Gourmet Cycling in Kushiro
In October, I participated in a gourmet bicycle tour in Kushiro, which featured prominently the Ainu culture that permeates life throughout the area, particularly in its cuisine. The 3-day tour covers about 150 kilometers, roughly evenly divided in the three days of the tour. The ride itself was casual, not at all difficult for anyone who is relatively fit and experienced in cycling. Most of the ride itself is relatively flat, although the ride on the first day includes two relatively steep climbs of around 1000 meters. The second and third days, however, include no climbs more than a few hundred meters, though the ancient caldera terrain makes for a very hilly adventure. But the ride is mostly leisurely, interspersed by good food and immersion in Ainu culture.
The area we visited on the tour was centered around three lakes: Akan, Kussharo, and Mashuu. The three lakes are more or less in a straight line with Akan 15 kilometers to the west and Mashuu 10 kilometers to the east of Lake Kussharo. The roads between these three areas, however, zigzag through the Akan Mashuu National Park and its wilderness, in the hinterland of eastern Hokkaido. It is in this seemingly desolate interior that many hidden treasures provide a wealth of delight to adventuring spirits.
On the first day, highlights of the tour were the ride through great fields of farmland, with soba buckwheat and other crops, the bounty from the autumn harvest, and the Ainu dance and introduction to Ainu culture. The fields and pasture are vast. They are a perfect example of the tired comic adage, “Hokkaido wa dekkaido,” meaning, “Hokkaido is huge,” with a bit of onomatopoeia and slapstick. Lunch, a hearty soba with chunks of chicken, was as warm and nourishing to the soul as to the body.
In the evening, at dinner, in the largest Ainu Kotan (village) in Hokkaido, we were treated to the music and dance of Ainu culture. The chanting, hand clapping, traditional wear, and the dance movements all evoke the natural world and traditional life of the Ainu people. There is much in common with the music and dances of many traditional cultures the world over, reminding me not only of the culture of Okinawa, but also that of the Maori, Inuit, native Hawaiians, Navajo, and many indigenous tribes of South America. The ezoshika (venison) cuisine was delicious, both the sashimi-like “tataki,” and the soup. Although there is a hint of gamey-ness in the half-raw tataki, it is tender and sweet.
The second day was our longest ride, around 70 kilometers traversing from Lake Akan to Teshikaga Town and then to the shores of Lake Kussharo and nearby Lake Mashuu. There were many highlights on this day, including a visit to the sandy beaches of Lake Kussharo.
The sunayu (sandbaths) at Lake Kussharo are a treat. The hot springs run underneath the beach on the east side of the lake, warming the sand and water. There are several outdoor baths. The baths are for mixed bathing, so people who venture in wear bathing suits. In addition, there are footbaths, in which you only need to take off your shoes and socks to soak in the warmth. In the winter, the lake is even more famous, because while most of the lake freezes over, a part of it remains unfrozen because of the hot springs. There, white swans gather, warming themselves in the natural baths surrounded by ice.
Our final day in Kushiro was highlighted by a visit to the ranch operated by Watanabesan. Here, the cattle roam on pasture that seems endless. I’ve never been a rancher, but I’ve been on many farms and ranches. Here, the cattle seem to enjoy their environment. Not because they are pampered, but because they seem to be living as they want to be. In a word, it seemed idyllic.
We ate lunch outdoors again for our final meal of the tour. The rice, meat, and veggies – all were not unlike many of the meals we ate on the previous days. But knowing that the tour was ending made the meal seem even more special. Every bite, even the air we were breathing, seemed like a full course transfusion.
Heart of Ainu Culture
When cycling around Lake Mashu and Lake Akan, you will be able to experience Ainu culture in either place.
The indigenous people or Hokkaido, the 'Ainu' have a philosophy of symbiosis with nature that is passed generation to generation (colloquially).
They believe that god exists in all things, and that there is nothing useless in this world, living off the wild plants of the mountains and hunting.
You can also observe traditional Ainu dances unique to this area.
While our 3-day tour was only a brief glimpse of this life, it was time spent with binoculars – an expanded view. Seeing eastern Hokkaido through the lenses of the binoculars, with eyes wide open, is not only a glimpse into the past, but provides some sense of our potential collective future. A more sustainable world will probably need to share many things in common with this life - its flavors, sounds, and pace. I’m ready for the ride forward.