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Experiencing Ainu culture

Eco Assets in Hokkaido

Japan In-depth

Who are the Ainu?

The Ainu are an indigenous people of northern Japan. The remaining descendants live mainly in Hokkaido (in an area that used to be called Ezoga-shima), Sakhalin, the Kurile Islands, and the northeastern part of Honshu Island.

"Ainu" means "human" in the original Ainu language. The Ainu people have a deep reverence for nature and the belief that gods exist in all things. They believe that each entity comes from its own world and returns there after accomplishing its role. This view of life and the wisdom of their lifestyle are now recognized as ecological living.
(C) Akan Tourism Association
The Ainu people pray at every opportunity, and they always pray to the god of fire first. The Ainu believe that the god of fire resides in every home's hearth and watches over each family. Although no nationwide statistics are available regarding the Ainu population, a survey conducted by the Hokkaido Government in 2006 indicated that 23,782 Ainu were living in Hokkaido at that time.

Ainu culture

The history and culture of the Ainu people is not fully known because there was no written language system and thus both history and folklore were passed down by word of mouth. However, it is considered that Ainu culture as it is known today was established around the 13th century.

The Ainu believe in the interaction of nature, humans and the gods, and they utilize the nature around them for clothing, food and housing, and never take a life unnecessarily. Fish, bear meat and wild plants are gathered and stored in preparation for winter and times of famine.
The Ainu also utilize nature in their clothing. Bird feathers are sewn together and the inner bark of elm or linden and woven nettle fiber are used for clothing, as is sealskin and bearskin. Ainu clothes are embroidered with unique patterns on the cuffs and hems as a prayer to prevent the entry of evil spirits.
(C) Akan Tourism Association
Dancing and singing are very important to the Ainu who live in harmony with the gods and nature. The rhythm is provided by singing and handclapping without the addition of any musical instruments, and the women take the lead in dancing, which is a major characteristic. Watching these ancient dances performed in Ainu Kotan near Lake Akan-ko, you develop a true sense of the spirit of the Ainu people.
One musical instrument attributed to the Ainu is the "mukkuri", which is made from a small, thin piece of bamboo. The instrument is held just in front of the mouth and a sound is produced by pulling hard on an attached string to create a vibration.

Ainu language is perpetuated in place names

The Ainu people have their own unique Ainu language. Many place names in Hokkaido are derived from Ainu. For instance, Sapporo is derived from "sapporope", which means "vast, dry river" in Ainu.

Only a small number of people are fluent in Ainu, but an upsurge of interest has prompted the introduction of Ainu language classes.

Animals of Hokkaido and Ainu

Red-crowned crane
The red-crowned crane was originally called Sarurun-Kamui, the god of marshes. Some of the ancient dances include movements based on the red-crowned crane.
Shishamo smelt (Spirinchus lanceolatus)
It is believed that the leaves of willow trees floated downstream by the Ainu in a time of famine turned miraculously into shishamo, and thus it is called the gift of fish from the gods. The shishamo that we eat these days is mainly capelin; authentic shishamo can be caught only in a certain part of the Pacific Ocean off southern Hokkaido.
Mukawa Town hosts the "Shishamo Kamui Nomi" festival asking the gods for a bountiful catch. Shishamo is the town's trademark and is used as a symbol for preserving nature.
The word, "shishamo", derives from the Ainu language: "susuham" (a leaf of willow).
(C) Mukawa Town
Brown bear
The brown bear is the largest land animal in Japan, and lives only in Hokkaido. Among all the animals, the brown bear is most revered by the Ainu as the god of mountains. The Ainu people consider hunting as a gift of help from the gods, and when they go into the mountains they believe they will bring a bear back home with them. When a brown bear is caught, the Ainu render thanks to the gods by offering a gift and "sending off the bear's spirit" in a ceremony called "IOMANTE".
Hokkaido dog
Hokkaido dogs have been part of Ainu life for thousands of years, without the need for artificial breeding. They are highly resilient to cold, and they are excellent hunting dogs. The preservation association takes the leading role in their preservation. They also make very good pets.
(C) The corporate society for the conservation of the Hokkaido Dog: a natural monument

