In Japan, one can explore very different places, each with unique cultural features. Getting at the far North is the perfect way to discover an other culture inside Japanese’s, the Hokkaido native’s one. Nowadays the best spot to understand it is Akan (阿寒). And aside with Ainu legends, the lake is the only place to observe the Marimo, a rare type of algae.
In an ancient Ainu story, the Kamuy gods used to live on Earth with humans. One day, “a fierce bear” began to attack a humans’ village and the nearby forest. The bird spirits then decided to gather everyone in order to decide “how to protect the forest” and “who should challenge the bear”. Among the strongest bird spirits many hesitate. So it was a real surprise when the wren kamuy, who was always teased for being the smallest, volunteered. Encouraged by the other spirits, the wren kamuy went alone to fight the fierce bear. Impressed by his courage, the other bird gods came to help him. Altogether they succeeded to defeat the fierce bear.
Nowadays on the shore on Lake Akan (阿寒湖), there is no clue of this ancient epic fight. But every visitor might heard about it in the Ikor (for “victory” in Ainu language) theater. And in the small spa resort city, named after its lake, remains one of the largest Ainu settlement left in Northern Japan.
Promotion of Ainu culture in Lake Akan
To be brief, the Ainu people is native of Japan. Their origins remains uncleared but they might have lived in Hokkaido for at least the same time as the Japanese’s ancestors had lived in Honshu and Kyushu. Since their first encounter with Japanese, periods of conflicts and of trade came one after the other, until the colonization in the 19th century. The Hokkaido Aborigine Protection Act of 1899 did not improve their situation, as it continues to deny the Ainu’s rights as an indigenous people.
Lately things have finally changed in 1997 with the end of the previous status and a new law to promote Ainu culture. Beside events and the creation of an official association, others locals initiatives, like the ones in Lake Akan, have been set up to talk about Ainu culture and traditions.
“Traditional Ainu dance” was also designated as an important intangible folk-cultural property by the Japanese government in 1984, and was listed as intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO in 2009. In Akanko (“lake Akan” in Japanese), an overview of these traditions is to be seen in Ikor theater, the fierce bear and wren kamuy among others. Many dances and theater performances are displayed by the descendants of Ainu. Visitors can also wander around in the Ainu village, the Akanko Ainu kotan.
Ainu people, experts of woodcarving
In this very Far West-like village, along one single street, wood is everywhere from storefront shops and tiny restaurants to statues of Ainu mythology figures. In 36 buildings around 200 people inhabit yearly. Since the 50s, the Ainu descendants settled here thanks to tourism-related activities like the theater performance and craftsmanship. Among them wood-carving, horn-carving, Ainu designs embroidering and others needleworks.
As it is explains in the free Ainu people museum, thanks to several decades of tourism, the craftsmen have gained great artistic skills in woodcarving. Indeed, in the several shops, one can admire and witness how precise are some piece of works.
The story of a green algae
In the Northern part of Japan everything feels different. And so is nature. Aside Ainu culture, Akanko is also famous among Japanese for a specific green ball in the depth of its lake. If Aegagropila linnaei was first discovered in Europe by an Austrian botanist, Anton Eleutherius Sauter in 1820, it was the Japanese botanist Takiya Kawakami who named it Marimo in 1897. Also known as “lake ball”, the green sphere of algae is formed by a lot of filaments densely packed together.
In the past lake balls existed in fresh-water lakes in high-latitude areas mainly Siberia and Northern Europe. They were found in Iceland, Denmark, England and Sweden. And according to Akan tourist association, it had been confirmed that it also existed in more than 10 lakes in Honshu and Hokkaido, including Lake Akan.
Unfortunately, at the end of the 1990’s, botanists have noticed that it began to disappear from many areas because of human activities. Because of pollution Lake Mývatn in Iceland lost its last Marimos in 2013. Today, they survive only in Lake Svityaz in Ukraine and of course Lake Akan. In Hokkaido also, the algae suffered from human activities and hand-picking : the local population has considerably decreased in the last decades.
Special roundish Marimo
According to the Eco-museum of Akanko, which is continuously studying the algae, the Marimo in Lake Akan still remains unique because of their large form. Anywhere else, the usual size of lake balls ranges from a bean to a basketball. While in Japan, Marimo sometimes surpass the size of a big basketball. The largest found in lake Akan was approximately 12 inches in diameter.
In Japan, initiatives have been made from a long time to protect it. The Marimo was declared National Treasure of Japan in 1921 and even designated as a Special National Treasure in 1952. Since 1997 it has been classified as Critically endangered in the Red list of IUCN. In the past years, the green algae became part of conservation and pedagogic programs toward younger generations.
Alongside with events celebrating Ainu culture, several are organised to celebrate it. In summer by night, the lake is illuminated with green roundish lights. And since 1950, a three-days Marimo festival is held each year in October, with talks and rituals such as the one in which Ainu literally “return the specie to the lake”.
Marimo in shops
When visiting Lake Akan it is thus important to respect Marimo preservation by not picking them in the Lake waters. Many shops sell them in tiny bowls. But it is not an issue, as these are kind of artificial ones. They are hand rolled fragments of algae from different lakes.
Besides Marimo and Ainu culture, Lake Akan is a great place for other activities, in all seasons. From hiking to mount Oakan, boat excursions, canoeing to all ski pleasures of the winter time.
How to get there?
Reaching Lake Akan (阿寒湖) is possible either by bus or car. The region has a couple of airports, with liaisons to Japanese main cities. The closest one is Kushiro Airport. From there, one can take the Akan line (bus) to get to the lake. Otherwise, there is the Kushiro-Kitami line from Kitami and Kushiro (釧路市), or the Kushiro-Asahikawa from Asahikawa and finally the Marimo express from Sapporo. By car it takes roughly a hour and half from Kushiro to Akanko.
To read more about Ainu History, the Shiraoi museum website (this museum is in the South of Hokkaido) is well documented.