Biratori town is a small town in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. The town is located about 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of the main hub of Hokkaido, Sapporo. The town is nested in the river valley of the Saru River and its tributaries. The Saru River is a sacred river for the indigenous Ainu people, who have lived in Hokkaido for ages. Biratori still has the largest Ainu population in whole Hokkaido and it has become one of the centers to revitalize the Ainu culture and language.
When you visit Biratori, you can gain insight into the Ainu’s way of living, their customs, and their profound bond with nature. As you wander around Biratori, you will see the Ainu culture’s impact in every part of the town. The buildings’ architectural design, the local shops’ traditional crafts, and the artwork showcase the motifs associated with Ainu culture. This is not just a tourist attraction, but a community that is striving to revitalize their culture and language.
I’ve been living in Sapporo—the capital of Hokkaido—for about 8 years, but I just moved houses and now live in Biratori, so I thought it’s a good idea to introduce my new hometown to our readers. In this blog post, you can read about Biratori town and the Ainu culture and how to include unique cultural experiences about the Ainu culture in your Hokkaido travel itinerary.
If you want to learn more about the Hidaka area, in which Biratori town is located, you probably find our earlier blog posts The Hidaka area: Majestic Mountains and Untamed Rivers and The Hidaka Area: The Cradle of Thoroughbred Racehorses in Japan useful.
The basics of Biratori town
The town of Biratori (平取町) is located in southeastern Hokkaido, in the Hidaka subprefecture, a region known for its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage. The town’s shape is elongated and it follows the stream of the Saru River (沙流川) and some of its tributaries in the river valleys. The main river—The Saru River—and its largest tributaries—the Nukibetsu River (貫気別川) and the Nukabira River (額平川)—flow down from the vast Hidaka mountain range to reach the coast and the Pacific Ocean. The rivers are surrounded by magnificent mountains with the main peaks being Mt. Poroshiri (Poroshiridake/幌尻岳) (2053 m), Mt. Tottabetsu (Tottabetsudake/戸蔦別岳 (1959 m), Mt. Nukabira (Nukabirayama/糠平山) (1350 m), Mt. Nukibetsu (Nukibetsuyama/貫気別山) (1318 m), and Mt. Ribira (Ribirayama/リビラ山) (1291 m).
Biratori is a town that boasts various industries such as agriculture, livestock raising, and tourism. It is particularly well-known for its tomato production, especially the Nispa’s lover variety (locally called Nispa no koibito/ニㇱパの恋人), named after the Ainu word nispa for ’gentleman’ or ’wealthy person’. Additionally, Biratori is also renowned for its Biratori black pork and Biratori wagyu beef. The town is part of the larger Hidaka area, which is Japan’s foremost breeder of thoroughbred racehorses. There are also numerous horse farms in Biratori. The town is home to many famous Ainu artisans, particularly noted for their exquisite wood carvings and traditional Ainu cloth, woven with tree bark fiber. The Nibutani ita (carved wooden trays) and the Nibutani attus (tree bark textile) are the first items in Hokkaido designated as Traditional Craft Industries by the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. The town’s population is around 4,600 (as of summer 2023), with a decline similar to that of many other rural towns in Hokkaido.
Biratori may be small in size, but it boasts a rich history and culture, especially when it comes to its Ainu heritage. The Ainu are an Indigenous People, who have historically lived in the areas currently occupied by Japan and Russia. Traditionally, the Ainu lived in a region that encompassed the northern parts of Honshu—Japan’s main island—as well as Hokkaido, southern Sakhalin, the Kurile islands, and the southern tip of the Kamchatka peninsula. Hokkaido is originally known as Yaunmosir in the Ainu language.
Biratori is a place where the Ainu people have lived for a long time, so it’s only natural that the town’s name, like 80% of other place names in Hokkaido, comes from the Ainu language. The Ainu name for the town is pira utur, which means ’between the cliffs’. This refers to the location where the Saru River flows between steep cliffs. Most of the villages within Biratori also have Ainu names. For instance, the famous Nibutani (二風谷) village is originally known as nip ta i, which means ’a place where sword hilts are made’ in English. It was named after a skilled Ainu craftsman. The village I reside in, Shiunkotsu (紫雲古津), comes from sum un kot in Ainu, which means ’a depression in the east.’
