Discover Ainu Heritage and its Coexistence With Nature at Lake Akan
Nestled in the wilderness of Akan Mashu National Park, Hokkaido’s Lake Akan is a place of endless natural beauty boasting lush forests, majestic mountains, and even volcanoes. This pristine lake is also home to Japan’s largest indigenous Ainu village, the Akanko Ainu Kotan, interweaving unique cultural activities to a profound connection with the natural world. While blazing autumn colors imbued Lake Akan’s panoramas with the warmest hues, we—the editorial team of tsunagu Japan—got to immerse ourselves in its forests and discover their autumnal beauty first hand, take part in ancient Ainu rituals, and sense gratitude towards nature through the words of Ainu locals. Follow us through this journey at Lake Akan for a full spectrum of activities that will allow you to come in contact with Ainu heritage and the importance of harmoniously coexisting with nature!
Dec 02 2021
*This article was written in collaboration with Kushiro City.
Who Are the Ainu People?
Japan’s indigenous people, the Ainu, have been living in the unspoiled lands of Hokkaido for innumerable generations, millennia before the Japanese started expanding to the northern island at the end of the Edo period (1603 -1867). As the bounty of nature was fundamental to their lives, the Ainu strongly believed in the harmonious coexistence with it. By hunting in the luscious forests of Hokkaido and fishing in its pristine rivers and lakes without contaminating them, Ainu revered the natural world that provided them with food through respect for the “kamuy” (Ainu deities).
The Ainu people not only have their own unique system of beliefs but also treasure a rich tradition of oral literature, produce distinct, intricately embroidered garments and exquisite traditional crafts, as well as speak their own language which is still used today in traditional settings and events. You can learn all about them at the Lake Akan Ainu village, Akanko Ainu Kotan!
Read more about the Ainu culture and traditions here
Be Inspired by Lake Akan’s Thriving Nature With These Incredible Spots for Autumn Colors
Bokke Walking Trail - Stroll Through Volcanic Mud Pools to Admire Autumn Foliage
It was the beginning of August when we first visited Akanko Onsen and Lake Akan was a feast of luscious shades of green. Barely two months have passed since then but the panorama we found upon our arrival couldn’t have been any more different and yet equally beautiful. Autumn had a hand in it and now every lovely nook of Akanko Onsen seemed new to explore. Forests and mountains dusted off their autumnal wear, dotting the horizon with ripe golden hues, displaying some of Japan’s earliest autumn colors.
One of the best places to experience Lake Akan’s dazzling foliage is the Bokke Walking Trail stretching on the east shore of the lake. This 45-minute circular route led us through tunnels of red leaves and sparkling yellow trees. Perfect to enjoy the crisp air of the shores of Lake Akan, this healing walk in the woods left us with a deep sense of connection with nature.
"Bokke" means "boiling" in the Ainu language and refers to the mud pools bubbling up from the magma below the walking trail at a temperature of almost 100°C. You can find them around 15 minutes into the walking trail from the Akankohan Eco-museum Center entrance of the trail.
Since ancient times, the rumbling bokke were beloved by the Ainu people living around Lake Akan, as their unusual heat prevented snow from piling up and provided the perfect shelter during Hokkaido’s freezing winters. Collectively considered an impressive power spot full of the energy of fire, the Bokke proved their heating power when we were encouraged to touch a certain sacred white rock standing near the pools which emitted an incredible warmth.
If you start your hike at the Akankohan Eco-museum Center, as we did, you can get insider tips and insightful facts from the guides there. Guided through the specifics of the walking trail beforehand, we were able to pick up valuable information to enjoy the forest even more, allowing us to pay attention to interesting details such as heart-shaped leaves from trees called “katsura” (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) that, by the power of their autumnal transformation, release a sweet scent reminiscent of caramel.
The forest surrounding the Bokke Walking Trail is also home to a wild variety of endemic fauna, so chances are visitors might run into Lake Akan’s wildlife while hiking along this trail. Our friendly guide pointed out some fun tricks to spot animals in the wild. For example, you might be able to spot Hokkaido squirrels by the distinctive munching sound of them feasting on some walnuts.
Bokke Walking Trail Homepage: http://ja.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/3733/ (Japanese)
Bokke Walking Trail Homepage: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/3806/ (English)
Akankohan Eco-museum Center Homepage: http://business4.plala.or.jp/akan-eco/index.html (Japanese only)
Maeda Ippoen Foundation - Learn About the Preservation of Lake Akan’s Majestic Nature
Not far from the Bokke Walking Trail stands the Maeda Ippoen Foundation which plays a fundamental role in the preservation of the beautiful forests of Lake Akan. This time, we had the opportunity to visit the Maeda Memorial Hall, which is usually closed to the public, and talk with Maeda Ippoen Foundation board chairman, Toshimitsu Niida. The history of Akanko Onsen and the Akanko Ainu Kotan is entwined with that of the Maeda Ippoen Foundation and its predecessor Maeda family who owned the land on this side of Lake Akan and used it as pastures for horse and for forest development when it still was just a forested area 115 years ago.
