​Hokkaido: Home to the Indigenous Ainu People and their Ancestors for over 10,000 Years



My name is Hiroshi Yamato and I am the vice president of Hokkaido Treasure Island Travel Inc. and head of the travel department. I am a Wajin born in Kushiro City, located in the Eastern Hokkaido. In this article we will introduce the Ainu culture, which is deeply related to the history of Hokkaido.

 Wajin (和人) are descendants of people who migrated from mainland China to the Japanese archipelago 2,300 years ago. From the perspective of the Ainu people, who are descendants of the people living in the Japanese islands for over 10,000 years, I am a newcomer to Japan. The Wajin were born in Japan—a country with an emperor as the leader—and have longer than 2,000 years of history based on mythology. From a foreigner’s point of view, Wajin are the ones generally considered to be the Japanese people.

The long history of humans in the Japanese archipelago

 The history of Japanese islands, however, goes much longer back in time. Our ancestors, the Homo Sapiens, came to Hokkaido during the Ice Age about 20,000 years ago, following the mammoths. And traces of the use of earthenware (clayware) and cooking fish 14,000 years before the end of the Ice Age have been found in Hokkaido. Archaeologists have found that this is one of the world’s oldest earthenware made by humans. What does the discovery of that heavy earthenware mean? It means that people at that time settled, cooked and lived in the area. Nomadic people can’t live a nomadic life carrying heavy earthenware.

 In general, it is said that in the earth’s history, agriculture and cattle breeding began in Western Asia about 10,000 years ago. From this period, humans shifted from the era of hunting to agropastoralism, resulting in the emergence of settled settlements and the appearance of earthenware. Agriculture and stock-farming gradually spread from West Asia to the rest of the world and were introduced to China 5,000 years ago during the Neolithic Age. Long before that, people in Hokkaido, Japan, were already living and cooking with earthenware. What is more, agriculture and stockbreeding were not practiced. They were people settled in a lifestyle centered on hunting and gathering, a style of living rarely seen in other parts of the world.

 All over Hokkaido, people were blessed with the ability to obtain food throughout the year within walking distance from the land they settled in. Even more surprisingly, there have been no conflicts over land or food in Hokkaido for more than 10,000 years. The evidence for this is that no bones excavated to date have been found with cuts or damage. In other words, Hokkaido was an earthly paradise where peace lasted for more than 10,000 years. It was not a peaceful state ruled by someone. We must not forget that conflict began with the establishment of the nation-state. It is here in Hokkaido that we can review the history of mankind before that time.

The Jomon people and their rope-patterned earthenware

 The age of earthenware usage continued for nearly 10,000 years until the introduction of ironware. Earthenware was decorated with rope patterns on its surface throughout this period. Because of this characteristic, the people of this period are called Jomon (縄文), the ‘rope pattern’ people.

 There must have been a reason for the rope patterns to be pressed on the earthenware used to store and cook food. A leading theory is that the ancients thought that the most vital creature in nature was the snake, and they superimposed the male and female forms of the snake intertwined with the rope. The history of this rope has been transformed into the shimenawa (しめ縄), a decorative item that is still an essential part of Japanese events—for example, New Year—and can be seen at any Shinto shrine you visit in Japan.

 If you come to Hokkaido, you can meet the descendants of the Jomon people. They are the Ainu.

Ainu: The indigenous people of Hokkaido and Japan

 The word ‘Ainu’ means ‘human being’. Ainu people are descendants of the Jomon people who have lived in Hokkaido for over 14,000 years.

 The Ainu’s staple diet consisted of venison, bear meat, salmon and other river fish, shellfish, wild vegetables, and nuts. They made clothes from tree bark and salmon skin and built houses from natural plants and trees. Of course, today the Ainu live in Japan as Japanese people, in living conditions that are no different from those of the Wajin. There are at least 20,000 Ainu in Japan today, most of whom live in Hokkaido.

 The spiritual culture of the Ainu is connected in many ways to the present Japanese spirituality. There is a land of gods in the heavens, and those who dwell there come down in various forms to this world with a mission. All things that affect human life, including humans, natural phenomena, animals, plants, and the tools we use, are named kamuy (gods). Even illnesses and disasters are welcomed as kamuy and they coexist with human beings, based on the belief that things that do not serve a purpose, do not come down from the land of gods. After serving their role, kamuy return to the heavenly realm and tell stories about the human world to the other heavenly deities. Different gods are sent down to the human world after hearing the stories. This philosophy of rotation is the Ainu view of life and death.

Showing gratitude to the spirits 

 Today’s Japanese have a similar sense of the dead as the Ainu. When people die, they feel that they have been ‘welcomed to the other world.’ During the Buddhist event Urabone (盂蘭盆会) in August, which Japanese people call the Obon festival (お盆), people in each household and community gather with their relatives to remember the deceased and to honor the spirits of their ancestors. It is believed that the souls of the dead travel back and forth between the other world (the heavenly world) and this world (the present world). Famous Obon events include Kyoto’s Gozan no Okuribi (五山の送り火) bonfire, Tokushima’s Awa Dance Festival Awaodori (阿波踊り), Nagasaki’s Spirit Boat Procession Shoro nagashi (精霊流し), and Okinawa’s Eisa (エイサー) dance.

 The Ainu people perform this ritual of thanksgiving to the gods in heaven many times throughout the year. The god of fire plays an important role in the communication between the humans and the gods. The rituals are called kamuynomi. The Ainu are always conscious of reporting to and thanking the gods in their daily lives, whether they wish for good catches, hunting safety, want to inform the gods about weddings and funerals, or send their used tools back to the land of the gods.

