Thursday, 22 July 2010


On the second day of our trip to Hokkaido, we rose early, a full itinerary ahead. Breakfast in the hotel was a concoction of Japanese and English choices, scrambled eggs, cauliflower and eel? (mmm my favorite). Donning even more layers of clothing than the previous evening and looking like Eskimos, we made our way to the train station. The snow had stopped but the skies cloudy with a promise of showers later in the day.

We caught the underground train taking us to the outer sprawling suburbs about 45 minutes away. From here it was another 45 minutes by bus to the Ainu Museum. We discovered the buses were very infrequent, whether because it was the winter season or always the case I don't know. About 15 minutes into the journey we were already into the countryside, snow piled 12 feet high on both sides of the road. The hills of Hokkaido giving a very distinct outline, small mounds, snow covered but with dark striations of silver birch trunks, the top of each hill having a darker outline where the trees grew thickest. You will get the idea from the photographs in the next post. I mentioned to Louise the vista would make a wonderful pen and ink drawing.  A few weeks later, at a temple market, looking through a box of Shikishi I found exactly what I had in mind, a great find! (see following photos).

The electronic information sign on the bus was in Kanji and the voice a little fast for us to hear, so as we neared the museum site once again Louise's SatNav took over and we alighted at what we hoped was the right stop. Out in the middle of nowhere, the surroundings were all that we had hoped for, when leaving the bustle of the city behind. The Ainu Museum was about 10 minutes walk sitting next to Hosen Onsen. There was no one in sight and we began to imagine (well I did anyway) that we were explorers of the frozen Northlands! as we walked down the hill towards the museum. We passed a huskie type dog who took exception to us intruding and started barking loudly. Suddenly we heard chanting, similar to Native American Indian singing, echoing in the forests and hills around us, actually it was a little spooky but a good idea from the museum. Obviously when we passed a certain point it triggered the chanting played through speakers high in the trees.

The museum ahead, it was perfect an old Ainu village was set-up around the museum building and I had the impression we had come at the best time of the year, the snow covered huts in the silent landscape, it was beautiful. Suddenly out of the largest hut a group of schoolchildren emerged, chattering and laughing, with pencils and paper at the ready. It was a school trip and apart from them we were the only visitors that day. The children told us they were doing a project at school on Ainu culture and had learnt some words in their language.

A sign said 'photography allowed' great for us! We made our way around the exhibition of Ainu garments and crafts needed to live in harmony with this North island. The museum is actually called 'The Centre for Promotion of Ainu Culture, Pirka Kotan'. The displays were really fascinating and you could tell, like in most ethnic cultures, nothing was wasted ie. salmon was eaten but the outer skins used to make clothing and shoes.

In earlier times the Ainu did not have access to cotton for clothing, so used animal and fish skins, also woven bark, used for the now famous ceremonial costumes (again see the next post for photographs of weaving loom and ceremonial robe). Later the Ainu people traded with the peoples further south for cotton, most clothing was then made of cotton, still with applique designs, footwear made from indigo strengthened with sashiko stitching. Ainu people were traditionally great carvers and the carvings on the weapons and utensils reminded me of Celtic designs. Later around the middle of the 20th century, their culture banned, they survived by carving bears to make a living. These Ainu bears are collectable today and there have been some very famous carvers and fine works. The bear (in Hokkaido large brown bear, known in Japanese as Higuma) was a very important part of Ainu culture, together with the Eagle Owl, these were treated as gods and worshipped. I noticed in the foyer of the museum a Native American Totem pole from the east coast, apparently a gift to the Ainu people, there being many similarities between the two cultures.

The schoolchildren gone, we spent a few hours totally alone, taking many photographs and absorbing as much information as we could. Inside the Ainu dwellings surrounding the museum, we learnt more about Ainu life, in the largest hut, the main focus was a large fireplace used for cooking and warmth, situated directly below a hole in the roof where the smoke could rise. Fish held in nets, over the fire, high in the beams, would be smoked and so last longer in the winter season when hunting may become more difficult (again see in the photo section) As we emerged from the last hut, again as if on cue, it started to snow heavily.

With 45 minutes until our bus was due, we thought about the Onsen next to the museum but with so many layers of clothes and the very cold temperatures we decided against it. I was eager to investigate the surrounding countryside but Louise had had enough! she waited in the tiny bus shelter, taking photos on her mobile and sending to her friends in Osaka, who were green with envy. I walked past a row of small wooden houses, to the woods beyond and into virgin snow, walking becoming a little difficult but my camera at the ready! At the edge of the trees there were rows of plants covered with straw conical shaped cups for protection against the harsh winter conditions, see photo. I'm pretty sure bears of Hokkaido hibernate during the winter months and meeting one didn't cross my mind, but when I returned home I read there are quite a lot of bears in the countryside and tourists have been attacked and occasionally killed. But at that time I walked nonchalantly amongst the trees, covered with falling snow, my feet completely numb. I think it was a Zen moment, a feeling of total peace and contentment sweeping over me.

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