Scenic gorge resounds with history of Ainu

The Yomiuri Shimbun

A photo taken by a drone shows Kamuikotan resplendent in autumn foliage with Kamui Ohashi bridge in the distance.

By Tetsuo Ukai / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer ASAHIKAWA, Hokkaido — Kamuikotan is an area where the Ishikarigawa river flows through a steep gorge. Famous for its colorful autumn leaves, it is a sacred place for the Ainu people. In the Ainu language, “kamui” means deity and “kotan” means abode.

The Ainu traditions and beliefs surrounding this and other places in the Kamikawa region — where locals coexist with kamui — were granted Japan Heritage status this year. The 61st Kotan Matsuri festival was held on the autumnal equinox this year. Ainu in traditional costumes and others gathered in front of the entrance to the Kamui Ohashi bridge to perform ceremonial prayers for safety. Gentle Ainu songs were sung, and participants danced to the sounds of the mukkuri, a traditional instrument resembling a Jew’s harp. Tourists joined in a dancing circle.

The first detailed records about Kamuikotan were made by Takeshiro Matsuura (1818-88), a famous explorer who visited the area as a “wajin,” the term for a non-Ainu Japanese. He is famous for giving Hokkaido its name. The prefecture had previously been called Ezo before the name change 150 years ago.

He was also a pioneer in the field of journalism, authoring the book “Kinsei Ezo Jinbutsu Shi” (Record of recent personages in Ezo) about the difficulties facing the Ainu people.

In 1857, Matsuura and four Ainu explored the river in canoes. They left their gear at the muddy, churning Kotan to walk amid the cliffs and boulders.

Kamuikotan’s features were carved by fast-flowing water. Matsuura’s descriptions of this area in his journal include phrases such as “mountains are very steep, old trees look robust and stones have mysterious shapes,” “a valley echoing with angry water,” and “dragons and serpents seem to be lurking.”

Matsuura also described Ainu myths, such as a collection of holes said to be the mark of a god stepping on stone and a giant boulder said to be the neck of a devil.

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    An exhibit of Ainu-related items at the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Kinenkan

People are not allowed into the more dangerous rocky areas, but I spent 40 minutes pushing through grass and fallen trees to climb a cliff said to be a divine fortress to look down on a grand scene from the top of a Kamui boulder.

Kamuikotan Station, which was opened in 1901 in the Meiji era, is a symbol of the modernization of the area.

The station was closed in 1969 when the rails were removed, but the platform and a nearby tunnel remain. There is a restored station house and steam engine on display, giving one the sense of having gone back in time to the Showa era (1926-89).

Feeling the souls of Ainu

Modernization was hard on the Ainu people. Their land was taken away, and their traditional salmon fishing practices and native language were suppressed, damaging their pride as a people.

Next I visited the Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Kinenkan, a facility commemorating the lives of the Kamikawa Ainu.

Alongside the 500 or so traditional garments, knitted goods and other items on display were several tools used to survey railway lines. These were actually used by Kaneto Kawamura (1893-1977) during his career as a surveyor on lines such as the Sanshin Railway in Nagano Prefecture (now the JR Iida Line), a job that others had refused because of the difficult terrain of the Tenryukyo gorge.

Kaneto, an Ainu who suffered discrimination as a child, was moved by the sight of a steam engine in Asahikawa, according to works such as “Kaneto: Honoo no Ainu Tamashii” (Kaneto: A blazing Ainu soul) by Takeshi Sawada. After graduating from elementary school, he worked hard to become certified as a surveyor. Despite the danger of the work and continued discrimination, he became a foreman at construction sites and helped bring railroads to previously isolated areas.

“The Ainu shouldn’t be seen as weak. They helped Matsuura and the people who settled Hokkaido, playing a role in the modernization of Japan,” said Hisae Kawamura, the facility’s vice director.

The area around Kotan — the abode of the gods — is a place of strong Ainu history.

Names rich in history

For the aboriginal Ainu, Hokkaido was not the land of the north; it was their land.

This is why Matsuura proposed including the Ainu word “kai,” meaning “one who was born on this land,” when naming Hokkaido.

Asahikawa has many street signs in the Ainu language. The Chubetsugawa river that runs south of JR Asahikawa Station used to be called “Chuku Pe,” meaning “autumn river,” for the salmon that would spawn there in the fall. The names of local places reflect history and people’s lives.


Asahikawa Airport is about an hour and 40 minutes by plane from Haneda Airport. JR Asahikawa Station is about 40 minutes by bus from the airport. From there it takes about 40 minutes by car to reach Kamuikotan.

For more information, call the Asahikawa Tourist and Convention Association at (0166) 23-0090.

To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit

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