Experience Indigenous Ainu and Jomon Culture in Hokkaido – Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO)


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TOKYO–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island, is well known for its world-class powder snow, delicious cuisine and unspoiled nature. Few outside the country, however, are aware of one of Hokkaido’s most unique aspects: it’s home to an ethnic group indigenous to northern Japan known as the Ainu.

The Ainu culture is believed to have emerged between the 12and and 13and century and embodies the belief that spirits are present in all parts of the natural world. Its inhabitants became skilled in various crafts including woodcarving, embroidery, knitting and weaving, and they developed a series of traditional dances which were performed at social gatherings.

However, it has proven difficult to preserve these traditions, given the dwindling numbers of the Ainu community able to pass them on, and understanding of Ainu culture is limited. The number of those who speak the Ainu language, which has no relation to Japanese, has decreased.

To preserve and promote Ainu culture, the National Ainu Museum and Park, also known as Upopoy, opened in Shiraoi, Hokkaido in July 2020. “Upopoy” means “singing in a large group” in the Ainu language, and reflects the institution’s mission to provide a place where people can gather and learn as a community, and to foster a society with diverse cultures in which Indigenous peoples are treated with respect.

The Upopoy facility, the first of its kind dedicated to Ainu history and culture, includes a museum, outdoor cultural center and memorial site, offering visitors the opportunity to experience and interact with the Ainu culture. The permanent exhibits explore six themes, including the Ainu language, spirituality and customs, and the interaction of the Ainu with other ethnic groups.

At the Ainu National Park’s outdoor cultural center, visitors can watch traditional dances and participate in hands-on activities such as performing arts, cooking, and crafts. The external environment is an essential aspect of Ainu culture, which emphasizes coexistence with nature.

The restaurant and food court offer excellent samples of Ainu cuisine, including deer meat and salmon dishes. They deploy traditional cooking methods and use authentic Hokkaido ingredients to create delicious and refreshing meals.

Only an hour’s drive from Upopoy, a glimpse of older history awaits visitors to Jomon-era sites in the southern part of the prefecture; these were included in the 17 sites in northern Japan added to UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage Sites in July 2021. The Jomon era began around 15,000 years ago and lasted until there is 2400 years old.

Burial sites dating from 3,500 BCE to 800 BCE are located at Irie and Takasago in Toyako Town in southwestern Hokkaido, facing scenic Uchiura Bay. Irie was a residential and burial area; shells, bones of fish and mammals and remains of wood have been discovered there; the Takasago site yielded grave goods such as pots and stone tools, some of them colored with red powder pigment. These sites offer a fascinating insight into the lives of people in ancient times and a spiritual culture influenced by the natural beauty of the four seasons.

Both the Jomon and Ainu cultures played an important role in shaping today’s Hokkaido. Once COVID-related travel restrictions are lifted, JNTO wants to encourage overseas visitors to embark on a journey to discover more of this lesser-known part of Japanese history in its northernmost regions.

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