Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Ainu Canoe

Distinct carved designs of an Ainu river canoe

I found home away from home. On the far northern island of Japan, Hokkaido, I went to visit friends I had made in New Zealand, the Sekine and Kaizawa families, who are descendants of the Ainu people, the first nation of Japan. The Ainu are diverse artisans, carvers, weavers, and craftsmen, keeping alive thousands of year old traditions marking their relationship with nature and each other. 

Master carver Shigehiro Takano

Maki and Kennji, my host parents, introduced me with great kindness to the language, arts, and way of being of the Ainu people, including mind blowing food. Maki is a renowned artists, particularly carver, who taught me basic patterns. Her daughter Maia, my host sister, is also quite skilled in these arts as well as a storyteller. Kennji, my host dad, works in the timber industry and showed me his knowledge of the forests and creeks on an Ainu language outing with local school children. It was a complete immersion and I felt as if I was home already, no matter which side of the Pacific I was on. 


Carving traditional patterns

The Ainu have various styles of canoes, having traditional lands upon oceans and river. I was in the village of Nibutani, on the Saru River, where dugout canoes, often with intricate carvings were used. These dugout canoes face the same method of carving as on many other world traditions, using axes and fire, though chainsaws are new members of the tool kit. 

The ocean going canoe, just one built in recent times,  is a sewn, single hull, plank canoe using intricate lashing systems and tree nails. 


Digging out the canoe, Ainu Culture Museum


An important artistic tradition in the Ainu world is the sacred offering of Inau. Inau are river trees, often willow, that are carved to make spiraling shavings, which bundle together to for intensely beautiful patterns that seem to come to life in the craftsman's hands. Some such Inau are placed on the front of traditional canoes as offering to gods which may help its voyage. 


Inau for a canoe

The Ainu Museum of Nibutani houses many canoes as well as treasures of the past and present. The museum does not act as a grave for lost arts but rather a sacred place of protection of knowledge and arts so that living Ainu people and others may enjoy and learn from them. This museum is right along the Saru River within the Ainu community of Nibutani.

Learning to carve Inau with Kaizawa Momoru

Ainu culture lives. Its resilience is astounding, as are the more than giving, more than kind, people whom have welcomes me into their homes, shared their food, taken me hunting and fishing, and made me feel like family. A story telling culture, I had the opportunity to read, listen and learn such stories. In a meeting house created at the museum, I listened to two elders share traditional stories while eating fresh deer meet caught by papa (on the right) with whom I had went hunting that morning. 

Community elders storytelling

My quick assimilation into family has much to do with the incredibly wonderful Grandmother Kaizawa Yukiko, mother of many of the artists with whom I have been learning, including my host mother Maki. Yukikosan gave me amazing Ainu meals of lilly dumplings and fresh deer meat while showing me the deeply important bark textiles she weaves into traditional clothing. I am humbled to have been in her presence.

Kaizawa Yukiko, master weaver of the bark textile


1 comment:

  1. Hi. I really enjoyed reading your post about your homestay experience with an Ainu family! I am an American who currently lives in Japan and I have a great interest in the Ainu people. I live in Shizuoka Prefecture, so I am a long way from Hokkaido, but I would love the chance to visit an Ainu community such as in Nibutani, the way you have, and experience their traditional way of life! Great post!

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