train.

I quickly booked us a room at Ana Hotel in Wakkanai. Lucky for us they had a last-minute deal going on.

After resting for a bit we went down to the Asahikawa Station to reserve our seats on the evening train. At the station, we took an early dinner and packed ourselves some tidbits for the way. Our train, the Sōya Express arrived at 7.17 pm. The train ride was uneventful. Heavy snow was predicted in the area for the evening and some villages along the way were buried in over 4 feet of snow.

It was almost midnight by the time we arrive at the port town of Wakkanai. The train was delayed by a few minutes due to snow on the tracks. The area outside the station was layered in a carpet of snow.

Hotel Ana is one of the more luxurious hotels in Wakkanai. We couldn’t miss it even if we wanted to. It’s the tallest building in town and also the closest hotel to the station. It took us just 5 minutes on foot to reach the hotel.

Once we entered the hotel, I was pleasantly surprised by our lodgings. The interiors were fabulous. A fleet of stairs took us up to the second floor where an antique piano was sitting in the corner. This would be the most luxurious hotel, I have stayed in Japan.

We were provided a room on the top floor. Our room was pretty huge with a wardrobe, mini-fridge, stacked beer et al. The room has a glass window wall facing the harbor. Snow was falling again. In the falling flakes, the Wakkanai coast looked beautiful. As I watched the waves hitting the coast, a fox came out of nowhere and went about investigating the area, probably searching for food. It was starting to snow heavily now.

We had planned on catching the sunrise bus at 5.45 am. I took a quick nap and woke up at 4 am. The snowing had stopped but the roads were still heavily snowed. We didn’t want to risk it, so we agreed to skip the early ride and go for the 11.04 am one. That would still give us enough time to get back and catch the afternoon Express train to Asahikawa. We checked out from the hotel at 9 am.

We walked to the station and bought our tickets for Cape Sōya. The round trip bus ride costs 2500 Yen per person. The station has a small cafe and souvenir store. We had a quick breakfast there. I bought a fox keychain remembering the fox I saw the night before.

The next bus wasn’t for an hour, so we walked towards the harbor. 5 mins from the station along the harbor, we reached a long arched hallway supported by Roman-style pillars. This Breakwater Dome was built in the 1930s. It rises over 13 meters up in the air to protect from the strong winds in the area.

We walked along the hallway to the edge of the harbor where some ships were parked. Wakkanai is the last major town before you reach the tip of Japan. From here you can get a ferry to the nearby Japanese islands of Rishiri and Rebun. Hell, you can even catch one to Russia. It’s only 150 km from here.

Walking back Mani pointed out to me, the Monument of Peace on a nearby hill, built jointly by Japan and the United States to console the souls of war victims during the Pacific War (1941-1945).

We reached the bus stop a few minutes early.  It is located just beside the JR Wakkanai Station. The road signs were painted in Japanese, English, and also Russian. We caught the Souyamisaki bound Sōya Bus at 11.04 am. The clouds had disappeared as we rode the bus to Cape Sōya. It takes about 50 minutes to reach the cape. The road to Cape Sōya goes along the Sea of Okhotsk. The bus went slow, but we reached exactly on time. We were excited as the bus dropped us off at Souyamisaki. As we walked towards the cape the sun hid behind the grey clouds and the flurries were flying again.

So, there we were… at the northernmost tip of Japan! A stone monument of a triangular pyramid shape greeted us with the message “The Northernmost point in Japan” Beside the gray concrete triangle lies a bronze statue of Mamiya Rinzo (1780-1844) a Japanese explorer from the Edo period famous for his explorations and mapping of nearby Sakhalin Island.

The view of the wide sea from the cape is spectacular. It might mean nothing for some, but I felt a great sense of fulfillment by standing at the absolute tip of Japan.

Drift ice comes here every winter. Endless ice on the sea had impressed me greatly in some photos posted by friends on 500px. I was distraught about missing the drift ice in Abashiri. It was gone here too. I was saddened to hear we missed it by a mere week.

On a clear day, one can see the faint shoreline of Russia in the distance but the weather was too misty to spot anything beyond a couple of kilometers. Within minutes the wind was howling and flakes were hitting us at great speeds helped by the strong breeze from the ocean. The area went totally white, with nothing visible around us. The horizon disappeared completely. We felt lost. In the whiteout, I couldn’t make out any of the fellow travelers who had got down with us. My palms were going numb in the cold. The fleece in my pockets helped greatly to keep them warm. We went to the pyramid monument and stayed there for a few minutes.

After some time the snowing stopped and I was able to take a few photos of the pyramid.

Across the road is the Peace Park up on the higher ground. From there one can get a higher vantage lookout to witness the convergence of the Sea of Okhotsk and the Sea of Japan. But it was impossible to reach due to the heavy snow. Around the monument, there wasn’t much to see, so we loitered around for some time. I went down to the sea to feel the cold water of the Okhotsk.

Nearby you also find an old Naval Watchtower dating back to the conflicts over control of Sakhalin during the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. There’s a souvenir store nearby if you want to take something back from the tip of Japan.

It was already time for the return bus so we walked back to the stop. Beside the stop, there is also a beautiful shrine if you want to say a prayer.

On the way back I spotted some endangered Steller’s sea eagles flying by. We were a bit tense as we had just a 10-minute window to catch the train to Asahikawa. We reached the station on time. We quickly hopped onto the train, waiting on the platform. It’s was a long, scenic ride back. I was tired but the endless white snowed fields and blue skies kept me awake as the train chugged along the beautiful landscape. I am truly amazed, how the people of Japan have safeguarded the natural beauty of their country, especially Hokkaido. It surely is a heaven on Earth.

The Polar Bears of Asahiyama

I am not a fan of Zoo’s. The idea of animals in cages does not appeal to me. The only reason I went to the Asahiyama Zoo was to catch a glimpse of the endangered Polar Bears.

Located in the very north of Japan, Asahiyama Zoo is home to some 700 beautiful creatures. It opened its gates for the very first time in early 1967. Helped by the natural climate, it is the first facility in Japan to have succeeded in the natural breeding in captivity of animals that live in cold regions, such as Polar Bears, Amur Leopards, and Scops Owls. In winter people come here specially to witness the penguin walks.

We reached there half an hour early. The Zoo opens at 9 am. For me the most popular exhibit is the Polar Bear Pavilion. From here, one can observe polar bears diving into this huge pool, displaying their natural playful behavior as in the real Arctic Ocean.

