Cruising the Sea of Okhotsk

It was the day of our cruise on the sea of Okhotsk. We had booked the Aurora Ice Breaker cruise months in advance and we were looking forward to a ride among the famous ice drifts (流氷, Ryūhyō) of Abashiri.

The drift ice cruise starts at 9.30 am in the morning. We got up early and walked down to the harbor. The footpaths were covered in snow and extremely slippery at places. We walked slowly and carefully. As we walked, we talked about the interesting stories we came to know about the Ainu people of Hokkaido at the Museum, the day before. On the way, we passed a very peaceful Abashiri river. The river had a thin layer of ice over the water.

As we neared the harbor, the ice thickened forming rounded circles of ice like lotus leaves in a lake.

Each year ice forms near the mouth of the Amur River in Russia. From there it drifts southward aided by the currents until it eventually rolls onto the coast of northern Hokkaido. The sea ice typically reaches Abashiri in mid to late January and is said to clear up by mid April. Unfortunately due to rapidly changing climate, we were informed at the ticket counter that there would be no ice drifts on the day.

The ice was supposed to stay till mid April, but global warming has changed everything so much around the northern parts of Japan. Lucky for us, we did see some drift ice floating by on the Okhotsk, as we rode into Abashiri, the day before.

Drift ice is symbolic of winter in Abashiri and the Okhotsk region. This natural phenomenon has had a tremendous influence on the local culture and the drift ice is represented in various forms of chocolates, candies and ice-creams. They even celebrate a drift ice festival each year. While drift ice can be observed along the entire Sea of Okhotsk coast from Wakkanai to the Shiretoko Peninsula, it gets thickest around Abashiri.

Anyways, they offered us a discounted cruise into the bay. We went up to the deck on the Aurora. The 1st and 2nd floor rooms have seating arrangements. On the lower decks, people can relax at the lounge in front of huge windows to experience the beautiful Okhotsk. The lounge has interior heating to keep you warm. It also features a nice cafe. For us it was the observation deck at the top from where we could feel the thrill of the cruise.

We slowly moved out of the harbor and into the open sea. We passed many small lighthouses along the way. The wind picked up as we went further out to sea.On the boat, the captain provided us with some nice music. 

The seagulls followed us like they were bidding us farewell. The went with the boat all the way until it turned around.

We were lucky to have a beautiful sunny day and thoroughly enjoyed cruising the Abashiri Harbor. The sea was a darkened shade of blue. In the blue we could make out Cape Notoro in a distance.

Far out into the sea, a few small pieces of drift ice were still making their southward journey.

From time to time, flurries would hit our face, sharply. The wind was howling in my ears as we reached the point of return. I had to pull my hoodies over my ears to shield myself from the cold.

The Sea gulls welcomed us back as we neared the harbor.

We reached the shore at around noon. All the shops had opened and we shopped for some souvenirs. I got myself a Miko key chain and some Hokkaido Chocolates. We shared a “Drift Ice” special ice cream and then we were off to the station to catch the train to Asahikawa.

Even though we did have a good time, we missed the ice drifts. I would suggest going maybe a couple of weeks earlier. I did see some ice drifts as we were entering Abashiri. Apart from the cruise, the museums were also entertaining, so I would suggest staying behind for a couple of days. Thanks for reading my journal. If you have any questions, please leave me a comment.

Aurora Ice Breaker cruise timetable

Ships run daily between January 20th & April 3

Fare Charge

¥3,300 per head for adults

What if there is no drift ice?

Route switches to a pleasure cruise to the Cape of Notoro when there are no drift ice

Minimum passenger requirement

The Sunset Cruise may be cancelled if the minimum passenger count is not met, or if there are no drift ice to be seen. From March 15 onwards, the ship may not sail if at least 15 people have not made reservations by the day before.

When are the Sunset Cruise ships scheduled?

Sunset cruise timings are scheduled between 2/8~3/10 every Friday, Saturday & Sunday at 16:30

Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples

My initial interest in Abashiri was just to experience the Drift Ice phenomenon that occurs every winter along the coast. But as I went around northern Japan, my curiosity for the Ainu people grew with every trip.

My first foray into the world of Ainu took place at Lake Shikaribetsu. The Ainu are an indigenous ethnic group of people who live in Hokkaido in Japan as well as in Russian islands of Kuril and Sakhalin. My thirst for knowledge about this ancient culture grew stronger when I had another brush with it at Lake Akan where an entire village exists, recreating the ways of the Ainu. This village, known as Ainu Kotan is lined by souvenir shops specializing in Ainu handicrafts. The beautiful hand crafted souvenirs and their rich history left me yearning for more.

