A feast of culture on Hokkaido menu

Modernization and industrialization have ensured that the traditional lifestyle of the Ainu has been destroyed as thoroughly as the traditional customs of their Japanese neighbours.

— by Ainu historian Richard Siddle, in “Japan’s Ainu: Refusing to Fade Away,” in the EastAsia@Sheffield newsletter, June 2002

The Ainu of Hokkaido, the northern island transformed into an internal colony of Japan from 1869, have yet to be recognized as indigenous people by the Japanese government. The lack of an international definition of “indigenous peoples” has been cited as a reason for the government’s inaction. Amazingly, the Ainu Cultural Promotion Act, passed in May 1997, manages to make no direct reference to Ainu people.

In addition, despite former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto stating in 1997 that it was a “historical fact” that the Ainu lived in Hokkaido before the Wajin (ethnic Japanese), the government’s submission to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in July 1997 stated that the land on which they lived was, and is, koyu no ryodo (inherent Japanese territory).

Such an interpretation allows recognition of the indigenous nature (senjusei) of the Ainu, while denying them indigenous rights (senjuken).

Both despite and because of such marginalization, Ainu people have been steadily acquiring the self-confidence to express themselves in an increasing variety of fields. Ainu politicians, writers, musicians, artists, actors and designers — such as Shigeru Kayano, Oki Kano, Takashi Ukaji and Tamami Kaizawa among others — are signs of the renaissance under way.

Meanwhile, branching out into the culinary field is Ashiri Kotan (New Village) — the only restaurant in Sapporo serving Ainu cuisine. In fact, apart from a couple of tourist cafes in the Ainu Kotan (Ainu Village) by Lake Akan, Ashiri Kotan is the only Ainu restaurant in the whole of Hokkaido. Paradoxically, however, in Tokyo, Rera Chise (House of Wind) has been operating since 1994 (see JT review, May 16, 2001, at — begging the question of why there are so few Ainu restaurants in Ainu Moshir (the land of the Ainu) itself?

“Well, due to the way we have been treated historically, until recently Ainu people didn’t have the confidence to present themselves so publically. That was because they were worried about prejudice,” according to Koji Yuki, a founder member of the Sapporo-based Ainu Art Project, the collective that opened Ashiri Kotan on Sept. 15, 2003, to coincide with the annual Asir Chep Nomi (Salmon Thanksgiving Ceremony) in Sapporo.

“It’s a new generation now, we’re more open-minded,” Yuki enthused. “From now on, we’ve got lots of plans and ideas.” He explained that last summer the opportunity arose to run a cafe for two months rent-free. After that, he said the group developed the idea for a native restaurant, citing “our team’s group power, which is the essence of our we-dentity.”

On a recent visit to Ashiri Kotan with Masayoshi Kanzaki, of the Ainu Timuzu newspaper, we were first presented with some complementary venison nibbles to go with my Yebisu draft and teetotaler Kanzaki’s Coke. After that, we asked chef Masayoshi Hayasaka to serve us some house specialities. First up was gyoza with kitopiro (wild garlic grass), a common ingredient in Ainu cooking that’s known as gyoja ninniku in Japanese and is picked from May onward all over Hokkaido and is also sold in supermarkets. Unlike typical ramen-shop gyoza, these were meaty and not at all watery.

This was followed by some juicy kitokamu (pork flavored with kitopiro) sausages, made to a recipe created by the other chef, Katsuya Shintani, together with pumpkin shito (dumplings) — which are staples at Ainu festivals and ceremonies — but with the novel addition of melted cheese. According to Hayasaka, these dishes are the most popular ones with customers, about half of whom are tourists from Kanto who found out about Ashiri Kotan from the Internet or through Ainu groups in Tokyo.

Next, after Kanzaki explained that chep is the Ainu word for salmon — as well as having the meanings of “what we eat” and “staple food” — we decided to plump for some chep saute. Here, this king of fish was served with a thick sauce made from garlic, apples, soy sauce and a secret little something that left you wanting to lick the plate clean. Kanzaki, being the kind who doesn’t feel he’s eaten unless he’s had some rice, then polished off some assorted onigiri (rice balls), which came with homemade kimchi (spicy Korean-style pickle).

With that, our culinary tour of Ainu Moshir was complete — and at just 4,000 yen for two, it had been not just delicious, but downright reasonable.

However, our visit was more than just a food experience. The warm, homey atmosphere is complemented by numerous examples of Ainu artwork and handicrafts hanging from the walls, many of which were made by AAP members.

As well, instead of the manga comics found in many similar establishments, the little bookshelf contained a number of Ainu-related books, pamphlets and museum catalogs. Throughout the evening, videos of old ethnographic film footage of Ainu life set to music, and videos of AAP’s many live performances, were also playing on a small television set. And although the bar seems a bit small for most Ainu dances, we were told that the tonkori (a Sakhalin Ainu stringed instrument) dotted around the bar occasionally get a twang.

As well as occasionally helping out in the restaurant, AAP members carve, weave, stitch, embroider and fashion various traditionally inspired arts and crafts in a small workshop on the second floor.

The group, formed at the end of 2000, is made up of three extended Ainu families and some non-Ainu members, presently numbering about 30 people in all.

Although the original aim of the group was just to meet, sing and dance, teaching younger members in the process, most of the adults’ livelihoods have come to revolve around their arts and crafts. “Our singing and dancing practice sessions used to be about 90 percent play and 10 percent practice,” Yuki said with a laugh, “but it was good just to get together.”

Now, though, it seems their practice has borne fruit. Demand for the group’s live shows is increasing, and already this year they have performed twice at the National Ethnological Museum in Osaka, toured Kumejima Island in Okinawa, and played at many events in and around Sapporo. In addition to holding a number of exhibitions, in April they opened a commercial gallery in Sapporo and a shop at a new Jusco superstore on the outskirts of Asahikawa. Simply called Ainu Art Project Gallery and Ainu Art Project Shop, respectively, both establishments indicate how busy the group is.

Further afield, four men from AAP traveled to Maui Island in Hawaii in May to become the first representatives ever from Japan at the International Festival of Canoes. For this, they built an itaomachip, a traditional Ainu seafaring boat. The group also participated in the World Peace and Prayer Day held by Mount Fuji on June 21 and presided over by Lakota spiritual leader Chief Arvol Looking Horse, at which many indigenous representatives from around the globe were also present.

“A long time ago, the land belonged to kamuy [spirit deities], so people made a kotan [village] and lived in it,” said Yuki, explaining the restaurant’s name. “Now we can no longer do that. But in our minds and hearts we can follow our Ainu philosophy and build an Ashiri Kotan.”

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