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

Ainu Kotan at Lake Akan

From the sparkling Lake Mashu, the White Pirika bus rode on towards Lake Akan. Shitona, our tour guide told us it was going to be a long ride of about an hour. On the way, she kept giving out more information about the lake. I couldn’t understand a word of Japanese, but Mani translated some of it for me. She went on to tell us stories of the area. She even sang a couple of folk songs for us to which I took an immediate liking. We rode on, past unspoiled primitive forest in its natural beauty, laid barren by the harsh winter.

We were lodged in Kushiro City, nestled in the eastern part of Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. The coastal city is famous for its picturesque wetlands, particularly the Kushiro Shitsugen National Park, one of Japan’s largest and most pristine marshlands. In the morning we had already explored the lovely Lake Kussharo and the mesmerizing Lake Mashu.

Lake Akan

Lake Akan (阿寒湖, Akanko) is a crater lake in Akan National Park. It is a bit bigger than Lake Mashu at about 26 km in circumference. The lake is the habitat of Marimo, a sphere-shaped, floating green algae, but it can only be witnessed in summer months when the frozen lake melts. In winter many activities such as skiing, snowmobile riding, and smelt fishing are conducted in the vicinity. Apart from all these amazing things, the major draw for me was the presence of a real Ainu village near the shore, where one can experience the traditional lifestyle and culture of the Ainu people.

We reached the lake area at around 3 p.m. Our tour guide informed us that we had an hour to roam around and get back to the bus by 4 p.m. It was a very short time to check out such a huge area. Most of our fellow travelers headed towards the lake. There are many interesting things to do at the lake but we had already decided on visiting the Ainu Kotan first. “Kotan” in the Ainu dialect means a village. This region has long been home to the indigenous Ainu people, who were the earliest settlers of Hokkaido.

We walked towards the village hoping to meet some Ainu people. The roads were extremely slippery because of the packed snow. While crossing one of the alleys, I found myself flat on the ice. It didn’t hurt much, physically, but oh yes, my pride was crushed!

After a few minutes, we were at a towering gate with a huge wooden owl with spread wings. Beyond the gate on both sides, one can find a number of wooden homes designed in the traditional Ainu style. The smaller huts lay scattered towards the end of the road. The snow was particularly thick here and it was tough to walk. Directly above the entrance to the kotan is a Blakiston’s fish owl, which was revered as a “god” by the Ainu.

The Ainu are the indigenous people of northern Japan, whose culture almost disappeared until recent efforts of restoration by the government. The remaining descendants of this disappearing race, reside mainly in Hokkaido, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands.

The Ainu have a deep reverence for nature and believe that gods exist in all things. The Ainu Kotan near Lake Akan is an attempt to preserve that culture and create awareness among culture enthusiasts. The village consisting of some 40 households have created craft shops selling wood carvings, embroidery, and musical instruments. At the village, visitors can learn about the lifestyle and culture of the Ainu people through traditional dance performances, puppet plays, instrument classes, and history lectures. One can also try some authentic Ainu cuisine in a traditional environment.

The bear holds immense significance in Ainu culture, and it plays a central role in their spiritual and everyday lives. Most of the shops are decorated with depictions of Bear and the Owl: two of the most revered creatures by the Ainu. If you look closely the shop shown below is decorated with a huge Bear head on the upper floor.

The Ainu believe that bears are sacred animals with divine spirits. They consider them to be messengers between the human world and the world of the gods. Bears are associated with various deities and are believed to possess supernatural powers. Bears feature prominently in Ainu folklore and oral traditions. Many myths and stories involve bears as characters, often portraying their interactions with humans and gods. The Iomante, also known as the “Bear Festival,” is one of the most important ceremonies in Ainu culture. It is a ritual that involves the symbolic sacrifice of a bear to send its spirit back to the gods. This ceremony is a way for the Ainu to express their gratitude to the bear for providing them with sustenance and to ensure the bear’s spirit’s safe journey to the divine realm.

This was a time when Hokkaido was still called “Ezochi” before the Japanese began full-scale settlement. The Ainu had no written language and thus both history and folklore were passed down only by word of mouth. Much has been lost along the way. The Ainu Memorial Museum at the end of the village offers programs for learning ancient dancing, wood carving, and embroidery.

Unfortunately, the museum was closed at the time. We made a u-turn at the museum and walked back, venturing into a few souvenir shops along the way. You can immerse yourself in year-round traditional Ainu performing arts, including “traditional Ainu dance,” “puppetry,” and the “Iomante Fire Festival,” at the theater named “Treasure” in the Ainu language.

