Exploring Pioneer Village in Hokkaido, Japan
Hidden in the trees just outside Sapporo is a frontier town surrounded by farms and a fishing village. These 52 buildings are not a functioning town but rather an architectural open-air museum that tells the story of Hokkaido’s pioneering past: Kaitaku no Mura, the Historic Village of Hokkaido.*
In 1869 the Kaitakushi (Hokkaido colonization office) was tasked with developing and populating this resource-rich frontier. To do so they hired American experts to advise them on how to do it. Americans were chosen for their experience taming frontiers, familiarity with living in this climate and because the U.S. lacked the Far Eastern colonial ambitions of the European powers that may have wanted Hokkaido for themselves.
The advisors helped turn Hokkaido into a Japanese American Midwest complete with dairy farming, raising cattle for beef and brewing beer; industries that were almost non-existent anywhere else in Japan. They also came armed with plans for American architecture that could withstand the brutal winters far better than most Japanese designs. Most Meiji era (1868-1912) architecture on Honshu, Kyushu and Shikoku was based on British, German and French models, making Hokkaido a unique outlier in an already standout period of Japanese architectural history.
Kaitaku no Mura is the physical remains of this Americanized Hokkaido. We entered through one of the two replica buildings on the premises, a daisy-colored train station of clapboard with a rosy shingled-roof hidden under snow. It’s generally out of place in Japan, but this replica Sapporo Station fit right in here. Tickets in hand, we left the Heisei era and entered the Meiji era.
Laid out before us was a broad tree-lined boulevard of government offices and housing ripped straight from Ohio and Illinois along with hybridized Japanese personal businesses, homes and an inn; all partially buried under a healthy layer of pristine snow. Looming over us was the stately green-trimmed dome of the rebuilt Kaitakushi capitol building, its white flag with the big red Pole Star still proudly flying as it had 150 years ago.
As pretty as these exteriors are, what makes Kaitaku no Mura come alive is inside every building. They’re furnished with period furniture, equipment and small items so that homes feel like the owner will return any minute, or that the shop clerk will be with you shortly. A number have dressed mannequins as well to add more life.
The variety of buildings also makes it feel like an actual town that’s always been here, if only reduced in scale. A low row of Japanese artificer shops- the sleigh-maker, blacksmith and farrier (horse-shoe maker) face a tall, fanciful barbershop, post office, grocer and gable-roofed evangelical church across the street. A red brick police station sits on the corner while a living “policeman” in a Meiji era uniform paces the street, his steaming breath as visible as the long sword on his hip.
While taking in the scene, the light jingling of bells heralded an almost silent pair of skids gliding our way.
Kaitaku no Mura has one “ride.” In the snowless months it’s a horse-drawn trolley that runs down tracks in the middle of the street. But when it’s below zero and the snow is here to stay it’s a horse-drawn sleigh like the ones I only ever hear about in songs.
Outside of the town center the buildings grow a bit sparser but also show the sharp contrast in country living with everything from a herring baron’s multi-building mansion to the lowly tondenhei farmer-soldier’s house. The tondenhei were some of the early pioneers, former samurai who’d lost the civil war and were given the option of moving to Hokkaido to start over. It was a hard life for anyone, but especially for men from warmer climates unaccustomed to manual labor. The woolen uniform hanging on the wall may have been made for it, but this thin shack was not ideal for this climate.
Since we spent all day in the village we had lunch at the cafeteria. The meal that has to be eaten is the tondenhei set. Miso soup, rice with shredded salmon and kamaboko fish covered in sweet miso paste is all nice and Japanese, but the most delicious part was the imomochi potato cake with a side of corn and peas. I loved the flavor, but at first I couldn’t place it because it didn’t taste Japanese. Then I realized it was buttered and seasoned the way my mother would prepare a biscuit. I washed it down with beet cider, a carbonated beverage which, like the buttered food, is another product of the Kaitakushi’s efforts.
We were also treated to a free snack earlier in the day. Staff beckoned us from off the street into a sake brewery for a bowl of seven-herb rice porridge called nanakusagayu which is traditionally eaten on Jan. 7. (The local news crew filming us eating was anachronistic but I wasn’t going to nitpick over free food.)
Special events like this take place throughout the year, so either call ahead or check out the Japanese language version of their website to see what’s happening during your visit.
Our visit provided all-day educational fun and even staying almost the entire day we couldn’t quite see everything. Maybe I spent too much time taking pictures in the old photo studio, or maybe it was all time in the clinic trying to look at everything in the doctor’s office. Whatever it was, I have an excuse to go north yet again.
For Golden Kamuy fans, you need to visit Kaitaku no Mura. So much of the manga and anime takes place in these buildings.
Every building’s signage is dual language, though inside individual buildings it’s spottier.
After visiting we took the bus to the Hokkaido Museum for an hour-long primer on Japanese and native Ainu local history and culture. A discounted joint-ticket for Kaitaku no Mura and the Hokkaido Museum can be purchased at either location.
To get there and back take the No. 22 Kaitakunomura bus from Shin-Sapporo Station. It is the last stop. The Hokkaido Museum is the stop before Kaitaku no Mura.
Address: Konopporo 50-1, Atsubetsu-cho, Atsubetsu-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido 004-0006
*NOTE: Kaitaku no Mura is literally ‘Pioneer Village’ but its English name is ‘Historic Village of Hokkaido.’
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