The town of Abashiri

Abashiri is situated on the northeastern coast of Hokkaido, facing the Sea of Okhotsk. Over the years, various historical sites have been discovered here providing evidence to the existence of human civilization since 16,000 years ago.

We had taken the 9.03 a.m. train from Kushiro to Abashiri. We were still using our Hokkaido JR Pass which allows for hassle-free travel across the prefecture of Hokkaido. The unending landscape was covered in snow, with no color except whites covering everything from fields and trees to houses.

In between, when the train would slow down, I noticed a few deer in the woods, staring at the train with curiosity. About two-thirds of the way, after a station called Shari, the train line went parallel to the Sea of Okhotsk and we saw some drift ice floating by in the ocean.

The train reached Abashiri at 11.58 a.m. We had prior reservations at the Hotel Route-Inn, just opposite to the JR station. The sidewalks were covered in slippery ice and we had to walk very carefully across the road to get to the hotel.

Most hotels in Japan don’t allow check-ins before 2 p.m. Since we still had some time for our check-in, we left our luggage at the lobby of the hotel and decided to visit the Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples.

The nearest bus stop was just a short walk away. Buses are scheduled at regular intervals and we didn’t have to wait long for one to arrive. The ride to the museum costs ¥400 per person. We passed a couple of other interesting places along the way – the Abashiri Prison and the Ice Museum, but we went directly to the Museum.

Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples

The bus dropped us off in front of the museum. The surrounding area was deserted and covered in snow, about 3 feet high. The walkway was cleared of the snow for brave tourists like us who dared to visit this place in spite of the overwhelming weather.

The entrance to the building is designed like a conical glass, similar to the traditional houses of the people in the northern regions. The admission tickets cost ¥550 per person.

With its rich assortment of exhibits, the museum introduces the culture and traditions of everyday life of the peoples inhabiting the northern, sub-arctic regions of the globe, including the Ainu, the Sami, the Inuit, and the aborigines of Canada and Siberia.

Earth is one, but the world is not. It was to share this very diversity that the museum opened on 10th February 1991 with the purpose of introducing the different cultures of northern people who inhabit the extreme northern regions of the world.

Although the museum tries to illustrate the differences and similarities between these different northern cultures, it focuses primarily on the Ainu way of life and one can learn a lot about the skills, tools, and culture of the Ainu people.

Along with a free booklet, they also provide an audio headset that explains to the visitors, in English, a short explanation of each exhibit. It was quite easy to follow as each exhibit was marked by a number and all I had to do was to select the respective numbered video in the app.

The entrance to the exhibit hall is kept dimmed to create a mystical atmosphere. A wooden Inuit face mask greets you as you enter the hall. The Inuit believed in animism: all living and non-living things have a spirit. This spirit called the inua exists in everything around us including people, animals, trees, lakes, and mountains.

According to the Inuit culture, when a spirit dies, it continues to live, albeit in the spirit world. Only a few have the power to converse with these spirits, they are called Shaman. The Shamans use masks, charms, and dances as a means to communicate with the spirit world. The mask represents a tuunraq, or shaman’s helping spirit, during these rituals.

The eerie-looking mask leads you into a dimly lit hallway that exhibits a flat globe converging over the northern landmass of Earth. Although the Museum touches on the history of various northern cultures, in this article I am going to try sticking to the timeline of just the Ainu people.

Ainu – the mysterious

The Ainu are “considered” to be the indigenous people of Japan, inhabiting the Northern islands of Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kuril. I use the word “considered” because ethnic Japanese, until recent times did not consider them as indigenous and raised questions on their very origins. It was only in 2009 that, the then Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama for the first time, as a representative of the State, clearly described the Ainu as indigenous people.

Most ancient cultures have their mysteries which have been lost over time. One of the most enduring mysteries that we barely understand comes from my own – the study of Astrology. Thousands of years ago, when mankind was not even sure whether Earth was round, sages existed in India, who knew about star constellations, the existence of the furthermost planets of our Solar system and even their ecliptic paths down to the details. How? That is a mystery to me as well.

The Ainu are Japan’s indigenous population, also known as Kyuudojin (aborigines) or Dojin (natives) in the colloquial language.

