Strange Beasts of Japan’s Far North
In the cold, far north of the Japanese archipelago lies the island of Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest after the main island of Honshu. With its pristine forests, majestic mountains, and volcanic plateaus, Hokkaido is a land renowned for its vast natural beauty. It is also a place with its fair share of mysteries, for in the cold hinterlands of Japan’s far northern island dwell strange creatures hidden from man in their cold lairs. These are the mysterious beasts that call this far northern land home.
The Ezo Wolf
Hokkaido was once the domain of the Hokkaido wolf (Canis lupus hattai, formerly known as Canis lupus rex), also known as the Ezo wolf. Along with the more well known Honshu wolf, it was one of two varieties of wolf found in Japan.
The Ezo wolf had a more traditionally wolf-like appearance than its southern cousin, the Honshu wolf, which had a more dog-like appearance. The skull of the Ezo wolf was large and formidable, with long, curved canines, and the body dimensions were similar to that of grey wolves. The Ezo wolf was typically grey in coloration, and significantly larger and more fearsome looking than the wolves of Honshu.
The Hokkaido wolves were at one time fairly common and were highly venerated by the indigenous Ainu people of northern Japan. They were considered to be powerful gods, along with bears and owls, and feature highly in Ainu myths, folklore, and poems. They were known by many names to the Ainu, Horkew Kamuy (Howling God), Yukkoiki Kamuy (The God Who Takes Deer), Horkew Retara Kamuy (White Wolf God), and Horkew Kamuy-dono (Lord Wolf God). To this day, many landmarks bear Ainu names pertaining to the wolves.
Ezo wolves were highly regarded for their hunting prowess, and there are many accounts of the Ainu seeking to domesticate them. This practice was confirmed by several surveys by the Hokkaido Development Agency, which found some Ainu villages actively raising wolf cubs. After being raised among the villagers for around two years and becoming accustomed to people, the wolves were then supposedly used as hunting companions, or released to go hunt deer for the village on their own.
After the collapse of feudal government in 1868, Japan started to turn to the West for help in modernizing the nation. The government became convinced that ranching was the key to Hokkaido’s future agricultural prosperity. Horse and cattle ranches began popping up all over Hokkaido, throwing humans and wolves into contact with growing frequency. It was not long before tensions rose and the wolves were seen as a threat to the booming ranching industry taking hold of Hokkaido.
With negative attitudes towards the wolves soaring, strychnine poisoning campaigns were launched against them and a bounty system was also put into place by the Hokkaido Development Agency to speed along the extermination process. Being so actively slaughtered, the numbers of Hokkaido wolves plummeted with frightening speed. In 1889, within just 20 years of the start of the poisoning campaigns, the Hokkaido wolf was considered extinct.
The Ainu have long held that the wolf existed well past this date, and even to this day sightings reports come in occasionally. On rare occasions, ranchers in modern times have complained of mysterious killings of their livestock caused by some kind of wild animal. Hikers and hunters have reported wolf howls as well, and there are occasional reports of wolf scat or remains being found in the frigid wilds of Hokkaido.
Could the Ezo wolf still be out there?
The indigenous Ainu people of Japan have long told of an enormous marine animal known as the Akkorokamui. The creature is said to lurk in Funka Bay, also known as Uchiura Bay or Volcano Bay, which is located in the Southwestern portion of the Northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
The Akkorokamui is most often said to be a gigantic octopus-like or squid-like creature, reaching epic sizes of up to a whopping 110 meters in length. The coloration of the Akkorokamui is said to be a striking and brilliant red, often described as almost incandescent and sometimes likened to the color of the reflection of the setting sun upon the water. Due to this coloration and the creature’s immense size, it is believed that the Akkorokamui is visible from a great distance away.
The Ainu people have always feared the Akkorokamui, believing it to be an aggressive beast with a tendency to attack and swamp boats. Fishermen in the area were known to carry large sickles aboard their boats in order to protect themselves from the creature.
In addition to the long history of folklore and alleged sightings of the Akkorokamui made by Ainu, there are accounts written of by non Ainu as well. The 19th century Englishman and missionary John Batchelor, who lived among the Ainu and is known for his extensive writings on Ainu life, wrote firsthand a journal entry of an alleged actual incident concerning an apparent Akkorokamui in his book The Ainu and their Folklore.
