The first time I visited Hokkaido, I fell in love and got married. My wife is an Ainu Japanese and Hokkaido has been the home of the Ainu indigenous people for the past 1,000 years. Their history is filled with wars with the mainland Honshu “Wajin” Japanese who invaded Hokkaido to control their resources.

Today Hokkaido is a popular tourist destination for both foreign and local visitors to this northernmost island of Japan. For the past 16 years my wife and I have been making our annual “pilgrimage” trips back to Hokkaido to visit her family and friends, many of whom are also Ainu descendants. In the past, the Ainu people often hid their identity for fear of being discriminated by the mainstream Japanese people, but today many Ainu people, especially among the younger generations have begun to feel proud of their lineage, identity, history and culture.

Historical Village - typical fishing village in the past
Ainu dried salmon

Being married to an Ainu and accepted into their community, I am obviously in a rather advantageous position to taste lots of delicious and authentic Ainu and Japanese food, especially fresh and delicious sashimi, and also an assortment of Salmon fish dishes. Incidentally the Salmon fish is a traditional and customary food of the Ainu people and they often use it in their cultural ceremonies.

One of my favourites is the whole sun dried Hokkaido Salmon fish, a very traditional food of the Ainu people. In the olden days during the extremely cold winter months in Hokkaido, fish, and some other seafood were preserved by hanging them outside or from the ceiling of their traditional Ainu “Chise” house. My favourite go-to place to satisfy my annual craving for Ainu dried salmon was the Shiraoi Ainu Museum, which happened to be headed by my wife’s close buddy who diligently kept one whole fish for us each year when we visited him at the museum. (The museum has ceased operations currently and being incorporated into a larger and brand new museum which will open in April 2020 at the same location).

Historical village - a 19th century Dojo, martial arts training hall

In my last 20 trips to Hokkaido, I have tried to see new places and indulge myself in fresh seafood, an iconic feature of Hokkaido. During my last trip to Hokkaido to visit my “Ainu family” I was strongly recommended by them to visit the ‘Hokkaido Museum’ (Mori no Charenga) and the adjacent ‘Historical Village of Hokkaido’ (Kaitoko no Mura).

Since my wife comes from many generations of Ainu, some of whom are believed to have migrated from the Siberian vastlands centuries ago, I thought it would be cool to “hang out” with her ancestors, even though it was in a museum and historical village setting. Many Ainu friends also insisted that I should get the full effect of Hokkaido’s past and the Ainu people’s colorful history by visiting both places.

Historical village - old advertising shop making banners
Hokkaido museum - Towards Our Time Section exibits Hokkaido changes through the years

Walking up the steps to the front door of the Hokkaido museum which rests on a high plateau overlooking the Nopporo Forest Park and suburbs of Sapporo, I could really feel the cool, fresh air and serene natural environment. In fact, it is actually quite pleasant just to sit on the benches in the courtyard while enjoying a hot coffee and pastry, and soaking in the warm morning sun and clear blue sky especially during the spring months of May and June.

I was rather surprised the Hokkaido museum actually devoted a whole section to displaying and exhibiting the history and culture of the Ainu people. The museum which opened its doors to the public in 2015, is also a research base to study and investigate the relationship between the natural environment and modern day Japanese people especially the Ainu indigenous peoples and their way of life in Hokkaido.

Hokkaido museum - Hokkaido flora and fauna collection

It was at the museum that I learnt that many Hokkaido place names and culinary practices such as the Air dried whole Salmon fish have continued to be part of the social and cultural life in Hokkaido. For instance, it seems the capital city of “Sapporo” got its name from a play of Ainu words “Sap” (Dry) and Poro (Wide), ” probably describing the city’s landscape.

Of course in the usual Japanese orderly fashion, museum exhibits are well documented, organized and presented through audio-visual aids (some are interactive), and print materials. I have visited many museums in Japan in the past and each time I have felt disappointed because most of these places did not have English language translations, which is quite frustrating.

But at this museum, I was pleasantly surprised as they have a really cool facility – the free cellular phone museum exhibition guide application, the ‘pocket curator’ with 12 language selections including English. We just had to download the apps, sign in, and foreign non-Japanese visitors can hear descriptions of exhibits in their own chosen languages.

Historical Village - hanging bridge in a mountain community

My next quest in trying to show off to my Ainu wife that I also know a lot about Ainu stuff brought me to the “The Historical Village of Hokkaido” just a short and pleasant 10 minute walk down the road from the Hokkaido Museum. I realised later that this is really a must-visit place which covers a sprawling 54 hectares of land with over 52 sites and 60 recreated structures.

I must admit that roaming the vast museum grounds and getting up close and “mingling” with the life size figurines and actually stepping into the antiquated buildings made me feel a little eerie, as if being caught in a time warp moment or worse, in a “Zombie” movie.

It really takes stamina and determination to actually walk the spread out village museum to enjoy its showcase of Hokkaido in the 19-20th century. Thank God for my weekly bouts of swimming laps back home which helped me plod through 2 hours of walking through this amazing place filled with carefully crafted detailed exhibits and reconstructed buildings.

Writer Tan Jo Hann (5th from left) at his traditional Ainu wedding

I was able to truly appreciate and experience the sense of being brought back in time at the four locations depicting fishing, farming, mountain and town areas. In each location there are also bi-lingual information boards explaining the history, architecture, construction, and relevant details about each structure and its significance to the respective communities.

It seems the village also offers interesting live demonstrations on the mechanics of a hand-operated platen press, creation of straw craftwork pieces, and blacksmith works. But since we were there during the off-season, we did not get to see these presentations. One of the caretakers of the village shared with us that visitors usually get a thrill doing the winter horse carriage ride when they get to wear old winter clothes, enjoy sledding, bamboo skiing and other winter activities of the olden days.

Historical Village - restaurant soup ramen

After the long trek around the village, we finally rewarded ourselves by checking out the museum’s restaurant which offers a small but decent and tasty menu of local grilled mochi rice cakes, bento rice set lunches, and ramen soup noodles.

And so ended my short mission to further deepen my understanding, appreciation and love for Hokkaido’s past and the Ainu people’s culture, and of course, my wife.

Getting there:

Both places are accessible by JR bus and Tozai subway lines, stopping at the Shin Sapporo Station. Both locations are about 10-15 minutes from the station. All detail information including entrance fees and other charges are found on their respective websites:

Tan Jo Hann

Tan Jo Hann is a community organiser and travels extensively all over Indonesia

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