Ivan & Lulu

Four polar bears are bred here. The only male one is named Ivan. The female ones are named Satsuki, Pirka and Lulu. Ivan was brought here from a Russian Zoo where he was born in captivity. Asahiyama zoo was also successful at the difficult task of captive polar bear breeding back in 1976, but has been unlucky after that. Few years back, Ivan was paired with 16-year-old Lulu but it did not pan out as planned.

Polar bears are individual creatures. Wild pairs come together only for a period of about one week a year, and though the males seek a mate every year, the females only breed every 3 years. Ivan and Lulu had been living together for a long time. The caretakers decided to separate them, then reunite them temporarily to see what might happen. It worked. Ivan acted differently, and soon the pair was observed mating, although Lulu still did not become pregnant. He is currently being paired with Pirka.

We walked down to the pavilion where below the water we could see one of them having a great time playing in the water. Mani was lucky to capture in a video its youthful energy as it went about enjoying life.

Nearby there are observation stands called the Shields eye. Through it we can watch the bears from the viewpoint of the seals. Polar bears use their powerful sense of smell when hunting for seals, their main source of food. They can smell a seal’s breathing hole, or aglu, from a mile away. Once located, they wait patiently by the hole and attack the seal’s head when it comes up for air. This acrylic dome is designed to show how they would perceive their predators as they would come up the breathing hole to the surface for air.

Originally from the Arctic, the polar bears are in serious danger of going extinct due to global warming. They evolved around 3 million years ago from the brown grizzly bears in areas where their white fur gave them a tactical advantage. Adult males can grow to as much as nine feet in length and weigh over 300 kg. They can live up to 40 years.

Rising temperatures in the world’s oceans are causing sea ice to disappear for longer and longer periods during summer, leaving them insufficient time to hunt. Because they don’t hibernate like other bears, they can only survive in areas where food is available all around the year. With the ice gone in summers, they are unable to find prey. This gradual loss of critical habitat will probably not allow them to last much longer. It is hard to accept that I will probably never see them again.

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In the morning, the first thing we did was to catch the penguin walk. One mustn’t miss the sight of these quirky king penguins walking around in the snow. They non-nonchalantly walked past the rows of wide-eyed tourists like some haughty princes from medieval times. The king penguin is very large compared to other species. Fully grown, they can reach up to three feet tall. They can be easily identified by their vivid orange, tear-shaped patches on each side of the head.

I also caught a glimpse of the Red Panda from close up, something I missed on my trip to Sikkim. They are so cute and cuddly but appear so serious all the time. The red panda is native to the eastern Himalayas and southwestern China. They usually only eat the youngest, most tender shoots and leaves of bamboo.  These furry animals spend most of their lives in trees and even sleep aloft.

We walked around looking at the various other animals in the zoo. The Snow leopards and other carnivorous animals are in small cages and you will not enjoy them. It took us approximately three hours to enjoy the zoo. Mani did some shopping at the souvenir store. The cafeteria at the Zoo has nice food. We took our lunch there and were ready to leave by noon.

Asahiyama Zoo had not been this popular even a decade ago. It was only in 1999 that the zoo started to stay open during the winter season for the first time  Today, despite Asahiyama’s relatively remote location and modest scale, visitor numbers rival those at Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo. I do not approve of zoos but I greatly appreciate the good work they are putting in at Asahiyama. Below I have posted some of the photos taken at the Zoo. I hope you like them.

Cruising the Sea of Okhotsk

It was the day of our cruise on the sea of Okhotsk. We had booked the Aurora Ice Breaker cruise months in advance and we were looking forward to a ride among the famous ice drifts (流氷, Ryūhyō) of Abashiri.

The drift ice cruise starts at 9.30 am in the morning. We got up early and walked down to the harbor. The footpaths were covered in snow and extremely slippery at places. We walked slowly and carefully. As we walked, we talked about the interesting stories we came to know about the Ainu people of Hokkaido at the Museum, the day before. On the way, we passed a very peaceful Abashiri river. The river had a thin layer of ice over the water.

As we neared the harbor, the ice thickened forming rounded circles of ice like lotus leaves in a lake.

Each year ice forms near the mouth of the Amur River in Russia. From there it drifts southward aided by the currents until it eventually rolls onto the coast of northern Hokkaido. The sea ice typically reaches Abashiri in mid to late January and is said to clear up by mid April. Unfortunately due to rapidly changing climate, we were informed at the ticket counter that there would be no ice drifts on the day.

The ice was supposed to stay till mid April, but global warming has changed everything so much around the northern parts of Japan. Lucky for us, we did see some drift ice floating by on the Okhotsk, as we rode into Abashiri, the day before.

Drift ice is symbolic of winter in Abashiri and the Okhotsk region. This natural phenomenon has had a tremendous influence on the local culture and the drift ice is represented in various forms of chocolates, candies and ice-creams. They even celebrate a drift ice festival each year. While drift ice can be observed along the entire Sea of Okhotsk coast from Wakkanai to the Shiretoko Peninsula, it gets thickest around Abashiri.

Anyways, they offered us a discounted cruise into the bay. We went up to the deck on the Aurora. The 1st and 2nd floor rooms have seating arrangements. On the lower decks, people can relax at the lounge in front of huge windows to experience the beautiful Okhotsk. The lounge has interior heating to keep you warm. It also features a nice cafe. For us it was the observation deck at the top from where we could feel the thrill of the cruise.

We slowly moved out of the harbor and into the open sea. We passed many small lighthouses along the way. The wind picked up as we went further out to sea.On the boat, the captain provided us with some nice music. 

The seagulls followed us like they were bidding us farewell. The went with the boat all the way until it turned around.

We were lucky to have a beautiful sunny day and thoroughly enjoyed cruising the Abashiri Harbor. The sea was a darkened shade of blue. In the blue we could make out Cape Notoro in a distance.

Far out into the sea, a few small pieces of drift ice were still making their southward journey.

From time to time, flurries would hit our face, sharply. The wind was howling in my ears as we reached the point of return. I had to pull my hoodies over my ears to shield myself from the cold.

The Sea gulls welcomed us back as we neared the harbor.

We reached the shore at around noon. All the shops had opened and we shopped for some souvenirs. I got myself a Miko key chain and some Hokkaido Chocolates. We shared a “Drift Ice” special ice cream and then we were off to the station to catch the train to Asahikawa.

Even though we did have a good time, we missed the ice drifts. I would suggest going maybe a couple of weeks earlier. I did see some ice drifts as we were entering Abashiri. Apart from the cruise, the museums were also entertaining, so I would suggest staying behind for a couple of days. Thanks for reading my journal. If you have any questions, please leave me a comment.

