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.

The fuming Iōzan

From the lovely lake Kussharo, we drove into the mountains towards Mount Io, also known as Iōzan. Gradually the landscape changed as the forest of Sakhalin Spruce gave way to the rocky surface of Iōzan. Only a few dwarf stone pines and heathberry plants can be seen in the vicinity.

Shitona, our tour guide kept us entertained with legends and mythical folklore of the area. But she only spoke Japanese. These are the times I deeply wish I had learnt a bit of Japanese. I so love to hear stories…

As we got closer it seemed like a thick cloud had engulfed the side of the mountain.

Japan is full of volcanic islands. Due to high volcanic activity one can find numerous rich hot springs spread all over the country. Iōzan (硫黄山) is one such place.

Iōzan, also known as the “Sulfur Mountain” is an active volcano in the Shiretoko Peninsula. In native Ainu language the Iōzan is called “Atosa Nupuri“, which means “Naked Mountain.” Sulfur was mined on Mt. Io from 1865 to 1867 and again in 1887-88. The 1889 volcanic eruption resulted in a sulfur flow of some 80,000 tons of the mineral. Over the next decade most of the sulfur was taken out thereafter the mining stopped. Its yellow, sulfurous vents can be viewed from close proximity as visitors are allowed to walk around near the steaming area.

As we got down from the White Pirika bus, I could smell the sulfur, drifting in the air. The path up the mountain was covered in snow. We walked carefully towards the steaming vents. As we neared the vents, we could hear water bubbling. As hot volcanic gases escape from these volcanic vents, they cool rapidly, depositing sulfur as fluorescent yellow crystals around the openings.

Although I was a bit scared at first, I walked up to some of the smaller vents. The smell was overpowering near the fuming vents. The strong gases from the vents exerts an enormous influence on the surrounding vegetation. Mt. Kabuto, right next to Iōzan, differs significantly with regard to the vegetation. Standing amidst these steam bellowing vents and yellow crystallize rocks it felt like we were on a different planet altogether.

Up towards the summit, there were many bigger vents but for tourist safety a thick rope blocked access to those areas. Mount Io has about 1,500 such vents on its reddish rusty mountain surface. While the composition of the discharge will differ depending on the fissure, water vapor and volcanic gases are constantly being emitted as white smoke. The mountain has been vastly subdued and the last recorded eruption of liquid sulfur happened in 1936.

After some time we walked back to the bus. Near the parking lot, one can find the Iozan Visitor Center, that also offers some refreshments. I have heard they serve eggs cooked by the natural heat of the mountain. It was almost lunchtime and we headed towards Kawayu Onsen station for lunch. Lunch is arranged by the Akan Bus operators, but the cost is not included in the tour package.

After lunch, we wandered around for a bit. Near the station we discovered a souvenir shop and went inside. In the shop was a big black cat and I chased after him 🙂

We came back to the bus early. Others were still not finished with lunch. We got back to our seats and waited for them to arrive. Within a few minute they slowly trickled in one by one. Once everyone was aboard we were off to Lake Mashu.

The Swans of Lake Kussharo

We woke up to a beautiful morning. It was our third day on the enchanting island of Hokkaido and I was looking forward to our tour of Akan National Park. We were lodged on the 9th floor of the Prince Kushiro Hotel and I could see the wide sea from our window. The roads were deserted and snow had created a carpet of white over the town. The thought of walking to the docks and capturing the sunrise did cross my mind but I controlled the temptation and prepared for the day’s trip.

At 8 am, Mani and I, went down to the reception and picked up our tickets for the White Pirika sightseeing bus. The White Pirika sightseeing tour offers an all-day round trip of the most popular nature spots in Akan National Park including Tancho Crane Reserve, Swan viewing at Lake Kussharo, Sulfur spewing Iōzan, Lake Mashū and Lake Akan. The tickets cost ¥4600 per person. The bus leaves from Kushiro station at 8:30 am. It makes a stop at Prince Kushiro Hotel so we just waited outside the Hotel for the bus to pick us up.

Hokkaido is one of the top winter birding and wildlife photography locations. The Akan National Park is home to a number of eye-catching iconic species: the resident Red-crowned Crane and Blakiston’s Fish Owl. In the winter you can also find the Whooper Swan and Steller’s Eagle. I was hoping to at least catch some of these today.

The bus was a few minutes late. As it stopped, a charming lady in a blazing red suit, got down to greet us. Her name was Shitona, she was our tour guide. She was not acquainted with English and spoke only in Japanese. It was quite helpful that Mani is fluent in Japanese and she translated most of what was said during the tour.

We took our seats towards the front of the bus. The bus was almost full and I was glad I had made our reservations from before.

Note: The White Pirika bus does not operate beyond March 6th.

The lady guide handed us a pamphlet and informed everyone about the route we would be taking along the tour. After a few turns, we left the city behind and entered the Kushiro Marshlands. Kushiro Marshland is a breeding ground for many animals including Japanese cranes. It is also a wildlife sanctuary registered under the Ramsar Convention. We didn’t stop at the observation point since there was nothing to see in the snow. In summers one can try walking on a boardwalk or even go canoeing in the marsh.

The Tancho Crane Reserve in Kushiro: Tsurui-mura

About 30 minutes into the drive, we reached the Tancho Crane Reserve. It is a popular spot for viewing Japanese cranes.

The Tancho have been believed to be a bird of good omen. It is very much respected by the local Ainu as Sarurunkamui (god of the marshland) since ancient times. In 1935, Tancho’s habitat was listed as one of Japan’s natural monument. Later in 1952 it was upgraded to “special natural monument.”

