If you asked me what is so unique about Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, aside from the expansive landscape, wonderful nature reserves and cold climate, I would say the names of the places, like Sapporo, Monbetsu, Shikaribetsu, Rausu…which sound a little odd to be the Japanese language. Actually, these names are derived from Ainu language and are a testament to the presence of the Ainu アイヌ people in Hokkaido.
To give you some idea, the Ainu are Hokkaido’s indigenous people who have been living on the island for centuries. Their language and traditions are different from the majority of Japanese. Their past is often filled with tales of oppression and forced assimilation, but today efforts are ongoing in reviving and preserving the Ainu’s culture and heritage.
Learning about the Ainu is one of the unmissable experiences you can only find in Hokkaido, here are some of the recommended places to do so.
1. Lake Akan Ainu Kotan 阿寒湖アイヌコタン
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Lake Akan or Akanko, the home of the cute marimo moss balls, is one of the popular attractions in Hokkaido. While you are there, you can visit the Ainu Kotan in the lakeside hot spring town of Akanko Onsen. The Ainu kotan (means village in Ainu language) is comprised of a small museum, theatre, as well as souvenir shops and restaurants where visitors can see, hear, shop, and taste the culture of Ainu people.
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Among the attractions are Ainu Living Memorial Hall which recreates the look of a traditional Ainu home and displays everyday items and tools used by the Ainu in the past. The Ainu Theatre Ikor is where performances of traditional dances, music, and rituals are presented. The shops sell various crafts and accessories that make some of the best Hokkaido gifts, while the eateries serve local dishes you hardly find anywhere else, including Ainu cuisine which differs markedly from the Japanese food we know.
Hours: 10 am – 10 pm (vary by facility)
Admission: Free (¥1,080 for cultural performances)
Address: 4-7-19 Akankoonsen, Akancho, Kushiro, Hokkaido.
Access: Ainu Kotan is located right next to the Akanko Bus Center, which is a 60 minute drive from Kushiro Airport or 90 minute drive from JR Kushiro Station. You can also get here by taking a bus from JR Kushiro Station or Kushiro Airport.
2. Biratori Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum 平取町立二風谷アイヌ文化博物館
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A highly acclaimed, albeit off the beaten track, museum of Ainu culture. It is located in the Nibutani district of the Hidaka region, the area with the largest Ainu population in Hokkaido. With cultural preservation and inheritance being its main objective, the museum offers a wealth of information, audiovisual materials and artifacts related to the Ainu people, of which more than 900 items have been jointly designated as an Important Tangible Folk Cultural Property. Traditional Ainu houses are also on display outside the museum.
For those who are interested, workshops which allow visitors to try their hand at making embroidery, wood carving, or a traditional music instrument called mukkuri are also available. There are other museums and attractions nearby, be sure to check them out too.
Hours: 9 AM – 4:30 PM
Closed: 4/16 – 11/15 open daily; 11/16 – 4/15 closed every Monday; 12/16 – 1/15 not in business.
Admission: 400 yen
Address: 55 Nibutani, Biratori-cho, Saru-gun, Hokkaido.
Access: From JR Tomikawa Station, take the Donan Bus and get off at “Shiryokan-mae” 資料館前 stop (20 min ride). Alternatively, the museum is about 1 hour drive from Shin-Chitose Airport or 2 hours from Sapporo.
3. Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum 川村カ子トアイヌ記念館
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Founded in 1916, this small museum is the oldest Ainu museum in Japan. It is named after a respectable local Ainu chief and is dedicated to protecting and transmitting Ainu culture and traditions. Its informative exhibitions include traditional Ainu house, a wide range of tools, costumes, and valuable photos of the Ainu people, many of which were Kawamura Kaneto’s personal collection. Since Kawamura was a renowned surveyor in railway construction, many documents and equipment related to his job are also on display.
The museum has a traditional dance lesson, cooking class, paper cutting workshop, and other programs for visitors to experience the Ainu culture. Best of all, the costume rental is free! There is also a museum shop selling a variety of Ainu crafts and souvenirs.
Hours: 9 AM – 5 PM (Jul & Aug until 6 PM)
Admission: 500 yen
Address: 11 Hokumon-cho, Asahikawa, Hokkaido.
Access: From Asahikawa Station, take bus no. 24 bound for “Hokumoncho 21 chome” 北門町21丁目行き and get off at “Ainu Kinenkan-mae” アイヌ記念館前 stop (15 min ride).
4. Hokkaido Museum 北海道博物館
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If you feel like the Ainu attractions stated above are too far away from Sapporo, then consider the Hokkaido Museum! Also known as Mori no Charenga, the museum introduces the nature, history, and culture of Hokkaido from prehistoric to modern times. It has many interactive exhibits, allowing visitors to learn about the land in an engaging way. It is located in the Nopporo Forest Park and is close to another museum called Historical Village of Hokkaido.
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Its Ainu-themed section features excellent displays on the Ainu’s history, culture, religion, and way of life through the ages. The exhibitions also include a restored Ainu house and a segment on Ainu language which is known to have no written form and could only be passed on orally. You can even try learning the language and make sentences with it!
Hours: 9:30 AM – 5 PM (Oct to Apr until 4:30 PM), closed on Mondays.
Admission: 600 yen
Address: 53-2 Konopporo, Atsubetsu-cho, Atsubetsu-ku, Sapporo, Hokkaido
Access: From the bus terminal next to Shin Sapporo Station, take JR Hokkaido bus no. 22 bound for “Kaitaku no Mura” 開拓の村 and get off at “Hokkaido Hakubutsukan” 北海道博物館 stop (15 min ride).
5. Upcoming in 2020: National Ainu Museum and Park
Formerly the popular Shiraoi Ainu Museum (Porotokotan), the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park is scheduled to open in April 2020 as a national centre for Ainu culture. The complex in Shiraoi town will include a new museum, a park, and a memorial. It is located on the shore of Lake Poroto, not far from Noboribetsu.