Aurora Ice Breaker cruise timetable

Ships run daily between January 20th & April 3

Fare Charge

¥3,300 per head for adults

What if there is no drift ice?

Route switches to a pleasure cruise to the Cape of Notoro when there are no drift ice

Minimum passenger requirement

The Sunset Cruise may be cancelled if the minimum passenger count is not met, or if there are no drift ice to be seen. From March 15 onwards, the ship may not sail if at least 15 people have not made reservations by the day before.

When are the Sunset Cruise ships scheduled?

Sunset cruise timings are scheduled between 2/8~3/10 every Friday, Saturday & Sunday at 16:30

Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples

My initial interest in Abashiri was just to experience the Drift Ice phenomenon that occurs every winter along the coast. But as I went around northern Japan, my curiosity for the Ainu people grew with every trip.

My first foray into the world of Ainu took place at Lake Shikaribetsu. The Ainu are an indigenous ethnic group of people who live in Hokkaido in Japan as well as in Russian islands of Kuril and Sakhalin. My thirst for knowledge about this ancient culture grew stronger when I had another brush with it at Lake Akan where an entire village exists, recreating the ways of the Ainu. This village, known as Ainu Kotan is lined by souvenir shops specializing in Ainu handicrafts. The beautiful hand crafted souvenirs and their rich history left me yearning for more.

The town of Abashiri

Abashiri is situated on the northeastern coast of Hokkaido, facing the Sea of Okhotsk. Over the years, various historical sites have been discovered here providing evidence to the existence of human civilization since 16,000 years ago.

We had taken the 9.03 a.m. train from Kushiro to Abashiri. We were still using our Hokkaido JR Pass which allows for hassle-free travel across the prefecture of Hokkaido. The unending landscape was covered in snow, with no color except whites covering everything from fields and trees to houses.

In between, when the train would slow down, I noticed a few deer in the woods, staring at the train with curiosity. About two-thirds of the way, after a station called Shari, the train line went parallel to the Sea of Okhotsk and we saw some drift ice floating by in the ocean.

The train reached Abashiri at 11.58 a.m. We had prior reservations at the Hotel Route-Inn, just opposite to the JR station. The sidewalks were covered in slippery ice and we had to walk very carefully across the road to get to the hotel.

Most hotels in Japan don’t allow check-ins before 2 p.m. Since we still had some time for our check-in, we left our luggage at the lobby of the hotel and decided to visit the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples.

The nearest bus stop was just a short walk away. Buses are scheduled at regular intervals and we didn’t have to wait long for one to arrive. The ride to the museum costs ¥400 per person. We passed a couple of other interesting places along the way – the Abashiri Prison and the Ice Museum, but we went directly to the Museum.

Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples

The bus dropped us off in front of the museum. The surrounding area was deserted and covered in snow, about 3 feet high. The walkway was cleared of the snow for brave tourists like us who dared to visit this place in spite of the overwhelming weather.

The entrance to the building is designed like a conical glass, similar to the traditional houses of the people in the northern regions. The admission tickets cost ¥550 per person.

With its rich assortment of exhibits, the museum introduces the culture and traditions of everyday life of the peoples inhabiting the northern, sub-arctic regions of the globe, including the Ainu, the Sami, the Inuit, and the aborigines of Canada and Siberia.

Earth is one, but the world is not. It was to share this very diversity that the museum opened on 10th February 1991 with the purpose of introducing the different cultures of northern people who inhabit the extreme northern regions of the world.

Although the museum tries to illustrate the differences and similarities between these different northern cultures, it focuses primarily on the Ainu way of life and one can learn a lot about the skills, tools, and culture of the Ainu people.

Along with a free booklet, they also provide an audio headset that explains to the visitors, in English, a short explanation of each exhibit. It was quite easy to follow as each exhibit was marked by a number and all I had to do was to select the respective numbered video in the app.

The entrance to the exhibit hall is kept dimmed to create a mystical atmosphere. A wooden Inuit face mask greets you as you enter the hall. The Inuit believed in animism: all living and non-living things have a spirit. This spirit called the inua exists in everything around us including people, animals, trees, lakes, and mountains.

According to the Inuit culture, when a spirit dies, it continues to live, albeit in the spirit world. Only a few have the power to converse with these spirits, they are called Shaman. The Shamans use masks, charms, and dances as a means to communicate with the spirit world. The mask represents a tuunraq, or shaman’s helping spirit, during these rituals.

The eerie-looking mask leads you into a dimly lit hallway that exhibits a flat globe converging over the northern landmass of Earth. Although the Museum touches on the history of various northern cultures, in this article I am going to try sticking to the timeline of just the Ainu people.

Ainu – the mysterious

The Ainu are “considered” to be the indigenous people of Japan, inhabiting the Northern islands of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril. I use the word “considered” because ethnic Japanese, until recent times did not consider them as indigenous and raised questions on their very origins. It was only in 2009 that, the then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama for the first time, as a representative of the State, clearly described the Ainu as indigenous people.

Most ancient cultures have their mysteries which have been lost over time. One of the most enduring mysteries that we barely understand comes from my own – the study of Astrology. Thousands of years ago, when mankind was not even sure whether Earth was round, sages existed in India, who knew about star constellations, the existence of the furthermost planets of our Solar system and even their ecliptic paths down to the details. How? That is a mystery to me as well.

The Ainu are Japan’s indigenous population, also known as Kyuudojin (aborigines) or Dojin (natives) in the colloquial language.

Even before the Ainu came along, the Japanese island of Hokkaido was inhabited by people who used to survive by fishing, hunting, and gathering. This period, referred to as the Jōmon period lasted over 14,000 years continuing up until around 300 BCE. It was immediately followed by the Zoku-Jōmon period (340 BC–700 CE), also referred to as the Epi-Jōmon period, which was mostly a continuation of the Jōmon culture in northern Tōhoku and Hokkaidō. You can find more information about this period in my journal about the recreated Jomon period village in Sannai-Maruyama in Aomori.

During the same time another culture from the Korean peninsula, called the Yayoi, were arriving in the Japanese mainland. One of the most prominent was Amenohiboko, a prince of Silla (Korea), who settled in Japan during the era of Emperor Suinin, around the 3rd or 4th century and was said to have lived in Tajima Province. They brought with them rice agriculture and merged with the Jomon people of the mainland laying the foundations of the Yamato period (250 CE–710 CE).