In the morning, we found the whole village under a cloud. Three men, it was said, were out trying to catch swordfish, when all at once a great sea monster, with large staring eyes, appeared in front of them and proceeded to attack the boat. A desperate fight ensued. The monster was round in shape, and emitted a dark fluid and noxious odor. The three men fled in dismay, not so much indeed for fear, they say, but on account of the dreadful smell. However that may have been, they were so scared that the next morning all three refused to get up and eat; they were lying in their beds pale and trembling.
Another 19th century account was made by a Japanese fisherman (translated from the original Japanese):
And I saw ahead something huge and red undulating under the waves. I at first thought my eyes deceived me and that I was merely seeing the reflection of sun upon the water, but as I approached, I could see that in fact it was an enormous monster, 80 meters in length at least, with large, thick tentacles as big around as a man’s torso. The thing fixed me with a huge, staring eye before sinking out of sight into the depths.
Other eyewitness reports of the creature have surfaced over the years as well, including into modern days. It has been speculated that there is perhaps a type of undiscovered, giant octopus in the bay or even a super sized known species of octopus. Indeed, what is often considered to be the largest species of octopus is known to inhabit Japanese waters. The giant pacific octopus (Enteroctopus dofleini) is a very large species of octopus found throughout the coastal north Pacific, including Japan. These creatures have arm spans of up to 3 to 5 m (9.75 to 16 ft) and can weigh as much as 10 to 50 kg (22 to 110 lbs), with unconfirmed reports of even larger specimens.
Could there be some kind of octopus out there far surpassing even these sizes? The deep, frigid waters of Funka Bay may hold the answers somewhere in its dark, cold depths.
Giant Crayfish and Enormous Mystery Fish of Lake Mashu
For years, occasional reports of extremely large, unexplained crayfish have surfaced in northern Japan, most notably in Hokkaido’s Lake Mashu. Known to the Ainu people as Kamuy-tou, or “The Lake of the Gods,” Lake Mashu is located in the northeast part of Hokkaido, Japan. It is a caldera lake, formed in the crater of a dormant volcano approximately 11,000 years ago.
Surrounded by high, sheer cliffs, Lake Mashu lies 315 meters (1,033 ft) above sea level, is 20 km in circumference, and 212 meters (695 ft) deep at its deepest point. The lake is notable for having some of the clearest water in the world. Lake Mashu is also famous for the thick fog that veils it for most of the summer months, resulting in it’s nickname “foggy Lake Mashu.” The lake is quite remote, with access to the shoreline limited by steep cliffs.
Since at least the 1970s, there have been reports of something strange in the lake. Accounts have surfaced over the years of crayfish far exceeding the size of any known to be in Japan. In 1978 and 1985, trout poachers are reported to have captured extremely large crayfish in the lake that were claimed to measure nearly 2 feet in length. In total, there were three alleged specimens gathered by these poachers, although the claims could not be confirmed due to the illegal nature of the circumstances surrounding the capture of the creatures.
Another account comes from one author of a survey of known crayfish in the lake, entitled Crayfish in Lake Mashu, Hokkaido, who reported that he had once captured a male crayfish specimen when he was a young man which had a carapace that measured 47 cm (18.5 inches) in length. It is important to remember that this figure is only for the length of the carapace, and not the total length of the specimen, which would be much longer.
There have been other scattered reports of giant crayfish in the lake as well. In one such report, a fisherman described seeing a crayfish crawling along the bottom in the clear water of the lake that he estimated as being at least 3 feet long. Yet another fisherman claims to have captured what he reported as being a crayfish the size of a lobster in the late 1990s.
The only species of crayfish known to inhabit Lake Mashu is the introduced signal crayfish of North America (Pacifastacus leniusculus). This species was imported to Lake Mashu from Oregon and the Columbia River system in the 1930s as a potential food source. The signal crayfish reaches sizes of up to 15cm (5.9 inches) in length, with an average carapace length of 3 to 6 cm (1.2 to 2.4 inches), far from the enormous sizes reported for the mystery crayfish of Lake Mashu.
Since Lake Mashu is a Caldera lake, there are no endemic species there. There are also no rivers or significant waterways connected to the lake. The lake is a completely isolated habitat. All fish and crayfish present in the lake have been introduced by humans, which makes the presence of large mystery crayfish there all the more puzzling.
Certainly, there are very large species of crayfish that exist in the world. The world’s largest species of crayfish, indeed the largest freshwater invertebrate, is the Tasmanian giant freshwater crayfish (Astacopsis gouldi). These crayfish attain average sizes of at least 40 cm (15.7 inches) in total length, but even huger sizes of up to 80 cm (31.5 inches) in total length and weighing up to 6 kg (13.2 lbs) have been recorded. The second largest is the Murray crayfish (Euastacus armatus) of the Australian mainland, which reaches overall lengths of 20 to 30 cm (7.9 to 11.8 inches) and weights of up to 2 kg (4.4 lbs).
