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Hokkaido highlights its indigenous heritage as a tourism asset

Ainu culture and pristine nature are two big reasons to visit northern Japan

Lake Akan in the east of Hokkaido

KUSHIRO, Japan Not every visitor to Japan is looking for Ginza glam or Kyoto antiquities. So Lake Akan and its hot springs, in the eastern part of the country's northernmost prefecture, are attempting a new strategy to lure more tourists their way: highlighting the culture of the indigenous Ainu people and their reverence for Hokkaido's pristine environment.

On June 17, the first Irankarapte music festival was held at the Lake Akan Ainu Theater.

Scenes from the Irankarapte music festival

Irankarapte means "Please let me touch your heart gently" in the Ainu language. "We want to make this beautiful word a greeting that will be exchanged around the world," said Mann Arai, a nationally known writer who lives in Hokkaido and produced the festival. The event is considered the first to try to convey the sensibilities of the Ainu people through music.

Meanwhile, the head of town planning at the Lake Akan Tourist Association, Masayuki Onishi, is working on an event to be staged in the dark of the night in a forest. Images based on Ainu mythology will be projected onto a stand of trees, against a pitch-black background. The organizers believe this will be the first event of its kind, melding indigenous culture and nature. The event is scheduled to be ready for the summer of 2018.

"To increase the number of foreign guests," Onishi said, "we need bold approaches that promote the characteristics of Lake Akan."

One of the largest settlements of the Ainu people in Hokkaido

NEW ADVENTURES This is not the first attempt to showcase Ainu culture to overseas visitors. The community has sought to market sculptures and fashions incorporating traditional motifs. But the town planners believe they can promote the heritage in a more sophisticated way: "infusing the town with more Ainu culture."

Under this goal, shop owners in Akan are planning to wear traditional clothing and greet guests in the Ainu language. A vacant house will be turned into a fashionable art gallery for traditional crafts.

Travelers from Europe and the U.S. are often keen on cultural journeys. Around 100,000 people visited the International Festival of Indigenous People in Italy, which began in May.

Kohei Fujito, a sculptor who lives near Lake Akan, attended the event for the first time as a representative of the Ainu people. He was commissioned to create a commemorative work for the event.

"The request from an Italian researcher came out of the blue, but I felt a high level of interest in the Ainu culture" among attendees, Fujito said.

In addition to its hot springs, Lake Akan is a center of Ainu culture. Akan Ainu Kotan -- kotan means "village" in their language -- is home to about 120 Ainu people and is the biggest Ainu settlement in Hokkaido.

Hokkaido's scenery is another big draw. One particularly beloved symbol of nature on the island is the marimo, a species of algae that looks like a fluffy green cotton ball. The plant has been designated a natural monument by the Japanese government.

Promotional efforts include the "My Marimo" project, in which local residents grow marimo and exhibit them.

The marimo is a protected species and the subject of much academic research. Now the tourism industry wants to make its charms known to the outside world. Promotional efforts include the "My Marimo" project, in which local residents grow marimo and exhibit them. Guided tours of marimo habitats are scheduled to begin next spring.

These and other efforts are aimed at cashing in on the growing "adventure tourism" market, particularly in Europe and the U.S. In June, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry selected Tsuruga Resort, part of Tsuruga Group, to help devise a strategy for adventure tourism.

The government is trying to do its part, selecting Kushiro for four tourism promotion projects, including designating it as a model city aimed at attracting visitors to rural areas.

Although the number of overnight stays near Lake Akan previously topped 1 million, the most recent data puts the annual figure at around 600,000. The model city designation was based on recognition of the area's natural and cultural assets -- and the need for better access for tourists.

The hot spring district is trying to double the number of foreign tourists to 250,000 by 2020, from the 2015 level. Central to the Japanese government's effort is the development of infrastructure, such as walking trails and public toilets.

Onishi said that although these measures will help, the district needs more than public facilities to become a truly popular destination. His organization is trying to come up with ideas to burnish the area's appeal.

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