Even before the Ainu came along, the Japanese island of Hokkaido was inhabited by people who used to survive by fishing, hunting, and gathering. This period, referred to as the Jōmon period lasted over 14,000 years continuing up until around 300 BCE. It was immediately followed by the Zoku-Jōmon period (340 BC–700 CE), also referred to as the Epi-Jōmon period, which was mostly a continuation of the Jōmon culture in northern Tōhoku and Hokkaidō. You can find more information about this period in my journal about the recreated Jomon period village in Sannai-Maruyama in Aomori.

During the same time another culture from the Korean peninsula, called the Yayoi, were arriving in the Japanese mainland. One of the most prominent was Amenohiboko, a prince of Silla (Korea), who settled in Japan during the era of Emperor Suinin, around the 3rd or 4th century and was said to have lived in Tajima Province. They brought with them rice agriculture and merged with the Jomon people of the mainland laying the foundations of the Yamato period (250 CE–710 CE).

Back north in Hokkaido, far beyond the reaches of Yamato culture, the Epi-Jomon lifestyle continued till around the 7th century. During these years groups of people arrived in Hokkaido from the north, crossing the frozen Sea of Okhotsk from the islands we now call Kuril & Sakhalin. This amalgamation of cultures resulted in a gradual morphing of the local people into the Satsumon (700 CE-1200 CE) way of life, which is widely recognized as the pre-Ainu period.

Genealogical clues

Physically, the Ainu are much different from the average Japanese. They typically have a longer skull, heavy facial hair, and prominent Caucasian features. Their hair tends to be thick and wavy, and body hair is also more pronounced. Aside from the physical differences, the Ainu language is also quite unique, showing no relation to Japanese or any other Asian language. 

Genealogical research also suggests that the historical Ainu culture originated in a merger of the Okhotsk culture with the Satsumon. One of the biggest commonalities between the Ainu and the Satsumon was that both were partially agricultural and established near estuaries of rivers that were abundant in salmon and trout.

Of note, is that although the Ainu of Japan have traditionally considered descendants of the Jomon or post-Jomon Satsumon people, they have been found to carry the Y-chromosome showing a paternal lineage from North Asia including Nivkhi from Sakhalin and Koryaks in the Kamchatka Peninsula. Hence, the Ainu can be assumed to be related to the Nivkhi and the Koryaks. However, since it has been seen that the Nivkhi do not carry the same haplogroup D Y-chromosome, which has a dominant presence in the Ainu, the migration is understood to have occurred unidirectional, from the Northern regions into Hokkaido.

I hope the timeline of the Ainu was not overwhelming for you because we still have much to explore here in the museum. Most of the exhibits here are grouped and don’t necessarily belong to the Ainu cultures but of all cultures residing along the northern pole. I will try to single out those that are specific to the Ainu.

The ways of the Ainu

The Ainu lived in kotan, or “permanent villages,” comprised of several homes perched along banks of rivers where salmon could be found in abundance. Each kotan was headed by a male chief called Kotan Kor Kur. Although the chief had personal authority, for all major decisions he would confer with the community in a group discussion called an ukoramkor.

The houses would be set up at a variable distance from one another that could range from three hundred feet upwards, mainly to prevent fires. Inside the reed walls of each house (chise), a nuclear family cooked and gathered around a central hearth. The chise was rectangular in shape and consisted of one large room with and open rectangular hearth at its center.

At the eastern end of the house was a window (rorun purai), a sacred opening facing upstream, toward the mountains, the homeland of bears and the source of the salmon-rich river. The bear’s spirit could enter or exit through the window. Outside the window was an altar, also facing upstream, where people held bear ceremonies.

The Ainu had no writing system but memorized their history and legends in never-ending epic chant known as the Yukara.

Each kotan drew upon concentric zones of sustenance by manipulating the landscape: the river for fresh water and fishing, the banks for plant cultivation and gathering, river terraces for housing and plants, hillsides for hunting, the mountains for hunting and collecting elm bark for baskets and clothes.

We are now going to look at some of the utilities created by the people residing in the northern regions.


Farming played a relatively small role in the daily diet of the Ainu. The communities merging from the Okhotsk were mainly fishermen and they fed their families through fishing and whaling. In the figure below you can observe how they used animal bones for use in fishing.

One of the most interesting of these hunting items was the barbed harpoon. The harpoon called the chininiap, was primarily used to catch fishes. As you see in the image above, the spear has two heads and was fastened to a long pole about eight feet long using a string.