Convinced that no one could love nature more than the Ainu people, Mitsuko Maeda (the third generation owner and first deputy director of the Maeda Ippoen Foundation) dreamed of a place where the Ainu population of Akanko Onsen could live and flourish. During the 1950s, when the debate on nature conservation started becoming a hot topic in Japan, Mitsuko Maeda provided the land necessary for the project and the Maeda Ippo Foundation became the basis for its realization while deepening the relationship of friendship with the Ainu people.
Ainu people chiseled the Akanko Ainu Kotan from Lake Akan’s forests, building their homes, shops, and strong bonds. A great amount of dedication was put into the creation of a lively community and hot spring town immersed in unspoiled nature.
Established in 1983, Maeda Ippoen Foundation keeps alive the will of the Maeda faimly, focusing on the understanding of diversity and coexistence with nature. Still today, the foundation manages the supply of hot spring water to the area and strives to protect and nurture the natural environment of Lake Akan with the valuable help of the local Ainu people.
By engaging in nature conservation with the idea that the very existence of nature protects humankind, they would love for visitors to experience the soothing power of Lake Akan’s forests which exude an aura of grace and kindness.
Maeda Ippoen Foundation Homepage: https://www.ippoen.or.jp/ (Japanese only)
E-Bike Tour at Lake Onneto - Connect With the Wilderness of the Akan Area
Lake Onneto is considered one of the most beautiful lakes in Hokkaido thanks to its ever-changing water colors. Autumn adds an extra dimension, with the glimmering yellow-wooded mountains providing plenty of autumnal sights. As we were taking our search for the best autumn colors in the Akan area very seriously, we knew we couldn’t miss this spot. Up for the challenge, we prepared to bike 20 kilometers to reach its golden shores!
The e-bikes we rented at the Akan Sightseeing Cruise Company were our trusty allies in this ride towards the warm hues of autumn. E-bikes made biking long distance feel much easier to do, especially when riding uphill. Aided by the electric power of the bikes, we ran through kilometers of thick forests, panoramas of perfect foliage, and were even able to spot some deer in the wild.
The secluded Lake Onneto is also known as the Lake of Five Colors, so touring its shores by bike is a fun way to witness the famed changing tones of its unique volcanic waters. The surreal hues appear to change in color depending on the season, time of the day, and point of observation. By stopping at the Onneto Observation Deck, for example, we got to admire an uninterrupted view of the cobalt blue lake and the majestic Mt Meakan and Akan Fuji in the background draped by mesmerizing shades of autumn.
On our way back, we decided on a stop at Nonaka Onsen. This rustic local hot spring facility replenished our energy before another 20-kilometer run on our bikes.
If you don’t feel like biking 40 kilometers is the right adventure for you, Takimi Bridge makes for a great foliage option to explore by e-bike!
With just a 15-minute ride from the Akan Sightseeing Cruise Company, we were immersed in a scenery of great autumnal beauty. Here, the waters flowing from Lake Akan and Lake Taro converge in the waterfall-like headwaters of the Akan River. The clear river gushing below the bridge among crimson and yellow leaves makes for an impressive palette of contrasting colors to view.
Lake Onneto Homepage: https://www.town.ashoro.hokkaido.jp/kanko/spot/onneto_area/spot-13.html (Japanese)
Lake Onneto Homepage: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/sightseeing_around/4394/ (English)
Takimi Bridge Homepage: http://ja.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/3689/ (Japanese)
Takimi Bridge Homepage: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/2797/ (English)
New Akan Hotel - Soak in the Healing Atmosphere of Hot Spring Baths and Sauna With Autumnal Views
Staying at the beautiful New Akan Hotel, we had the chance to extend our moments of coexistence with nature and have our fill of autumnal sights even when indoors. Located on the lakeside at Akanko Onsen, this resort offers colorful scenes of the nearby forests and mountains. So, whether it be the ample breakfast space with large windows up to the 3rd floor or the comfortable relaxation rooms, we were able to catch glimpses of Lake Akan’s alluring panorama throughout the day.
We truly felt New Akan Hotel's concept of connecting guests with nature at their hot spring baths. There, we were able to relax and heal our bodies and souls. Located on the ninth floor, we found multiple baths and even a dry sauna, all overlooking the vast nature of the Akan area. What’s interesting about the sauna is that we got to decide when to pour water over the stones in the sauna, which meant we had some control on the temperature and humidity of the sauna itself. The water had the gorgeous hotel's original aroma that further enhanced our relaxation time.
