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Experience Ainu Culture at the Upopoy National Ainu Museum: Hokkaido Tourist Destination

Updated: Oct 26, 2023

For those interested in Ainu culture, Upopoy is a must-visit, brand new museum. Located in Shiraoi, Hokkaido, Upopoy celebrates, respects, and shares Ainu culture and history. Here, the connection between Ainu culture and the vast nature of Hokkaido is conveyed through traditional crafts, songs, dances, and cuisine.

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2 Chome-3 Wakakusacho, Shiraoi, Shiraoi District, Hokkaido 059-0902

Our first destination was Upopoy, an Ainu museum that had just opened in 2020. Due to COVID-19 measures, we had made a prior reservation for our museum visit.

 Upopoy Outdoor Area

However, we encountered unexpected delays at New Chitose Airport, making it unlikely that we would arrive in time for our reservation. Moreover, there was heavy rain, which wasn't forecasted. The rain was so strong to the point where visibility was severely limited.

Upon reaching the vicinity of Upopoy, we saw a sign indicating that the first parking lot was full. We parked in the second parking area, essentially a gravel-covered vacant lot, and then walked to Upopoy.

Wearing sturdy hiking boots turned out to be a good decision. Fortunately, the rain gradually reduced to a drizzle.

We've finally arrived at Upopoy. Once we entered the gate, it wasn't clear where the entrance was. It felt somewhat like a maze, as if we were entering a different world. However, when it's raining, it's just an obstacle course.

Rainy Upopoy

We emerged into a spacious area with restaurants and gift shops. In the distance, we could see what appeared to be the main gate of Upopoy. It seems that these shops can be accessed without entering Upopoy.

The building right in front of the entrance after passing the gate turned out to be the museum. Our reserved entry time had already passed, but they informed us that we could enter immediately. Since it was raining outside, we decided to take our time and explore.

Ainu Traditional Attire

"The permanent exhibition is located on the second floor. It's a very spacious area dedicated to the permanent collection. As I entered, I noticed traditional Ainu clothing on display. Ainu clothing is incredibly stylish.

I've looked into buying an Ainu jackets before, but they are rarely available in the market. It makes me wonder why no one has started a brand because they would likely sell like hotcakes. They do sell embroidery samples, so maybe the only option is to order from someone who can make them."

Ainu Ethnic Clothing

There doesn't seem to be a specific route for the tour. The concept appears to be more of "explore what interests you." I spent most of my time carefully examining the Ainu clothing that intrigued me the most. I also focused on items like whittled twigs used for rituals, decorations for bears, and short sword scabbards.

Upopoy's Bears

The glass showcases along the walls contain a lot of text, making it impossible to read everything at once. As a result, I took photos for later reference. Nowadays, it's easy to save these photos on a smartphone and read the explanations of the exhibits at your own pace, which is convenient. There's simply too much to read in a single visit.

After finishing the tour, it's time for lunch. Considering the size of the facility, it would be great to have more restaurants available. Unfortunately, they were all quite crowded, but fortunately, we managed to get into the small restaurant near the entrance gate. Many lunch items were already sold out, but luckily, they still had the deer cutlet curry I wanted. Deer meat is lean, tender, and quite delicious.

Deer Cutlet Curry at Upopoy's Restaurant

I received a re-entry ticket at the gate, so I have the freedom to come and go. The rain has also lessened, and I'm heading to the outdoor area of Upopoy.

Unfortunately, due to the rainy weather, most of the outdoor Ainu cultural experiences I wanted to see have been canceled. However, there was an indoor storytelling session taking place, so I decided to check that out.

Ainu House at Upopoy

Thank you for the correction. Here's the revised version:

Several thatched-roof buildings are standing here. We enter one of the notably larger buildings. Inside, there's an irori (traditional sunken hearth), and salmon is hanging from above. I've heard that if you visit Upopoy in the winter, you can see lots of salmon hanging outdoors.

The irori is quite nostalgic for me. It reminds me of the time when I used to live in a thatched-roof house with an irori.

People dressed in stylish Ainu attire present various things. Gathered around the irori, they share stories, play the mukkuri (a traditional mouth harp), and sing lullabies. It's all wonderful.

Ainu Lullabies

This building is quite large and primarily used for events. In reality, I believe they didn't create extra space to withstand the cold of Hokkaido. There were many dried salmon hanging above the irori. They are all real. The male storyteller is willing to take photos with you if you ask.

Salmon Hanging from Ainu Hearth

I was able to watch demonstrations of woodcarving and weaving in another building. There was an elderly gentleman with a big, white beard, exuding a lot of charm.

Ainu Woodcarver

Due to the rainy weather, activities like archery, dugout canoe rides, and cultural explanation programs that I was interested in were all canceled. It's unfortunate, but I'll save them as something to look forward to for my next visit.

Overall, I thought it was a facility that was rich in content and fulfilling. I don't know of any other museums where you can experience Ainu culture through demonstrations and actors dressed in Ainu clothing. Unfortunately, I only stayed for half a day due to the rainy weather, but on a sunny day, you could easily spend an entire day here without getting bored.

Mukkuri Player at Upopoy

One thing that slightly concerns me is that the museum tends to avoid delving into the darker aspects of Ainu history. If you quickly tour the museum, you might only get the impression that the Ainu people were a nature-loving, hunting culture who revered various Kamui (gods) and held traditions and rituals in high regard.

Ainu Hunting Scenes

Information about conflicts with the Wajin (Japanese settlers), inter-Ainu conflicts, and the history of discrimination against the Ainu should also be displayed if this is to be a national museum. However, there is a possibility that modern Ainu history has been subject to information manipulation, and thus, these darker aspects of history might never be thoroughly discussed in the future.

Lesson learned from this visit: Avoid Upopoy on rainy days.

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