Discovering Ainu culture in Hokkaido’s wilderness
November 29, 2021
The wilderness area of Teshikaga lies in eastern Hokkaido in the middle of a triangle formed by the Nakashibetsu, Memanbetsu and Kushiro airports. It is here that calligrapher and artist Rieko Kawabe, who runs the members-only traditional cultural salon Nihon Miyabigoto Club for businesspeople in Tokyo and Kyoto, has created a new base. Completed in the spring of 2021, Tamatebako Aynu was established with seven of Kawabe’s associates. It is a facility similar to a share house, with seven guest rooms and a large reception space where everyone can gather.
There are two reasons why she established the facility. One was to use it as a shelter in the event of a major disaster in the city. If a huge earthquake were to occur in Tokyo, destroying its infrastructure, restoration would take a long time, during which it would be difficult to maintain one’s daily life, let alone economic activity. So Kawabe went in search of land with its own water source in Hokkaido, and felt drawn to Teshikaga.
The other reason was to create a private research facility, which she calls the Ancient Ainu Culture Research Institute. A library on Ainu culture has been set up within the facility, and Kawabe conducts her own research there during her stays.
In her work as a calligrapher and artist, she incorporates ancient Ainu letters. The letters were originally discovered in Hokkaido in the second half of the 19th century, and she came across them in reports on Ainu artifacts, such as earthenware and natural stones that had been written upon, that were made at the time by the Anthropological Society of Nippon. Little is known about the characters, but they fascinated Kawabe, and so she included them in her artworks. Some of those are now exhibited in hotels and condominiums in the western Hokkaido resort area of Niseko.
“My lifework is the research of Japanese culture,” Kawabe said. “In particular, I am interested in the ancient history and culture that predates the Taika Reforms of 645, a time when Japan was not yet a unified nation centered on the emperor system. In conducting that research, I learned about the ancient Ainu script and became interested in Ainu culture. Being here, you strongly sense the things that were important to the Ainu people. I still have a lot of study to do, but I look forward to researching and sharing information about Ainu culture.”