Shiraoi Poroto Kotan
Day 23: May 29, 2015
My right knee is very swollen. I’ve fared pretty well without my walking stick, but I feel a sharp pain below the patella around the bursa. I get over a cold only to be hobbled with knee problems. Hopefully, it will subside for the trip to Poroto Kotan, a recreation of an Ainu village.
I make my way to the subway then the train where, by some serendipitous miracle, I find a cobbler who sells rubber ends for canes! With my stick sorted, I board the train. At first, I seem to be the only foreigner aboard, but as we near my destination, I spot another foreigner. Michael is a Swiss Italian who is also visiting Shiraoi Poroto Kotan. As we disembark, we wonder aloud if we are in fact at the right place. Luckily, we meet Kyoto who speaks English and is headed to the museum.
We pick our way along the poorly maintained sidewalk, which I find strange as everything seems to have been very orderly so far. But this is a rural part of the country and I have spent most of my trip in cities. We cross railway tracks and eventually find a gate. The tourists who visit this apparent outpost do so by car or tour bus, so foreigners on foot are a bit novel.
Welcome! The entrance to the Ainu Village and Museum.
Novel as we may be, we and our 800 yen apiece are welcomed in, as each of us is given a schedule of the day’s performances. Poroto Kotan resembles a Canadian living museum. Buildings are traditionally built and maintained, and house representations of how Ainu used to live. Two of the buildings, similar to longhouses, serve as performance halls.
Before the first show, I wander to where the animals are kept. Four dogs and four bears appear to live in dismal cement cages that lack any stimulation, companionship, and nature. I haven’t visited any zoos on my trip, so I’m hoping this is anomaly. For all the love of nature and pets that I’ve heard about and witnessed, these poor animals see none of it. I’m torn: Do I say something or keep my own counsel? I decide on the latter . . . and feel a little sick about it.
As I walk away, I find Michael wandering around. We chat a bit when another foreigner (I’ll call him John), joins in. He has white hair, appears to be in his sixties, and doesn’t stop talking. In the maybe ten minutes we’re listening, he tells us that he’s from Sydney via the UK and Canada, that one of his ancestors fought in World War I and has Canadian ties. He stops long enough for me to remind them that the show’s about to start. Then, without missing a beat, he suggests we meet for dinner while I’m in Sapporo. Me? Or Me and Michael? He’s not clear, but I say, um sure maybe not sure what my plans are oh looks the show’s about to start. Creepy.
The stage where traditional dance music is performed for tourists.
People begin to file into one of the performance halls, so I follow. The stage is surrounded by raised benches, where I find a spot and ready my camera. The room fills up. I spot Michael and Tony elsewhere. The lights dim and the MC comes out.
He speaks enough English to say that he doesn’t speak English then carries on in Japanese. Based on the laughter and the pointed looks and the fact he nods his head at me, I surmise that I’m the butt of some his jokes. I smile and roll with it despite feeling uncomfortable. It’s one thing being teased in your own language; it’s entirely different in one you don’t understand.
This is the fellow. You see how he’s looking at me? He’s laughing on the inside.
Finally, he leaves and a young woman comes on, again apologizing for not speaking English, then the performance begins. Musicians play traditional instruments, including a mukkuri (a.k.a.: “Jew’s harp) and they are followed by dancers. Without understanding the language, I understand that they perform a bird dance and another to honour hunters. (The fierce young guy with a spear was a dead giveaway. I’m clever like that.) During the break between performances, I head out to photograph more of the area and grab a bite in the rustic canteen.
Out of nowhere John sneaks up on me, asking about my food. It’s soup. It’s fine. I don’t make eye contact. So weird. I drain the bowl and quickly exit. The beautiful lake outside the canteen clears my head and I capture a few images.
Eventually I return for the next show hosted by the same young woman. She asks for volunteers for the group dance…and looks straight at me. I don’t do this. I sit at the back at comedy shows for a reason. This reason. The room looks at me, all smiles, all clapping. What can I do? I’m the solo white woman with a camera. I have go on stage with a gimpy knee, no coordination, and dance an Ainu dance in front of people who were joking about me an hour ago. So embarrassing. So utterly goofy. So fun.
Traditional dancers who are much more coordinated that I am.
After the show, John finds me (again) to tell me he has video of me dancing (naturally). Michael catches up with me too. He has audio of the players in the previous show. We all exchange emails. Great! Look forward to it. So I’m gonna wander now. See ya!
Most museums have an indoor exhibit, so I make a beeline for it. As I walk through the exhibits and read the cards, I realize that the Ainu culture bears many similarities to Canadian First Nations’, or least that which I’ve seen in person, in books, and in the news. Sadly, the history is similar too, minus the horror of the residence schools. What I must remember is that this exhibit targets Japanese tourists who expect things to be nice, polite, and orderly. But history never meets those expectations, and it makes me wonder what, if anything, has been left out. I exit through the gift shop.
Traditional roofs being maintained.
It’s 3:15. The next (and last) train leaves at 5:02. I’m stuck here for a bit. Might as well wander around some more, take some photos. More coaches pull up and I can’t help but think Ainu are “dancing monkeys” for the tourists. Open-face artisan shops are set up by the gate, where creators sell their carvings and whatnot. It reminds me of a lyric from the REM song “Cuyahoga”: “Take a picture here, take a souvenir.” But these shows, these trinkets, all of it brings revenue into the community. Surely someone must learn something from this museum. I did.
As I make my way slowly toward the exit, I notice some totem poles. Of course these are replicas and don’t look like those carved by various Canadian First Nations, but there is a resonance, a connection.