 For example, Hokkaido receives 300 million tons of snow during the winter. When the long winter is over and the snow melts, many plants begin to sprout all at once in the mountains. Going into the mountains to gather these plants is an essential event for the Ainu. The Ainu make maximal use of mountain plants as food, medicine, and poison to use in hunting. Before entering the mountains, the Ainu always perform the kamuynomi ceremony. They address the mountain: “Dear god of the mountain, my name is so-and-so. I am about to enter your land and I ask you to share the plants of the mountain with me. I will never take more plants than I need. I will not pollute your land. As long as I am on your land, please protect me.”

Experience the Ainu culture in Hokkaido

 The Ainu thought that one should not leave behind anything tangible, and they passed on their culture orally. At one time, they almost lost their culture due to ethnic discrimination and forced assimilation by the Japanese government, but now the government is also making efforts to preserve their traditions. However, the number of elders who remember the old culture and customs is dwindling, and measures are urgently needed.

 There are several places in Hokkaido where visitors can learn about Ainu culture. Here is an introduction to some of them.

Ainu Kotan at Lake Akan

Ainu Kotan (アイヌコタン) (an outbound link) at Lake Akan (阿寒湖) is the most well-known tourist attraction for visitors to Hokkaido. The name Akan comes from the Ainu language, just like about 80% of all the place names in Hokkaido. The origin of the name Akan has several different explanations: the name comes from akam ‘cart wheel,’ because the mountains Oakan and Meakan rise like to wheels; or the name comes from rakan ‘egg-laying of Japanese dace’, because it is a place where the fish lay their eggs, or the name means ‘doesn’t move’, because the Mt. Okan didin’t move even during the harshest earthquakes. Kotan means ‘village’ in the Ainu language.

 The Maeda family—landowners who own land on the shores of Lake Akan—have donated the land to maintain and develop Ainu culture. There is a theater, a folk craft shopping area, a museum, experience tours, and events such as marimo algae ball and torchlight processions.

 There are also many large hotels, and the area is popular among Japanese as a hot spring resort. It is an area where visitors can easily come into contact with Ainu culture. If you want to know more about Akan, why don’t you read also our earlier blog column Akan-Mashu National Park: Hot springs and caldera lakes, too?

Upopoiy in Shiraoi

Upopoiy (ウポポイ) (an outbound link) in Shiraoi town (白老町) is a symbolic space for ethnic harmony financed by the Japanese government. It is a popular spot for Japanese high school students on educational tours. The main attractions include the National Ainu Museum, a recreation of a traditional Ainu village, and an Ainu show in a theater. Ainu youth play an active role in the facility.

 The name Shiraoi also comes from the Ainu language. The most common explanation for the name is that it comes from siraw o i, that is, ‘a place where there are a lot of horseflies.’ For more detailed information about Shiraoi, take a look at our earlier blog column Shiraoi: The town of the Ainu and for a staff experience blog column see On the traces of the past in Noboribetsu Onsen and Shiraoi.

Nibutani village in Biratori town

 In Nibutani village (二風谷集落) of Biratori town (平取町), the population is predominantly Ainu. Both the name of the village and the town come from the Ainu language. Nibutani is said to come from nip ta i, which means a place to make sword handles or hilts. There used to be skilled Ainu craftsmen who made the said hilts. Biratori comes from Ainu pira utur, which means ‘between the cliffs’. This refers to the cliffs at the middle reaches of the River Saru that flows through both Nibutani village and Biratori town.

 The area offers many opportunities to come into contac​​t with traditional Ainu crafts. In particular, Nibutani attus (a textile made from tree bark) and Nibutani ita (a plate or tray carved with Ainu patterns) (outbound links) are representative of Hokkaido’s crafts. It is in Nibutani where you can meet craftspeople who are over 80 years old.

 In addition, the entire town is working to revitalize the Ainu language. There is only one hotel operating in the town, but we hope you will take the time to stay and get a feel for the village. Nibutani is a rare place where visitors can experience the daily life of the Ainu people. 150 years ago, an English adventurer, Isabella Bird, visited Nibutani and interacted with the Ainu people, describing it as a beautiful village.

 You can read more about the area around Biratori and Nibutani in our earlier blog column The Hidaka Area: Majestic Mountains and Untamed Rivers.

Teshikaga Town Kotan

 If you want to feel the Ainu’s creative power of food and art, Teshikaga Town Kotan (弟子屈町コタン) is the place to go. The name of Teshikaga is in Ainu language tes ka ka, and the name literally means ‘above the fish trap’ in English. In this case the fish trap is not a real fish trap but a rock formation at the bottom of the River Kushiro that looks like a fish trap.

Marukibune (丸木舟) is the only inn in Japan and Hokkaido that serves full-course Ainu cuisine. The Ainu have long known how to cook enjoyable meals with the plants and animals found in nature around them. For example, the most delicious venison comes from a doe that is caught before mating in September. Furthermore, the Ainu remember the old Ainu traditions about where to catch deer and how to process the meat, and they used this knowledge to prepare their dishes.

 With Lake Kussharo (屈斜路湖)—the largest caldera lake in Japan—right next to the Kotan, you can also enjoy fish dishes that are prepared using Ainu knowledge. After the meal, you can enjoy a great show of creative music based on Ainu classical music, garnished with modern versions of Ainu dances.

 Marukibune’s owner, Atuy, is an elder of the Ainu people. He is a musician and philosopher. If you want to know more about the spiritual world of the Ainu, I recommend meeting him.  If you are interested in learning about the wisdom of the Ainu of old, such as “how we should face nature as human beings” or “what is the role of human beings on the earth,” he will be happy to talk with you.

As this column is being written, we are a group of professionals providing travel services in the region of Hokkaido, Japan. Our company offers several tours where you can learn about the Ainu and their culture. If you would like to add such a tour in your travel itinerary, contact us.