Monday, April 26, 2010

Travel Spot: The Porotokotan

If you have an interest in the indigenous peoples of Japan, and you happen to be in Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido, you will want to visit the Shiraoi Ainu Museum, also called Porotokotan, just an hour away by train in the sleepy seaside village of Shiraoi-cho.

The Ainu are an ethnically distinct people who occupied Hokkaido and the northern part of the main island of Honshu from at least the 13th century, if not earlier, until they were driven back and then conquered by the Japanese in the 17th to 19th centuries. The relationship between the Ainu and the Japanese has been complex, and in many way parallels that between the United States and Native Americans. Starting around 1900 the Ainu were subjugated, forced to assimilate as Japanese, and their language and culture was oppressed. They were widely discriminated against. Gradually things improved, but official recognition of their identity and rights didn't occur until 2008.

The Porotokotan is a museum in the form of a mock Ainu village, or kotan. There is a museum building with historical exhibits, and then a series of Ainu style huts arranged along the shore of Lake Poroto. In each of the huts native Ainu demonstrate crafts, culture such as singing and dancing, and basic ways of Ainu life. Getting into and out of the the museum village itself involves walking through a gauntlet of shops selling Ainu related souvenir items.
The museum is informative, and generally considered one of the best Ainu museums available. The rural setting is quite lovely, and makes it possible to see the sort natural habitat the Ainu enjoyed. It is worth a visit if you are in the area, but in many ways has the politically incorrect feel of some of the faux Native American tourist traps I remember visiting on trips out west as a kid in the 1960s.

Information on the Porotokotan can be found here.


  1. Your description of Porokotan is concise and hits the nail on the head. I'm part of a team called Project Uepeker which is trying to make more Ainu folklore available in English. I have a blog about our project, and have been planning a post about the various Ainu museums. I was wondering if I could quote bits of your Porokotan description (attributing it to you, of course), and post a link to this article. It won't be right away, but I'll let you know when it happens. Let me know if this is all right.

  2. The post is finally up! Thank you for sharing your blog with us.