Yet how would something like this end up in this remote, isolated lake? As it is, the giant crayfish that people continue to see in the lake remain a mystery.
Lake Massu’s crayfish are not the only giants said to lurk in the lake’s frigid waters. An enormous fish known to the indigenous Ainu of the area as the Amemsu, is also said to live here.
The Amemasu is said to be a gigantic fish the size of a whale, which often snatches deer and even the occasional human from the shore. According to Ainu folklore, the huge fish capsizes boats and causes earthquakes and other disasters. The fish was once said to be such a threat that Ainu mothers would tell their children not to walk alone along the lake’s shores alone.
The Monster of Lake Kussharo
Lake Kussharo is located within Akan National Park in eastern Hokkaido and derives its name from the Ainu word Kuccharo, which means “The place where a lake becomes a river and the river flows out.” It is a caldera lake, formed in the crater of a volcano long ago, and is notable for being the largest lake of this kind in Japan as well as the 6th largest lake in the country overall.
The lake is known for its natural beauty,as well as a mysterious creature that is said to live in its depths, a monster that has come to affectionately be known as Kusshie, emulating the name of its more well-known Scottish cousin, Nessie.
Kusshie is reported as being between 10 and 20 meters in length (30 to 60 ft), and is most commonly reported as having dark brown, leathery skin. The creature’s neck is of a moderate length, and humps are sometimes mentioned. The head of the creature is said to look somewhat like that of a horse, only larger, with silver eyes, and is sometimes described as having two protrusions like giraffe horns on top. A few reports mention the creature making strange grunting or clicking noises. Interestingly, many witnesses also report having felt distinctly uneasy, disturbed, or “icky,” upon seeing the creature.
One very interesting characteristic of Kusshi is the high speeds at which it reportedly can move. In 1974, grainy footage was taken of a mysterious object moving across the lake at breakneck speed, said to be the alleged creature. Other pieces of alleged footage of the creature moving quickly over the water have surfaced over the years as well.
Several reports mention this remarkable speed. In Sept, 1974, a group of 15 witnesses reported being surprised by a large, somewhat triangular shaped animal with shiny skin like glistening scales, moving under the surface of the water with the estimated speed of a motorboat. In 1988, a Mr. Takashi Murata was riding in a motorboat and reported being paced by a large animal at a distance of 15 meters away, which he described as having a dark back that looked like that of a dolphin. The animal followed him for a time, keeping up with the fast boat, before disappearing beneath the water.
Lake Kussharo’s alleged lake monster first came to widespread publicity during the 1970s due to a number of high profile sightings.
In 1972, a man reported seeing an object that looked like a “boat turned upside down,” swimming quickly through the water. In August of 1973, a group of 40 middle school students on a field trip, as well as their teachers, spotted the creature not far from shore. In July, 1974, another famous case was reported by a Mr. Wada, a farmer who sighted a large, dark animal with several humps at intervals of 4 meters apart. The farmer watched the creature for some time before it submerged with a huge swell of water and a splash. These sightings and many others like them brought attention to the lake, which culminated in an active search for the animal.
For one month in Sept 1974, TV crews, boats equipped with fish finder sonar, and teams of divers explored the lake. These efforts produced some interesting results. Some of the sonar equipped boats reported finding unusual and large images of living creatures at depths of 15 to 20 meters.
Over the years, Kusshi has been photographed and filmed on several occasions, including as recently as 1990. Kusshi continued to be sighted throughout the 70s and beyond, sometimes by large groups of people. In May, 1976, Kusshi was sighted by a group of 22 tour bus passengers and their driver. As recently as 1997, a group of firefighters spotted a strange animal swimming 100 meters offshore, which they estimated as being 20 meters long, with a dorsal fin and banded markings. Another sightings was made by tourists in 2002, and reports occasionally pop up to this day.
Although media attention made Kusshi famous in the 1970s, it would be a mistake to think that this was the first indication of something strange or unknown in the lake. These stories have a long tradition among locals in the area. The indigenous Ainu people who inhabit the area have long told of giant snakes that inhabit the lake. Additionally, pioneers coming to the area during the Meiji era also told of seeing these creatures, which were said to attack and eat deer whole.
Mysterious Miniature Hominids
The indigenous Ainu people of Hokkaido have a long folklore of an ancient race of dwarf-like people thought to have inhabited the land long before humans arrived.