Back north in Hokkaido, far beyond the reaches of Yamato culture, the Epi-Jomon lifestyle continued till around the 7th century. During these years groups of people arrived in Hokkaido from the north, crossing the frozen Sea of Okhotsk from the islands we now call Kuril & Sakhalin. This amalgamation of cultures resulted in a gradual morphing of the local people into the Satsumon (700 CE-1200 CE) way of life, which is widely recognized as the pre-Ainu period.

Genealogical clues

Physically, the Ainu are much different from the average Japanese. They typically have a longer skull, heavy facial hair, and prominent Caucasian features. Their hair tends to be thick and wavy, and body hair is also more pronounced. Aside from the physical differences, the Ainu language is also quite unique, showing no relation to Japanese or any other Asian language. 

Genealogical research also suggests that the historical Ainu culture originated in a merger of the Okhotsk culture with the Satsumon. One of the biggest commonalities between the Ainu and the Satsumon was that both were partially agricultural and established near estuaries of rivers that were abundant in salmon and trout.

Of note, is that although the Ainu of Japan have traditionally considered descendants of the Jomon or post-Jomon Satsumon people, they have been found to carry the Y-chromosome showing a paternal lineage from North Asia including Nivkhi from Sakhalin and Koryaks in the Kamchatka Peninsula. Hence, the Ainu can be assumed to be related to the Nivkhi and the Koryaks. However, since it has been seen that the Nivkhi do not carry the same haplogroup D Y-chromosome, which has a dominant presence in the Ainu, the migration is understood to have occurred unidirectional, from the Northern regions into Hokkaido.

I hope the timeline of the Ainu was not overwhelming for you because we still have much to explore here in the museum. Most of the exhibits here are grouped and don’t necessarily belong to the Ainu cultures but of all cultures residing along the northern pole. I will try to single out those that are specific to the Ainu.

The ways of the Ainu

The Ainu lived in kotan, or “permanent villages,” comprised of several homes perched along banks of rivers where salmon could be found in abundance. Each kotan was headed by a male chief called Kotan Kor Kur. Although the chief had personal authority, for all major decisions he would confer with the community in a group discussion called an ukoramkor.

The houses would be set up at a variable distance from one another that could range from three hundred feet upwards, mainly to prevent fires. Inside the reed walls of each house (chise), a nuclear family cooked and gathered around a central hearth. The chise was rectangular in shape and consisted of one large room with and open rectangular hearth at its center.

At the eastern end of the house was a window (rorun purai), a sacred opening facing upstream, toward the mountains, the homeland of bears and the source of the salmon-rich river. The bear’s spirit could enter or exit through the window. Outside the window was an altar, also facing upstream, where people held bear ceremonies.

The Ainu had no writing system but memorized their history and legends in never-ending epic chant known as the Yukara.

Each kotan drew upon concentric zones of sustenance by manipulating the landscape: the river for fresh water and fishing, the banks for plant cultivation and gathering, river terraces for housing and plants, hillsides for hunting, the mountains for hunting and collecting elm bark for baskets and clothes.

We are now going to look at some of the utilities created by the people residing in the northern regions.


Farming played a relatively small role in the daily diet of the Ainu. The communities merging from the Okhotsk were mainly fishermen and they fed their families through fishing and whaling. In the figure below you can observe how they used animal bones for use in fishing.

One of the most interesting of these hunting items was the barbed harpoon. The harpoon called the chininiap, was primarily used to catch fishes. As you see in the image above, the spear has two heads and was fastened to a long pole about eight feet long using a string.

The heads of the spear were barbed and consisted of two parts – an iron point and a bone foundation. As soon as a fish was struck with this spear, the barbed part would come off the points of the pole, and the fish was secured using the strings attached to the spearhead.


As opposed to the migrants from Okhotsk, the traditional Ainu people mostly pursued a combination of hunting and gathering. The hunters pursued game on land with poisoned bows and arrows. They preferred to lay in wait or catch animals through clever traps. They fashioned lures to bring in deer or set their dogs to corral them in natural barriers.

The crude wooden self-bow in the image above is part of a spring-bow trap. The bow was placed on a stock with a trip string and armed with a poisonous arrow. The arrows have reed shafts with cherry-bark wrapping. The quiver was made of spliced elm bark wrapped with cherry bark, with a matching bark cap, and carved wooden wing sections on each side.

Poisoned bow traps set along game trails caught bears, deer, otters, foxes, rabbits, and raccoon dogs on Hokkaido. Their poisons were derived from the aconite plant. Each family had its own additional ingredients, including spider venom, tobacco, and other toxic plants. Only a few men learned these family recipes, and their secrets were closely guarded.

Religious beliefs of the Ainu

In a similar way to the Eskimos, the traditional Ainu belief, animals, plants, and objects are all the physical forms of a greater life force, or ramat. Kamuy deities are the source of this ramat. When an object breaks or a creature dies, its ramat returns to its kamuy to be born again. In this way, the historic Ainu saw animals like deer less as individual creatures and more as different manifestations of the same kamuy.

The kamuy was understood to give their forms freely to the Ainu as food, clothing, tools, medicine, and anything else they needed for survival. In exchange, the gods expected respect, prayers, and offerings in return. Inau, whittled willow sticks, acted as messengers to the kamuy, carrying prayers and offerings. Men carved them frequently, often several times per day, to give thanks to various kamuy. Hunters and fishermen offered inau to Hash-inau-uk Kamuy, goddess of the hunt and fishermen, and Rep-un Kamuy, god of the sea. After they had eaten an animal, including fish, Ainu hunters returned their bones to shrines called keyohniusi.

After hunting one of the most necessary equipment for the people of the northern region was the snow walking boots. If you have ever walked in fresh snow, you must know how difficult it is to create any pace. To gain an advantage over the natural predators they developed tools for walking and moving around in the snow as is displayed in the image below.

In the small map above, to the left of the display, you will find image markers, which assign each of the snow walking equipment to their respective regions. The Ainu used a wooden snow walking boot, which you will find at the bottom right of the display wall.

The northerners’ ancient culture persisted largely unchanged until the seventh century when the traditional Ainu way of life became more visible in the archaeological record on Hokkaido. With this new way of life also came tools like clay pots. Farming was part of the ancestral Ainu livelihood in southwestern Hokkaido as early as A.D. 700.

The Ainu, like their ancestors, shared their land with an important predator. The brown bears of Hokkaido. In the north, the lives of the Ainu and their ancestors were closely entwined with the bears.

