Friday, October 9, 2009

Hokkaido Part III: Showa Shinzan and the Ainu Museum

In Abashiri we enjoyed a quiet sunset walk along the river, and saw a couple of Russian tourists. In the morning we took the train to Sapporo where we stopped by Autumn Fest, which is really Oktoberfest and consisted mainly of people drinking and eating outside. No polkas or waltzes.

In the morning Itsumi flew back to Tokyo while I took a train and bus to Lake Toya, a beautiful round caldera lake. Lake Toya, the center of a collapsed volcano, is surrounded by several active volcanos making a beautiful view from any direction. There are four small islands in the center of the lake.
I checked into a youth hostel and rented a bicycle and rode up to Showa Shinzan, which means New Showa Mountain.
In the early 1940s this place was just a wheat field but from 1943 through 1945 a series of earthquakes raised it to a plateau. Then the volcano surged up out of the ground eventually creating a 1,200 foot volcanic mountain, which is still smoking today.

Since Showa Shinzan came into being in the midst of World War II, Japanese authorities tried to hush it up and even urged the locals to douse the volcanic flames (they didn't) so that Allied aircraft couldn't use them for orientation.
Today, Showa Shinzan has become a tourist destination and visitors can take a cable car up the neighboring and much larger Mount Usu for panoramic views of Showa Shinzan, Lake Toya and the Pacific Ocean. Mount Usu is also an active volcano, with its most recent eruptions in 1977 and in 2000.Above is an apartment building damaged during a mudflow caused by the 2000 eruption. We are looking at the second floor, as the first was buried in mud. The damage caused to the corner of the building was caused by a huge steel highway bridge that was carried into the building by the mudflow.

Showa Shinzan seen from the higher Mt. Usu
A smoking crater on the side of Mt. Usu, above the Pacific Ocean

Also at Showa Shinzan I visited an Ainu museum, which consisted of a replica of a traditional Ainu house complete with Ainu tools, clothing, and arts and crafts.

The docent, a woman who is half Ainu and half Japanese, dressed me in Ainu clothing and took my picture, and gave me a gift of a beautifully embroidered tissue case.

The Ainu are the original inhabitants of Hokkaido, northern Honshu and Sakhalin, an island which now belongs to Russia. Compared with other Japanese, the Ainu have rounder eyes, lighter skin and more facial hair, and some people believe they come from Caucasian origins.

Whatever their origin, they suffered greatly when Japan encouraged Japanese "settlement" of Hokkaido for farming in the 1800s. The Ainu faced cultural destruction and discrimination, but in the last three decades there has been a greater appreciation of the Ainu culture.
The tools and clothing and household items I saw in the Ainu museum reminded me of things I've seen in Native American museums in the U.S. and Canada.
In fact, the item on the left in the above photo is marked "Inuit glasses." I'm not sure if the Ainu used the same type of glasses or whether the museum just threw whatever they could find together.
I think the similarity I noticed is because of a similarity in lifestyle, as hunting and fishing in Hokkaido must be similar to hunting and fishing the the Pacific Northwest, and maybe because of a similarity in the way dominant cultures portray indigenous cultures in museum exhibits, as a people of the past who lived a simple life in harmony with nature and reduced to the tools and household items we can see in a museum.

The Hokkaido tourist brochure has a two-page spread on the Ainu. The title is "In Harmony with Nature" and the brochure speaks of the Ainu in the past tense, describing their traditional lifestyle, religion, clothing and dances, with glossy photos to promote tourism. One can see Native American cultures marketed for tourism in exactly the same way, in brochures produced by state and local governments. These brochures, almost always written in the past tense, glorify a culture of the past, but seldom mention the modern lives of the people whose culture they market.

Because of the language barrier, I couldn't ask the Ainu/Japanese docent any questions about her life or culture today, but she did tell me that she is from Asahikawa, which has the largest Ainu population in Hokkaido.


dosankodebbie said...

Hi. I'm a Hokkaido-based translator working with Ainu folklore, and I just wanted to say I enjoyed reading your post. It shows a lot more insight about the Ainu than other travel blogs I've read. I look forward to going through your earlier posts and getting to know you. Please visit if you are interested in Ainu folklore and other aspects of Ainu culture.

K said...

Thanks, Debbie, for your comment! I really don't know anything about the Ainu other than what I got from a few minutes of reading and the impression I got from the museum I visited in Showa Shinzan, but I learned a bit more from checking out your great website just now. Thank you for sharing it. I posted a link to your site on my blog. Thanks for making this information available.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I love this; you did a really great job putting the facts out there, and it's quite heartwarming. Even though I'm part of a younger generation, I feel like it will be the fault of the Japanese if we let this culture die. Spreading knowledge about the Ainu culture/history to non-Japanese people has become my "part-time job", haha. So needless to say, I really enjoyed reading such a informative post.