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July 20, 2024
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The Teshikaga Area: Sustainable Traveling and Ainu Culture

Teshikaga now and then

Teshikaga town (弟子屈町) is a small town in Eastern Hokkaido, Japan. The town is hugged by solemn forests and high mountains in the north and opens to the vast Konsen plateau in the south. There are also not one but two caldera lakes in the Teshikaga area: Lake Mashu and Lake Kussharo.

Besides its dairy farms, the Teshikaga area is known for its amazing nature. Most of its area is indeed part of Akan–Mashu National Park, which offers numerous opportunities to familiarize oneself with the amazing local nature. In addition, the area has been populated by the indigenous Ainu people for hundreds of years back in history, so it’s an excellent place to get to know the history, culture, and worldview of the Ainu.

In this blog column, we introduce the Teshikaga area, its history, and breathtaking nature as well as how to learn more about the Ainu people in Teshikaga. We at Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel find it extremely important that the tours we offer are sustainable, support the local people and communities as well as preserve the local culture and nature. That’s why in this blog column, we look at the topics introduced here, especially from the point of view of sustainable traveling.

Teshikaga now and then

 The Teshikaga area, just like the whole island of Hokkaido, has been inhabited by indigenous Ainu people for hundreds of years. The area Ainu people historically lived in stretches from northeastern parts of the Japanese main island Honshu to Hokkaido, southern Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, and even the tip of the Kamchatka peninsula far in the north. Ainu used to be hunter–gatherers, so their communities were relatively small and the number of people low. Teshikaga is also originally a place for a small Ainu settlement. The name Teshikaga comes from the Ainu language name tes ka ka, and its literal meaning is ‘above the fish trap’ in English. This fish trap is not, however, a real fish trap but a rock formation that resembles a fish trap at the bottom of the River Kushiro.

Ethnically Japanese people—sometimes called Wajin, or as Ainu call them, Sisam—are latecomers to the island of Hokkaido; there have been Sisam living in Hokkaido only for about 150 years (excluding the most southern parts of the island). When Sisam explorer Takeshiro Matsuura first came to Teshikaga, the area was fully covered with primal forest and there were only 17 Ainu households in the area. Shortly after Matsuura came to Teshikaga, more Sisam started to settle in the area and Teshikaga was rapidly industrialized: a sulfur mine was established at Mount Io in 1877, the first railway connection to Shibecha opened in 1887, and in 1890 the first farmer arrived to the Teshikaga area. The mine was, however, quickly exhausted but a large part of the town was designated as an imperial estate instead. That marked a start for large-scale farming and horse and cattle breeding in the area, and also in the whole of eastern Hokkaido.

More people moved in and Teshikaga village was officially established in 1903 when it was separated from Kumaushi village. Due to farmland development and newly established paper mills in the cities of Kushiro and Tomakomai, a large portion of Teshikaga’s vast forests was cut down in the first half of the 20th century. In the 1910s and 1920s, tourism development in the area started, especially in Kawayu Onsen hot spring resort. On top of that, Akan–Mashu National Park was established in 1934, which increased public awareness of the Teshikaga area and its recreational offerings.

After World war II, the main industries of Teshikaga changed from lumbering to forestation and from mixed farming using horses to dairy farming. Also, the strong post-war migration wave has changed the town a lot: the population of Teshikaga was in 2022 October 6,715 people (compare with 10,630 people in 1990 and a peak number of 13,262 people in 1960). The town is also aging, like most of the small rural towns in Hokkaido. Another main industry of Teshikaga is tourism. Especially domestic tourists have been attracted to the area after Bihoro Pass close to Lake Kussharo was used as a shooting location in the 1953 hit movie ‘What is Your Name’ (Kimi no Na wa / 君の名は) (an outbound link). In recent years, the area has attracted visitors from abroad, too, and the focus of tourism has been shifted especially to the development and utilizing the national park as a travel destination with sustainability in mind.

What to see and do in Teshikaga?

 Many travelers come to the Teshikaga area to enjoy onsen hot spring spas. Especially Kawayu onsen hot spring resort (川湯温泉) (an outbound link) has been a popular getaway destination for several decades. The natural hot spring water flowing in the river through the resort is very acidic with a pH of 1.4 and the air smells strongly of sulfur. Thus, the Japanese name Kawayu, which literally means ‘River of hot water,’ is a very apt name for the place. The river gets its water from the natural hot springs of Mount Io—the sulphuric mountain—and you can smell it, too.