In this region, the Bear played a very important part in the lives of the people. They used to adorn their dwellings with Bear skulls. This aspect of their lives had a big impact on the Ainu culture as they also enshrined bear skulls on altars while performing religious ceremonies. This is very evident if you visit the Ainu village near Lake Akan. Most of the souvenirs they sell are depictions of bears in different forms.

Bears were kindred spirits, and so strong was the connection between humans and bears, that it lasted across time and cultures. The people honored bear spirits through ritual for thousands of years, deliberately placing skulls and bones in pits for burial.


Sea mammal hunting began in the initial period of Jomon culture in Hokkaido. The bones were used to create totems in the images of the animals in the surrounding region.

The sculpture comes from the Moyoro Shell Mound, where the Okhotsk people lived some 1300 years ago. The site of the Moyoro Shell Mound is located at the mouth of the Abashiri River as it flows into the Sea of Okhotsk.

Here you can see another carving of bone creating a seal.

Decimation of the Ainu

The Wajin as the Ainu called the people from the mainland would often treat the Ainu as inferior. Because of the difference in physical appearance, it was easier to differentiate between them. To the Ainu, Hokkaido was their ancestral homeland – the “Ainu Mosir”, but to the slowly encroaching Yamato Japanese, it was Ezo – a foreign land of so-called “hairy barbarians.”

Hokkaido was then referred to as Ezo (蝦夷) by the people from Japanese mainland – a word made up of two kanji meanings “shrimp” and “barbarian.”

The first major skirmish between Ainu and Yamato broke out in 1457, known as Koshamain’s War. It started with a simple trade dispute regarding a sword, but the underlying resentment was enough to fan the fires into a full-blown blaze of violence. A Yamato blacksmith, enraged by an Ainu customer’s displeasure with the quality and price of the short sword he had ordered, plunged the same into his young customer.

Seeking revenge, Koshamain, an Ainu leader, led groups of infuriated Ainu to attack the fortified Yamato outposts on the Oshima peninsula and managed to defeat the Yamato defenders, sacking them and razing their outposts to the ground. In response to these events, the Matsumae clan was granted the area around Matsumae and southern parts of Hokkaidō as a march fief in 1590 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and charged with defending it from the Ainu “barbarians”.

A haunting peace prevailed thereafter between the sides until 1668 when an Ainu leader named Shakushain launched a war against the Yamato for their interference in local feuds. He gathered other clans to his cause, using anger at Yamato’s unfairness as a rallying cry. His army assaulted Yamato towns and took their ships at sea, killing as many as 400 Yamato people. The war became serious enough that the Tokugawa Shogun in distant Edo (Tokyo) was forced to send troops across the sea to assist the Matsumae clan in their battles against the Ainu.

The eventual outcome of the war was not hard to predict, for the major Ainu weapon was the poisoned arrow while the Wajin fought with firearms. After much loss of life among the Ainu and Wajin alike, Shakusain surrendered. But the Japan of yesteryear was not as peace-loving as today. In retaliation, the Matsumae soldiers slaughtered Shakusain and several other Ainu commanders. Not content with that, they also burned down his fortress.

The immediate outcome of the war was the enlargement of the Wajin domain in Ezo to include all of the Oshima Peninsula. Even leaders of Ainu groups that had not participated in the war were made to swear fealty. It was followed by coercive regulations that stunned the Ainu. They were no longer allowed to use metal or sharp-edged tools. They were also prohibited from raising crops or buying seeds. Many Wajin seasonal workers who came from Honshu for the fishing season temporarily took Ainu women and used them as slaves.

From the 15th century, waves of Japanese settlers began crowding out Ainu communities on Honshu island and pushing them northwards. The settlers also brought infectious diseases that caused Ainu populations to fall. Ainu land was redistributed to Japanese farmers. The Ainu call ethnic Japanese “Wajin”, a term that originated in China, or Shamo, meaning “colonizer.”

The first serious blow to Ainu sovereignty landed in the mid-1600s when a powerful samurai clan took control of Japanese settlements in southern Hokkaido.

By 1799 Edo had imposed direct rule in the eastern part of the island. Starting in 1802, they also started building Buddhist temples in Hokkaido. Meanwhile, Russian attention towards the Ainu worried Japanese officials, who were concerned about potential Ainu revolts. From 1855, Japanese settlers were officially allowed to move into the Ezochi lands previously reserved for the Ainu.

In 1868, the Ainu were officially incorporated into the Japanese nation. The incorporation of Hokkaido, which took place without negotiation with the Ainu, was in effect a colonization. During this colonization period, known as Kaitakushi, which lasted from 1869 to 1899, the Meiji government assumed direct administrative control over the Ainu and an official policy of assimilation was begun. It resulted in several pieces of legislation against the maintenance of Ainu customs, religious beliefs and language.

The government forced the Ainu into Japanese-speaking schools, changed their names, took their land, and radically altered their economy. They pushed the Ainu into wage labor, notably in the commercial herring fishery after Japanese farmers discovered fish meal was the perfect fertilizer for rice paddies.

To bring the land fully into modern Japan, the Meiji even decided to rename the island to separate it from the connotations of Ezo. Matsuura Takeshiro, a Wajin, who was highly revered even among the Ainu, submitted six potential names, including Kaihokudō and Hokkaidō. The government liked the sound of Hokkaido but preferred the kanji meanings of Kaihokudo, and rearranged the former to be read like the latter – thus Hokkaido (海北道, Northern Sea Route) was born.

Exhibits from other Northern Cultures

Many of the exhibits from the other northern cultures have been already shown in the page above. Some of the specifically interesting ones are mentioned below.

The First Nations people of the Northwest Coast are renowned for their elegantly engineered canoes. Ranging in length from three to twenty meters, canoes were essential for travel, transport, hunting, and trade. Different coastal communities developed distinctive styles to suit their particular needs.

Each canoe was made from a single cedar log, carved and steamed into shape. Wooden northern-style canoe with a Haida design painted on the outside. The canoe is painted black with Northwest Coast stylized designs on the ends in red, white and black. Depicted on each side is a Killer whale with its head and dorsal fin on the prow and the body and tail fins on the stern. There is a red border around the upper edges. The ends sweep upwards. The prow is grooved to hold a harpoon or mast and has a vertical fin to cut through waves. The interior is also painted black and has three rectangular bench seats. Canoes were used for fishing and hunting, trading, voyaging and war. Important canoes were carved or painted with family crest figures on the prow.

