Ayaka Ono is not an Ainu but has long been fascinated by the indigenous inhabitants of Hokkaido. Last year, she even became a performer of one of their traditional dances.

The 18-year-old, currently a sophomore at a high school in Kushiro, eastern Hokkaido, is a member of the Akanko Ainu Theater Ikoro near Lake Akan.

At the theater, Ono performs the classical “futtarechui” dance of Ainu girls alongside other female dancers clad in traditional costumes embroidered with patterns said to ward off evil. Shaking her head up and down, she swings her hair wildly to portray a pine tree swayed by winds.

Ono has also learned to perform the “sarorunrimuse” crane dance, stretching her arms to evoke a red-crowned crane’s flapping of its wings.

“I would like to express the Ainu people’s culture and belief that they are always protected by the gods and they should be grateful for the benefits of nature,” Ono said in an interview, adding that she has practiced hard in order to perform as many Ainu dances as possible.

The classical Ainu dance has been designated by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as an intangible cultural asset and is believed to have more than 200 different kinds of choreographies, each of which represents the movement of an animal and plant.

The Ainu offer their respect and gratitude to the gods by performing the dance.

Ono grew up near Lake Akan, where the Ainu people have formed a community called “kotan” in the Ainu language.

She was always surrounded by traditional Ainu musical instruments and craftworks, such as the “mukkuri” (a Jew’s harp usually made from bamboo) and wooden carvings of figures.

Last spring, she was asked by a relative who worked for the theater whether she was interested in becoming a dancer.

Ono started learning the basics of the dance from women of Ainu descent while enrolled in a high school correspondence course and receiving training to be a fisherman.

Ono, who has also engaged in classical Japanese dance, said, “It was challenging until I got used to it, as the way of using the hands and legs and setting the tempo is completely different (from Japanese dance.)”

Members of the theater perform as many as six times a day during the peak season in summer. Ono seems eager to do likewise.

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