The Ainu (pronounced “I knew”) are the indigenous peoples of Japan, and today our grade 9 Japan Exchange group had the opportunity and privilege to learn about this historically marginalized people in their ancestral home of Hokkaido. Throughout the day, students were asked to consciously draw parallels, where possible, between the plight of the Ainu and our own Canadian indigenous peoples.
Our day began in Sapporo where our guide took us on one last walking tour through the city, past the clock tower, Sapporo Tower, and back into the underground labyrinth of shops.
At 11am we hopped aboard our rapid train south towards the small town of Shiraoi, the epicentre of Ainu cultural understanding. The landscape in Hokkaido has been dramatic and breathtaking. On one side of the rail the Pacific Ocean stretches out, and on the other gently rolling slopes rise up to form snow-capped shield volcanoes.
As we got off the train in Shiraoi we were greeted wit the gleeful cries of local junior high students, excited to see foreigners in their sleepy locale. “So beautiful!” and “I love you!” cried the school kids – and that was just what they said to Mr. Burtt!
Our bus wove its way through town towards the Porotokotan, an Ainu village museum and presentation house next to a lake. Here, students saw local animals including a couple of captive bears in enclosures. We were assured that the bears had a larger recreation area and that they were just recently waking from hibernation, but it was sad nonetheless to see them in such cramped quarters. In the village we also got to enjoy a music and dance performance in a traditional thatched Ainu house. Some Handsworth students even had the courage to join in on the show. Afterwards we wandered through the museum, reflecting on the cultural legacy of the Ainu and the comparisons to be made with Canadian indigenous peoples.
Our hotel tonight is situated in the heart of hot-spring country. The thermal vents with their sulphur scents surround the area around the hotel. We took the opportunity to head out in the late afternoon to visit a local footbath, as well as Jigokudani, also known as ‘Hell Valley’ because of its geothermal activity. The smell was so powerful in some places the students had to cover their noses with towels.
Tonight we enjoy a sumptuous buffet dinner at the hotel. Students are writing in their journals in their tatami rooms, or in the lobby. As some of the only western foreigners we’re pretty popular here and have been making easy friends with locals who want to chat.
Tomorrow we head further south to beautiful Hakodate!