Spotlight: Poroto Kotan (Hokkaido)

Hokkaido is Japan’s final frontier, a vast (VAST) island of mountains, lakes and stretches of emptiness that seem otherworldly in a country so densely populated as this one. It is also the home island of much of Japan’s only remaining indigenous culture, the Ainu. Pushed to the far northern reaches by the race that became known as the “Japanese”, the Ainu made this often uninhabitable land their home. And you can see how they adapted – and thrived at times – at the folk village Poroto Kotan in southern Hokkaido.

Poroto Kotan (meaning “big lake village” in the Ainu language) sits appropriately on the shores of a lake in the town of Shiraoi in southern Hokkaido. The entrance to the park is guarded by a large statue known as kotankorkur, or “statue of the chief”. Inside, a cluster of reconstructed houses show what types of dwellings the Ainu once inhabited. Some are sparsely furnished, some are for staff use only, but in one of them, you can catch hourly performances of Ainu dances and demonstrations of the mukkur, or Ainu mouth harp. As we were being shown around the village by contacts of my husband, we were each gifted a mukkur and let me just say, that thing is NOT easy to play.

Ainu dancers
Ainu dancers

The highlight of the village is the on-site museum. Excellent exhibits highlight aspects of Ainu life – birth and death, marriage, festivals, food – and are accompanied by signage in both Japanese and English. There are audiovisual aids here as well and you can request tours of the museum from staff for a more in-depth look (though I am not sure of English speaking guide ability).

Behind the museum, some visitors may balk at the bears and dogs kept in metal and concrete cages. As with many animal “parks” in Japan, the conditions are rather deplorable, at least for the bears. While I in no way say this to excuse any such treatment, housing bears is apparently an Ainu custom. In springtime, when mother bears would go in search of food, the Ainu would take the cubs from their caves and keep them in captivity until they were used in rituals or slaughtered.

Inside the museum
Inside the museum

Surprisingly, my favorite part of the village was the little cafe. It offers one of the only opportunities in Japan to taste Ainu food. I had a bowl of ohau, or traditional fish and vegetable stew, some unique mountain vegetables and the best dang mashed pumpkin pancake ever. No lie. We finished it off with ento tea, a type of tea made from an herb native to Hokkaido.

Delicious pumpkin pancake
Delicious pumpkin pancake

Shiraito is accessible by train from Hokkaido and Poroto Kotan itself is a short ten minute walk from the station. If you have any interest at all in Ainu culture, this makes for an excellent introduction. You can get more details at the park’s website.

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