Handicraft


Shiraoi Hokkaido Ainu's Title NO2

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Exploring Ainu’s Wisdom and Crafts in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon

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When one thinks of Hokkaido, many images surge from the conception of Japan’s northernmost island. Notions of nature, wilderness, mountains, volcanoes, large farms, snow, ice carvings, festivals and ski resorts easily come to mind. So are major events like the Winter Olympics of Sapporo in 1972 or last year’s G8 Hokkaido Summit. If one scratches the surface a little further, one might identify the name of the indigenous people of Japan. After all, the Ainu have been living here for several thousands of years.

On the other hand, we’re probably unaware of the long history of discrimination and the chronicled inferiority complex felt by the Ainu themselves which almost led to their extinction. As a matter of fact, many stories depict the Ainu-Wajin (Japanese) relation as a stream of repulsion for a culture of lesser importance, second rate and not worth keeping. The Ainu elders even stopped teaching their native language to their children to enable them to more easily integrate into mainstream Japanese culture. The embarrassment of being Ainu seems particularly ironic when we know its meaning: Ainu means “human” or a “respectable human”. The government only recognized the rights of this great nation in 1997 with the rather ineffective Ainu Cultural Promotion Law to describe their culture as “unique”. But it takes more than an exhibition of fabrics and other crafts to preserve a culture; teaching language and transmitting values are instrumental to keep the Ainu nation alive. (Please read an insightful interview with Hasegawa Osamu ). According to a 2006 census, the Ainu population in Hokkaido accounted for 23,782 inhabitants while between 2,500 and 10,000 individuals were estimated to be living in Tokyo. This number is probably higher since many are unaware of their origin or hide their true identity. At first glance, one may get discouraged with such an outcome, but the situation has started to change for the Ainu people, like many other things in Japan.

In addition to dedicated ‘backstage’ activists, proud and talented Ainu artists are trying to promote and revitalize their culture to a new level by transcending their folklore: Oki and his Ainu Dub Band are gaining world recognition; and Ainu Rebels led by Mina Sakai are known for fusing traditional music with dance, rock and hip-hop. The international solidarity between aboriginals from around the world, who hold regular meetings every year, is no stranger to the emancipation of Ainu culture. In September 2007, the UN General Assembly passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Japanese Government finally passed a bill which recognizes the Ainu as “the indigenous people of Japan”.

Keeping Ainu Culture Alive:

On 3 October 2009, Kaha:wi, a Mohawk dance company from Canada, is performing at the Red Brick Warehouse, in Yokohama. The theater company will share the stage with Ainu Rebels in a show called: Dance with the Earth. To mark the occasion, Professor Hiroshi Nakagawa of Chiba University will give a lecture on the teachings of Ainu language. In Tokyo, the Restaurant Rera Cise (House of Wind) in Nakano is also a good place for the diffusion of Ainu culture and cuisine.

The Ainu Museum in Shiraoi:

Shiraoi is a small town located some 20 kilometers west of Noboribetsu. There are a few hotels in the area, but Ryokan Okita, just a few minutes from the JR Station, is a good recommendation if you are looking for convenient budget accommodation. The Ainu Museum actually offers more than only a museum. An interesting display of houses (cise) was erected to represent a typical Ainu village. A series of music and dance performances are scheduled every day which allows visitors a great opportunity to learn about this rich and unique culture. Lively entertainers dance around a rectangular fire in the middle of the house with typical instruments, such as a tonkori (plucked string instrument). A woman plays a mukkuri (mouth harp) with rhythms that evoke the Inuits in northern Canada. They take great care to perform correctly as it is said that most Ainu songs are sacred and are often sung to keep evils spirits away.  Performers proudly wear traditional Ainu costumes and headbands embroidered with organic patterns, also designed with the rational of protecting the wearer from evil. If you would like to learn more about Ainu patterns, please visit the superb website by Deborah Davidson, Project U-E-Peker.

