Exploring the world of the Ainu people

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Shikerepe camping participants and Taichi Kaizawa, third from right, hold the agricultural tools they made in front of a log house in Biratori, Hokkaido.

By Masahiro Usui / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterBIRATORI, Hokkaido — In April 2020, the government will open the Symbolic Space for Ethnic Harmony in the town of Shiraoi, Hokkaido. The purpose of this national center will be to promote people’s understanding of the culture of Ainu, who are indigenous people of the country.

Efforts to pass down Ainu culture are already being made in the private sector. One example is the Shikerepe overnight camping event held in the town of Biratori, offering people the opportunity to experience the spiritual culture of Ainu.

Most of the residents in Biratori’s Nibutani district are Ainu descendants. The campsite is located in the forest along the Shikerepegawa river, which runs off the Sarugawa river. Ainu folk tales and traditions can be found in the area.

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    The campers plow the soil with their handmade shittapu tools.

Shikerepe refers to the fruit of the amur cork tree in the Ainu language. The fruit was often used as food and medicine by Ainu people.

Taichi Kaizawa, 46, from the Nibutani district, started the camping event in March in the hope of allowing more people to “casually experience Ainu culture.” I joined the second event, which was held for two days in late May.

Peeling back layers

“Ainu are often described as hunter gatherers,” Kaizawa told the group of five men and women aged from in their 20s to their 60s. They had come from Tokyo, Sapporo and other places. “However, a large amount of crop seeds were found at ruins in the prefecture. So, we now know that the Ainu also farmed.”

The campers then tried their hand at making agricultural tools used by Ainu people to turn over soil, such as a step hoe called a shittapu, and a gardening hoe called a nishittapu.

Kaizawa wowed his audience by peeling the bark from branches of fallen maple and white birch trees. “You can easily peel the bark from living branches like these,” he said.

“Ainu people never forget to be grateful to nature, even when cutting tree branches,” he said.

That night, a deer meat dish was served, and we stayed up late talking about all sorts of things, such as an uuepekere (folk tale) we heard earlier in the day at a porochise (big house). We also discussed the things that had recently moved us, and also the true meaning of wealth. We heard Yezo shika deer calling out softly in the forest.

Preserving culture

“Plant trees instead of making a dam. We must not cut down the trees in the mountains for 200 years.” Kaizawa’s grandfather, Tadashi, who died 25 years ago, used to tell his family this.

Kaizawa’s father, Koichi, 71, is a former landowner and plaintiff who appealed to the Hokkaido prefectural government to recall a court decision to seize land to construct the Nibutani dam. Koichi was also instrumental in having Ainu people legally recognized as indigenous people.

But Koichi was also worried about his son’s activities, saying, “It’s not easy to change people’s ways of thinking.”

However, Kaizawa said: “Things are different now from when my grandfather and father grew up. We should stay in line with the times and help people understand the Ainu.”

Early the next day, the campers broke up soil on the farm with the agricultural tools they had made the previous day and planted inakibi grains. The grains are an ingredient of a festive dish called Shito, which is cooked to remember ancestors and to say thanks for a plentiful harvest. Shikerepe campers can harvest the crop in autumn.

“[The god] Kamui resides in all things natural,” said participant Hiroshi Kariya, a 45-year-old company employee. “I empathize with the Ainu idea that humans are a part of nature.”

As Kaizawa explained to everyone: “You might find a kind of wealth that can be obtained simply by getting rid of some of the conveniences of your modern daily lives.”

Those who are interested in learning about Ainu culture while camping should contact Kaizawa via email at in English or Japanese.


The town Biratori got its name from pira utoru, which means “between cliffs” in Ainu. The Ainu people living along the Sarugawa river, which horizontally cuts through the town, are called the Sarunkuru. They formed a cultural community that became influential among all of Hokkaido’s Ainu people.

There is a legend in the town that a god called Okikurumikamui taught the Ainu people how to hunt and fish. The area is said to be holy ground for the Ainu.

In 1878, British travel writer Isabella Bird arrived in Japan through Yokohama and headed to this area. She wrote about her interactions with the local Ainu people in her book, “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.”

Linguist Kyosuke Kindaichi first encountered “Yukara” Ainu tales in Biratori in 1906. Documents he wrote at the time became the basis of his Ainu literature studies.

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