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!

The Nio Guardians of Japan

During my recent visits to Japanese Buddhist temples, I have been fascinated by the two fierce-looking Nio protectors guarding the gates at each one of them. These pair of protectors, one on either side of the entrance, are diverse in styles, but each of them with their bare-chested bodies rippling with muscles, fierce visages, and brandishing weapons, seem violent and threatening.

These Nio guardians are named, each after a particular cosmic sound. If you look closely at these mythical shrine protectors, you will notice that one of them has its mouth open while the other has its mouth closed. The open-mouth figure is commonly placed to the right of the temple and is known as Agyo, who is uttering the sound “ah,” meaning birth. Its closed-mouth partner generally stands to the left of the temple and is called Ungyo, pronouncing the sound “un” meaning death. The closed-mouth Nio is supposed to stop the evil from entering the temple while the open-mouth Nio welcomes the good spirits inside.

Origins of Nio

Buddhism began in India, and then became part of Chinese culture. Around 550 AD it was introduced into Japan via Korea. This non-native religion gradually became an important part of Japanese culture during the Nara period (710-790 AD), especially among the aristocracy.

The Nio guardians were introduced to Japan around the 8th century. The oldest standing statues of the two, date back to 711 AD, located at Horyuji Temple ( 法隆寺) in Nara.

The Nio guardians are said to originate from Hindu deities who were adopted by the Japanese into Buddhist teachings. In Buddhism they are regarded as protectors against evil spirits. The Nio’s fierce and threatening appearance is said to ward off evil spirits and keep the temple grounds free of demons. The most famous Nio in Japan can be found at the entrance gate of Todaiji Temple (東大寺) in Nara. These 26-feet-tall statues were made in 1203 AD, reportedly under the direction of the famous sculptors Unkei and Kaikei.

At Shinto shrines, however, the Nio guardians are replaced with a pair of Koma-Inu (Shishi Lion-Dogs) or with two foxes. These mythical shrine guardians are also depicted with similar postures – one mouth open, one closed.

Legends & Myths

The word Nio itself is said to mean “Benevolent Kings” and in some Japanese historical accounts, they were said to have followed and protected Buddha on his travels throughout India. Being an Indian, though I haven’t read anything along these lines in Indian historical records.

According to another Japanese mythology, there once was a king who had two wives. His first wife bore a thousand children who all decided to become monks and follow the Buddha’s law. His second wife had only two sons. The youngest was named Non-o and helped his monk brothers with their worship. The eldest, Kongo Rikishi (金剛力士), however, had a much more aggressive personality. He vowed to protect the Buddha and his worshipers by fighting against evil and ignorance.

Kongo Rikishi is considered to be the first of the heavenly kings, called Nio. Within the generally pacifist traditions of Buddhism, stories of Nio guardians like Kongo Rikishi justified the use of physical force to protect the cherished values and beliefs against evil. Many fragments of the Japanese mythology are unmistakably Indian. Kongo Rikishi, according to Japanese conception used to ride a mythical creature called Karura, very similar to Garuda, the magical bird from Ramayana in Indian mythology. Garuda is said to be the mount of the Lord Vishnu.

Conceived as a pair, the Nio complement each other. In other records the Nio are also referred to as Misshaku Kongo & Naeren Kongo. Misshaku Kongo, representing power in action, bares his teeth and raises his fist in action, while Naeren Kongo, representing potential might, holds his mouth tightly closed and waits with both arms tensed but lowered. In some ways they remind me how the Indian gods, Shiva & Vishnu, compliment each other. What is another hint of Indian influence is that Naeren sounds very much like Narayan in Sanskrit, which in Hindu mythology refers to Vishnu. My wife, Mani has done a thorough research on the connection between Indian Gods and Japanese mythology. Jump to this link if that interests you.

Nio Guardians Features

The features of the Nio guardians have been skillfully exaggerated by artists. Bulging muscles in their huge chests and arms communicate power. Their drapery always depicted as swirling around them like a dragon engulfing its prey. The exaggerated depiction continues in their extended jaws, and facial expressions. The Nio’s bulging eyes, furrowed brows, flaring nostrils, and distorted grimaces bring their faces to life. Their hair, flying in the wind, pulled tightly into topknots, adds to their imposing height.

How the Nio sculptures were created

The vast majority of Nio are made out of wood and are usually housed in their own gate houses to protect them from the weather.The Nio guardians were created by a joined woodblock carving technique called Yosegi. Hinoki, or Japanese cypress, a wood that ages remarkably well, was used. Each Nio is created from many pieces of wood pegged together with iron clamps and nails. This allowed the artists to create monumental figures with dynamic poses. The seams along the joints were covered with fabric or paper. The surface was then covered with layers of Gesso, (baked seashells and water) and black lacquer. Note that not all Nio sculptures are painted. The ones that are, have immense details such as the pupils of the eyes and the decorative pattern on the drapery.