The museum also contains some interesting items that you can touch and experience yourself. Of of those is the ilgaak or iggaak as pronounced in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuits from Canada. These are custom-made snow goggles traditionally used by the Inuit and the Yupik, formerly known as Eskimo, peoples of the Arctic to prevent snow blindness.

These goggles are traditionally made of driftwood (especially spruce), bone, walrus ivory or in some cases caribou antler. The workpiece is carved to fit the wearer’s face, and one or more narrow horizontal slits are carved through the front. The goggles are custom-made to fit tightly against the face so that the only light entering is through the slits. The slits are made narrow not only to reduce the amount of light entering but also to improve the visual acuity.


Mukkuri, a traditional musical instrument used by the Ainu people.

Shamans played skin drums during healing rituals, while performers at potlatches and secret society ceremonies more often used wooden box drums. This instrument is a bent wooden hoop covered by thin deer hide, with crossed rawhide holding straps in the back. The drumstick depicts a killer whale in human form, a tall dorsal fin projecting from its head.

The qilaut is a type of frame drum native to the Inuit cultures of the Arctic. In addition to being one of the oldest examples of indigenous musical instrumentation, it has remained faithful to its original construction and is still made of ordinary materials found in daily Inuit life. It is divided into two sections: the isik, or surface that is struck; and the pablu, or handle of the drum. The drum is played with a kututarq, a simply constructed mallet. The diameter of the qilaut averages about 50 centimeters.

Originally, native people intended the qilaut to be a religious instrument. It was used to summon animist (the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects) gods during ritual services. These ceremonies helped protect hunters and fishers from the risks of their trade and families were able to ward off evil spells.

Religious artefacts

When a person in a festival put on such a mask he became imbued with the spirit being represented. I wish I knew what spirit or creature this big mask represents, and what specific culture it comes from.

Face masks for religious rites.

Totem poles are monumental carvings, a type of Northwest Coast art, consisting of poles, posts or pillars, carved with symbols or figures. They are usually made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, by First Nations and indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast.

Totem poles serve as important illustrations of family lineage and the cultural heritage of the Native peoples. The carvings may symbolize or commemorate ancestors, or cultural beliefs that recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events.

The poles may also serve as functional architectural features, welcome signs for village visitors, mortuary vessels for the remains of deceased ancestors, or as a means to ridicule someone.

Totem poles can symbolize the characters and events in mythology, or convey the experiences of recent ancestors and living people. Early tools used to carve totem poles were made of stone, shell, or bone, but beginning in the late 1700s, the use of iron tools made the carving work faster and easier. The poles usually last from 60 to 80 years; only a few have stood longer than 75 years. Once the wood rots so badly that the pole begins to lean and pose a threat to passersby, it is either destroyed or pushed over and removed.

Ceremonial Costumes of Northern People

In the Arctic, where temperatures are below freezing for most of the year, warm clothing is of great importance. It is vital for hunters who spend many hours outside fishing or hunting seals, walrus, whales and caribou. Traditional Inuit skin clothing is well suited to this purpose because it provides excellent insulation.

The traditional women parkas made of leather had a big hood in the back where they could carry their little ones. The edge of the hood was decorated with strings of large beads, as well as the hem and cuffs and today you can see some amazing examples in museums both in Nuuk and Canada. The fur and skin clothing of the Inuit is a key factor in ensuring their survival in the northernmost reaches of the globe.

In winter, two layers of clothes were worn when hunting or traveling. The inner layer has the fur turned inwards towards the body, while the fur of the outer layer is turned outwards. Warm air is trapped between the two layers of clothing and the body, providing excellent insulation against the cold.

Gákti is a piece of traditional clothing worn by the Sámi in northern areas of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The gákti is worn both in ceremonial contexts and while working, particularly when herding reindeer. The traditional Sami outfit is characterized by a dominant color adorned with bands of contrasting colors, plaits, pewter embroidery, tin art, and often a high collar. In the Norwegian language, the garment is called a ‘kofte‘, and in Swedish it is called ‘kolt‘.

the Northwest Coast geographic region extends from just north of Yakutat Bay in southwest Alaska more or less to the California-Oregon border, including lands west of the Coast and Cascade Mountains. Almost all Northwest Coast Indian groups shared certain aspects of material culture. Not surprisingly, the sea and/or rivers played a central role in their lives. Fish, especially salmon, was the most important food for most Northwest Coast Indians.

Trees, especially the red cedar, were the raw materials for everything from canoes to clothing to plank houses. Most women used the twining method to weave baskets (including watertight baskets), clothing (capes, hats, robes), and mats.

Kamleikas are outer garments made of sea mammal gut, an extremely light, tough, and waterproof material. They were sewn with grass or sinew threads which expanded when soaked, making the garment waterproof. Among the Aleut, hooded kamleikas were worn as protection against wind and rain over a birdskin or fur parka.


Inuits of Greenland have used beads to decorate themselves and their clothes as well as amulets for good fortune and protection against evil spirits for thousands of years. The earliest known beads were made of natural material such as soft stone, bones, mussels, teeth and parts of the fish vertebrae and skeleton.

Snow boots.

To the Ainu, the bear has a body and soul; it’s a ferocious predator that roams the mountains and valleys, and it’s a kamuy, a “God.” Kamuy are great and small. They are mighty salmon and deer, humble sparrows and squirrels, ordinary tools and utensils. Kamuy visit the earth, have a relationship with humans, and if respected, they return again and again to feed and clothe humans. It’s a sophisticated belief system where both living and nonliving things are spirit beings, and where interspecies etiquette is central to a good life. To maintain a healthy relationship with the kamuy, Ainu artists traditionally represent the world in the abstract, creating pleasing designs meant to charm the gods—the transcendent symmetrical swirls and twirls of a kaleidoscope, not banal figurines. Making a realistic image of an animal endangers its spirit—it could become trapped, so Ainu artists did not carve realistic bears that clenched corn, or anything else, in their teeth.

Miniature depictions


Recognizing the Ainu

The 1899 act was finally officially reversed on June 6th, 2008, when the Japanese government passed a resolution that, for the first time, formally recognized the Ainu as “an indigenous people who have their own language, religion and culture”.

The change in heart has brought about many positives, one of which is that government administrators now answer the phone with “Irankarapte,” an Ainu greeting.

Today only small numbers of Ainu remain, and they constitute one of Japan’s most marginalized groups. The Ainu are thought to number around 25,000 (official sources) while unofficially, they are believed to number around 200,000 or more since many Ainu still do not disclose their roots out of fear of discrimination.

Back at the hotel, when the sun had set and as we sipped some hot coffee, we talked about the Ainu and their interesting methods.

