Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park
An immersive experience for visitors to learn about the traditional Ainu way of lifeBy George Underwood
Japan’s colonization of Hokkaido in the late 1800s resulted in the culture of the island’s indigenous people, the Ainu, being almost completely eliminated. In fact, the Ainu were not officially recognized as an indigenous people by the Japanese government until 2019.
Thankfully, in more recent times there has been a greater drive to preserve and propagate these traditions by modern Ainu. The epicenter of these efforts is the new Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park (upopoy meaning ‘singing together in a group’ in the Ainu language) – which aims to immerse visitors in the traditional Ainu way of life.
Live Like an Ainu
The central Upopoy museum is surrounded by a large park, which contains a recreated Ainu kotan (village) and hosts a huge range of talks, performances and interactive workshops about Ainu culture, typically run by Ainu staff members.
You can view demonstrations of Ainu musical instruments, crafts, oral storytelling, and the Ainu language, among many others. Note that most of the talks are in Japanese, but there are no language barriers to enjoying the performance aspect of each activity.
Interactive experiences include archery, trying on traditional Ainu clothing, group singing with Ainu songs, and a cooking class for Ainu food (which requires advanced registration). You can also eat Ainu dishes, such as ohaw, a kind of soup, in the park’s restaurants – and there are even Ainu microwave meals available from the gift shops.
Music and Dance
Meanwhile, the park’s Cultural Exchange Hall runs Ainu music and dance performances, including dances from the iomante bear sacrifice ceremony, one of the Ainu’s most important rituals. Every show runs a different selection of performances, so it can be worth seeing multiple in one day. The Hall also runs animated films based on Ainu Mythology.
Last but not least, the central National Ainu Museum displays many artifacts from Ainu culture and goes in-depth into Ainu history. Notably, all of the Museum’s signs use the Ainu language as their first language.
Visiting the Park
With so many things to experience, Upopoy easily delivers on its goal to immerse visitors in Ainu culture and ensure the continued survival of these traditions. And by emphasizing the many differences from mainland Japanese culture, Upopoy provides a unique experience for tourists.
If possible you should spend a full day at the park, since it is otherwise very difficult to view every demonstration. The timings and contents of the program vary greatly depending on the season and the specific date, so make sure to check ahead on the website to plan your day.