Poroto Kotan Ainu Village is in the small town of Shiraoi on Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan. It is only an hour away from Sapporo, so it makes a good day trip if you are staying in the city. You can get here via the JR line. The village is about a ten minute walk from Shiraoi station.
The Ainu people are the indigenous group that lived on Hokkaido before they were colonized by the Japanese. Like other indigenous cultures, they faced deep discrimination until the end of the Meiji Era. Due to mixed marriages there aren’t too many pure Ainu left, but many people with Ainu heritage are now trying to bring back their lost culture.
One of my favorite things to do while traveling is to learn about indigenous cultures, so this place was at the top of my Hokkaido to do list. When you first enter, you are greeted by Kotan Korukuru, a statue of the village chief.
The village has a handful of traditional thatched roof huts overlooking the lake. Each hut has a different exhibit that teaches you about an aspect of Ainu life.
One hut has a wood carver making inau, which are prayer sticks used during ceremonies. It was pretty amazing to watch him carve those thin, curly parts. The sticks are used in ceremonies offering sake to the spirits and to help guide back the spirits of slain animals.
There was also an exhibit about their clothing. The Ainu wove their robes out of bark. I was surprised to see how soft they were, considering that it was made out of a tree. It was a true testament to their craft.
Make sure to check your guide for the show times. The explanations are only in Japanese, but I don’t think they say anything that you can’t read online if you’re curious. The show contains traditional folk dances, including a really cool sword dance. They also perform songs and play wood instruments.
In addition to the village, there is a small but informative museum on the property. All of the signs has an English translation.
They have a decent collection of artifacts and some pretty impressive scenes depicting daily life. Both men and women kept their hair at shoulder length, and the women often tattooed their mouth and forearms. Like most hunter-gatherers, they had a deep respect and an interdependent relationship with nature.
The bear was an especially revered animal. They thought that the bear was the vessel by which the gods sent the gift of meat and fur to the Ainu.
The one thing I couldn’t stand about this place was how they kept their bears. As mentioned above, the Ainu revered bears, so I don’t understand why they keep them so horribly. The bears were trapped in these tiny cages with no access to a larger enclosure. They were either pacing back and forth, or helplessly lying down with a dead look in their eyes. It made me really uncomfortable and put a damper on the experience. There were a lot of similar comments when I went to complain on trip advisor, so hopefully they’ll update their animal enclosures soon.
Despite the animal cruelty, it was an informative and fun day. The Ainu have a fascinating culture, and Poroto Kotan does a good job at sharing their culture without it coming off as cheap or exploitative.