 Another interesting thing in this small town is that Teshikaga is the hometown of a famous sumo wrestler Taiho Koki (大鵬幸喜) and there is a small museum called Taiho Sumo Memorial Museum (大鵬相撲記念館) (an outbound link, only in Japanese) at Kawayu onsen dedicated to him. Actually, Taiho Koki was born on the island of Sakhalin (north of Hokkaido, now part of Russia) to a Japanese mother and a Ukrainian father but he moved to Teshikaga at the age of five. When Taiho was only 21 years old in 1961, he won the title of Yokozuna sumo champion and held the title for several tournaments. You can learn an interesting bit about the local history but also about Japanese history by visiting the museum.

 For us, the most captivating attractions in Teshikaga are, however, not the man-made places but the natural formations. A good starting point for getting to know the natural paradise of the area is Kawayu’s Eco Museum Center, where you can learn about the Akan–Mashu National Park and Kawayu Onsen. Right next to the Eco Museum Center starts a path that leads to Mount Io standing about in the middle of the Teshikaga area. Then there are the deep blue caldera lakes Lake Kussharo and Lake Mashu, which can be admired from several different lookout platforms or from close by at the shores of the lakes. Read on to find out more about the unique and wonderful nature of the Teshikaga area.

The wonderful nature in the Teshikaga area

 Teshikaga is located in eastern Hokkaido that has generally cooler summers and colder winters than western Hokkaido but less snow. Teshikaga is no exception: in January the day temperature is usually something between -10 to -2 C (14 to 36 F) and the nights are even colder, around -20 to -15 C (-4 to 5 F). July on the other hand can have very varying temperatures from the early July day temperatures of +15–20 C (59 to 68 F) and the late July’s +23–30 C. (73 to 86 F). The nights are cool in the summer, though: even at the end of July, the night temperature can drop down to +18 (64 F) even if the day is as hot as +30 C (86 F). As for the geography of the Teshikaga area, as you might have already noticed from the description above, the geography of Teshikaga has a lot of variation. There are plains for the farmland and the remaining forests, mountains and rivers, and of course two caldera lakes, Lake Mashu and Lake Kussharo.

 Lake Kussharo (屈斜路湖) is the largest caldera lake in Japan with a shore circumference of 57 kilometers/35 miles. With a surface area of 79.54 square kilometers (30.6 square miles), it is the 6th largest lake in Japan. The lake is known for its crystal-clear waters and stunning views. The lake is surrounded by the Akan National Park and is a popular destination for outdoor activities such as hiking, fishing, and boating. The lake is also home to many species of fish and birds, making it a popular spot for birdwatching, especially for Whooper swans during their migration.

 The name of the lake comes from the Ainu language kut car, which means literally ‘throat mouth’ and less literally the mouth of the river where the waters of the lake flow out. However, the Ainu didn’t use that name for the lake but for an important village that was standing at the said spot at the mouth of the outflow river. Actually, Ainu did not have any special name for the lake at all; they just called it to, that is, ‘lake’ or ‘pond’.

 Another famous caldera lake in the area is Lake Mashu (摩周湖), which is especially famous for its clear, deep blue waters. Lake Mashu is actually inside the Kussharo caldera, so the Mashu caldera forms a dual caldera together with the Kussharo caldera. This means that lake Mashu is much smaller and also younger than Lake Kussharo: Lake Mashu’s area is 19.22 square kilometers (7.4 square miles), its shoreline about 20 km (12.3 miles), and it was created in an eruption about 7,000 years ago, while Lake Kussharo is as old as 400,000 to 40,000 years.

 The lake is not just famous for its clear waters, it really is clear: Lake Mashu is the most transparent lake in Japan at 28.0 m and the second most transparent lake in the world after Lake Baikal. The clearness is due to the fact that there are no rivers flowing to the lake and the whole lake is surrounded by a tall rim; you can’t touch the surface of the lake from the shore. Another interesting point of Lake Mashu is that there is a wonderful fog phenomenon happening at the lake when moist air from the Pacific Ocean, heated by the Kushiro Marsh, and rising air currents hit the Mashu Caldera. The morning sea of clouds is a mysterious and breathtakingly beautiful sight you don’t want to miss when visiting the area. Because of the special features of the lake, Ainu call it kamuy to or ‘the lake of the gods’.