The heads of the spear were barbed and consisted of two parts – an iron point and a bone foundation. As soon as a fish was struck with this spear, the barbed part would come off the points of the pole, and the fish was secured using the strings attached to the spearhead.


As opposed to the migrants from Okhotsk, the traditional Ainu people mostly pursued a combination of hunting and gathering. The hunters pursued game on land with poisoned bows and arrows. They preferred to lay in wait or catch animals through clever traps. They fashioned lures to bring in deer or set their dogs to corral them in natural barriers.

The crude wooden self-bow in the image above is part of a spring-bow trap. The bow was placed on a stock with a trip string and armed with a poisonous arrow. The arrows have reed shafts with cherry-bark wrapping. The quiver was made of spliced elm bark wrapped with cherry bark, with a matching bark cap, and carved wooden wing sections on each side.

Poisoned bow traps set along game trails caught bears, deer, otters, foxes, rabbits, and raccoon dogs on Hokkaido. Their poisons were derived from the aconite plant. Each family had its own additional ingredients, including spider venom, tobacco, and other toxic plants. Only a few men learned these family recipes, and their secrets were closely guarded.

Religious beliefs of the Ainu

In a similar way to the Eskimos, the traditional Ainu belief, animals, plants, and objects are all the physical forms of a greater life force, or ramat. Kamuy deities are the source of this ramat. When an object breaks or a creature dies, its ramat returns to its kamuy to be born again. In this way, the historic Ainu saw animals like deer less as individual creatures and more as different manifestations of the same kamuy.

The kamuy was understood to give their forms freely to the Ainu as food, clothing, tools, medicine, and anything else they needed for survival. In exchange, the gods expected respect, prayers, and offerings in return. Inau, whittled willow sticks, acted as messengers to the kamuy, carrying prayers and offerings. Men carved them frequently, often several times per day, to give thanks to various kamuy. Hunters and fishermen offered inau to Hash-inau-uk Kamuy, goddess of the hunt and fishermen, and Rep-un Kamuy, god of the sea. After they had eaten an animal, including fish, Ainu hunters returned their bones to shrines called keyohniusi.

After hunting one of the most necessary equipment for the people of the northern region was the snow walking boots. If you have ever walked in fresh snow, you must know how difficult it is to create any pace. To gain an advantage over the natural predators they developed tools for walking and moving around in the snow as is displayed in the image below.

In the small map above, to the left of the display, you will find image markers, which assign each of the snow walking equipment to their respective regions. The Ainu used a wooden snow walking boot, which you will find at the bottom right of the display wall.

The northerners’ ancient culture persisted largely unchanged until the seventh century when the traditional Ainu way of life became more visible in the archaeological record on Hokkaido. With this new way of life also came tools like clay pots. Farming was part of the ancestral Ainu livelihood in southwestern Hokkaido as early as A.D. 700.

The Ainu, like their ancestors, shared their land with an important predator. The brown bears of Hokkaido. In the north, the lives of the Ainu and their ancestors were closely entwined with the bears.

In this region, the Bear played a very important part in the lives of the people. They used to adorn their dwellings with Bear skulls. This aspect of their lives had a big impact on the Ainu culture as they also enshrined bear skulls on altars while performing religious ceremonies. This is very evident if you visit the Ainu village near Lake Akan. Most of the souvenirs they sell are depictions of bears in different forms.

Bears were kindred spirits, and so strong was the connection between humans and bears, that it lasted across time and cultures. The people honored bear spirits through ritual for thousands of years, deliberately placing skulls and bones in pits for burial.


Sea mammal hunting began in the initial period of Jomon culture in Hokkaido. The bones were used to create totems in the images of the animals in the surrounding region.

The sculpture comes from the Moyoro Shell Mound, where the Okhotsk people lived some 1300 years ago. The site of the Moyoro Shell Mound is located at the mouth of the Abashiri River as it flows into the Sea of Okhotsk.

Here you can see another carving of bone creating a seal.

Decimation of the Ainu

The Wajin as the Ainu called the people from the mainland would often treat the Ainu as inferior. Because of the difference in physical appearance, it was easier to differentiate between them. To the Ainu, Hokkaido was their ancestral homeland – the “Ainu Mosir”, but to the slowly encroaching Yamato Japanese, it was Ezo – a foreign land of so-called “hairy barbarians.”