The Museum of Northern Peoples in Abashiri is one of the best places to find detailed information about the cultures of the northern hemisphere. The museum provides a stunning display of clothing, carvings, totems and tools for hunting and fishing. But what interests me most is the mystery surrounding the ancient culture of the Ainu that continues to be debated to this day.

The Ainu of today display very little or no interest at all in their own culture. Yet, in the case of ceremonial Ainu gatherings, they do appear dressed up in Ainu-style garments. These people live on the outskirts of the larger society. Many of them have no permanent occupations but are dependent on seasonal work and welfare.

The language has all but died with barely 15 or so elderly people who still have the ability to speak the dialect fluently. Because they kept no written records, the true origins of the Ainu people will probably continue to remain a mystery.

I hope the story of the Ainu interests you as much as it captivates me. I would love to know more about this mysterious culture and visit all the small clusters that still exist on the island of Hokkaido. Thanks for reading! Please leave your comments and questions using the comment form below. You can also connect with me on Instagram. Tomorrow, we go on a cruise of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Visitor Information

Visiting Hours

Tue – Sun 9:30 AM – 4:30 PM

Price of Admission

¥550 per person

Ainu Kotan at Lake Akan

From the sparkling Lake Mashu, the White Pirika bus rode on towards Lake Akan. Shitona, our tour guide told us it was going to be a long ride of about an hour. On the way, she kept giving out more information about the lake. I couldn’t understand a word of Japanese, but Mani translated some of it for me. She went on to tell us stories of the area. She even sang a couple of folk songs for us to which I took an immediate liking. We rode on, past unspoiled primitive forest in its natural beauty, laid barren by the harsh winter.

We were lodged in Kushiro City, nestled in the eastern part of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The coastal city is famous for its picturesque wetlands, particularly the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, one of Japan’s largest and most pristine marshlands. In the morning we had already explored the lovely Lake Kussharo and the mesmerizing Lake Mashu.

Lake Akan

Lake Akan (阿寒湖, Akanko) is a crater lake in Akan National Park. It is a bit bigger than Lake Mashu at about 26 km in circumference. The lake is the habitat of Marimo, a sphere-shaped, floating green algae, but it can only be witnessed in summer months when the frozen lake melts. In winter many activities such as skiing, snowmobile riding, and smelt fishing are conducted in the vicinity. Apart from all these amazing things, the major draw for me was the presence of a real Ainu village near the shore, where one can experience the traditional lifestyle and culture of the Ainu people.

We reached the lake area at around 3 p.m. Our tour guide informed us that we had an hour to roam around and get back to the bus by 4 p.m. It was a very short time to check out such a huge area. Most of our fellow travelers headed towards the lake. There are many interesting things to do at the lake but we had already decided on visiting the Ainu Kotan first. “Kotan” in the Ainu dialect means a village. This region has long been home to the indigenous Ainu people, who were the earliest settlers of Hokkaido.

We walked towards the village hoping to meet some Ainu people. The roads were extremely slippery because of the packed snow. While crossing one of the alleys, I found myself flat on the ice. It didn’t hurt much, physically, but oh yes, my pride was crushed!

After a few minutes, we were at a towering gate with a huge wooden owl with spread wings. Beyond the gate on both sides, one can find a number of wooden homes designed in the traditional Ainu style. The smaller huts lay scattered towards the end of the road. The snow was particularly thick here and it was tough to walk. Directly above the entrance to the kotan is a Blakiston’s fish owl, which was revered as a “god” by the Ainu.

The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan, whose culture almost disappeared until recent efforts of restoration by the government. The remaining descendants of this disappearing race, reside mainly in Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands.

The Ainu have a deep reverence for nature and believe that gods exist in all things. The Ainu Kotan near Lake Akan is an attempt to preserve that culture and create awareness among culture enthusiasts. The village consisting of some 40 households have created craft shops selling wood carvings, embroidery, and musical instruments. At the village, visitors can learn about the lifestyle and culture of the Ainu people through traditional dance performances, puppet plays, instrument classes, and history lectures. One can also try some authentic Ainu cuisine in a traditional environment.

The bear holds immense significance in Ainu culture, and it plays a central role in their spiritual and everyday lives. Most of the shops are decorated with depictions of Bear and the Owl: two of the most revered creatures by the Ainu. If you look closely the shop shown below is decorated with a huge Bear head on the upper floor.

The Ainu believe that bears are sacred animals with divine spirits. They consider them to be messengers between the human world and the world of the gods. Bears are associated with various deities and are believed to possess supernatural powers. Bears feature prominently in Ainu folklore and oral traditions. Many myths and stories involve bears as characters, often portraying their interactions with humans and gods. The Iomante, also known as the “Bear Festival,” is one of the most important ceremonies in Ainu culture. It is a ritual that involves the symbolic sacrifice of a bear to send its spirit back to the gods. This ceremony is a way for the Ainu to express their gratitude to the bear for providing them with sustenance and to ensure the bear’s spirit’s safe journey to the divine realm.

This was a time when Hokkaido was still called “Ezochi” before the Japanese began full-scale settlement. The Ainu had no written language and thus both history and folklore were passed down only by word of mouth. Much has been lost along the way. The Ainu Memorial Museum at the end of the village offers programs for learning ancient dancing, wood carving, and embroidery.

Unfortunately, the museum was closed at the time. We made a u-turn at the museum and walked back, venturing into a few souvenir shops along the way. You can immerse yourself in year-round traditional Ainu performing arts, including “traditional Ainu dance,” “puppetry,” and the “Iomante Fire Festival,” at the theater named “Treasure” in the Ainu language.

Akanko Ainu Theater Ikor

The Akanko Ainu Theater Ikor, is a center dedicated to preserving Ainu history and tradition, where you’ll be privy to an ancient ceremonial dance specific to the Lake Akan region. You can watch dancers wield the “inau”, a wooden ritual tool that the “kamuy” (local deities) taught the Ainu how to make, which represents an offering to the gods. One of the programs focuses on the Ezo wolf, an animal that was revered as a “horokeu kamuy” but went extinct during the Meiji period, and expresses the lost “world of kamuy.”

Wood carving has long been an important part of Ainu culture. The shops were full of detailed wood carvings of high aesthetic quality. Among the favorites, I assume are the Bear and the Owl. I bought a couple of wooden owls as souvenirs.  Wooden owls and bears in various shapes and sizes can be found in these shops. Some extremely detailed pieces can be as expensive as a hundred grand Yen.

