Saturday, 7 September 2013

Hokkaido - Porotokotan

Try and say that five times fast - Porokoro... Porotokoka... Porotokoko... Porokoto...

Okaaaay then, just try and say it once, slowly!


There you go.

Porotokotan is Ainu, "Poro" means large, "to" means lake, and "kotan" means village. It is the name of an Ainu outdoor museum near Shiraoi, where we stopped the afternoon after visiting Toshogu.

I had read a few articles about the museum, heard about how it was part of the local Ainu community, how it was creating pride among the community, and how it was contributing to keeping alive or bringing back traditions. I was excited about the museum. It started off well.

The Kotankorkur (statue of the chief) welcomed us.

And two wooden bears stood at attention at the entrance to the village. Unfortunately, however, they aren't the only bears at the museum. There were a handful of large bears and a whole flock of dogs in small cages just off to the right of this picture. I was disgusted and couldn't bear to look at them, let alone take pictures, so we hurried next door, to the Ainu Museum. 

The museum was dated and the exhibits were old, but easy to understand and informative. There were exhibits on traditional Ainu life, hunting, clothing and jewelry, ceremonies, and history. But what really caught my eye was that in addition to Japanese on the interpretive panels there was also English, Korean, and both simplified and traditional Chinese. This was a theme running through the entire site, as we were about to find out as we followed the suggestion of an announcement piped through the site - and made our way to the first big "house."

Inside the "traditional Ainu house" there was a stage and layered seating for probably about fifty people. It was almost full and rather stuffy and dark. We found ourselves a seat and watched a short presentation on traditional Ainu arts - dance, song, and music. While the music and performances were interesting, U and I both agreed that the most interesting thing was that the entire performance was translated into both Korean and Taiwanese by the tour guides of groups sitting on opposite sides of the building. The speakers on stage were obviously used to having what they were saying translated as they would speak a few lines and pause, wait for translation and speak a few lines again. They knew just how much to say and how long to wait and didn't get anxious while waiting. U, who hasn't seen that kind of translation before was very impressed, and I think spent more time listening to the tour guides translate than he did watching the stage.

Sadly it was pretty obvious to us that the entire outdoor museum is geared towards tour groups and individual guests are just extras. For example, only larger groups can book a hands-on experience (crafts, etc) or an "Ainu meal." If regular guests get hungry they have to make do with nikuman and Hokkaido ice cream from a rather sad looking glass-walled shop.

But the lake (that the museum is named after!) was eerily beautiful against the grey overcast sky. And the rain stayed away until we clambered back into our rental car!


  1. The overcast sky surprised me a bit: I thought Hokkaido was all blue sky and sunshine in summer!

    PS: If I can barely pronounce Ikebukuro - I keep saying いきびきくる - I'd best keep quiet about Porotokotan. Prrtk?

    1. I have yet to say it properly - I blame it on my desire to turn the last syllable into "kan" as it is a museum...

      Both of my summer visits to Hokkaido I've had rain and cloudy skies, and it was just as beautiful as the sunny days!