The charming town of Shiraoi isn’t just a pit-stop for souvenirs. It’s a treasure trove revealing how Hokkaido‘s initial settlers fortified their legacy. Among traditional pottery and fabrics echoing the Ainu’s love for intricate swirls, there are modern-day artifacts: magnets, iPhone cases, and stickers showcasing cartoonish depictions of Ainu warriors and kamuy, their revered spirit animals.
Despite wondering how ancient Ainu might perceive these contemporary interpretations, such merchandising plays a pivotal role in reminding the global community of the Ainu’s existence. The mascot of Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, Tureppon, stands as a testament to this. Named after “turep,” meaning “lily bulb” in Ainu, she’s a delightful figure holding a walking stick and cake made from the lily bulb, symbolizing the cultural bridge between past and present.
Historically, the Ainu, once the exclusive inhabitants of Hokkaido’s expansive 83,500 square kilometres, experienced a gradual cultural fade as Japan modernized. Not until 2008 did the Japanese government officially acknowledge the Ainu as an indigenous community. This recognition took a global stage in 2014 at the UN-backed World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in New York.
Delving deeper into this rich history, Sapporo’s Hokkaido Museum stands tall, with an imposing mammoth skeleton from Siberia. The last ice age saw Hokkaido becoming a crossroads for mammoths and Naumann elephants. Researchers uncovered an extinct Naumann elephant skeleton in 1969 near Makubetsu. It’s believed that Ainu settlers, who thrived by harnessing northern Japan’s resources, arrived in Hokkaido in the 12th century.
The Ainu’s golden era spanned the Edo period (1601-1868), marked by trade with neighbouring countries. They exchanged fish and fur for exotic goods like jewelry from China. However, during the Meiji era (1868-1912), annexation led to significant cultural suppression, prohibiting the Ainu language and their intrinsic hunting traditions.
Post the Second World War, Japan’s drive for cultural homogeneity overshadowed the Ainu further. Nonetheless, the latter half of the 1990s saw a resurgence in their cultural recognition, culminating in the establishment of the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park in 2020 in Shiraoi. The museum, showcasing artifacts and a replica Ainu village, is a massive endeavor, potentially symbolizing Tokyo’s effort to amend past oversights.
Adding to this cultural renaissance is the luxurious KAI Poroto hotel, which opened in 2022 adjacent to the Upopoy museum. It’s an ode to Ainu heritage, from white birch-lined walls to furniture inspired by traditional Ainu practices.
Sapporo, Hokkaido’s largest city, doesn’t fall behind in celebrating Ainu traditions. A commanding wooden Ainu warrior statue stands tall at the railway station. Moreover, Umizora no Haru boasts the unique title of possibly being the world’s only Ainu restaurant. With seafood-heavy menus, it reminds patrons of the Ainu’s reliance on Hokkaido’s marine bounty to brave the harsh winters.
In Shiraoi, the cultural exploration continues. The Koropokkuru Activity Centre and Kura, an arts space, offer workshops from trying on salmon-skin shoes to painting nails with traditional Ainu designs. These endeavors, whether ancient or modern, collectively paint a vivid picture of Ainu’s undying legacy. And while it’s hard to say if the ancient Ainu would nod in approval, the current generation has found an enticing blend of honoring the past while embracing the present.