 Want to know more about the Akan–Mashu National Park and the Lakes Kussharo and Mashu? Then we recommend that you read through our earlier blog post Akan-Mashu National Park: Hot springs and caldera lakes, too.

 Another wonderful natural attraction is Mount Io (Iozan / 硫黄山) in the middle of the area. The mountain is accessible from the Kawayu visitor center (or Kawayu onsen eco museum center), which is one of the trailheads to the mountain.

 The Japanese name of Mount Io means sulfur mountain in English. As explained earlier in this blog post, there used to be a sulfur mine at the mountain, hence the name. Having sulphuric fumaroles makes the mountain partly barren with no vegetation. The Ainu had of course noticed this and named the mountain atosanupuri, that is, ‘naked mountain.’ It’s quite a sight to see the steam coming out from the fumaroles that are covered with yellow sulfur. Mount Io is of course the source of the sulphuric water of the Kawanoyu onsen hot spring bath houses and the sulphuric river flowing through the resort.

 The parts of the mountain that are not sulfurous are covered with beautiful alpine plants and pines. As the mountain is only 508 meters (1,667 ft) high, it is a relatively easy climb plus the view from the mountain to the lakes is just gorgeous! For a more challenging trekking, you can climb one of the higher mountains in the area, such as Mt. Mashu (857 m/2,812 ft., also called Kamuynupuri, ‘the mountain of gods’, in Ainu, and Mashudake/摩周岳 in Japanese) or Mt. Mokoto (546 m /1,788 ft., called Mokotoyama/藻琴山 in Japanese).

The indigenous Ainu living in Teshikaga

 The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan and have a distinct culture and language. They have a long history on the island of Hokkaido, where they have traditionally lived and also continue to live today. The Ainu are known for their unique art and handicrafts, as well as their traditional way of life, which is based on hunting, fishing, and gathering. This is also true for the Ainu who have lived in Teshikaga and there are many Ainu who continue embracing their traditions.

 Visitors to the area can learn and experience Ainu culture in Teshikaga town’s Kussharo kotan (弟子屈町屈斜路古丹) (kotan means ‘village’ in Ainu). The old Kussharo kotan, as mentioned earlier in this blog, was an important Ainu village in Teshikaga. When the Sisam explorer Takeshiro Matsuura visited the area in 1859, he wrote down in his notes that there were 7 houses in the village and he praised the scenery of the houses with the lake Kussharo in the background. Now the old Ainu village is unfortunately gone but there are other Ainu-related facilities on the site as well as several onsen hot spring facilities.

 Today, visitors to Kussharo Kotan can learn about Ainu culture at Teshikaga Town Kussharo Kotan Ainu Museum (屈斜路コタンアイヌ民族資料館) (an outbound link). This museum was opened in 1983 with the aim of introducing the lifestyle of the local Ainu people. In addition to viewing traditional Ainu tools, clothes, and other items, you can learn about the unique hunting method of Ezo deer that utilizes the topography of the Wakoto Peninsula at Lake Kussharo and view valuable footage of one of the most important rituals of Ainu: the iyomante spirit sending ritual (in this case the spirit that is sent back to the land of gods is that of a brown bear). There are also some old artifacts on display that date back to the Initial Jomon period (8,500–5,000 BCE). The Jomon people are the ancestors of the Ainu.

 A wonderful way to get to know the current Ainu culture of Teshikaga Ainu is to visit Marukibune (丸木舟) (an outbound link), an inn owned by a local Ainu elder, Atuy. At the inn, the visitors can relax in hot onsen baths, enjoy the beautiful lake view and savor some mouth-wateringly delicious dishes using local ingredients, the same ingredients the Ainu have been using for hundreds of years.

 There is one more way to enjoy the wonderful Ainu culture you can’t experience anywhere else than at Marukibune: the performance of the Ainu singing and dance group Mosir. The group consists of local Ainu, and many of them are actually working at Marukibune. The group performs traditional Ainu songs and dances mixed with contemporary pieces creating an intriguing unique show that you won’t forget for sure. The owner of the Marukibune inn, Atuy, is a musician himself and he has contributed a lot to the music the group performs. He also sings and plays in the group’s shows.

