In Search of the Ainu

Ainu robe

[16th in a series of posts about a recent trip to Japan]

After checking in at La Vista Hakodate Bay in Hakodate, Hokkaido, the concierge overheard us asking some questions and offered to assist us. We were interested in visiting the Museum of the Northern Peoples, which I had read about as an informative place to learn about the Ainu people. The Japanese didn’t live in Hokkaido until the mid 19th century; it was the province of the indigenous people who look very different than Japanese and who share many customs with coastal “Indians” in the United States.  They are also related to the other coastal native tribes in Russia and Sakhalin, including the Oreks.

She was discouraging. “It’s a very small museum with local history only,” she said.

Having been on the train for four hours, we decided to locate the Old British Consulate that I read served high tea in the Victorian Rose Room. Sounded tasty for a change. After a bit of the run around with directions (we literally circuited the park rather than simply heading downhill, where the building was obscure by trees), we found the old consulate and were seated for tea. Her Royal Majesty would have been aghast at the condition of the building, with stains from leaks, weather faded paint, and washed out old travel posters of London and England. However, the tea (English of course) was hot and good, and we enjoyed the egg salad and cucumber finger sandwiches, hot scones, shortbread cookies and pound cake.

Tea in Hakodate

After tea, we strolled down Hakodate’s historic Motomachi Street, briefly stopping at the Funadama Shrine (rebuilt, along with most of the town’s buildings, after a big fire in 1907). Next door, high school had recently been dismissed, but a few bikes remained on the racks, which were separated by class rank. There were rows for the sophomores, rows for the juniors and rows for the seniors, color-coded, no less. Thom explained that such classes are everything in Japan, and uniforms vary by color according to class.

Funadama Shrine

(The next day, when we took the train out of Hakodate, a horde of white-hatted middle-school-aged students were lined up, preparing to board a train for a field trip. No self-respecting student ever leaves on an outing without their uniform hat — and for that matter, they probably wouldn’t be allowed to participate without being in complete uniform.)

We quickly walked around the Russian Orthodox Church, left over from the period when the Russians had a trading influence. (As far back as the Tokugawa period in the 18th century, the Japanese feared invasion by the Russians and sent explorers to investigate. They documented what they saw and produced the earliest images of the Ainus –unflattering ones in which the Ainu look more like apes than humans.)

Hakodate's Russian Orthodox Church

We then walked down the hill to the Museum of the Northern People. It isn’t up to the highly immersive and entertaining standards being set by new museums, but it does house three collections of important artifacts. Seven rooms each contain a group of artifacts focused around a topic or theme: clothing, hunting implements, items associated with their spiritual beliefs, etc. Labels are printed in English as well as Japanese, and each room has at least a plaque with a paragraph of explanation in English.

There are thousands of artifacts here, collected primarily by two men who did research in Sakhalin and Hokkaido in the 1930’s. One, Dr. Sakuzaemon Kodama, eventually established the Northern Culture Laboratory of Hokkaido University.

The Ainu put beautiful designs on everything and believed spirits lived in everything… plants, animals, rocks… everything natural. Seeing their extraordinarily powerful graphic designs will inspire art lovers and anyone interested in coastal “Indians” (first people).

For future reference, the best comprehensive listing of Ainu related sights and museums is produced by the Foundation for Research and Promotion of Ainu Culture: We also discovered a small Ainu shop on Motomachi just north of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the same block as a huge temple with a giant black ceramic tile roof. The owner’s brothers carve many of the items in the store and create necklaces and cloth headbands inspired by Ainu design.

For dinner, we decided on Hakodate Beer, which produces four local beers (ale, Kolsch, Weizen and Alt). The place was packed and as far as we could tell, only two servers were on. Eventually we flagged down the server and were able to order beer, a cheese plate and some grilled vegetables. As we relaxed into our beers, music began. I couldn’t see the singer from where I was sitting, but a grand piano was accompanying an operatic voice that began to sing, “Edelweiss.” Not exactly what you’d find in a brewery at home. (She did, however, move Thom to tears when she sang the theme to Princess Mononoke.)

Live music at Hakodate Beer

Thom and Todd retired to “Shelley’s Bar” on the top floor of the hotel, where they paid a cover charge for the view and had a deep talk.

Next: Studio Ghibli’s “The Wind is Rising”

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