Before modern times, before countries were formed, before colonies were made, there were people who inhabited the world in harmony. They were self-sufficient beings in communities that were at peace with nature and the universe. The Native tribes in America, the Samis in the Nordic Arctic, the aborigines in Australia, and the Ainu in Hokkaido and neighboring Russia, are some examples of these indigenous races with ancient origins that have now become the minority. The Ainu people are purportedly direct descendants of the Jomon people who inhabited Japan 10 millennia ago. After much oppression from the Japanese even predating the Edo period, they currently have an estimated population of 25,000, but only 10 native Ainu speakers remain.
The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, showcases their rich unique culture, heritage and way of life. Ainu, Sapporo and Shiraoi are words from the Ainu language that were given meaningless kanji Japanese names which correspond only phonetically. They mean “human”, “dry, large river” and “a place with many horseflies” respectively. Upon entering the museum grounds of Porotokotan, a 10-meter tall wooden statue of an Ainu chief comes into view. It precedes thatched houses, gardens, and hanging rows of dried salmon that showcase the traditional Ainu way of life. To the right are kennels and cages for Hokkaido dogs that bear a resemblance to Shiba and Akita dogs but are slightly different, and brown bears. One of the dogs, Yume, was even the star for a Softbank ad as Otosan, one of the most well-known mascots in Japan.
Guarding the pathway to the big thatched huts are bears, whom the Ainu people regarded as spiritual deities, or kamuy. The Ainu people were hunters and gatherers and were very much in touch with nature and the spiritual world. They believed daily activities and occurrences to be related to animals, spirits, the universe, and cosmos. Clothing was also made from natural local resources such as bark and salmon skin. Each house had a central hearth and faced in the direction of a river. Folk music and dance performances are held hourly in the thatched houses, or cise. The performers also play the mukkuri, or traditional Ainu mouth harp, whose vibrations and timbre tone sound like that from a didgeridoo.
The museum building showcases the many aspects of traditional Ainu life including family, food, hunting, weapons, pottery, clothing, transport and afterlife. Particularly the women, whose mouths were tattooed from as young as 10 years old to prepare them for marriage, childbirth and the afterlife. Sharp knives were used to make minuscule incisions around the mouth, and soot from the ritual hearth was rubbed in. These eternal smiles also warded off evil spirits and health ailments.
In recent decades, there have been efforts to revive and preserve traditional Ainu culture and heritage, with the government giving due recognition and contributing to its conservation. The museum also showcases pieces of clothing or artifacts from other cultures such as the Sakhalin Ainu, Nivkh, Uilta, Sami, and indigenous Taiwanese, in a partnership for minority races across the world. It offers a glimpse into the mystical, intriguing life of the Ainu people, whom we can only just begin to understand. Spend an afternoon being transported back in time to the indigenous life in Hokkaido!