Watch an interesting interview with Mina Sakai of Ainu Rebels

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Shiraoi Hokkaido Ainu's houses (Cise)

Shiraoi Hokkaido - Ainu Houses (Cise)

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Ainu's costumes and culture presentation in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Ainu traditional wear and cultural performance - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Ainu's dance around a fire place in indigenous house, Shiraoi. Hokkaido

Ainu dance around a hearth in an indigenous house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Women Musician playing the tonkori (plucked string instrument) in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Musician playing the tonkori (plucked string instrument) - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Ainu's woman musician playing the "bombard" in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Ainu musician playing the "mukkuri" - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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2 women wearing Ainu's costumes with baby bed in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Women wearing Ainu dresses singing a baby to sleep - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Inside an Ainu's house in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Inside an Ainu house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Fishes are being smoked in the ceiling of an Ainu's house in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Fishes are being smoked inside Ainu house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Wall patterns and tatoo on one hand in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Wall patterns and tatoos (hand in photo) - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Women executing Ainu mats'work in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Women weaving an Ainu mat - Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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Title Ainu Article

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Ainu are the first inhabitants of Hokkaido, a major island located  in northern Japan. In a coming article, I will be writing  about the museum of Shiraoi and its enactment of Ainu’s great, but yet endangered culture.

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Kyoto’s Secret: Get a Paper Lantern

Did you ever visit a temple and wonder if you could purchase the beautiful paper lantern you just saw? You ask around, try to make yourself understood, but no one can really tell you if it is possible or not. Then you say:  I should find it in a lantern shop, of course. But where do we find such a place?

If you are in Kyoto, here is a valuable secret for you. Kawashima Chochin Senmon Ten, just west of Kitano Tenmangu Shrine, is a small shop where  articles such as umbrellas and paper lanterns can be found. Just walk in, browse a moment and very soon you will come across used models of lantern which come in different sizes and have a wide variety of characters on them.  It is customary to choose a style or model, specify your design requirements and return back later to get your order.  A trained artist will create the lamp or umbrella according to your specifications: desired characters, crest or images. Of course, you as a tourist can order the same way, if time and money are not an issue; it will cost you between 10,000 and 30,000 yen. But if you can’t, here’s a tip: ask the shop attendants (the lady of the shop in particular) if second hand lanterns are available. She will be happy to repair any apparent defects with wet paper and a bit of glue, and you will get a beautiful lantern for a fraction of the price with little wait! Why bring home a new article without history, when you get away with authenticity?

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Mountain Temple Lantern Style

Paper Lantern with Typical Mountain Crest

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Here is the address:

KAWASHIMA CHÔCHIN SENMON TEN

Kyoto-Shi, Kamigyo-Ku,

Kita-no-Shôbô-Mae, 602-8384

Japan

川島提灯専門店、京都市上京区北野消防署前

(北野天満宮西入)日本 602-8384

Tel/電話番号:075-462-5922

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Recycling Gondolas

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva & Denis Plamondon

Recycling the Gondolas in Nikko

Recycling Gondolas in Nikko

Once hanging in the air for sightseeing or used to climb to the top of a ski hill, old gondolas can easily be recycled for a second life. But for how long? You can find this rather odd phone booth in the village of  Nikko, located a couple of hours North West of Tokyo by train (departing from Asakusa Station).  You can’t miss it if you are on your way to the sacred bridge passing over the Daiya river. By the way, Nikko is not only famous for its temples, but also for its stunning nature, so be prepared to discover. The question is how much longer will you find any public phone around? Recently, I went to a conference at the Tokyo Hilton and I came across a series of telephone boothes with no phones inside! Could there be a third life for a gondola with a public phone in it? A museum, maybe.

