Shiraoi Hokkaido Ainu's Title NO2


Exploring Ainu’s Wisdom and Crafts in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

By Denis Plamondon

Photos by Sandra D’Sylva and Denis Plamondon


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


Shiraoi Hokkaido Ainu's houses (Cise)

Shiraoi Hokkaido - Ainu Houses (Cise)


Ainu's costumes and culture presentation in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Ainu traditional wear and cultural performance - Shiraoi, Hokkaido


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

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


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

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


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

Ainu musician playing the "mukkuri" - Shiraoi, Hokkaido


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

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


Inside an Ainu's house in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Inside an Ainu house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido


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

Fishes are being smoked inside Ainu house - Shiraoi, Hokkaido


Wall patterns and tatoo on one hand in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

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


Women executing Ainu mats'work in Shiraoi, Hokkaido

Women weaving an Ainu mat - Shiraoi, Hokkaido



How Sustainable is Tuna Fishing?

By Denis Plamondon

(Article en français sur le marché de Tsukiji)

Don’t we all love to eat a few delicious slices of sashimi in a Japanese restaurant? Tuna fish is often regarded as one of our favorites.  As global warming expands and industrial fishing continues to drag larger numbers further and faster into the oceans, this exquisite experience will surely come to an end. Here are a few articles to consider:

The future of tuna: The Economist

A more Sustainable Tuna: The Washington Post

How sustainable is your Tuna : Mongabay

Tesco takes shark-fin of the shelves : Greenpeace UK

Urgency: Tuna in the Coral Triangle


This serious problem is just the tip of the iceberg. The crucial question now is: what will be left for our children to eat? We do not have to stop eating tuna, but we can change the way we do things. Global warming should be at the top of our priorities!

Frozen Tuna at the Tsukiji Fish Market Auction, Tokyo

Frozen Tuna at the Tsukiji Fish Market Auction, Tokyo

Real action for the Poorest:

“Hope at the Hilton Week”

April 12th to the 19th

You keep saying you care for the planet and its sustainability, right? What about the people who live on it? You do too, aren’t you? So, here are some original ways to show it and help to its sustainability without digging too deep into your pocket. Hope International Japan wants to reach to you during the “Hope at the Hilton Week” from April 12th to the 19th in Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka. The international community as well as all Japanese is invited to join in this global effort to support the poor nations to bring dignity and development to its populations. The beauty of this operation is a win-win relation on all fronts; you can even be acting from the comfort of your home.

Travel and Leisure Auction Event

For example, you can access the online Travel & Leisure Auction on the following link: The auction opens at noon on April 12th and closes at 18:00 P.M. on April 19th. There will be over 40 Hilton Packages up for bid plus a few other interesting items including adventure holidays in Japan, a trek bicycle, etc. Check the prizes you can win: See the Prizes.

Help While Having a Hair Cut for a Fair Price

You can have a Hair Cut for just 2000 yen and 100% of the money goes to HOPE. Book the date on your agenda and have your hair done for a fair price and help other earth citizens to drink clean water. This event is held all day on Monday, April 13th, from 10 A.M. to 18:00 P.M.
Call this number: 052-204-0530 or send a request at:

What is Hope International Development Agency

Hope is an International Non-Profit Organization who supports dedicated volunteers from all over the world and focuses its mission on the urgent needs of the poorest of us on the planet. The organization targets 1 million people in Central America, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and South East Asia with their urgent and crucial needs. We all have an opportunity, here, to do something about it during the “Hope at the Hilton Week” Events. Learn more about this organization:

Soon: A Sayonara Sale on Line for Hope Projects

The international community on Japan will be happy to know that Hope will soon launch a permanent online “Sayonara Sale website” where to sell its recycled goods and its sayonara sale items. Earnings from these sales will then be turned to Hope projects. Keep an eye on this very practical service to come.

What else can you do:

Please talk about this Hope at the Hilton Week in the coming days. Get the poster and spread the news: Click here to get the poster.
Watch a video on YOUTUBE: Hope Water Japan
If you want to “Comment”  Please go back at the beginning of this article

Earth Hour in Japan was too bright

Here is a short follow-up to earth hour in Japan. I tried to monitor some newspaper and other media about this event in Japan. It was not a big concern, I found. So here is a video about this worldwide event that start in Sydney in 2007. Will Japan be more involved in 2010? We should hope so. Click on this link to watch a 3:13 minute good video on this event.

Special Earth Hour Sutra

Candles at Fushimi Inari Kyoto

Candles at Fushimi Inari Kyoto

I visited the Earth Hour Web Site and wanted to use the widget showing the time left before the Earth Hour , selection by country. On the roll down selector, I realized Japan was not on the list then (it has been corrected since). Whatsoever, some friends invited us over and we decided that we will bring candles for this very special moment. If you read this article in time, remember to switch off your light for one hour Saturday night, march 28th, wherever you are on the planet. The gesture is to show your support and vote for the planet. If you keep the light on, you are actually voting for the Global Warming.
A candle light gives us some inner peace. If you live in a city, watch the skyline change for a little while. We might save energy during this hour, but the target here is different: the world leaders are meeting in Copenhagen, they must get the message of 1 billion earth voters. Leave a trace of what you think. Visit the Earth Hour website and vote in one way or another.
Vote Earth and find out How on this link

Did you see any difference?

Mrs. Tambourine Woman in Shibuya

Mrs Tambourine Women playing jazz in Kimonos and beating for a Slot Machine in Shibuya

Mrs Tambourine Women in Kimonos advertizing for a Slot Machine in Shibuya

Sunday March 15th,

A burlesque fanfare captivated my attention while walking through the animated streets of Shibuya, Tokyo. A clarinetist performs his jazz on his corner while two lively women dressed in Kimonos keep the beat on their drums to attract customers into the Slot Machine Parlor just behind them. The sign of her board says something like “It’s a 5 Yen Slot, Anyway, Play”.

Mrs Tambourine Women Shibuya

Mrs Tambourine Women Shibuya

Pedestrians pass by, more amused than interested. It is just funny to see a traditional outfit with such a vaudeville like performance. The “manga” cartoon behind them has something to do with being in the middle of a big tilt.

Mrs Tamoubine Woman by a Screamer

Mrs Tamoubine Woman by a Screamer

I stayed a while to see how successful they would be to bring in customers in the Pachinko building. But they don’t seem to have such luck. Meanwhile, there is a foreigner distributing some pamphlets behind me. He delivers them, one at the time, parsimoniously, choosing his target. He offers me one. There is a shop with good sales, nearby, apparently. But this is not the reason he came to me. I did not shave this morning, because my pearl comes back from overseas tonight; she likes this kind of rough look of an unshaven man. Is it why this fellow asks me if I want to get some “Guja” or “Gaja”?

I said “What?” A bit surprised. I do have an idea of what he is referring to, but I never knew the term, here in Japan. So, he repeated something like “Want some Gaja”?. I ask him to say it again, because I couldn’t understand clearly with his so “cool” accent. He lowers his voice like Austin Power would do with something else in mind, though, and mentions that he has some marijuana to sell! Well, well. I could only decline. If you read this blog and you know the right term, please bring me out of ignorance and give a comment on this short article.

Mrs Tambourine Women Tsukuji

Mrs Tambourine Women Tsukuji

Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, The Tambourine Women advertize another delicacy in the Tsukuji area, around the fish market. Life must go on.