WHEN Hanpai Abe and about 16 other explorers happened upon Kutchan in the year 1892, it was the dense, lush forest wilds of the area that possessed promise for settlement.
As it turns out, these settlers from Tokushima prefecture, on Shikoku island – who had only recently settled in the nearby Yoichi – were right. Thanks to the fertile land, equating to about 260sq km, the population of Kutchan swelled to around 10,000 by 1903, after it was separated from Abuta village in 1893. The population has risen to the current approximate 16,000 permanent residents since 1903, with a density of about 62 people per sq km.
Settlement in Kutchan – now affectionately known as ‘K-Town’ by foreigners – wouldn’t have been a difficult decision for Abe-san and Co., thanks to the area being surrounded by picturesque mountain ranges, it being located just north of the iconic semi-dormant volcano Mt Yotei, all the while sitting on the Shiribetsu River, one of the most pristine sources of water in all of Japan. In fact, the word ‘Kutchan’ originates from the indigenous Ainu language, and it is said the phonetically equivalent kanji comes from the word ‘Kut-Shan-i’, which means ‘the place where the channel flows’. Others claim the name is derived from ‘kucha-an-nai’, meaning ‘stream of a hunting lodge’.
As expected and intended by its settlers, Kutchan’s main industry became agriculture. Local specialties include potatoes, melon, sake, short-grain white rice and udon noodles made from potato flour. Grain, corn, kidney and soy beans, and wheat also thrive in Kutchan climes. Agricultural success can be generally attributed to fertile volcanic soils and the area’s four distinct seasons, ranging from a cool, dry alpine summer to a cold winter, with some of the heaviest snowfalls in all of Hokkaido.
After harnessing many of the nearby Niseko ranges, mainly Mt Annupuri, along with other natural wonders, Kutchan was also soon able to profit from outdoor sports like skiing and snowboarding, rafting, golf, cycling, mountain biking, fly fishing, paragliding and hiking – attracting tourists from within and outside Japan. Logically, Kutchan’s two most celebrated aspects – skiing and potatoes – are recognised simultaneously by a jolly-looking cartoon town mascot named Jagata-kun (above right), a title that roughly translates into ‘little, fat potato boy’. Other symbols of Kutchan include the town tree, the Itaya Maple (bottom right), and the town flower, the Yellow Rhododendron
(upper bottom right).
A major historical turning point for Kutchan was the town becoming the capital of the Shiribeshi sub-prefecture, thanks mainly to its comprehensive governmental offices. A national train servicing the area also increased Kutchan’s esteem as a self-sufficient and accessible township. Rail company JR Hokkaido plans to include Kutchan in its planned Hokkaido Shinkansen (bullet train) service by 2020, which could be announced as early as March next year, and would connect the town to Honshu and, consequently, Tokyo.
As the main regional centre of population, Kutchan hosts a variety of cultural institutions and events. The town is home to two museums, the Kutchan Natural History Museum and the Shu Ogawara Art Museum. The town also hosts the annual Kutchan Jazz Festival every July, drawing thousands to enjoy the music of Japanese and international musicians.
Kutchan’s sister city is St Moritz in Switzerland, and has been since 1964. Many will have noticed a neighbourhood in Hirafu not coincidentally named St Moritz. In 1991, Kutchan and its residents celebrated their 100-year anniversary.