Buddhism, for its part, reinvents  itself continuously – recycling is not deemed necessary. Gadgets of our time, with their short life cycle, fade away so quickly while the tradition of Buddhism seems to be more alive than ever in Nikko. If you come to Tokyo, this World Heritage asset is absolutely a “must see” destination. With an early start, you can make it in a day, although you will probably wish you did not have to sacrifice so many temples on the way. Play it wisely and spend a couple of days; it is worth the trip. The site of the first temple was founded in 766 by the monk Shodo-Shonin during the Nara period (710-792) before the capital was moved to Kyoto. With such a long history encrypted in time,  space and every dimension of its architecture and design, Nikko is probably one of the nicest places in Japan to appreciate the richness of colorful mountain temples.

The particularity of this fantastic location comes from the high level of talent invested by its conceptors in building and constructing. By hiring the best artists – sculptors, painters, carpenters, etc. –  emperors and shoguns have directly contributed to Nikko’s celebrity by providing it with the most colorful and delightful temples found in Japan. You will see very few temples with bare wood here. After the death of Shogun Tokugawa Iyeyasu, a mausoleum was erected at the Toshogu Shrine where ashes of the famous shogun were transported. The surrounding nature as well, embeded with such vestiges, are also of high interest.

Nikko Snake bridge over the Daiya River

Nikko Snake bridge over the Daiya River

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Nikko Yomeimon Gate

Nikko Yomeimon Gate

Details of fine sculpture in Nikko

Details of fine wood sculpting in Nikko

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Nikko Yakushido Tour and Lantern

Nikko Yakushido Tour and Lantern

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Nikko Taiyu-In Tour

Nikko Taiyu-In Tour

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Nikko Taiyu-In Kaminari-Mon

Nikko Taiyu-In Kaminari-Mon

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Information to Nikko (Access, Facilities, World Heritage)

Information from the City of Nikko

Kyoto’s Secrets

Coming up, a series of photos from Kyoto’s secrets.

Photos and tips will progressively be added, please visit this site once in a while.

A Traditional Umbrella Shop in Kyoto

wagasa-umbrella-transparent-white-silk-kyoto1
Umbrella-making is a refined art confined to the hands of great and very few artists. There is a small shop with a tiny little display space by one of numerous temples in Kyoto. The Wagasa umbrella shop stands proudly as the “only producer of traditional umbrellas in Kyoto” just by the Hokyo-ji Temple, in a narrow street, only meters from Horikawa Dori. When visiting Kyoto, inquire about this revealed secret. These beautiful umbrellas could cost you quite a fortune, but if you can’t afford them, don’t give up. A shop attendant will be happy to show you a good selection of these superb works of art that are discounted because of minor defects. In time of glory, they were fashionable, an accessory that would complement the traditional wear and bring pride and beauty to its owner while she, and even he, were walking along a river, in a garden or in the streets of the old capital.
Blue sky and rice stars Umbrella Kyoto

Blue sky and rice stars Umbrella Kyoto

These works of art can also give an Asian touch to your apartment without you falling into tacky decoration. Get them for a special event or open one in your office to bring new light in your workplace. If you don’t go to Kyoto, you can order on line. The following link will get you to their website and give access to a lot more information.  More on Wagasa Umbrella Shop

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Head Monk at the Chishaku-In June 15th 2008

Head Monk at the Chishaku-In June 15th 2008

*The aspect of these umbrellas varies in size, shape and colors. Here is a big red umbrella used to protect the head monk from the sun during the must see Chishaku-In Temple festival, held on June 15th. Visit the following site for great pictures and information on this temple and many others in Kyoto. Link to Chishaku-In. When Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana came to Kyoto Palace, a similar, but bigger red umbrella was used for their protection.
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Honen-In Is One of Kyoto’s Secret

Honen-In Kyoto

Honen-In Kyoto

Honen-In is definitely one of these secrets. Small is beautiful, they say. This temple and its garden are just behind the Philosopher’s Path, near Ginkaku-Ji. Get in, discover the beauty of simplicity and breath the peaceful aura of this quiet surrounding.