Ainu festivals

May 1 to the beginning of October The Yukar (Akan-ko-onsen Hot Spring)
Once a day from May 1 to the beginning of October, a play based on an ancient saga is performed in Ainu Kotan at the Akan-ko-onsen Hot Spring. "Yukar" is a type of epic poem passed down through generations of Ainu people. The dynamic plays incorporating modern music are performed in countries around the world to wide acclaim.
(C) Hokkaido Tourism Organization
Kushiro Station > (2 hours by Akan Bus to Lake Akan-ko) > Lake Akan-ko Bus Center
September 15 Ashiri Cheppu Nomi (Chuo-ku, Sapporo)
This Ainu ceremony is held on the Toyohira-gawa River plain in Sapporo to invoke the new run of salmon.
The god of the forest, the god of the village and the god of water are enshrined on an altar, and the Ainu harpoon salmon that have been released into a pond created in the river. It is said that the Ainu would only catch and eat the salmon after the spawning season, and during the salmon run they would ask permission from the gods before the catch. We can see the wisdom of nature at work here, as the Ainu took only what they needed for survival.
Nowadays, this activity is prohibited, so the salmon caught from the Ishikari-gawa River are released into a pond and the ceremony is conducted, after which traditional Ainu cuisine is served.
10 minutes from JR Sapporo Station by car
Or get off at Susuki-no Station on the Nanboku subway line, walk for about 15 minutes
September 23 Kotan Festival (Asahikawa)
A solemn prayer for nature is offered at the holy "Kamui Kotan", which means "homeland of the gods" in Ainu. Strange rocks line the shores of the Ishikari-gawa River and there is a mysterious atmosphere. The river suddenly narrows around this area, and many boats have been swallowed up by the torrent in the past. So, prayers for the safety of people are also offered at the festival. In addition, the concert of Ainu music is held.
(C) Asahikawa City
Asahikawa Station > (30 minutes by Dohoku Bus to Rumoi) > Kamui Kotan
IOMANTE was originally a ceremony conducted to send the spirit of a bear to the gods. The atmosphere of the original ceremony is brought forward to the modern age with music and dancing. Around 8 o'clock at night, a parade of people singing and carrying torches marches along the main street of Lake Akan-ko-onsen Hot Spring from the sightseeing boat pier to Ainu Kotan. After the parade, an open-air play is performed at Ainu Kotan. Everyone is welcome to participate in the torch parade.
(C) Hokkaido Tourism Organization
Kushiro Station > (2 hours by Akan Bus to Lake Akan-ko) > Lake Akan-ko Bus Center

Ainu cultural facilities in Hokkaido (with overall map + access information)

Sapporo Pirka Kotan (Sapporo)
Ainu houses ("chise") and storehouses are dotted throughout the site, and you can actually go inside these buildings. You can also touch the interesting articles on display.
(C) Sapporo City
Sapporo Station > (1 hour by Jotetsu Bus No.7 or 8) > Koganeyu-onsen Hot Spring
Shiraoi Poroto Kotan (Shiraoi Town)
This is the largest Ainu folk museum in Japan. There is a reproduction of a colony outside the museum where you can experience embroidery, carving, ancient dancing and playing the mukkuri and tonkori. Ainu festivals are held here throughout the year.
Sapporo Station > (1 hour by JR Limited Express) > Shiraoi Station
Lake Akan-ko Ainu Kotan
This is a village where 36 households of 200 Ainu people live. There is an Ainu Memorial Museum and Forest & Lake Museum of Fine Arts, and they offer a program for the creation of traditional musical instruments, training sessions on ancient dancing, wood carving and embroidery workshops. This is also the event venue for "The Yukar" and "IOMANTE Fire Festival".
Kushiro Station > (2 hours by Akan Bus to Lake Akan-ko) > Lake Akan-ko Bus Center
Nibutani Ainu Cultural Museum (Hiratori)
The museum has a collection of more than 10,000 items including clothes, recreational items and hunting equipment, as well as a wide range of experience programs. You can watch videos of yukar and Ainu ancient dancing. In Nibutani, there is another museum called the "Nibutani Ainu Archive", where materials collected by Shigeru Sugeno are displayed.
Sapporo Station > (1 hour 40 minutes by Donan Bus to Hidaka) > Shiryokan-mae
Historical Museum of Hokkaido (Sapporo)
The exhibitions in this museum provide an opportunity to learn about the history of Hokkaido, including the Ainu culture. You will also learn about the relationship between Hokkaido and the Ainu. The museum is situated in the beautiful Nopporo Forest Park.
(C) Sapporo City
Sapporo Station > (13 minutes by JR line) > Shin-Sapporo Station > (18 minutes by JR Bus to Kaitaku-no-mura) > Kinenkan-iriguchi