Hokkaido, Japan’s wilderness, is a window onto diverse communities

Niseko, Toya-Usu and Shiraoi are three Hokkaido destinations for travellers who want to feel close to the communities they’re visiting.

When thinking of Hokkaido, vastness come to mind. In a country like Japan, where space is generally scarce, Hokkaido’s wide valleys, never-ending forests and boundless ocean feel like a breath of fresh air.

This prefecture about double the size of Switzerland is the second largest and northernmost main island of Japan. It is also a relatively new addition to the country’s map: the territory, formerly known as Ezo, was colonised by settlers in 1869, resulting in the forceful assimilation of its indigenous inhabitants, the Ainu, into the Japanese nation-state.

Lake Poroto Shiraoi Kai Poroto ryokan
A view of Lake Poroto in Shiraoi from inside the Kai Poroto hot spring resort © Mara Budgen

The sense of a distinct history and identity can easily be felt when travelling in Hokkaido. As well as for its unique natural landscape – wilder than in many other parts of Japan – the island stands out for the strong presence of Ainu culture as well as the contemporary legacies of a fraught history.

While most come to Hokkaido for its world-class “powder” snow – which attracts hundreds of thousands of skiers and snowboarders from all over the world every year – as well as its hot springs, fresh seafood and, in the warmer months, kaleidoscopic flower fields and trekking itineraries, Hokkaido is much more than just a pretty postcard destination. The island offers a window onto the lives of diverse local communities; their triumphs and struggles, their pasts, presents and futures.

From the not-just-a-ski-resort of Niseko, to the human-volcano symbiosis of Toya-Usu Unesco Global Geopark, to Shiraoi town’s Upopoy museum centred on Ainu culture, these are three Hokkaido destinations that aspire to embrace socially responsible and environmentally sustainable forms of tourism. Though different from one another, they all share a common goal, that of giving back to local people and the environment.

Niseko, more than just a powder paradise

Siberian winds accumulate moisture as they pass over the Sea of Japan and dump it on Hokkaido in the form of light, dry, powdery snow. These precipitations sprinkle their blessings on Niseko, making the town of just 5,000 inhabitants one of the world’s top powder destinations – with up to 1.75 million yearly visitors prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

What many don’t know is that this is also a progressive, forward-thinking town. The story starts in 1994 when 35-year-old Seiji Osaka was elected Niseko’s chief, becoming Japan’s youngest mayor at the time. Osaka initiated reforms that have come to define local governance to this day, such as making all budgetary information accessible to the public and encouraging residents’ participation in municipal decision-making.

“Anyone in the town can replace me anytime because absolutely everything about the town is disclosed,” incumbent mayor Kenya Katayama told The Japan Times in 2020.

Mount Yotei Niseko snow
Mount Yotei is one of Niseko’s most iconic peaks © Marek Okon/Unsplash

Stemming from this participatory approach, Niseko has embraced an environmentally and socially-conscious ethos, including setting rules to ensure its economic dependence on tourism doesn’t wreak havoc. For example, a landscape ordinance limits new buildings’ height and the Niseko Rules establish that off-piste skiers can exit ski resorts’ boundaries only via designated gates.

When it comes to the environment, Niseko has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and was selected as an Eco Model City and SDGs Future City by the Japanese government. It is also pursuing projects such as the SDGs Block, a model district for sustainable and energy-efficient living. Currently under construction, the housing project is conducting interesting experimentations such as whether solar panels can withstand the weight of intense snowfall.

Gran Hirafu Niseko ski resort
Niseko, a world-famous winter sports destination, is trying to limit the impact of tourism © Frederick Wallace/Unsplash

The town has also made a name for itself as one of the World Tourism Organization’s Best Tourism Villages for its “policies that emphasise the environment and are rooted in resident autonomy,” and it is also the only Japanese city to have joined the United Nations’ Glasgow Declaration on Climate Action in Tourism.

As a signatory to this declaration, Niseko is required to advance its climate-related plans. Yet, notwithstanding actions such as using geothermal energy to heat buildings, the town has a long way to go to achieve carbon neutrality. In this sense, it is still an aspiring eco model city, as Masao Aoki, Niseko Town’s sustainability coordinator, states: “I want Niseko to reach the top of the sustainable tourism field like it’s done in the ski tourism field”.

The many accolades that Niseko has accumulated are a mere step in the journey which will hopefully lead this winter tourism hotspot to live up to its name as one of the world’s top 100 sustainability stories (as Dutch organisation Green Destinations labelled it in 2020 and 2021).

Toya-Usu, where people and volcanoes meet

A 40-kilometre drive from Niseko, the blue, serene waters of Lake Toya, a volcanic caldera lake, stand in contrast to heat-gushing fumaroles on the barren surface of Mount Usu, an active stratovolcano – so active that is has erupted four times in the last century. The 1910 eruption is historic because it led to the world’s first successful pre-eruption evacuation and the first seismic recording. The latest eruption, in 2000, caused the evacuation of 10,000 residents and, while it left no victims, many lost their homes.

The lake and volcano are part of the Toya-Usu Unesco Global Geopark, an over 1,000-square-kilometre area that includes four towns. One of them, Toyako, hosted the 34th G8 summit in 2008, which led to the creation of an interactive visitor centre featuring a small museum about Mount Usu, and the following year Toya-Usu became a Unesco geopark.