Within a few minutes, a couple of cranes flew into the park from nowhere. The couple played around in the snow. In-between one of them would give out a loud shrieking call. Hearing the call, another bunch of cranes came by, for our view pleasure.

Red-crowned cranes are said to form partnerships for life. They may be forced to part in the rarest of cases when one crane becomes badly injured or ill to breed. This bond between red-crowned crane partnerships is so strong that the red-crowned crane is used as a symbol of happy relationships in Japan. They are also considered a symbol of long life, as they can easily survive for 20 years in the wild or 40 years in sanctuaries like Tancho.

The Tancho are non-migratory in nature and use the Kushiro marshland as their nesting ground. In recent years, the red-crowned crane population has grown rapidly due to careful protection measures, but this has also resulted in an increase in the damage to local farmers’ crops. The wetlands that were initially breeding grounds have become too small, resulting in cranes breeding near residential areas. These cranes then help themselves to farmers’ crops or get into their barns and eat the cows’ feed, because it’s much easier than searching for the food they are meant to eat.

Despite these problems, the locals love them. In winters when food is scarce, the locals bring in corn for the birds. Due to the warm affection of these loving people, the Tancho numbers have increased year after year. Currently there are confirmed 600+ birds living in the area.

After capturing some of these beautiful birds, we were back at the bus stand, getting ready for our next destination. There is a cafe near the entrance to the reserve so If you are feeling the need for it you can enjoy a warm drink.

Lake Kussharo

After spending some time watching the cranes playing in the snow, we left for Lake Kussharo. Lake Kussharo is the largest of the three caldera lakes that make up Akan National Park. As with most geographic names in Hokkaido, the lake derives its name from the Ainu.

The Ainu word “Kuccharo,” means “The place where a lake becomes a river.”

Lake Kussharo is thought to have been formed over 100,000 years ago as a result of volcanic eruptions. Volcanic activity is still active in these parts and if you dig the sand near the banks, you can find hot water.

Myth surrounding Lake Kussharo

The lake is also known as Japan’s Loch Ness, after some reported sightings of a lake monster in early 20th century. The monster is referred to as Kusshii, most likely borrowed from that of Loch Ness’s Nessie.

Lake Kussharo is about an hours drive from the Tancho Crane Reserve . It appeared mostly frozen as we got off from the bus. We couldn’t find any shops or eateries nearby, so if you are going using your own vehicle make sure you pack the essentials.

As we neared the lake. I was amazed by its breathtaking beauty. The banks of this vast lake are lined with Sakhalin spruce, found only in Japan & Russia. Across the white lake in the far distance, I could make out the sprawling Mt. Mokoto.

Whooper swans of Lake Kussharo

Geographically Hokkaido is very close to Eastern Russia but, unlike that area, Hokkaido is readily accessible year-round, safe and with excellent infrastructure. Situated on the East Asian Flyway, a migratory route connecting northeast Asia with Southeast Asia and Australasia, Hokkaido offers various avian residents an enchanting break during their long journey.

As temperatures dip towards freezing in late autumn and early winter, migrant swans like the Bewick’s Swans and Whooper Swan, arrive in angelic flocks trumpeting their stirring calls as they fly. While the Bewick’s Swans will pass through bound for Honshu, many of the Whooper Swans will linger, gracing the ice-free areas of the larger lakes and marshes through the winter months.

The whooper swan pronounced as hooper swan is found predominantly in the colder areas of the Northern Hemisphere. They have a deep honking call and, despite their size, are powerful fliers. The swans can migrate hundreds or even thousands of miles to their wintering sites like this one at Lake Kussharo.

The surface of the lake was frozen, but along the sandy beach, where the hot springs prevent any ice from forming, the swans were enjoying a nice swim in the water.

Far away from the city noise, this place is truly relaxing. Ignoring the few of us, the swans swam around enjoying nature at their own pace.

The Whooper Swan has a pure white plumage. The webbed feet and legs are black. Half of the beak is orangey-yellow (at the base), while the tip is black. These markings on the bill differ and individuals can be recognized by their bill pattern. The male is called a “cob,” the female “pen,” and their chicks are known as “cygnets”.

Swans feed primarily on aquatic plants; but they also eat grain, grasses, and crop foods, such as wheat, potatoes, and carrots – especially in the winter when other food sources aren’t readily available.

Their long necks give them an advantage over the short-necked ducks, as they can feed in deeper waters than geese or ducks by uprooting plants and snapping off the leaves and stems of plants growing underwater.

In addition to whooper swans, I also noticed some Mallard ducks. This one below is a male with a distinctive green head, yellow bill, chestnut breast, and gray body. Females are mottled brown with orange and black splotches on the bill.

Lake Kussharo is a lovely place to put up your feet and relax. In contrast to the historical and cultural aspects of mainland Japan to the south, Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido offers Japan’s wilder, more outdoor, side. It is ideal year-round for nature travel, and especially for birders, birdwatchers, and bird photographers. I have heard in summers this place is also great for hiking and camping.

Hokkaido’s night birds are dramatic too, and none more so than the world’s largest owl and one of the world’s rarest species – Blakiston’s Fish Owl. I hope to come down again to capture some more.

We wanted to stay back a little longer but this is the problem with set tours, they allow very little time to enjoy a place truly. So, off we went back to the bus. Our next stop: the sulfur spewing Mt Io.