Ainu culture and early tourism in Biratori
The Ainu have lived along the Saru River and in the Biratori area for thousands of years. Until the late 19th century, the Ainu were mainly hunter-gatherers and their traditional occupations included deer and bear hunting, salmon fishing, small-scale farming, tree bark cloth weaving, embroidery, and wood carving. When Japan colonized the Ainu lands and started to regulate hunting and fishing and even Ainu cultural traditions by the law (forbidding for example women’s lip and hand tattoos, men’s earrings, and the habit of burning down the house when the owner of the house deceased), the Ainu were forced to abandon their traditional ways of the living and societal system and to assimilate to the Japanese society. This happened also in Biratori. However, since there has always been numerous Ainu living in the area, it has been easier to preserve the Ainu culture and the language in Biratori than in the areas with less dense Ainu populations.
The vibrant Ainu culture of the Saru River valley and Biratori has intrigued both Japanese and foreign visitors since the 19th century. There were many Ainu living in the area and it was reasonably conveniently located in the times when the road network of Hokkaido was only about to be developed. You can still attest to the fame of Biratori and Saru region, for example, in the Ainu Conversational Dictionary (アイヌ語會話字典), published in 1898. The dictionary is aimed at Japanese travelers to Hokkaido, and it has many phrases mentioning Saru. You can find for instance phrases such as ‘hempara Saru otta sirepa=an ruwe an?’ (When do we arrive at Saru?), ‘tan ru kari paye=an kor Saru ta paye=an ruwe he an?’ (If we take this road, do we get to Saru?), and ‘Saru wano Satporo pakno hempak iciri an ruwe he an?’ (How many miles it is from Saru to Sapporo?).
Some of the early visitors to Biratori are still famous. One of them, Isabella Bird—a British explorer and writer—visited Japan in 1877, in particular a visit to Hokkaido and Biratori in mind. She described her travels in her book ’Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’ published in 1880, of which a large portion describes her interaction with the Ainu. Other famous foreigners associated with Biratori are physician and anthropologist Neil Gordon Munro (1863–1942), who lived in Nibutani village in Biratori for over 20 years, and missionary John Batchelor (1855–1944), who lived mainly in Hakodate and later Sapporo but stayed also in Biratori. What comes to famous Japanese visitors, linguist Kindaichi Kyosuke (金田一 京助) is probably one of the most well-known of them. Many of the visitors were Ainu supporters and advocates criticizing the cruel treatment of the Ainu by the Japanese. Especially John Batchelor was very outspoken in his criticism.
There has always been some criticism surrounding the commercialization of Ainu culture for profit. However, there is now a more authentic approach to revitalizing and preserving their rich cultural heritage—one that is led by the community itself. This new way forward involves artisans and knowledge-bearers from within the Ainu community taking on crucial roles in these efforts. In terms of tourism, it’s true that there can be a risk of “selling” culture purely for monetary gain. But when done respectfully and accurately, with input from the community themselves, it can actually result in a more meaningful portrayal of their traditions.
Revitalizing the Ainu culture and language in Biratori
One of the major turn points of the forced assimilation of Ainu and Ainu culture decline was the case of Nibutani Dam construction. The Hokkaido government decided to build a dam on the Saru River in Nibutani village. They didn’t, however, consider the impact of their plans on the local environment and the Ainu culture. So, when the government offered to buy the lands that would be flooded by the dam lake after the building would be completed, two of the Ainu landowners refused to sell. However, their lands were expropriated and the building of the dam was finished in 1996 anyway. As a response, the two Ainu sued the government. They won the case in Sapporo supreme court in 1997 and even though the dam was already built, the court decision was the beginning of the Japanese government acknowledging Ainu as an indigenous people of Japan and their right to preserve, practice, and develop their culture. Now the area around the Saru River (“Cultural Landscape along the Saru River resulting from Ainu Tradition and Modern Settlement”) has been designated as an Important Cultural Landscape by the Agency for Cultural Affairs.
