With Japan being such a homogenous country, many visitors don’t realize outlying islands Okinawa and Hokkaido have their own indigenous ethnology. The Ainu, indigenous hunter-gatherers of Hokkaido, in particular, have been fighting to maintain their cultural identity for ages.
When Japan colonized the mountainous, frozen island off the mainland’s northern shores in 1869, the Ainu were forced to assimilate. Like most colonized civilizations, they have been met with a lack of acknowledgment and disrespect. They weren’t even recognized as Japan’s original inhabitants until April of 2019 when a bill was passed banning discrimination against them.
Japan has been criticized for failing to apologize for the mistreatment of the Ainu. When Japanese authorities uphold their unapologetic stance by claiming “an apology would be uncomfortable for many Japanese,” the criticism is more than warranted.
Fortunately, efforts to maintain the culture by the local people still prevail. Visitors to Hokkaido can learn more about the Ainu by exploring the Kamikawa Region where their traditions and way of life still thrive.
Kamikawa is Ainu country
Surrounded by the Daisetsuzan Mountains in the heart of Hokkaido, lies the Kamikawa Region, where many Ainu descendants still live. The area and culture itself are celebrated as “Japan Heritage.” Flowing rivers, quiet streets, and towns in Kamikawa are still graced with Ainu names.
Seeing this ritual in person is like opening a history book and watching the ancestors dance across the page.
The entire Daisetsuzan area is a protected national park with the Ishikari River historically being a source of food, transport, and communication for local villages. Until around 150 years ago, Ainu lived in settlements along this river. Fierce currents carved a gorge out of the rocks through an unspoiled forest, creating the ideal terrain for life at the river basin.
During autumn, red and orange leaves paint the Sounkyo Gorge in vibrant colors in a scene straight from a nature storybook. Sounkyo means “river of many waterfalls” in the Ainu language.
This is “The Playground of the Gods,” or Kamuy Mintara for the Ainu, with Mount Asahidake as its centerpiece. Asahidake is Hokkaido’s highest peak at 2,291 meters tall. One ride up the Asahidake Ropeway with breathtaking 360-degree views of the mountains, and you’ll instantly understand why it’s worthy of such a title.
Gods dwell in the rare animal species and alpine plants that flourish here. Often compared to the Native Americans of the United States, Ainu spirituality teaches that kamuy (deities) lie in nature.
See Ainu performances and art for yourself
Every year in September, local Ainu gather near the Ishikari River to pray for good health in the Kamuynomi ritual. Sitting opposite each other across an open fire, participants make offerings to the mountain and river gods. Since, historically, the Kamikawa settlements were largely centered around trading and fishing along the river, prayers were typically for safe travels.
Women perform a traditional dance, and sacred wood-shaving sticks called inau are thrown into the river. Seeing this ritual in person is like opening a history book and watching the ancestors dance across the page. However, I’d like to stress that those who are graced with the chance to witness these hallowed traditions should do so respectfully.
Another staple in Ainu life you can still find in Hokkaido is woodcarving. After having to abandon their barter system and use Japanese yen to pay for goods post-colonization, they started selling these carvings to make money.
Often, the Ainu are referred to as ‘vanishing people,’ but that terminology is rooted in their systematic erasure.
Brown bears are a common motif in Ainu woodcrafts as these majestic beasts are considered deities. Being passed down from a long line of generations has kept this handicraft alive. These days, brown bears and other animal carvings are a relatively popular Hokkaido souvenir.
Learn more about Ainu history
Learning the history of Hokkaido’s original people from the eyes of the Ainu themselves is important. For that, you can stop in at the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Memorial Hall, which was founded by the Ainu community in 1916.
Try your hand at Ainu embroidery or musical instrument making. At the Asahikawa City Museum, recreations of traditional villages give us a glimpse into what it was like to trade goods across the river. Photographic records give further insight into how the Ainu once lived.
Often, the Ainu are referred to as “vanishing people,” but that terminology is rooted in their systematic erasure. With the preservation of these cultural properties, and efforts to reclaim their heritage with pride, the Ainu are not going anywhere.
As an outsider to this community, I’m far from being an authority on Ainu life and customs. However, Japan’s indigenous people are an important facet of the country’s history and deserve your attention.
While Hokkaido continues to be a destination coveted for buttery ramen, snow festivals, and ski resorts, this history lies underneath, grounding the prefecture like tree roots. If you ever get the chance to visit Hokkaido, step outside its parks and gardens, into its rugged terrain and uncover its true nature.
This article was sponsored by the Japan Agency for Cultural Affairs.