A 16m high Statue of the Chief of the Community, Kotankorokur greets us at the entrance of the Ainu Village situated in Shiraoi district of Hokkaido, Japan’s most northerly frontier.
This outdoor Ainu museum dates from 1976 under the Shiraoi Foundation for the preservation of Ainu Culture. The Ainu settlement in the Shiraoi district moved to the shores of Lake Poroto in 1965 & the Ainu Folk Museum, a later addition was established in 1984 to exhibit both the tangible & intangible cultural assets & facilitate academic research & study. In 1990 the facility was reopened under the auspices of The Ainu Museum Foundation.
A replica village with 5 main buildings & within each thatched-roof house, the different aspects of Ainu life, customs & culture are explained in detail. Kotan houses were made of natural materials like cogon grass, bamboo grass, barks & logs & the average size of a colony would comprise between 4-7 families.
The cultural performance which lasts about 25 mins is staged hourly within The Fore House.
In 1984 traditional Ainu dance was recognized as a country’s significant intangible folk cultural asset & officially in 2009, a UNESCO intangible cultural asset. It features songs & dances that evoke the natural splendour of the North including ‘Iyomante Rimse’ (Dance to send bears’ spirit back to Heaven), ‘Upopo’ (song performed by singers in a circle), ‘Sarorunchikap Rimse’ (Crane dance), ‘Emus Rimse’ (epic sword dance), ‘Mukkuri’ (mouth harp) & ‘Ifunke’ (Lullaby accompanied by the Mukkuri).
The dimensions of a Chise or house was about 7m by 5m with the entrance set at the west end. A fireplace was usually found near the entrance & it was where the family would gather around. There are 3 windows in the Chise but the one on the east end facing the doorway was deemed to be sacred where the gods entered & exited & where ceremonial tools were taken in & out.
In Ainu language salmon is called ‘Autumn fish’ or sometimes ‘Fish from the gods’. The Ainu caught salmon in huge quantities and used several methods to preserve them including drying, smoking over a slow fire & allowing the fish to freeze in the cold.
The Ainu subsisted on fishing & hunting for Ezo deer, rabbit, fox, raccoon, bears & other animals as well as eagles & birds. Many of their villages were located by the sea or river basins where salmon & trout swam upstream. Besides salmon, Ezo deer was as important a food source for them. The hunting season usually lasted from late Autumn to early Summer when plant gathering & crop cultivation of millet, buckwheat, beans & other food sources became scarce.
The Hokkaido dog belongs the Hound breed & the Ainu people used them in hunting for bears & deer. They are faithful to their masters & are powerful dogs that even the bears are weary of.
The steeply pitched quadrilateral roof allows rain water & melted snow to run off freely. The house frame is pretty strong & can withstand the weight of the snow which is often over a metre deep in some parts of Hokkaido & ocean gales which speed inland from the Pacific.
Inaus can be anything from 5 inches to a foot long, varying in length & thickness & serving different purposes. The ones made from willow were exclusively used for offerings to kamuy – a divine being in Ainu mythology. Those to repel illnesses & evil spirits were typically made from alder. Some Inaus were even made to request assistance for hunting & childbirth & could be used either multiple times or destroyed after one use. To make an Inau, the bark of a branch is first peeled & a ‘Inawke-makiri’ knife used to shave the wood into thin curled strips that form a tuft.
This is the last & smallest of the 5 Chises at Shiraoi’s Poroto Kotan.
Lake Poroto has a circumference of about 4km & its name in Ainu means ‘the Great Swamp’. A large forested area surrounds the lake.
A place of natural beauty, there are lakeside campsites & activities such as walking trails, bird watching, smelt fishing & ice skating on the frozen lake in winter.
In late October the changing colours of the Autumn leaves, clear blue skies & beautiful sunsets reflected on the lake’s surface is a splendid sight to behold.
There is a small café within Poroto Kotan which serves refreshments & simple meals including some traditional Ainu food & snacks. We were in no hurry to leave & had a cup of hot coffee to keep warm & also enjoy the tranquil surroundings. Though the museum grounds are not large, it is still worth a visit just to watch the unique cultural performances live & to view the comprehensive exhibits & gain an insight & appreciation of the Ainu heritage.