The far north of Japan has been home to the Ainu people for centuries, if not millennia, although they were only recognized by the Japanese government as an indigenous people in 2008. While the Ainu have largely been supplanted by the majority Japanese (known to the Ainu people as wajin) over centuries of oppression, efforts are now being made to preserve and revive their separate culture and language, especially in Hokkaido. A visit to Upopoy Park in Shiraoi, about an hour south of Sapporo, is a great way to learn more about this fascinating and gentle people.
Upopoy Park is situated around the shore of the southern end of Lake Poroto. The park opened in July 2020 as a national center for the revival and development of Ainu culture.
The entrance to the park is a curious chicane pathway flanked by concrete walls on which are etched scenes of woodland and animals, the sights most common to the traditional Ainu lifestyle. Ainu music can also be heard as visitors traverse the pathway. Known as the “Path to the Ainu Spirit,” the idea is to set the stage or put visitors into an appropriate frame of mind to understand and appreciate the Ainu culture they are about to experience.
At the end of the pathway is the Entrance Center, a circular plaza where visitors buy their entrance tickets and can enjoy refreshments, some of which are traditional Ainu foods. There is also a souvenir shop featuring Ainu crafts as well as other Hokkaido specialties.
Once inside the park, start in the National Ainu Museum, which presents the Ainu story from their own perspective. The central exhibition hall on the second floor is arranged on six themes: our language, our universe, our lives, our history, our work and our exchange. Signboards are written in Ainu, Japanese and English and occasionally also Chinese and Korean.
While there are believed to be only about 100 native speakers of the Ainu language left (there was a time when its use was banned by the Japanese government), efforts are being made to bring the language, linguistically unrelated to Japanese, back into active use. The museum’s exhibition includes interactive displays that allow visitors to hear the sounds of the language and learn more about it.
As is the case with many indigenous peoples around the world, the Ainu belief system is closely related to the natural world. For the Ainu, various animals are physical manifestations of deities. The exhibit features important aspects of the Ainu belief system and the rituals practiced in its observance. Especially fascinating is the practice of keeping and raising a bear cub for a year before ritually killing and eating it in order to send its spirit back to the heavens, carrying messages to other bear gods.
The exhibit relating to daily life includes a backstrap loom commonly used to weave attush cloth from the soft inner bark of elm and other Hokkaido native trees. Elsewhere in the hall, several intricately decorated Ainu garments are displayed.
The construction and layout of typical Ainu homes is also shown, although there is an opportunity for closer examination of actual cise Ainu houses when visiting the reconstructed kotan village in the east area of the park.
The history exhibit provides details of the past several centuries of Ainu history, including the development of the Ainu culture based on influences from the Okhotsk people of the islands north of Hokkaido on the remnants of ancient Jomon people living in Hokkaido and the northern part of Honshu. Interactions with people from overseas to the west as well as with wajin from the south, and especially harsh treatment by wajin as they began to claim more and more of Hokkaido’s land, are also explained, again from the Ainu perspective.
Next is an exhibit on livelihoods: the various traditional occupations of the Ainu, who were long regarded as primitive hunter-gatherers, but in fact operated several sophisticated means of production. This leads to the final exhibit, about how the Ainu conducted trade and engaged in other forms of exchange with their neighbors.
The museum also contains a theater which regularly screens short films on Ainu History and Culture and Ainu crafts. Check the screening schedule upon museum entry to be sure to catch one or both films.
Outside the museum, walk alongside the lake to the kotan (traditional village) reconstructed in the east area of the park. There are five traditional cise thatched houses, two of which are of the usual size and are surrounded by gardens, fish drying racks and other accoutrements of settled Ainu life.
The other three cise are built larger than usual to accommodate multiple visitors for explanation sessions and cultural programs. Check the timetable of activities and programs in order not to miss those of particular interest.
Between the kotan and the museum is a craft studio where visitors can observe demonstrations of traditional Ainu crafts and, for a small fee, even try to make some themselves.
The west area of the park contains a large Cultural Exchange Hall and a Workshop, surrounded by expansive lawn and gardens. In the Workshop, visitors can try their hand at playing Ainu musical instruments or have a cooking lesson. There are performances of traditional Ainu songs and dances in the Cultural Exchange Hall several times a day, as well as screenings of two short films that tell Ainu legends.
Seasonal special displays and outdoor activities also underscore the ways in which the traditional Ainu lifestyle is closely connected to nature and its cycles.
Visitors can easily spend half a day or more thoroughly exploring the museum and the park to gain a much deeper appreciation of the Ainu culture and its contribution, in particular, to life in Hokkaido.
Upopoy Park is open from 9 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday (open Mondays that are national holidays and closed the next day; also closed at New Year’s). Closing time varies from 5 p.m. in winter months to 8 p.m. in summer months. Confirm the time and other details on their website. Admission is 1,200 yen for adults, 600 yen for students 16-18 and free for children 15 and under.
Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.© Japan Today
Login to comment
A "gentle people," who would adopt, raise, and then slaughter and eat a bear cub.
People are people, that is, we are all capable of doing sometimes great, and sometimes terrible things.
Seems interesting to visit
Its not a museum, its a commercial venture to attract tourist money. Very disappointing.
My assumption is:
In prehistoric times, the Japanese archipelago, a dead end for many migrating Asian tribes, was resided by peoples from both southeast Asia and Russian Far East. The tribes in northern Japan nurtured and developed the so-called Jomon Culture.
Then, came an agricultural, rice-planting people called the Yayoi tribe, who the Ainu called shamo or wajin, from the Asian Continent via the Korean Peninsula, landing at western Kyushu about 2500 years ago, who gradually expanded their domain to the northeast and the southwest of the Japanese Archipelago. The Ainu people fought back their advance for centuries.
However, the Yayoi people heading toward southwestern islands met little resistance; On the contrary, they were welcomed as demigods for their superior iron technology and culture. The Yayoi people's southern expansion continued without a hitch until 1879 when Ryukyu Kingdom was forcefully annexed to Imperial Japan.
Vernaculars spoken in the Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, Yaeyama island groups are mutually unintelligible today, but they are basically Japanese, which probably became so when the south-bound Yayoi people dominated these islands thoroughly.
There's a clear-cut linguistic demarcation between languages spoken by indigenous peoples on Taiwan and the languages spoken by peoples on Yonaguni Island of the Yaeyama group and beyond northeastward. That means the Yayoi people's advance stopped at Yonaguni Island, short of Taiwan.