The Ainu are one of Japan’s indigenous peoples and have a rich history filled with unique customs, traditions, and celebrations. While many years of forced assimilation once threatened to render their culture extinct, a new national museum — as well as villages and centers around Hokkaidō — are helping to give the Ainu back their voice.

Who are the Ainu?

A performance featuring archery and chanting is held at Lake Akan Ainu Theater in Hokkaidō. | Photo by Akan Tourism Association

The Ainu are a people that were once prosperous in Hokkaidō — the northernmost island of Japan — during the 12th and 13th centuries. Their history is tied to the first inhabitants of the land, and so, along with the Ryūkyūans who lived in Okinawa, the Aiinu are one of Japan’s indigenous peoples. Only in 2019 did the Japanese government legally recognize this.

Fact: Ainu means “human being” in the Ainu language.

A brief look at Ainu culture

Traditional Ainu weaving is shown at Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

Ainu does not have a written language, so their traditions and beliefs have been passed down orally through songs and stories. The ethnic group living on mainland Japan (known as the Wajin, the ancestors of the current ethnic Japanese majority) took control of Hokkaidō during the 18th and 19th centuries and consequently established discriminatory laws against the Ainu. This resulted in a large part of their culture and history being lost.

An important thing to understand about the Ainu is that they see divine spirits, Kamuy, throughout nature and even in everyday objects. Their ceremonies and chants reflect this and are often about “sending back” the spirit. The most well-known example of this is the Iomante ceremony, where a bear is killed to release the Kamuy inside it. While this is no longer conducted, you can still see a similar “sending back” ceremony at the annual Marimo Festival in Lake Akan.

Bears are respected in Ainu culture and were once part of an ancient sacrificial ceremony. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

As well as ceremonies, their songs and dances often express their dedication to Kamuy and nature. The Ainu are also accomplished craftsmen, and you can still see their unique ways of weaving and carving today.

Where do the Ainu live?

The Ainu once lived in northern Tōhoku, Hokkaidō, Sakhalin, and the Kurile Islands. In the present day, Ainu and their descendants live all over Japan, not just Hokkaidō. It is difficult to ascertain the exact number as many don’t know their heritage or prefer to keep it hidden in case of discrimination. We do know that the Survey on Ainu Living Conditions in 2017 talked to around 13,000 Ainu people living in Hokkaidō.

While kotan (Ainu villages) are nowhere near as prosperous as they once were, there are still areas that have symbolic and historical importance to the Ainu people and they are inhabited to this day.

Places and events to experience Ainu culture

We’ve outlined some spots that welcome visitors who would like to understand and experience the Ainu way of life. Some of these places are small villages built around promoting Ainu culture, and others are museums or cultural centers.

Note: There is also an Ainu village called Yukara Village in Noboribetsu, but because it is inside a bear “park”, we have decided to omit it due to concerns about animal welfare.

Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park

Shiraoi
1-hour train from Sapporo Station
¥1,200; some activities cost extra

You can listen to talks and admire crafts in Upopoy’s chise (Ainu houses). | Photo by Alex Ziminski

Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park opened in 2020 and is the newest Ainu facility on this list. Along with that accolade, it is also the only national museum completely dedicated to Ainu history and culture — as well as being the only national museum north of Tokyo and Chiba.

The land that Upopoy sits on is vast, so there are quite a few activities and sights to tick off while you’re there. The largest building is the National Ainu Museum. It contains a library, movie theater, and permanent exhibition, as well as around two special exhibitions a year.

The National Ainu Museum looks out to Lake Poroto. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

On the second floor, you’ll find an impressive lobby featuring a panoramic view of Lake Poroto. Nearby is the permanent exhibition. Here, you’ll get a taste of six aspects of the Ainu culture: language, universe, work, history, lives, and exchange. Learn about prehistoric customs and get hands-on with some of the interactive exhibits.

The Ainu are skilled at archery and hunting. You can try it yourself. | Photo by Alex Ziminski

Also on the grounds is the Cultural Exchange Hall, where you can experience the following: Traditional Ainu dancing and performances; a workshop; crafts Studio; kotan; the Cikisani Square, for outdoor performances; and a memorial site.

How to get to Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park

Upopoy is the only location on this list to have a train station within walking distance; Shiraoi Station is only ten minutes away. You can get to Shiraoi from Sapporo Station on the Hokuto Limited Express bound for Hakodate (1 hour 6 minutes). You can get there quicker (around 40 minutes) if coming from New Chitose Airport Station — first, go to Minami-Chitose Station and then hop on to the Hokuto Line.

Sapporo Pirka Kotan

Jozankei, Sapporo
50-minute bus from Sapporo Station
Free; ¥200 for the Exhibition Room

You can visit the houses of Sapporo Pirka Kotan for free. | Photo by Jozankei Tourist Association

Sapporo Pirka Kotan — which means beautiful village in Ainu — is also known as the Sapporo Ainu Culture Promotion Center. It is located in the Jozankei district of Sapporo.