The Ainu are greatly skilled in woodwork. There was some really amazing artistry there in those shops. In one of the shops, I noticed a work area in a corner, with all the interesting tools, the artisans use to create these wooden masterpieces. Lovely little owls carved out of wood were lying beside them, waiting for the final touches.

It is here that I came to know of Hisao Sunazawa, a Japanese self-taught woodcarver, painter, artist, and sculptor of Ainu origin. Sunazawa, who was born in 1931 and raised in Hokkaido’s Asahikawa city, earned the nickname “Bikky,” which means “frog” in the Ainu language, as a child. The prolific sculptor, painter, and graphic artist born with the first name of Hisao gained world renown for his woodcarvings in the style of the Ainu indigenous people of Hokkaido. He moved to the shore of Lake Akan when he was 22 and started creating woodcarvings at a souvenir shop. His sculptures, featuring biomorphic forms brimming with vitality have helped immensely to bring Ainu culture in front of the world.

Shopping along these souvenir shops, we didn’t realize that we had walked all the way back to the lake. We still had about 15 minutes to the scheduled departure so we wandered into the fully frozen lake. On the left, locals had set up small colorful tents with fishing holes. On the right people were enjoying themselves on snowmobiles.

Far away, on the eastern shore, the elegant Mt. Oakan lay covered in snow. Lake Akan is said to be the largest in Hokkaido, and the current kotan was built on land that was provided free of charge to the Ainu people by the “Maeda Ippo Foundation”, which owns part of the land around Lake Akan. We didn’t want to go towards the loud crowd near the snowmobile rides, so we loitered around near the fishing holes. After wandering around for some time on the vast lake, we strode back to the bus.

After a long day, we were on the way back to our hotel. As we bid farewell to the rugged mountain landscape, the sky above us began to undergo a breathtaking transformation. The deep, mesmerizing shades of purple that had initially graced the horizon had now intensified in their brilliance. It was as though nature itself was an artist, carefully layering different shades of purple upon a canvas of fading daylight.

With every passing day on this lovely island of Hokkaido, the stunning landscapes make me feel like a teenager, falling in crush for the first time. On the way back, Shitona charmed us with another melodious song. Numerous enigmas envelop the history and culture of the Ainu. The Ainu never developed a written language. Nevertheless, it remains a culture that has evolved over an extensive span, emphasizing the importance of acquiring a comprehensive comprehension while honoring their customs and lifestyle.

The bus dropped us off at our hotel by 6 p.m. From the window of our room, the city of Kushiro was glowing in the night. The city itself boasts a welcoming atmosphere with a charming downtown area filled with local shops, restaurants serving fresh seafood delicacies, and cultural attractions. Kushiro’s rich fishing heritage is evident in its bustling fish markets, where visitors can savor delectable seafood, including the renowned “kani” (crab).

A single day is too short to fully enjoy Akan National Park. If I had to do it over again, I would definitely plan a two-day trip and stay back overnight at Lake Akan. The Akan Bus also conducts a night stargazing tour at Lake Mashu, I regret having missed that.

Of course, nothing beats traveling by self-driven car. But if you are not I would highly recommend the White Pirika tour. They were great in making our day a memorable one. The stunning lakes of Akan National Park will forever remain etched in my memory. The people of Hokkaido are so polite and friendly. And then, there is this big mystery surrounding the origins of the Ainu. I am loving every bit of it!! Abashiri, here we come!

The sparkling Lake Mashū

After the extra-terrestrial experience at Mount Iwo, we were on our way to Lake Mashū (摩周湖). It was pretty obvious that our guide, Shitona, was in love with the lake and she kept telling us over and over, how beautiful the lake looked on a bright sunny day. Although it is usually adored for its clear blue water, the lake is frequently blanketed in heavy fog and it is a rarity to view it at its scenic best.

Lake Mashū or Mashūko, is the smallest of the three caldera lakes in Akan National Park. The comma-shaped lake with a circumference of 20 km originated from volcano activity of Mt. Mashū some 32,000 years ago. The lake is surrounded by steep crater walls, 200 meters high with no inlets or outlets Along with Lake Baikal in Siberia, it is classified as one of the most transparent lakes of the world.

We were again surrounded by Spruce forests.

After many twists and turns we finally arrived at the lake. The bus dropped us off near the parking lot. The path was slippery with frozen ice all over the place. Near the parking lot, one can also find toilets and a large shop selling snacks and souvenirs.

We walked up to the big observation deck. Luckily for us it was a sunny day and the bright blue water of the lake looked stunning. I hadn’t taken the words of our guide seriously until that moment as I stood in awe at the sparkling blue lake.

The aboriginal Ainu used to call this lake, Kamuito which means “Lake of the Gods.” Over time, the Japanese began to refer to the lake by the neighboring peak, Mount Mashū. The Ainu name for this peak is Kamuinupuri or “Mountain of the Gods.” Surrounded by Mt. Mashū-dake, the deep blue mirror-like waters of Lake Mashū makes one wonder how this garden of Eden came down to Earth.

From the observation deck one can see Mt. Mashū towering on the eastern shore. Two volcanoes have grown out of the Mashū caldera. Kamuishu (divine island), a lava dome which rises from the middle of the lake, is one. The other is Mount Kamui, which forms the highest point on the eastern shore. In the caldera of Mt. Mashū, the steep crater walls around the lake make it a unique landscape. The volcanic activity keeps the lake from getting frozen unlike Lake Akan and Lake Kussharo.

On our left, we noticed a trail going over the ridge to an open area with some lovely bunch of trees. We decided to walk up to the beautiful peak. On our right it was a steep 200 m slope right to the edge of the lake. The knee-deep snow made it real tough to walk. Still it was safer than slippery ice.

At the peak it a lovely feeling with no one around us in that garden of Eden. I stood there, striving to mentally capture my favorite image of Lake Mashū and retain it in my memories. Time flies in these moments. After basking in the view for what seemed like only minutes, we walked back to the parking lot. I still had a few minutes on my time for the bus to leave, so I hurried down to the lower observation deck, behind the shops and took some unobstructed views of the lake. As of today, in my opinion, Lake Mashū is one of the two most beautiful lakes in Japan, the other being Lake Biwa.

Generally there tends to be a lot of fog at the lake. Most of my instagram friends warned me about it. However, from the end of January the lake is comparatively clear. On some days the temperature reaches -5℃ in the afternoon, so one must go properly equipped against the cold. After taking some wide shots of the lake, we walked back towards the bus. Once everyone was back on the bus, we left for Lake Akan.