“More people started coming after the geopark was created,” says Emiko Kawaminami, a local guide and hot spring (or onsen) resort owner; visitors come to learn about Mount Usu, the area’s disaster prevention activities and the unique relationship between local people and the volcano, and to marvel at this distinctive landscape.

Emiko Kawaminami Toya-Usu Unesco Global Geopark Volcano Meister Mount Usu
Emiko Kawaminami, a Toya-Usu Unesco Global Geopark Volcano Meister at the top of Mount Usu ropeway © Mara Budgen

In 2009, Kawaminami became the first woman to be crowned a Volcano Meister, of which there are 60 or so today. The Volcano Meister qualification, the first of its kind in the world, is dedicated to teaching locals about the area’s geology so that they can pass this knowledge onto visitors.

Kawaminami explains that for a long time the prevailing approach in the local tourism industry was to conceal the damage caused by eruptions. The mindset, however, has changed radically and travellers are now invited to learn about the volcano and communities’ coexistence with its unstable environment, for example by visiting destroyed buildings and other post-eruption ruins as well as the geopark’s many museums – such as the Mimatsu Masao Memorial Museum about a local man who devoted his life to studying the volcano.

No one knows when Mount Usu will next erupt. While this prospect may be frightening, the community has learnt to respect the volcano and be grateful for its blessings, such as the hot springs (which emerged after the 1910 eruption), volcanic ash that favours fruit cultivation and geothermal energy, used to heat greenhouses.

“I used to hate the volcano,” says Kawaminami. “Then I started to learn more about it and now I feel proud that I can share my knowledge”.

Lake Toya Hokkaido Toya-Usu Unesco Global Geopark
Lake Toya is part of the Toya-Usu Unesco Global Geopark © Stephen Fang/Unsplash

Upopoy, Japan’s only national Ainu museum

Shirauoi means “a place of many horse flies” in the Ainu language and from this word comes the name of Shiraoi, a small town a one-hour train ride away from Hokkaido’s capital of Sapporo. Shiraoi is characterised by a marshy landscape and unsurprisingly the name of one of its lakes, Poroto, means “big swamp” in Ainu. A swamp, yes, but a wild and beautiful one.

The shores of Lake Poroto are home to the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park. Inaugurated in July 2020, it is Japan’s only national museum dedicated to the Ainu and the crown jewel of the government’s efforts to revive and promote this indigenous culture, which it is legally required to do under the 2019 Ainu Measures Promotion Act, the first to recognise the Ainu as the indigenous people of Japan.

Upopoy museum front entrance
The Upopoy museum seen from the front entrance © Mara Budgen

As well as to right past wrongs – namely the near-erasure of Ainu identity starting with colonisation – the museum and park is designed to “promote recognition and knowledge of Ainu culture and language,” says Masahiro Nomoto, director of the Cultural Promotion Department at The Foundation for Ainu Culture, a publicly funded organisation that operates the Upopoy.

Since its opening, the Upopoy has attracted around 800,000 visitors interested in learning about Hokkaido’s indigenous people. The museum’s permanent collection, divided into six themes, consists of items related to Ainu daily life and ceremonies as well as materials about history, culture and the ethnic groups with whom Ainu people interact.

The Upopoy is also a place where Ainu arts, crafts, customs and language are preserved. For example, dance performances are held daily, several people are employed by the Upopoy to produce crafts and the museum features explanatory panels in Ainu language.

Masahiro Nomoto, director of the Cultural Promotion Department at The Foundation for Ainu Culture ainu kotan
Masahiro Nomoto, director of the Cultural Promotion Department at The Foundation for Ainu Culture at the Upopoy’s Ainu kotan (or village) © Mara Budgen

However, not everyone agrees that the Upopoy is a genuine attempt by the government to celebrate a diverse Japanese identity. Some accuse the museum of telling a skewed, non-Ainu-centric version of history and making Ainu culture into a tourist attraction without addressing indigenous communities’ continued struggle for their rights and against socio-economic inequalities and discrimination.

When it comes to Ainu-centred tourism, “it’s important for Ainu people to take the lead, that they benefit economically and that the original culture isn’t drastically changed,” says Kimihiro Kayano, manager of Nibutani Yanto, a guesthouse in the Ainu-majority district of Nibutani, about a hundred kilometres east of Shiraoi.

Whether the Upopoy represents the kind of community-based tourism that Hokkaido prides itself on depends on who you ask. On the one hand, the museum and park puts Ainu culture on the map for many people, including those who know little or nothing about it. On the other, questions remain as to whether the Upopoy directly benefits indigenous communities.

Upopoy museum main exhibition hall Ainu artefacts
On display at the Upopoy museum are many Ainu artefacts © Mara Budgen

This complex scenario highlights the fact that sustainable travel and responsible tourism are better characterised as a journey rather than a destination. What holds true is that, in drawing ambitious visions of what they aspire to be – whether a carbon neutral town, a centre of volcano-related education or an Ainu cultural hub – communities in Niseko, Toya-Usu and Shiraoi are encouraging travellers who venture to Hokkaido to bring back more than souvenirs, but profound, eye-opening experiences.

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