Akanko Ainu Theater Ikor

The Akanko Ainu Theater Ikor, is a center dedicated to preserving Ainu history and tradition, where you’ll be privy to an ancient ceremonial dance specific to the Lake Akan region. You can watch dancers wield the “inau”, a wooden ritual tool that the “kamuy” (local deities) taught the Ainu how to make, which represents an offering to the gods. One of the programs focuses on the Ezo wolf, an animal that was revered as a “horokeu kamuy” but went extinct during the Meiji period, and expresses the lost “world of kamuy.”

Wood carving has long been an important part of Ainu culture. The shops were full of detailed wood carvings of high aesthetic quality. Among the favorites, I assume are the Bear and the Owl. I bought a couple of wooden owls as souvenirs.  Wooden owls and bears in various shapes and sizes can be found in these shops. Some extremely detailed pieces can be as expensive as a hundred grand Yen.

The Ainu are greatly skilled in woodwork. There was some really amazing artistry there in those shops. In one of the shops, I noticed a work area in a corner, with all the interesting tools, the artisans use to create these wooden masterpieces. Lovely little owls carved out of wood were lying beside them, waiting for the final touches.

It is here that I came to know of Hisao Sunazawa, a Japanese self-taught woodcarver, painter, artist, and sculptor of Ainu origin. Sunazawa, who was born in 1931 and raised in Hokkaido’s Asahikawa city, earned the nickname “Bikky,” which means “frog” in the Ainu language, as a child. The prolific sculptor, painter, and graphic artist born with the first name of Hisao gained world renown for his woodcarvings in the style of the Ainu indigenous people of Hokkaido. He moved to the shore of Lake Akan when he was 22 and started creating woodcarvings at a souvenir shop. His sculptures, featuring biomorphic forms brimming with vitality have helped immensely to bring Ainu culture in front of the world.

Shopping along these souvenir shops, we didn’t realize that we had walked all the way back to the lake. We still had about 15 minutes to the scheduled departure so we wandered into the fully frozen lake. On the left, locals had set up small colorful tents with fishing holes. On the right people were enjoying themselves on snowmobiles.

Far away, on the eastern shore, the elegant Mt. Oakan lay covered in snow. Lake Akan is said to be the largest in Hokkaido, and the current kotan was built on land that was provided free of charge to the Ainu people by the “Maeda Ippo Foundation”, which owns part of the land around Lake Akan. We didn’t want to go towards the loud crowd near the snowmobile rides, so we loitered around near the fishing holes. After wandering around for some time on the vast lake, we strode back to the bus.

After a long day, we were on the way back to our hotel. As we bid farewell to the rugged mountain landscape, the sky above us began to undergo a breathtaking transformation. The deep, mesmerizing shades of purple that had initially graced the horizon had now intensified in their brilliance. It was as though nature itself was an artist, carefully layering different shades of purple upon a canvas of fading daylight.

With every passing day on this lovely island of Hokkaido, the stunning landscapes make me feel like a teenager, falling in crush for the first time. On the way back, Shitona charmed us with another melodious song. Numerous enigmas envelop the history and culture of the Ainu. The Ainu never developed a written language. Nevertheless, it remains a culture that has evolved over an extensive span, emphasizing the importance of acquiring a comprehensive comprehension while honoring their customs and lifestyle.

The bus dropped us off at our hotel by 6 p.m. From the window of our room, the city of Kushiro was glowing in the night. The city itself boasts a welcoming atmosphere with a charming downtown area filled with local shops, restaurants serving fresh seafood delicacies, and cultural attractions. Kushiro’s rich fishing heritage is evident in its bustling fish markets, where visitors can savor delectable seafood, including the renowned “kani” (crab).

A single day is too short to fully enjoy Akan National Park. If I had to do it over again, I would definitely plan a two-day trip and stay back overnight at Lake Akan. The Akan Bus also conducts a night stargazing tour at Lake Mashu, I regret having missed that.

Of course, nothing beats traveling by self-driven car. But if you are not I would highly recommend the White Pirika tour. They were great in making our day a memorable one. The stunning lakes of Akan National Park will forever remain etched in my memory. The people of Hokkaido are so polite and friendly. And then, there is this big mystery surrounding the origins of the Ainu. I am loving every bit of it!! Abashiri, here we come!