Hokkaido was then referred to as Ezo (蝦夷) by the people from Japanese mainland – a word made up of two kanji meanings “shrimp” and “barbarian.”

The first major skirmish between Ainu and Yamato broke out in 1457, known as Koshamain’s War. It started with a simple trade dispute regarding a sword, but the underlying resentment was enough to fan the fires into a full-blown blaze of violence. A Yamato blacksmith, enraged by an Ainu customer’s displeasure with the quality and price of the short sword he had ordered, plunged the same into his young customer.

Seeking revenge, Koshamain, an Ainu leader, led groups of infuriated Ainu to attack the fortified Yamato outposts on the Oshima peninsula and managed to defeat the Yamato defenders, sacking them and razing their outposts to the ground. In response to these events, the Matsumae clan was granted the area around Matsumae and southern parts of Hokkaidō as a march fief in 1590 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and charged with defending it from the Ainu “barbarians”.

A haunting peace prevailed thereafter between the sides until 1668 when an Ainu leader named Shakushain launched a war against the Yamato for their interference in local feuds. He gathered other clans to his cause, using anger at Yamato’s unfairness as a rallying cry. His army assaulted Yamato towns and took their ships at sea, killing as many as 400 Yamato people. The war became serious enough that the Tokugawa Shogun in distant Edo (Tokyo) was forced to send troops across the sea to assist the Matsumae clan in their battles against the Ainu.

The eventual outcome of the war was not hard to predict, for the major Ainu weapon was the poisoned arrow while the Wajin fought with firearms. After much loss of life among the Ainu and Wajin alike, Shakusain surrendered. But the Japan of yesteryear was not as peace-loving as today. In retaliation, the Matsumae soldiers slaughtered Shakusain and several other Ainu commanders. Not content with that, they also burned down his fortress.

The immediate outcome of the war was the enlargement of the Wajin domain in Ezo to include all of the Oshima Peninsula. Even leaders of Ainu groups that had not participated in the war were made to swear fealty. It was followed by coercive regulations that stunned the Ainu. They were no longer allowed to use metal or sharp-edged tools. They were also prohibited from raising crops or buying seeds. Many Wajin seasonal workers who came from Honshu for the fishing season temporarily took Ainu women and used them as slaves.

From the 15th century, waves of Japanese settlers began crowding out Ainu communities on Honshu island and pushing them northwards. The settlers also brought infectious diseases that caused Ainu populations to fall. Ainu land was redistributed to Japanese farmers. The Ainu call ethnic Japanese “Wajin”, a term that originated in China, or Shamo, meaning “colonizer.”

The first serious blow to Ainu sovereignty landed in the mid-1600s when a powerful samurai clan took control of Japanese settlements in southern Hokkaido.

By 1799 Edo had imposed direct rule in the eastern part of the island. Starting in 1802, they also started building Buddhist temples in Hokkaido. Meanwhile, Russian attention towards the Ainu worried Japanese officials, who were concerned about potential Ainu revolts. From 1855, Japanese settlers were officially allowed to move into the Ezochi lands previously reserved for the Ainu.

In 1868, the Ainu were officially incorporated into the Japanese nation. The incorporation of Hokkaido, which took place without negotiation with the Ainu, was in effect a colonization. During this colonization period, known as Kaitakushi, which lasted from 1869 to 1899, the Meiji government assumed direct administrative control over the Ainu and an official policy of assimilation was begun. It resulted in several pieces of legislation against the maintenance of Ainu customs, religious beliefs and language.

The government forced the Ainu into Japanese-speaking schools, changed their names, took their land, and radically altered their economy. They pushed the Ainu into wage labor, notably in the commercial herring fishery after Japanese farmers discovered fish meal was the perfect fertilizer for rice paddies.

To bring the land fully into modern Japan, the Meiji even decided to rename the island to separate it from the connotations of Ezo. Matsuura Takeshiro, a Wajin, who was highly revered even among the Ainu, submitted six potential names, including Kaihokudō and Hokkaidō. The government liked the sound of Hokkaido but preferred the kanji meanings of Kaihokudo, and rearranged the former to be read like the latter – thus Hokkaido (海北道, Northern Sea Route) was born.

Exhibits from other Northern Cultures

Many of the exhibits from the other northern cultures have been already shown in the page above. Some of the specifically interesting ones are mentioned below.