 Visiting the above-mentioned places in Kussharo kotan, you can directly support the lives of the local Ainu and of course experience something unique you can’t experience anywhere else in the world. You can read more about Ainu in Hokkaido in our earlier blog post Hokkaido: Home to the Indigenous Ainu People and their Ancestors for over 10,000 Years. If you want to get to know how to learn about Ainu and their culture as part of your trip to Hokkaido and how to travel sustainably, do read our staff experience blog posts about Ainu On the traces of the past in Noboribetsu Onsen and Shiraoi and Shiraoi: The town of the Ainu.

Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel—You sustainable travel agency in Hokkaido

 As a company, Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel is committed to doing sustainable business. Sustainability means developing such an economy, society, and environment now that it will not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Our company mission is “Realizing the true value and worth of Hokkaido, the island of treasures together with the locals.” To put it more concretely, we for example use local services instead of larger chains, take the environment into consideration while choosing the means of transport and activities during the tours, and promote traveling between the peak seasons to non-touristy destinations.

 To get a real example of what sustainable traveling means to us, see our sample itinerary Sustainable Tourism: A Private Tour in Off-season Hokkaido.

 We at Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel are committed to following the Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) adopted at the United Nations summit in 2015. The SDGs stand on five pillars of sustainability, that is, people, prosperity, planet, peace, and partnership. In our operation, this means that we want to promote the well-being of all our stakeholders while offering travel products that do not harm the environment and support the local society and culture in cooperation with the locals and travelers. If you want to read about our sustainability action plan in detail, you can find it here: Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel’s sustainability action plan.

 We encourage you to step off the beaten path and visit rural destinations instead of crowded tourist spots. Get to know the local nature, for example, hiking in the mountains, taking a walk in a forest with a local guide, canoeing on the local lake, or riding a bicycle around the town/village and its vicinity. Visit local businesses such as farms, vineries, and craft shops for cultural experiences. And use local services such as family-run restaurants where you can enjoy the area’s specialties made from local ingredients. This kind of travel style offers you not just a unique and unforgettable experience but also peace of mind because you can be sure that your trip was based on sustainable principles. So, what kind of sustainable travel plans can we offer? In the next section, you can find three examples of sustainable tours: Teshikaga, Kuromatsunai, and Toyoura.

Ideas for sustainable traveling in Hokkaido

 Lastly, we’d like to introduce some ideas on how to make your tour sustainable and how to travel sustainably in Hokkaido. The first idea is of course to travel to Teshikaga, the main topic of this blog post. The wonderful natural surroundings of Teshikaga offer plenty of opportunities for different outdoor activities that are sustainable and environmentally friendly.

 Some examples of sustainable outdoor activities that you can do in Teshikaga include hiking and biking on the many trails in the area, camping in one of the town’s many campsites, and fishing in one of the local rivers or lakes. Additionally, you could visit some of the local farms and learn about sustainable farming practices. You can also visit the Lakes Mashu and Kussharo to enjoy the beautiful views and learn about the area’s natural history as well as try your foot on for example SUP boarding (stand-up paddle boarding) with local guides.

 Another great example of our sustainable tours can be found in Kuromatsunai. Kuromatsunai is a small town in southern Hokkaido and it’s home to the most northern beech forest in Japan. The beech forest has been designated as an important cultural property by the Japanese government and the locals have started to value their precious nature even more after the designation. One of the locals—Mr. Homma, a nature guide and our long-time partner—engages in activities related to the beech forest. There are other lovely locals to meet and wonderful outdoor activities to experience, too. You can read the whole story in one of our earlier blog posts, Kuromatsunai: The town of the beech forest.

 Lastly, we would like to introduce a sustainable tour in Toyoura town. Toyoura is also located in southern Hokkaido on the shores of Uchiura Bay. Toyoura is a fishers’ town and its specialty is scallops. During the seaport exploration tour in Toyoura, you’ll have a chance to get to know the town and the local people in their daily work of catching and cultivating scallops, and of course, you will be guided by a knowledgeable local tour guide to make your tour perfect. If you would like to know more about Toyoura, we have also a whole blog post about it. You can read right here: Toyoura: The scallop town.

 Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel is here to provide experiences that are rooted in all the regions of Hokkaido for you. If you like the idea of adding Teshikaga or one of the other off-the-beaten-path travel destinations to your next fully tailor-made sustainable travel plan, let us know when you contact us! You can find our contact form here: Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel.

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