Hokkaido’s modern Japanese history is very short. The Japanese Government formally annexed the island and introduced a policy to boost population from the mainland only in 1868, mainly because of fears of possible Russian colonisation.
Before that time, the only inhabitants of Hokkaido were the Ainu people. Exactly where they came from is still not known, but because they also lived throughout Sakhalin and the Kurile Island chain to the north, and only extended down into the north of Honshu – the main island of Japan – it is generally assumed that they spread out from the central steppes of Asia, crossing into Hokkaido when it was still connected by a land bridge.
Somewhat like the Australian aboriginal people, the Ainu have not left a heavy footprint on the cultural landscape of Hokkaido, but also like the Australian aborigines, their occupancy of the land is reflected strongly in the names of towns, rivers and mountains in the physical landscape.
The dominance of Ainu names varies from region to region in Hokkaido, but they are particularly prevalent in the south-west corner of the island, which includes Niseko. Indeed, Niseko is itself an Ainu word. So too are Kutchan, Annupuri, Moiwa, Rusutsu, Yotei, and most of the other names visitors to the area come to know during a winter ski holiday.
There are a lot more wonderful Ainu place names associated with sites of great natural beauty that are worth bearing in mind for non-winter holidays in Hokkaido too. One of these ‘not to be missed’ places is the beautifully-named Shakotan Peninsula, which happens to be as beautiful as it sounds, and is right on Niseko’s doorstep.
Shakotan is a compact, rugged peninsula that juts out into the Sea of Japan right behind Niseko and offers some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in Japan. It is all easily accessible by car from Niseko, so while staying at traditional inns in the many small fishing villages dotted around the coastline is fun, it can also be done in day trips, returning at night to the comfort and familiarity of Niseko’s abundant accommodation.
The starting point can be a short drive out of Kutchan on Route 5 to Yoichi – on the way to Otaru – and then out to Iwanai and off around the coastline. Alternatively, once the snow has melted, the trip to Iwanai can be made via the Panorama Line road that runs out past Annupuri and Moiwa.
During the late 19th century and early 20th century Shakotan was the centre of a huge herring fishing industry, and the character of the old, once-thriving port towns has been well preserved. The fish stocks have declined fairly dramatically since then, but fishing is still the dominant industry in the region – apart, of course, from tourism – and the seafood, quite naturally, is to die for.
The peninsula is a National Park, and the sea around it has been designated the only marine park in all of Hokkaido. Its special feature is the crystal clarity of the Japan Sea there, to be enjoyed from every point on the road, from glass-bottomed boats that cruise out of the main port towns, like Bikuni, or even from the luxury of indoor and outdoor onsen (hot springs).
Enjoying a cold beer or sake while soaking in an outdoor onsen watching the sun sink into the sea between the two main headlands – Cape Shakotan and Cape Kamui – is worth the price of the airfare from anywhere in the world just to experience once. Don’t miss it.