The rooftop of the hotel is also all about getting in touch with nature, as the Sky Garden Spa there grants spectacular views of the surroundings from its Infinity Edge Spa floating 30 meters above the ground. Thanks to a trick of perspective, the pool appears to be one with Lake Akan. By soaking in the warm water, we got to gaze at magnificent forests as far as the eye can see by day and admire the glimmering starry sky at night, feeling miles away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
New Akan Hotel Homepage: https://www.newakanhotel.co.jp/ (Japanese)
New Akan Hotel Homepage: https://www.newakanhotel.co.jp/en/ (English)
Enrich Yourself With Ainu Heritage, a Culture that Promotes Harmony With Nature
The Meaning Behind the Marimo Matsuri - A Festival to Celebrate Japan’s Special National Treasure “Lake Akan's Marimo”
Autumn at the Akanko Ainu Kotan brings beautiful warm colors and one of the most awaited festivals of the year, the Marimo Matsuri. The extremely rare marimo of Lake Akan are a type of spherical, moss-green algae which are able to grow to a diameter of 30 centimeters. Extinct in other parts of the world, they are a protected species and a Special National Treasure of Japan. Endangered by their own popularity with excited tourists, the marimo population of Lake Akan dramatically dropped during the early 1900s. In the 1950s, after realizing the damage caused to this rare species, many sent their marimo back to Lake Akan.
To celebrate the event, the Ainu people of Lake Akan conceived the Marimo Matsuri as a way to raise awareness of environmental risks while helping save this national treasure of Japan.
Marimo are not considered kamuy but as plants that flourish only in perfectly unpolluted waters. They are an important signal to the condition of the environment. If marimo thrive, humans can thrive, too. The Marimo Matsuri includes the “Kamuy nomi,” a sacred Ainu ritual where prayers and offerings are given to the kamuy, followed by a concluding ceremony wherein marimo are returned to the lake.
We were lucky to visit the Akanko Ainu Kotan at the beginning of October and witness this festival overflowing with a sacred atmosphere. As a beautiful symbol of appreciation for nature, the matsuri teaches how to honor nature and preserve it by allowing visitors to come in touch with the Ainu way of thinking.
Marimo Matsuri Homepage: https://ja.kushiro-lakeakan.com/things_to_do/2591/ (Japanese only)
Yukar-do, a Workshop to Experience the Connection Between Ainu Wood-Carving Traditions and Nature
The Akanko Ainu Kotan is a village of traditional crafts, a place where several workshops keep the Ainu artistic heritage flourishing. Among these, Yukar-do is a traditional folk art shop and atelier opened by the late wood-carving master, Nuburi Toko. We had the chance to explore the workshop guided by the words of his son, Shusei Toko, Ainu carver and producer for Ainu theatrical productions. Today, Yukar-do offers exquisite wood crafts and Ainu embroidery as well as exhibits some of Nuburi Toko’s works of art.
There, we had the opportunity to learn more about wood carving, one of the most prominent Ainu traditional crafts. As a form of art that crafts a natural element such as wood into tools and decorations, Ainu people consider carving a privilege they receive from the kamuy of the trees. Wood carving itself represents an act of connection with nature and gratitude towards the natural environment.
Yukar-do also has a very interesting name which comes from the Ainu word “yukar.” Yukar are Ainu epic poetry that interweave elements of traditional dance, music, and narrative to portray stories about the kamuy. They are handed down without the use of written characters, so every Ainu village has its own unique yukar.
The last time we visited the Akanko Ainu Kotan, we got to witness the beauty of different traditional performances at the Akanko Ainu Theater <Ikor>. As Shusei was the main person in charge of their production, it was very interesting getting to know from him the behind the scenes of the creative process that led to their creation and how they started introducing modern elements such as projection mapping by collaborating with various artists and creators in different fields. Through this creative way of showing Ainu traditions to visitors, he hopes to better their stay at Akanko Onsen with the positive sides of Ainu culture and push them towards a deeper understanding of the Ainu people and their history.
Yukar-do Homepage: http://ja.kushiro-lakeakan.com/eat_souvenir/4718/ (Japanese)
Yukar-do Homepage: http://en.kushiro-lakeakan.com/eat_souvenir/7632/ (English)
Cafe & Gallery Karip, a Place where Modern Craftsmanship Meets Ainu Artistic Roots
A cup of immaculate, home-roasted, hand-dripped coffee and welcoming wooden interiors are the ingredients to a perfect cozy afternoon. Cafe & Gallery Karip’s owners, “Ague” Hiroyuki Shimokura and Emi Shimokura, met in Tokyo and when they moved back to Akanko Onsen, they couldn’t give up a good cup of well-made coffee. So, why not open their own coffee shop?