One of the Ainu suing the government was Shigeru Kayano (萱野茂), an Ainu leader and the first Ainu to be a member of the Japanese Diet, who was also an activist and advocate to revitalize Ainu culture and language. He collected a huge amount of traditional Ainu artifacts and put them on display in Kayano Shigeru Nibutani Ainu Museum (an outbound link), recorded numerous old stories in the Ainu language recited by the elders (an outbound link), started Ainu language magazine Ainu times (an outbound link, in Japanese only), and Ainu radio channel FM Pipausi (an outbound link, in Japanese only). His tremendous effort preserved a lot of Ainu culture for the generations to come and has built a strong basis for the Ainu culture and language revitalization that is continuing today.
The 1997 litigation was a start for the official recognition of the Ainu as an indigenous people. The same year the old assimilatory legislation was replaced with an updated Ainu cultural promotion act. The Japanese government further recognized Ainu as an Indigenous People in 2008 and legislation stating the same thing was passed in 2019.
Now there are several initiatives going on in Biratori to pass the traditional Ainu knowledge to the young Ainu and to revitalize the Ainu language, too. Especially the Nibutani village (an outbound link) has become a center for Ainu culture revitalization with several newly built facilities (such as Biratori Ainu Crafts and Heritage Center Urespa (an outbound link), Biratori Town Ainu Culture Center, and Iwor Cultural Exchange Center) to practice traditional handicrafts and to learn about the Ainu culture and language. You can learn more about these initiatives and many other things from the lengthy (about 28 minutes) video below.
If you want to read more about Ainu in other areas in Hokkaido, we have some earlier blog posts you might find interesting. Take a look for example at Hokkaido: Home to the Indigenous Ainu People and their Ancestors for over 10,000 Years, The Teshikaga Area: Sustainable Traveling and Ainu Culture, or Shiraoi: The Town of the Ainu.
How to learn about and experience the Ainu culture in Biratori?
There are several ways the visitors to Biratori can learn about the Ainu culture and personally experience some of the culturally significant traditions. The best places to learn about the Ainu culture, history, and crafts are the museums in the town: Nibutani Ainu culture museum (an outbound link) and the aforementioned Kayano Shigeru Nibutani Ainu Museum. These museums display a wide array of Ainu folk art (mingei/民芸), some of which are old originals and some of which are replicas meticulously reproduced by contemporary artisans.
If you want to try your hand at the Ainu crafts, there are also handicraft workshops to experience the craft-making firsthand. An Ainu craft made by you is also a unique souvenir! There are workshops for example for wood-carving and mukkuri crafting (mukkuri is an Ainu mouth harp made of bamboo), dance classes, etc. Another great way is to participate in one of the local events that celebrate the Ainu culture. The most well-known of these events is the Cipsanke (チㇷ゚サンンケ) festival in mid-August. Cipsanke means launching of a dugout and part of the event is indeed taking a dugout canoe ride down the Saru River. There are also smaller events, for example, music festivals, but these are arranged irregularly. If you are interested in taking part in an Ainu culture event in Biratori, you can always contact us and ask if there is something going on.
If you are looking for a travel destination that offers an opportunity to explore the local culture, appreciate the beautiful nature of Hokkaido, and support the Ainu people’s endeavors, then a trip to Biratori is a perfect choice. Immerse yourself in the fascinating cultural heritage of the Ainu by visiting the Biratori Town Ainu Culture Center and the museums in Nibutani village in Biratori. Here, you can gain insights into traditional Ainu customs and lifestyle while participating in engaging workshops on various artistic crafts including textile weaving, wood carving, and embroidery. You can even try your hand at these traditional arts! If this kind of authentic travel experience piques your interest, Biratori is definitely worth considering. Feel free to reach out to us using our ‘contact us’ button below for further information to help plan your trip.