The Ainu knew these creatures as the Koropokkuru, also written in other ways, such as Kor-pok-un-kur, Koro-pok-guru, and Koro Pokunguru. They are also sometimes referred to as the Tsuchigumo. The name Koropokkuru is most commonly translated as “the people who live under the burdock leaves,” and implies the diminutive size of the creatures. In some stories a whole family was said to be able to fit underneath one burdock leaf, with one such leaf measuring about 4 feet across. The size reported for the Koropokkuru, however, actually varies from tradition to tradition, and they were said to be anywhere from 2 or 3 feet in height all the way down to only mere inches in height.
In addition to their small size, the Koropokkuru were said to be rather rough and primitive looking, with large heads, prominent brows, and short, squashed noses. They were sometimes said to have reddish skinned faces. Most commonly, Koropokkuru are described as having short, stocky builds and being rather hairy and odiferous.
Despite this brutish appearance, the Koropokkuru had some signs of sophistication. They were said to use flint or stone knives, scrapers, and other simple implements, and were also known for their abilities in the art of pottery, which the Aiunu were not known to practice. Also unlike the Ainu, the Korropokkuru were said to dwell in pit dwellings, basically huts built over round holes in the earth, and this led them to sometimes be referred to as “the pit dwellers.”
The Koropokkuru were also known to be capable of simple speech, and were able to communicate with the Ainu in this manner.
According to Ainu lore, this dwarf race was exceedingly shy and did not like to be seen. Nevertheless, they were known to trade with the Ainu on occasion, although such transactions were brief and typically done under the cover of night. For the most part, the Koropokkuru were only fleetingly seen, and kept their distance from Ainu affairs.
The Koropokkuru and Ainu were said to have peacefully shared the land like this until a war broke out between them and the Koropokkuru were subsequently wiped out or driven away. After this disappearance and with the ever greater presence of mankind in Hokkaido, this mysterious race of ancient little people seemed to have vanished forever.
There has been some scattered evidence proposed over the years for such a non-Ainu race living in Hokkaido. Archeologists have found evidence of strange pit dwellings all over Japan that are consistent with the stories of the Koropokkuru dwellings, but not consistent with the Ainu, who have always lived in thatched houses. These pits have often been found to contain stone implements not typical of the Ainu, as well as mysterious tools that seem too small to be comfortable or efficient for normal human-sized hands.
Another archeological find that has been used in the past to support the existence of the Koropokkuru was made in 1877 by Edward S. Morse, one of the first to conduct proper archeological investigations in Japan. At a site known as the Ōmori shell mound, Morse found an array of anthropologically significant pottery in that it did not fit in with what was known about Ainu culture. The pottery conflicted with the lack of such a craft among Ainu, and the mystery deepened with Ainu denial that their ancestors had ever practiced it. Morse found this odd, and by the time he published his find in 1879, he had come to the conclusion that the Ōmori site was not an Ainu one, but rather that of some Neolithic race that predated the Ainu.
Morse’s paper on the matter, entitled Shell Mounds of Ōmori, was actually quite a significant publication in its time, and is widely regarded as marking the birth of Japanese anthropology and archeology.
Tsuboi Shōgorō, a student of Morse as well as a founding member of the Anthropological Society and a later professor of anthropology at the Tokyo Imperial University, looked at the pottery and was mostly responsible for formulating a connection between these hypothetical ancient people and the mysterious, dwarf-like Koropukkuru.
Tsuboi uncovered the Ainu stories of the Koropokkuru and was struck by the affinity for pottery that they were said to display, something that was not associated with the Ainu at all. He used this information to further support Morse’s claims and to build that into a case for the existence of these creatures. Based on the pottery, pit dwellings, and stone implements, all inconsistent with Ainu, Tsuboi hypothesized that these objects were not made by Ainu, but rather by the Koropokkuru.
Other anthropologists and scholars also came to similar conclusions, furthering the introduction of the Koropokkuru into academic discourse, however these ideas were highly controversial and fiercely debated at the time.
If there was indeed some sort of Stone Age race of half-sized, tool using, pit dwelling hominids in Japan, what were they and where did they come from? It remains an enigma.
Hokkaido has always been seen as sort of the last great wild frontier of Japan. With these strange creatures allegedly inhabiting its remote areas, the island is not only one of Japan’s most pristine, beautiful places, but also its most mysterious. If you are ever in Hokkaido enjoying its plentiful natural sites, be sure to keep your eye to the water and the forests. You never know what kind of enigmatic creatures you might see.