Birch cake and the colonization of Hokkaido’s nature and Ainu

Last month, my Norwegian friend and I explored Hokkaido, the northernmost bigger island of Japan, for almost ten days. I waited almost two years to visit this place, as I always imagined this friend to be my travel buddy into Japan’s wild. And yes, he also felt more home here than in Nagoya’s concrete jungle or other places. Actually, Hokkaido reminded us to the Nordic countries and New Zealand: both are a forest and wood civilization, with a colonization story and indigenous people (Sami in the Nordic countries, Maori in New Zealand). Even the birch trees and the rain almost let us feel we were back in Norway. In a previous blog I reflected already on and shared conversations with my friend about the side effects of the control -or colonization- of nature, referring to the demon worms in the amazing movie of princess Mononoke. Here I will elaborate upon this more by sharing what I learned during my Hokkaido travel.

Who are the Ainu?

The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan (Hokkaido, and formerly northeastern Honshu) and Russia. According to the website of Ainu History and Culture:

“Ainu” means “human”. The Ainu people regard things useful to them or beyond their control as “kamuy”(gods). In daily life, they prayed to and performed various ceremonies for the gods. These gods include : “nature” gods, such as of fire, water, wind and thunder ; “animal” gods, such as of bears, foxes, spotted owls and gram-puses ; “plant” gods, such as of aconite, mush-room and mugwort ; “object” gods, such as of boats and pots ; and gods which protect houses, gods of mountains and gods of lakes. The word “Ainu” refers to the opposite of these gods.”

Official estimates place the total Ainu population at 25,000, but unofficial estimates place its total population at 200,000, because many Ainu have been completely assimilated into Japanese society and as a result, they have no knowledge of their ancestry.

I am not an expert. Most things I learned by reading occasionally some blogs, or by talking with other people, or through a book called “Our Land Was a Forest – An Ainu Memoir” by Kayano Shigeru, where he talks about their life so many time ago and how they cooperated with the nature, and tried to use everything from nature. For example they made clothes from bark:

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This Ainu clothing is made from the inner bark of the ohyodama or Japanese lime tree. Soaking it in water makes the inner bark softer and you can pull it off the bark. The Ainu cut it into strips with which this clothing was made. The symbols call “sirki” and ward off evil spirits. This “magic clothing” was passed on from mother to daughter.

On the other hand, they also killed bear cubs, and my friend and I saw a horrible black-white video about the killing of one, in the small exhibition in Sapporo’s botanical garden.  Sometimes we have romantic and nostalgic feelings about that the past was more sustainable, or that indigenous people are better for the planet, but it depends how you see it. They do it, because of their belief in spirits. According to the aforementioned website of Ainu History and Culture, by killing the bear cub they think they send back evil spirits:

There are various ceremonies throughout the year, including ceremonies to send back spirits, a religious ceremony for ancestors, a ceremony for the completion of new house, and a ceremony to launch the year’s first fishing of salmon and shishamo smelt. Sending spirits back, the most frequent of these ceremonies, treats and sends back the gods, who disguise themselves as animals, plants and objects, descend to the human world and supply food and other daily necessities. The ceremonies include “iyomante,” “hopunire” and “iwakte,” of which “iyomante,” a ceremony for the sending back of the spirits of bear cubs is the most important. “Iyomante” is observed between January and February when the fallen snow is heavy. A I to 2 years bear, which is captured in a hibernation den during winter, is sent back to the divine world by offering a splendid feast.

Tourism of lonely trees

It is not so related to Ainu, but a bit about how trees are also apparently popular in Japanese advertisements. Some trees along “Patchwork Road” are famous because they played a role in advertising, packaging (including cigarettes) or even in (animation) films. They are therefore a “must capture” for fanatic Japanese instagrammers, but also for romantic souls like me. My traveling companion and I did not participate in a bus tour myself. We prefer to look for unknown lonely trees in a smaller group. Also, some farmers cut the “popular lonely trees”, because too many tourists destroy crops while entering their fields.

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I like postcards (receiving and sending), especially those with lonely trees and a blue or green appearance. I found these beautiful specimens in a village in Hokkaido.
I am not surprised that I found dozens of postcards of lonely trees, because in Hokkaido there are even bus tours to visit “lonely trees”.

Birch cake, or about the first pioneers

In Hokkaido we found a birch tree stump-like cake that was once crowned best (new) cake in the world. Of course I bought that ;). At the time the Japanese people opened the area around Hokkaido (some might call it Ainu colonization) in the 19th century, they had to cut down trees to clear a flat area “for development.” The felled straight trees were used for architecture; but all the other wood was used for charcoal and fireplaces. Such as birch wood. Sanporok is the size in which they cut the trees: the logs are made by splitting the tree vertically into three. San means 3 in Japanese.
During this pioneering period, the Japanese warmed themselves with logs of birch trees, which are actually pioneers among the trees. That is why this cake is named after this “measure” for logs to commemorate the old times.

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Embracing change

One of our last days was spent in the UNESCO geopark of Lake Toya . This lake was created 110,000 years ago in a gigantic volcano eruption. The volcano is one of the most active in Japan, and still erupts repeatedly. The last two times were in 1978 and 2000. The landscape is changing rapidly here. 🌀 It was once the home of Ainu, until the Japanese took over.
Together with one of my best friends I visited a site of houses and a bridge that suffered from the last eruption; and noticed how quickly nature had taken over. We learned how the residents take safety measures, but the most admirable thing is that they accept all those changes, and not flee from them.

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I think you can experience a lot of freedom if you are open to constant change and innovation in the world around you. 🌀 June was a beautiful month, but I am ok it is July now, with new adventures, landscapes, trees and people around me.

One last note about the colonization… also culture is very fluid, and many Ainu assimilated into the Japanese culture. Our world and cultures are constantly changing; however we should not marginalize some groups because they have different ideas, but find a way to integrate their knowledge and practices in building a more sustainable and tolerant world. However, some cultural practices like the killing of bears (or bullfighting in other cultures) should be revisited, because change is good.