Into the Beating Hearts of Hokkaido

From Morioka it is going to be on to the great Northern island of Hokkaido to finish out my winter journey in Japan. As I blog my itinerary have you been following along? If not there is still time to catch up!

As it were, I’ll be flying home from out of the capital Sapporo at the end of the month. But not without first stopping off for a pleasant stay in the historic harbor city of Hakodate, glamping and backcountry snowboarding in Niseko, and (fingers crossed) visiting the Ainu Culture Promotion Center just outside of Sapporo.

So, let’s start there shall we?

What is an Ainu? Rather, WHO ARE the Ainu? The Ainu are the indigenous inhabitants of Japan, and their culture is alive and vibrant today, particularly on the Northern island of Hokkaido. In fact, the Ainu people populated and controlled much of Hokkaido all the way into the later 20th Century, until the time of the Meiji Restoration when the island was overrun militarily and annexed by the Japanese government. At that time the Ainu were put through a sweeping process of settler colonialism, in which they had their indigenous identity stripped from them, and their lands dispossessed to make way for land reorganization and resettlement. Many Ainu were folded into the general Japanese population and subjected to forced assimilation and re-education.


It is a process familiar in so many ways to that experienced by my own tribal nation here in the U.S. context. As I continue my own personal journey to recover my family’s heritage and engage with our tribe’s process of restoring its sovereignty, I look forward to visiting the Ainu Culture Promotion Center, one of many sites of memory building in Hokkaido and in Japan. I do this to, in some small way, understand their very similar journey and learn something from it. Japan officially recognized the Ainu as indigenous people just this week if you can believe it!

9DF8C791-3360-4AA5-B234-7918D14CE569Prior to arriving in Sapporo I will have been touring the back-country of Niseko with the Hokkaido Backcountry Club and Black Diamond Tours. As with Kintoun, I’ll look forward to posting a full review here of my experience with the guides from Black Diamond at the end of the trip. I’m sure it will all be wonderful. But at this stage what I am looking  forward to most of all is just being in and near Niseko, as I hear it is incredibly beautiful country.

On a bit of an adventurous whim I decided to combine my backcountry excursion with some luxury winter camping–or as it is more appropriately termed: “glamping”. Through Airbnb I managed to find the most amazing outdoor camping community run by none other than professional backcountry skier Yohei Sasaki—a lifelong native (dosanko) to Niseko and Hokkaido. Rather than go on and on about Yohei in the space of this post, I’ll let this short documentary tell his story for us. It is inspiring I promise, and I’m honored to have the chance to stay on his land.

5 Niseko Stories – Yohei Sasaki from Experience Niseko on Vimeo.

Sapporo and Niseko are must-see destinations in Hokkaido to be sure, but to get there from where I’m coming from by Shinkansen you have to pass by Hakodate. And what an amazing historical city to drop in on. In its earliest days, Hakodate was actually an Ainu fishing settlement. Because of its incredible geography and location on the Tsuguru Straits where the Sea of Japan connects to the Pacific Ocean, it was an attractive center of trade, making it a highly contested land prize. No surprise then, but yes the Ainu were eventually forced out by a succession of mainland clans. The port city was also a strategic target for Commodore Perry and became one of the first modern city developments for the Japanese government under the ensuing Meiji period.

EE792E28-2AAC-45F2-85CB-9D05600EBA1EI mention all of this dramatic historical turnover only because it serves to contextualize my interest in stopping over on the way through to Niseko. With so many competing interests over the years, both domestic and foreign, Hakodate is a unique study in politicized architectures and contested memory spaces—something of keen interest to this once would-be historical scholar and memory activist. It will be a city that I can walk for a day and really peel back the layers to trace the sweep of Japan’s ambitions over the centuries to build a united nation—politically, culturally, and economically.

So, if you have been following along so far in the blog you will know that as I hit send on this post I am already here in Japan. I’m actually right outside of Morioka, of which Sara-san and I discussed at some length in the previous post. I’m actually resting comfortably in Nyuto Onsen, of whose virtues I extolled in the post just prior to that. I’m pleased to say that the entire itinerary has gone according to plan thus far—down to the exact detail. Sugoi!

B34E31EA-2702-4A3C-BCB5-674619122D2DAs I soak in the healing waters of Nyuto I prepare my mind and body for the adventures ahead. When next I post it will be from home, and I’ll have so many things to say about what this first major winter expedition has taught me. I’ll take you into the mountains and trees with me and we will tease apart what the backcountry has to speak to us. One thing is already abundantly clear to me—the people of Japan have built and continue to nurture an incredible country, full of cultivated diversity.  There is one Japan, but there is no “one” Japan.  I’m honored to be allowed to come here, to play and to explore.

This land has opened things in me that I wasn’t prepared for and that will stay with me I think for quite some time. I hope to share them with you if I can find the words to do them justice. Until then.


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