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The Ainu: Before the Rising Sun
By Roderick Eime
24 March 2015

“One hundred thousand years before the Children of the Sun walked this land, the Ainu lived here.” So says the ancient Yukar Upopo (hero legend) of the Ainu. Roderick Eime travelled to Hokkaido in northern Japan to hear their story.

One of the most rewarding and exhilarating experiences still possible in this era of instant gratification, synthetic theme parks and virtual existence is to delve into strange and foreign cultures as we travel the Earth. Indigenous cultures and unique dialects are disappearing almost daily despite the growing worldwide respect for these precious anthropological artefacts. Amazon Indians, Australian Aborigines, Melanesian islanders and many Asian ethnic groups are struggling to retain their disintegrating heritage on this globalised planet.

Today, many committed and conscientious travellers urgently seek out these struggling cultures in an attempt to learn and understand a little of our vanishing world before it’s too late. As these modern explorers set off to mix with the famous Masai of Kenya or the serene hill tribes of Thailand and Vietnam, one race is all but overlooked - even in their own land. The Ainu, a once hardy and self-reliant people from the northern island of Hokkaido in Japan, are living the twilight of their existence.

Young Ainu Woman in
late 19th Century
For centuries, anthropologists and scientists argued the origins of the Ainu and it wasn’t until modern DNA techniques were available that definitive results could be reached. The Ainu are now believed to have originated from the Russian Far East and Mongolia, although their genetic strains are as widespread as North America and Tibet.

Essentially a hunting, fishing and gathering people, the Ainu have strong spiritual beliefs that include the worship of many gods, particularly those representing the most important elements of the Earth and those providing for their daily struggle. They have a deep respect for the wild bear, even though they hunt the beast in a brutal, ritualised ordeal called ‘iyomante’. The poor animal is considered a god and the act of killing it is believed to return its spirit to heaven.

Beginning in the mid-15th century, the racially and culturally foreign Japanese from Honshu moved north and began usurping the Ainu’s land and oppressing the people until, at the onset of the 20th century, precious little remained of the Ainu culture as it was consumed and assimilated into that of the dominant Japanese. In 1993, the Ainu launched a famous last ditch effort to retain what was left of their land and heritage. A lawsuit against the Japanese was begun in an attempt to stop them damming the Saru River and submerging their last traditional town, Nibutani. Despite the outcry, the Ainu lost.

Today the most visible remnant of the Ainu culture is the expansive cultural museum in the town of Shiraoi, about 50 kilometres south of the capital Sapporo. Visitors are treated to re-enactments of traditional dances and songs by performers in authentic costume. Those who have witnessed similar cultural displays in the Inuit territories of Chukotka (Russia), Alaska and British Columbia will immediately see the ethnic crossover.

The most unusual musical instrument is a mukkuri, a mouth harp made of wood and sounding for the world like our own Jew’s Harp. The tonkori is a long flat stringed instrument with a fretless soundboard that produces eerie tones and spine-tingling chords. Combine this with the mesmerising chants of the vocal arrangements in an upopo (group choir) and you have a musical discovery that will echo in your head for at least the rest of the afternoon.

In a clearing near the lake, a traditional Ainu boat is being painstakingly hand-built from local timber by curator, Masahiro Nomoto.

“The Ainu were important seafarers up until the 17th Century trading with all the neighbouring lands,” I’m told in respectable English, “but the Japanese stopped that after they arrived.”

When finished, this elegant craft will be launched in a chipsanke (ceremony), blessing and empowering it with the skill to lead fishermen to the best salmon. Nomoto’s handiwork is world famous and even appears in the Smithsonian Museum.

Apart from the exciting performances and demonstrations, visitors can wander through an authentically recreated grass, bamboo and bark kotan (village), tour the history museum or buy unusual mementos like dried whole salmon, tamasai (jewellery) and stunning tribal t-shirts.

Proud Ainu guides will escort the tours and cheerfully relate the secrets of their people and intricate ceremonies. Poignant 19th century photographs hang on the walls, showing clearly a handsome, defiant and distinct race of people still quietly resisting the Japanese occupation. Look into the eyes of the few remaining young Ainu and you’ll see the fiercely independent spirit still burning deep inside.


The Ainu Museum is located in the town of Siraoi on the Northern island of Hokkaido. THAI flies to Sapporo (SPK) then easy train link to Siraoi. The museum is approximately one kilometre (15 mins) flat walk from Siraoi station.

Website: www.ainu-museum.or.jp

For the regular tourist, Hokkaido is famed for its winter sports, particularly skiing. The mountains of Hokkaido have some the most reliable snow in the world. But plenty happens in the warmer months too.

The dramatic scenery and landscapes are postcard perfect and play host to trekkers, kayakers, climbers, rafters and mountain bikers who revel in the off-season, snow-free forests.

The Niseko Adventure Centre (NAC) has a smorgasbord of mild and wild activities to entertain and exhilarate visitors for all ages for days on end. Their adrenalin catalogue reads like a how-to manual for the modern adventurer. Take the kids and let them learn the finer points of indoor rock climbing, river rafting or orienteering. There’s even a stag beetle search for those not afraid of the creepy-crawlies.

Website: www.nac-web.com

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