|Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture is only a 90-minute flight from Tokyo. It’s a popular destination whose natural wonders include Shiretoko, listed by UNESCO as a world natural heritage site, the vast lavender fields around Furano, and Niseko, which has the world’s finest powder snow skiing. But Hokkaido has another attraction that many visitors overlook: the unique culture of the indigenous Ainu people, who have their own language, dances and clothing. Manga featuring Ainu themes have become popular in recent years, and with a new national museum and park set to open this April, interest in Ainu culture is growing. This article introduces Ainu culture, and outlines some of the less-known attractions of Hokkaido, off the usual tourist trail.|
Things to know about the Ainu before visiting Hokkaido
First of all, what exactly is Ainu culture? We asked Mr. Motofumi Morishita of the Japanese Government’s Agency for Cultural Affairs, who has been involved in a number of projects including the Appreciating Ainu Culture Project.
Mr. Morishita: Ainu people’s lives center on hunting and fishing. They have a rich and unique culture that includes their own language, oral traditions such as yukar sagas, traditional dances listed by UNESCO in 2009 as part of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity, a type of jaws harp known as a mukkuri, and attoushi weaving.
This culture is a manifestation of the spirituality of the Ainu people, for whom happiness in life is achieved through harmonious coexistence with all things, including the natural world.
One of the most distinctive elements of Ainu culture is the Iomante ceremony, in which brown bears or other wild animals was sacrificed, and their spirits sent off to the world of the gods. It used to be one of the most important ceremonies in Ainu culture.
To the Ainu, every part of the animal and natural world, and even the tools they use in daily life, are manifestations of kamuy (gods) visiting the Ainu Moshiri or “Land of Man”.
The Iomante ceremony is one example of how a strong sense of thankfulness to the gods is at the heart of Ainu spirituality.
But like many indigenous peoples around the world, the Ainu people once led a painful existence. Japanese government policies some 150 years ago led to the gradual loss of the unique culture they had developed over many centuries. Today, UNESCO lists the Ainu language as endangered.
Through manga and music, Ainu culture is attracting interest once more
In recent years, the Japanese government has introduced measures to revive and promote this endangered culture.
Today, the younger generation in particular show no discrimination or prejudice against Ainu culture and hold it in growing respect. It is increasingly accessible, through manga and the work of musicians with Ainu roots.
Golden Kamuy, the story of a young Japanese man and an Ainu girl set 100 years ago, has sold more than 10 million copies, and has been published in translation throughout Europe. Featured in the British Museum’s major manga exhibition in 2019, titled The Citi Exhibition: Manga, it has been made into an anime and is helping to bring Ainu culture to the attention of young people around the world.
National center for Ainu history and culture opens in April
This April sees the opening of a new national museum and park showcasing Ainu history and culture. Known as Upopoy (which means singing in a large group in the Ainu language), it’s around 40 minutes by road from New Chitose Airport, the gateway of the skies to Hokkaido, on the shores of Lake Poroto.
One area Upopoy focuses on in particular is giving visitors the opportunity to experience the wonders of Ainu culture.
Upopoy showcases the language of the Ainu, their beliefs surrounding life and death, and their traditional arts, including music and dance. It includes a reconstruction of a traditional Ainu settlement or kotan. Visitors can watch Ainu dances and ceremonies, try on Ainu folk costumes and have a go at playing traditional musical instruments. The museum presents exhibits and films that give an insight into the rich and varied culture of the Ainu that survives to this day.
Hokkaido has many other facilities where you can experience Ainu culture, including Akanko Ainu Kotan and the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum.
Since 2019, Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs has been hosting a nationwide project showcasing Ainu culture, with the title Appreciating Ainu Culture Project: “The Ainu Together, Together with the Ainu”.
As part of the Appreciating Ainu Culture Project, a relay exhibition is taking place around Japan and overseas, at major airports and railway stations etc. It offers information on Ainu culture in multiple languages, giving visitors an insight into the Ainu worldview before they come to Upopoy.
Ainu culture is a focus of growing interest not only in Hokkaido but across Japan. We asked Mr. Morishita just what makes it so fascinating.
Mr. Morishita: These days, interpersonal relationships are growing weaker, and behind the scenes of our mass production-mass consumption economy, based on a global division of labor, huge volumes of food and clothing are being thrown away before they ever reach the consumer. I believe experiencing Ainu culture can be a catalyst to help us become aware of what our society is gradually losing — true wealth, and the really important things in life.
The Ainu people coexist in harmony with nature, with all living things. Getting to know their spirituality and culture can be an opportunity to take a very special journey into another Japanese culture, very different from the world of samurai and geisha.
Hokkaido | Japan Travel |JNTO
Upopoy (National Ainu Museum and Park; opens April 24, 2020)
Address: 2-3 Wakakusacho, Shiraoi-cho, Shiraoi-gun, Hokkaido
Akanko Ainu Kotan
Address: 4-7-19 Akanako-Onsen, Akan-cho, Kushiro City, Hokkaido
Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum
Address: 55 Nibutani, Biratori-cho, Saru-gun, Hokkaido
Appreciating Ainu Culture Project: “The Ainu Together, Together with the Ainu”
Dates: around September 2019 to around October 2020
Venue: Upopoy (National Ainu Museum and Park) and across Japan