After inheriting the family’s wood-carving atelier, they did so in 2019 and turned the workshop into a tranquil hideaway where visitors can relax, have a chat while sipping delicious coffee, and take a look at their marvelous artwork.
Art is an essential part of Cafe & Gallery Karip which serves as an atelier to craft and display Ague’s silver accessories. After graduating from a metal engraving school, Ague trained at a jewelry workshop. Then, after a few years in the industry, he came across Ainu ceremonial clothing while he was visiting his parents’ birthplace, Hokkaido. Deeply touched by those garments, he remembers that moment as the start of his attraction towards Ainu culture.
Ainu heritage has had a great artistic impact on his production and he hopes for every piece produced to embody that inexplicable sense of marvel that impressed him so much many years ago.
Art is a key point of his wife’s life as well. Raised in the Akanko Ainu Kotan, Emi has been familiar with Ainu songs, dances, and traditional instruments since she was a child and had the chance to learn about Ainu traditional crafts from her mother and grandmother.
Not only is she a skillful craftswoman and the designer behind the beautiful Ainu patterns represented in her husband's silver accessories, but she is also an incredibly talented Ainu singer. Hoping to convey the beauty of Ainu songs to others, she formed the Ainu song duo "Kapiw & Apappo" with her younger sister.
While we were drinking our coffee, they revealed their hope for visitors to take their time when visiting Akanko Onsen. By slowly exploring the area, they will be able to come in touch with the soul of the Akan region.
Cafe & Gallery Karip Homepage: https://karip.life/#ague (Japanese only)
Poronno - A Journey Through the Flavors of the Ainu Cuisine Born from the Blessings of Lake Akan’s Nature
Ainu cuisine reflects in its ways of cooking and collecting the ingredients some of the fundamental aspects of Ainu society and tells about Ainu people’s gratitude towards nature. We were able to learn all about it at Traditional Ainu Food Cafe Poronno, a unique restaurant offering traditional Ainu cuisine right in the center of the Akanko Ainu Kotan.
Established around 45 years ago, Poronno was first a wood-carving workshop serving drinks and Ainu dumplings. Today, the shop has grown into a comfortable wooden nook where one can savor the delights of the Ainu cuisine, but it hasn’t changed in its role as a gathering place for the locals and in its dedication to keeping a balance with the natural environment of Lake Akan.
Poronno’s owners, Fukiko Goukon and Yoshifuro Goukon, learned the ways of Ainu cuisine from Fukiko's grandmother and mother at the Akanko Ainu Kotan. Keeping alive the belief that you should never take too much from the environment if you want to see it thriving, whenever they explore Lake Akan’s forests in search of wild plants and other ingredients for the restaurant, they pay particular attention to how they forage those ingredients.
Great care is put into mastering the skill of leaving untouched plants that might have a positive effect on the forest but thinning out those that have grown too much in number or are not necessary for the wellness of the environment. Similar to gardeners but for the vast woods of Lake Akan, they live watching over the condition of the surrounding nature and its blessings.
Poronno’s owners would love for people visiting the Akanko Ainu Kotan to appreciate the fresh seasonal flavors of the food made from ingredients that flourished in the Akan area, such as the poche imo dumplings made from frozen and fermented potato, Yuk ohaw venison soup with mountain vegetables, and Yuk ruipe (thinly sliced frozen venison), all of which can traditionally only be enjoyed in this northern land of forests and mountains.
Poronno Homepage: https://www.poronno.com/ (Japanese only)
Access - How to Get To Akanko Ainu Kotan
Akanko Ainu Kotan can be easily accessed by plane from Haneda Airport, with the flight to Tancho Kushiro Airport only taking 1 hour and 40 minutes. From Tancho Kushiro Airport, the village can be reached by Akan Line local buses bound to Akanko Onsen Bus Center. The bus ride costs 2,190 yen one way and takes around 70 minutes.
All the attractions mentioned in this article are conveniently located within walking distance both from the Akanko Onsen Bus Center and the center of the village, except for Takimi Bridge and Lake Onneto. Takimi Bridge can be reached by a 6-minute car ride or a 15-minute e-bike ride from Akanko Onsen, while Lake Onneto requires a 20-minute car ride or a 90-minute ride by e-bike.
Get in Touch With the Beautiful Nature of Lake Akan
Akanko Onsen offers the unique occasion of connecting visitors with unspoiled nature. While enjoying the beautiful hues of autumn, we got in touch with Ainu heritage and experienced the importance of harmoniously coexisting with the natural environment through the Ainu way of thinking.
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.