The First Nations people of the Northwest Coast are renowned for their elegantly engineered canoes. Ranging in length from three to twenty meters, canoes were essential for travel, transport, hunting, and trade. Different coastal communities developed distinctive styles to suit their particular needs.

Each canoe was made from a single cedar log, carved and steamed into shape. Wooden northern-style canoe with a Haida design painted on the outside. The canoe is painted black with Northwest Coast stylized designs on the ends in red, white and black. Depicted on each side is a Killer whale with its head and dorsal fin on the prow and the body and tail fins on the stern. There is a red border around the upper edges. The ends sweep upwards. The prow is grooved to hold a harpoon or mast and has a vertical fin to cut through waves. The interior is also painted black and has three rectangular bench seats. Canoes were used for fishing and hunting, trading, voyaging and war. Important canoes were carved or painted with family crest figures on the prow.

The museum also contains some interesting items that you can touch and experience yourself. Of of those is the ilgaak or iggaak as pronounced in Inuktitut, the language of the Inuits from Canada. These are custom-made snow goggles traditionally used by the Inuit and the Yupik, formerly known as Eskimo, peoples of the Arctic to prevent snow blindness.

These goggles are traditionally made of driftwood (especially spruce), bone, walrus ivory or in some cases caribou antler. The workpiece is carved to fit the wearer’s face, and one or more narrow horizontal slits are carved through the front. The goggles are custom-made to fit tightly against the face so that the only light entering is through the slits. The slits are made narrow not only to reduce the amount of light entering but also to improve the visual acuity.


Mukkuri, a traditional musical instrument used by the Ainu people.

Shamans played skin drums during healing rituals, while performers at potlatches and secret society ceremonies more often used wooden box drums. This instrument is a bent wooden hoop covered by thin deer hide, with crossed rawhide holding straps in the back. The drumstick depicts a killer whale in human form, a tall dorsal fin projecting from its head.

The qilaut is a type of frame drum native to the Inuit cultures of the Arctic. In addition to being one of the oldest examples of indigenous musical instrumentation, it has remained faithful to its original construction and is still made of ordinary materials found in daily Inuit life. It is divided into two sections: the isik, or surface that is struck; and the pablu, or handle of the drum. The drum is played with a kututarq, a simply constructed mallet. The diameter of the qilaut averages about 50 centimeters.

Originally, native people intended the qilaut to be a religious instrument. It was used to summon animist (the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects) gods during ritual services. These ceremonies helped protect hunters and fishers from the risks of their trade and families were able to ward off evil spells.

Religious artefacts

When a person in a festival put on such a mask he became imbued with the spirit being represented. I wish I knew what spirit or creature this big mask represents, and what specific culture it comes from.

Face masks for religious rites.

Totem poles are monumental carvings, a type of Northwest Coast art, consisting of poles, posts or pillars, carved with symbols or figures. They are usually made from large trees, mostly western red cedar, by First Nations and indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast.

Totem poles serve as important illustrations of family lineage and the cultural heritage of the Native peoples. The carvings may symbolize or commemorate ancestors, or cultural beliefs that recount familiar legends, clan lineages, or notable events.

The poles may also serve as functional architectural features, welcome signs for village visitors, mortuary vessels for the remains of deceased ancestors, or as a means to ridicule someone.

Totem poles can symbolize the characters and events in mythology, or convey the experiences of recent ancestors and living people. Early tools used to carve totem poles were made of stone, shell, or bone, but beginning in the late 1700s, the use of iron tools made the carving work faster and easier. The poles usually last from 60 to 80 years; only a few have stood longer than 75 years. Once the wood rots so badly that the pole begins to lean and pose a threat to passersby, it is either destroyed or pushed over and removed.

Ceremonial Costumes of Northern People

In the Arctic, where temperatures are below freezing for most of the year, warm clothing is of great importance. It is vital for hunters who spend many hours outside fishing or hunting seals, walrus, whales and caribou. Traditional Inuit skin clothing is well suited to this purpose because it provides excellent insulation.

The traditional women parkas made of leather had a big hood in the back where they could carry their little ones. The edge of the hood was decorated with strings of large beads, as well as the hem and cuffs and today you can see some amazing examples in museums both in Nuuk and Canada. The fur and skin clothing of the Inuit is a key factor in ensuring their survival in the northernmost reaches of the globe.

In winter, two layers of clothes were worn when hunting or traveling. The inner layer has the fur turned inwards towards the body, while the fur of the outer layer is turned outwards. Warm air is trapped between the two layers of clothing and the body, providing excellent insulation against the cold.

