Hidden In Hokk Aido

Deep within Hokkaido, the women of the indigenous Ainu community keep the fading traditions alive
Traditional Ainu crane dance being performed at Lake Akan Ainu Theatre
Traditional Ainu crane dance being performed at Lake Akan Ainu Theatre

My journey to Japan was not merely about sightseeing or ticking off a destination from a bucket list. Instead, it was a personal quest to uncover the untold human story from an offbeat place. Hokkaido, with its captivating landscapes and untamed wilderness, beckoned me with promises of hidden treasures waiting to be discovered. Yet, amidst the grandeur of nature lay a lesser-known gem—the ancient Ainu people. Intrigued by their rich heritage, I embarked on a journey to the heart of Ainu territory, eager to immerse myself in their world.

Ainu artist playing Mukkuri; salmon skin shoes; Ainu carving at Nibutani Museum; traditional Ainu robe made from elm tree bark
Ainu artist playing Mukkuri; salmon skin shoes; Ainu carving at Nibutani Museum; traditional Ainu robe made from elm tree bark

As I entered deep into the forests of Biratori in Central Hokkaido, I felt a sense of excitement and anticipation to uncover the ancient Ainu hunting techniques. Before entering this sacred space, a ritual began—pouring sacred sake (rice wine) on to the "inau," a symbolic fire stick adorned with wood shavings. Guided by two Ainu experts, Tokuji Mombetsu and Misaki Kimura, both in their late thirties, clad in traditional "Amip"—an Ainu robe made from the bark of Manchurian Elm decorated with unique thread and cloth patterns and matching hairbands, I observed a centuries-old form of worship known as "Kamuinomi." The ritual underscores the deep spiritual connection that the Ainu have with nature and the divine. Tokuji explained to me, "Before we enter the forest or mountain, we pay our respects to our kumay (Gods) and seek their permission." He also added, "We don't waste anything; we only take what we need."

For the next four hours after the Kamuinomi, I delved into the Ainu hunting methods, learning about the traps they crafted to capture wild animals using bows and arrows. Despite modern restrictions on hunting and fishing, the pride in their Ainu heritage remained palpable. Tokuji can’t go back to his Ainu ways of living, but he is content with the fact that at least he doesn’t have to hide his identity anymore.

Tokuji Mombetsu and Misaki Kimura
Tokuji Mombetsu and Misaki Kimura

Against The Tide Of Time

The Ainu initially inhabited Hokkaido, Japan's northern island. However, they also reside in the northern regions of Honshu, Japan's main island, and on Sakhalin Island in Russia. My local guide, Yoshimi Sato, says, “Although there are no official census figures, it is believed that approximately 24,000 Ainu are left in Japan today, and many are reluctant to share their heritage.”

Akanko Ainu Kotan is the largest Ainu settlement
Akanko Ainu Kotan is the largest Ainu settlement

Ainu have their own religion and believe there is a god in everything. Traditionally, Ainu lived a simple life, hunting deer and salmon, gathering wild plants for food, performing traditional dances and playing music. They were wood carvers and craftspeople, with distinctive Ainu patterns embroidered on clothes and wooden implements from plates to swords. The Ainu language is classified as Critically Endangered by UNESCO and is on the verge of extinction.

The Japanese and the Ainu coexisted relatively peacefully until 1879, when the Meiji government enforced assimilation policies, banning their language, tattoos, and hunting practices. Despite the systematic forced assimilation, Ainu culture has endured in Japan to this day.

In 2007, UNESCO recognised the Ainu as indigenous and this was followed by the Japanese Government's recognition in 2019. Initiatives to promote Ainu culture, like the manga series "Golden Kamuy" and developing new Ainu-centric tourism products like Ainu museums, "Kotans", and Ainu tours, have helped to revitalise Ainu communities and bring renewed appreciation for their culture.

I had the opportunity to learn more about Ainu culture at several places in Hokkaido that have been developed to promote their culture. One of those experiences was at the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum. This immersive journey delved into the heart of Ainu history, offering insights into their traditions and artistic expressions.

Summer at Lake Akan

After crossing the Central Hokkaido Forest, I found myself in the legendary forests of Lake Akan in Eastern Hokkaido, where I participated in the Kamuy Lumina night walk while holding a rhythm stick. Kamuy Lumina is an interactive experience that combines local Ainu folklore, digital art, and the natural beauty of the area. During this 1.2-kilometre immersive cultural walk, I witnessed a popular Ainu legend, "The Tale of the Owl and the Jay Bird," come to life through projected images, music, and special effects.

The next stop on this cultural journey was Akanko Ainu Kotan, the largest Ainu settlement with approximately 130 Ainu people and 36 buildings. Inside the Akanko Ainu Theater, I witnessed a multimedia masterpiece called "Lost Kamuy." It fused an ancient ceremonial dance of the Ainu, a UNESCO World Intangible Cultural Heritage, with digital art and contemporary dance.

Miyako Sazaki San
Miyako Sazaki San

The Stories of Ainu Women

During my visit to Lake Akan, I encountered remarkable tales of the evolving role of women in their society. One such woman was 80-year-old Miyako Sazaki San, also known as Miyachan. Her wise face had the lines of a life well-lived, and her eyes belied her age.

Miyachan, born to an Ainu mother and a Japanese father, shared how her parents taught her Ainu customs and traditions despite the discrimination faced by her community. "I have been dancing since I was ten years old. This place used to be the original Ainu Cultural Theatre, a structure made of grass and wood that would get painfully cold in the sub-zero temperatures of winter. But I never stopped dancing," she said. Her unwavering love and dedication for Ainu dance and songs, passed down by her mother, was further passed down to the newer generation by her.

Miyachan shared stories about her childhood when only four Ainu people lived in the Lake Akan hot spring area without electricity or pipe water. Through her stories of crafting clothing from elm tree barks, footwear from salmon skins, and homes from reed straws and logs, I learned about the ingenuity of her ancestors.

In the afternoon, the same space that Miyachan had danced in became a classroom for Ainu embroidery, guided by the skilled artisan Kayoko Nishida. As she demonstrated the intricate thorn and spiral patterns, each symbolising protection from evil, I marvelled at the artistic prowess of Ainu women. At 78, Kayoko San had a perfect 6/6 vision, proving that age is just a number when your lifestyle is based on sustainability and respect for nature.

In the evening, I was introduced to the “Mukkuri,” a type of mouth harp, and Ainu traditional dance. These dances are used to express gratitude to the gods and celebrate life's joys and sorrows.

Through numerous interactions with Ainu women, I came to realise that in Ainu culture, despite historical patriarchal norms, women have been the silent pillars upholding their traditions and cultural heritage. These interactions unveiled the pivotal roles women have played in preserving Ainu customs, from passing down traditional dances to mastering intricate embroidery techniques.

Archana Singh is a travel content creator on Instagram (@travelseewrite) and a blogger.

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