Nio Guardians at Todai-ji, Nara

Todai-ji was built in the eighth century by imperial order in the ancient capital city of Nara, as a symbol of Japan’s emergence as an important center for Buddhist culture. The complex includes a huge bronze statue of a seated Buddha, housed inside the Daibutsen, claimed to be the world’s largest wooden building. The Nio at this temple were erected after parts of the temple were destroyed by warring clans in the 12th century.

Many art historians regard the two sculptures at Todai-ji, as the greatest works of two of Japan’s greatest sculptors, Unkei and Kaikei. They are impressive for their size and the technological hurdles that their 13th-century creators had to overcome. They were carved during the Kamakura Period (1192-1333) Each statue is over eight meters tall and weighs close to seven tons. Recently the Nio sculptures were repaired at a cost of 19 million yen ($187,500).

The Agyo Nio Guardian at Todai-ji

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The Agyo Nio Guardian at Todai-ji welcomes the good spirits inside the temple

Nio Guardians of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Tochigi

Agyo Nio Guardian

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Agyo Nio Guardian at Niomon Gate of Toshogu Shrine

Nio Guardians of Fudarakusanji Temple in Nachi, Wakayama

Agyo Nio Guardian at Fudarakusan-ji Temple

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The Agyo Nio Guardian welcoming the good spirits

Nio Guardians of Senso-ji, Tokyo

Agyo Nio Guardian at Sensoji Temple

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Agyo Nio Guardian at Senso-ji Temple

Nio Guardians of Yakushi-ji, Nara

Ungyo Nio Statue at Yakushi-ji

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Ungyo Nio Statue at Yakushi-ji

It was an interesting week for me researching through the history of Nio Guardians. I hope you find it interesting too. Leave your comments below and let me know if there is something I missed.

Ringing in the new year at Todai-ji

We decided to do something different this new year eve. We walked down to Todai-ji at midnight to usher in the new year with the blessings of the great Daibutsu. Todai-ji is the largest of the Seven Great Temples of Nara and one of the “Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara“.

The roads were lit and the streets were empty. Nothing new for someone who has lived in Nara even for a short amount of time. Once we reached the Nara Park area, we could see some families walking towards the temple. A group of deer were gathered under the street lights.

The narrow road comes directly up to the temple from behind. As we reached the Todaiji grounds, the crowd became denser. The regular gate that is used for entry for tourists was closed. The caretakers were preparing to open the imposing main gate. Generally the main gate remains closed and visitors have to use the two smaller side gates on each side. A huge queue had formed in front of the main gate. It looked like all of Nara had descended to the temple. It was still not midnight. We went towards the back of the queue and took our positions. We waited patiently for the clock to strike, midnight. The gate was opened to the public exactly at midnight and they started letting people in to the courtyard.

New Years Eve in Nara

Once we went through the gate, the horned roof of the Daibutsuden is the first thing that comes into view. People gradually made their way to the Daibutsu Hall. Todaiji houses the Nara Daibutsu, a gigantic bronze statue completed around 757. It took 9 years and an enormous manpower of 2 million workers working together to complete this magnificent statue. In the dark my Nikon D7100 was struggling to take photos. Mani was having better luck with her Sony Alpha 6000. It does offer better results in low light.

Over the years, the main wooden building and the statue have been damaged by fire and natural calamities several times. Each time it was repaired keeping the authenticity of the place intact. As we got closer, we could see the Buddha face clearly from the windows on the upper floor. It is one of the motivations for the huge crowd. The upper floor windows are opened rarely and on very important occasions. People come from afar just to see Buddha’s face from these windows.

I fished out my zoom lens and took a closer shot of the face. This was taken handheld as tripods are not allowed to be set up inside the premises.

On both sides of the wide path, there were several bonfires in tub like apparatus. It was cold and we waited near one of the bonfires for the initial crowd to disperse.

Once the crowd was sparse, we went towards the Daibutsuden Hall. It has begun to drizzle. Rain had been forecast and so we had brought along our waterproof jackets.

I have been inside the Daibutsuden before but on entering the dimly lit main hall, one can’t, but be overwhelmed over and over again by the 15 meter high, gilt bronze statue sitting on sacred lotus leaves. The blackened statue depicts Rushana, also known as Dainichi Nyorai or the Cosmic Buddha.

After paying respects, we walked out. At the main gate, the queue was no more, but there was still a steady stream of enthusiasts who wanted so see the face of the Buddha through the upper doors. I set up my tripod and took some pictures of the entrance gate.

Near the Nakamon Gate, there is a small pond and Todai-ji looked amazing from there.

Everything about Todaiji is huge. It has a long history and many stories attached to it. Every time I come and see the huge Daibutsuden Hall, I feel really small. We were supposed to leave for Hiroshima at dawn, so we left early for home. Nara Park with its herds of deer and the Todaiji make for an amazing night. If you are around Kyoto or Osaka, do take out a day to visit this lovely place.

Thanks for reading. Please leave me a comment if you liked my post. I also visited Todaiji during the day time some time back. You may find useful information if you are planning a visit.