Gákti is a piece of traditional clothing worn by the Sámi in northern areas of Scandinavia and the Kola Peninsula in Russia. The gákti is worn both in ceremonial contexts and while working, particularly when herding reindeer. The traditional Sami outfit is characterized by a dominant color adorned with bands of contrasting colors, plaits, pewter embroidery, tin art, and often a high collar. In the Norwegian language, the garment is called a ‘kofte‘, and in Swedish it is called ‘kolt‘.

the Northwest Coast geographic region extends from just north of Yakutat Bay in southwest Alaska more or less to the California-Oregon border, including lands west of the Coast and Cascade Mountains. Almost all Northwest Coast Indian groups shared certain aspects of material culture. Not surprisingly, the sea and/or rivers played a central role in their lives. Fish, especially salmon, was the most important food for most Northwest Coast Indians.

Trees, especially the red cedar, were the raw materials for everything from canoes to clothing to plank houses. Most women used the twining method to weave baskets (including watertight baskets), clothing (capes, hats, robes), and mats.

Kamleikas are outer garments made of sea mammal gut, an extremely light, tough, and waterproof material. They were sewn with grass or sinew threads which expanded when soaked, making the garment waterproof. Among the Aleut, hooded kamleikas were worn as protection against wind and rain over a birdskin or fur parka.


Inuits of Greenland have used beads to decorate themselves and their clothes as well as amulets for good fortune and protection against evil spirits for thousands of years. The earliest known beads were made of natural material such as soft stone, bones, mussels, teeth and parts of the fish vertebrae and skeleton.

Snow boots.

To the Ainu, the bear has a body and soul; it’s a ferocious predator that roams the mountains and valleys, and it’s a kamuy, a “God.” Kamuy are great and small. They are mighty salmon and deer, humble sparrows and squirrels, ordinary tools and utensils. Kamuy visit the earth, have a relationship with humans, and if respected, they return again and again to feed and clothe humans. It’s a sophisticated belief system where both living and nonliving things are spirit beings, and where interspecies etiquette is central to a good life. To maintain a healthy relationship with the kamuy, Ainu artists traditionally represent the world in the abstract, creating pleasing designs meant to charm the gods—the transcendent symmetrical swirls and twirls of a kaleidoscope, not banal figurines. Making a realistic image of an animal endangers its spirit—it could become trapped, so Ainu artists did not carve realistic bears that clenched corn, or anything else, in their teeth.

Miniature depictions


Recognizing the Ainu

The 1899 act was finally officially reversed on June 6th, 2008, when the Japanese government passed a resolution that, for the first time, formally recognized the Ainu as “an indigenous people who have their own language, religion and culture”.

The change in heart has brought about many positives, one of which is that government administrators now answer the phone with “Irankarapte,” an Ainu greeting.

Today only small numbers of Ainu remain, and they constitute one of Japan’s most marginalized groups. The Ainu are thought to number around 25,000 (official sources) while unofficially, they are believed to number around 200,000 or more since many Ainu still do not disclose their roots out of fear of discrimination.

Back at the hotel, when the sun had set and as we sipped some hot coffee, we talked about the Ainu and their interesting methods.

The Museum of Northern Peoples in Abashiri is one of the best places to find detailed information about the cultures of the northern hemisphere. The museum provides a stunning display of clothing, carvings, totems and tools for hunting and fishing. But what interests me most is the mystery surrounding the ancient culture of the Ainu that continues to be debated to this day.

The Ainu of today display very little or no interest at all in their own culture. Yet, in the case of ceremonial Ainu gatherings, they do appear dressed up in Ainu-style garments. These people live on the outskirts of the larger society. Many of them have no permanent occupations but are dependent on seasonal work and welfare.

The language has all but died with barely 15 or so elderly people who still have the ability to speak the dialect fluently. Because they kept no written records, the true origins of the Ainu people will probably continue to remain a mystery.

I hope the story of the Ainu interests you as much as it captivates me. I would love to know more about this mysterious culture and visit all the small clusters that still exist on the island of Hokkaido. Thanks for reading! Please leave your comments and questions using the comment form below. You can also connect with me on Instagram. Tomorrow, we go on a cruise of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Visitor Information

Visiting Hours

Tue – Sun 9:30 AM – 4:30 PM

Price of Admission

¥550 per person