While it doesn’t have the sprawling grounds of Upopoy, it’s still an impressive facility that features a theater, a green space with a carved canoe and replica Ainu houses, and an exhibition room where you can see, hold, and touch more than 300 artifacts — including traditional clothes and tools.

There are also workshops and many events throughout the year, including performances and hands-on cultural experiences about twice a month from spring to autumn. Please check their website for more details.

How to get to Sapporo Pirka Kotan

If you are coming from Sapporo Station and don’t have a car, you can either jump on the Jotetsu Bus bound for Jozankei Onsen (60 minutes) or catch the Kappa Bus Liner; reservations are required, which you can book here. For both buses, you’ll need to get off at Koganeyu Bus Stop. The center is a 6-minute walk from the bus stop.

If you are coming from New Chitose Airport, you’ll need to first go to Sapporo Station and follow the above method.

Tip: Not sure how to get to Sapporo? Check out our handy Tokyo to Sapporo article.

Hokkaidō Museum

Atsubetsu Ward, Sapporo
15-minute bus from Shin-Sapporo Station
¥600, Book online

Get a glimpse of how the Ainu used to live at Hokkaidō Museum. | Photo by Sapporo Tourist Association

You can’t tell the story of Hokkaidō without the Ainu.

The Hokkaidō Museum is a little less interactive — and so a little less fun. But if you want a detailed view of the Ainu experience in Japan, from past to present, then this might just tickle you history nerds. There are detailed explanations in English, as well as footage of Ainu dancing and recordings of oral traditions including songs, stories and literature (though no English subtitles here).

How to get to Hokkaidō Museum

The Hokkaidō Museum is a 20- to 25-minute walk or 5-minute bus (No. 22) from Shinrinkōen Station (JR Hakodate Line). Alternatively, if coming from Shin-Sapporo Station, you can hop directly on the same bus for 15 minutes.

Lake Akan Ainu Kotan

Lake Akan, Kushiro
1-hour-45-minute bus from Kushiro Station or 1-hour bus from Kushiro Airport
Free

Lake Akan Ainu Kotan comes alive during festivals. | Photo by Akan Tourism Association

Lake Akan Ainu Kotan isn’t one building but a very small village of around 120 settlers. The land was given (or more accurately, returned) to the Ainu people in the late 21st century by the Maeda Ippoen Foundation, who own the surrounding acres. It is the largest kotan in Hokkaidō.

Amongst the buildings there is a theater called Ikor where ceremonial dances are usually held every day (¥1,500 for a show), a museum or two and several local craft stores selling original Ainu art. The best time to experience Lake Akan and the local Ainu culture is in October when the Marimo Festival takes place.

Special event: During October and November 2023, you can partake in an enchanted forest night walk, called Kamuy Lumina. The event uses digital projection and lighting, together with music and rhythm sticks, to create a dream-like experience.

How to get to Lake Akan Ainu Kotan

Lake Akan Ainu Kotan isn’t the easiest place to get to and is quite inconvenient unless you plan to visit other spots in the area. If you are coming from JR Kushiro Station, you’ll need to grab a bus heading to Lake Akan. It’ll take 1 hour and 45 minutes.

If you catch the same bus from Kushiro Airport, you can shave 45 minutes off your journey. Buses are infrequent (every hour or two), so it’s best to plan ahead. Timetable here (Japanese only).

Note: The bus schedule may change in winter.

Nibutani Kotan

Biratori
2 hours 42 minutes using train and bus from Sapporo Station
Free

Green season makes Nibutani Kotan shine. | Photo by Hokkaido Tourism Organization

Just east of Sapporo is the small town of Biratori, and in that small town is an even smaller kotan, or Ainu village. Many villages once stood along the Saru River, but now only one remains: Nibutani. You’ll find reconstructed chise houses and the impressive Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, which is filled floor to ceiling with ancient clothing, jewelry, utensils and tools (entry ¥400).

Nearby is the Street of Artisans. Here you can pick up local crafts, such as attus, fabric woven from tree bark, and ita, wooden trays with a design handed down from generation to generation. Nibutani is also where Shigeru Kayano, one of the last native speakers of Ainu, was born and some of the Ainu artifacts he collected lie in the Kayano Shigeru Nibutani Ainu Museum (entry ¥400).

Apart from the history, you can also soak in the open-air hot spring at Biratori Onsen Yukara for only ¥500.

How to get to Nibutani Kotan

From Sapporo Station, you can grab a train to JR Nimanohata Station (42 minutes) before changing to a local bus (Donan Bus) towards Biratori (around 2 hours). From New Chitose Airport, you can also go to Nimanohata Station and catch the same local bus towards Biratori and Nibutani.

Further research and links

We do not claim to be Ainu historians. It is a sensitive topic in Japan, and we would implore you to do your own research about the Ainu and their history. You can also keep up-to-date with projects, exhibitions, and events through the links below.

While we do our best to ensure it’s correct, information is subject to change.

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