Japan’s ultimate lesson in gratitude

Despite enduring 150 years of oppression, the Indigenous Ainu people still retain a strong sense of appreciation for the world – and travellers can now experience this in person.

Each satisfying crunch of compacted powder underfoot was a small victory as I stepped between linden trees, trying to keep my balance, wearing snowshoes for the first time in my life. I used to hate snow with a passion, but on this occasion I couldn’t stop beaming, thankful for every step of the woodland that hugs the shores of Lake Akan in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. Wowed by my guide’s explanation of how his community reveres the natural world, I practically squealed as two incredibly rare red-crowned cranes flew overhead. 

As well as being an area of wild natural beauty and a hot springs haven, Lake Akan is home to one of the very few Ainu kotan (villages) in Japan. The Ainu people are the earliest inhabitants of Hokkaido and thrived here for centuries before the Japanese arrived. The exact origins of the Ainu are unknown; as a culture they didn’t write anything down and their history is shared through song, but their presence across the islands was recorded by neighbouring kingdoms in medieval times. 

Led by my Ainu guide Kengo Takiguchi, who imparted both botanical and – at times – existential wisdom, this snowy walk is his Forest Time workshop; just one of the portfolio of tours Takiguchi developed for Anytime, Ainu Time, the learning centre established by the Ainu Association of Hokkaido. 

Takiguchi leads tours focused on Japan’s Indigenous Ainu culture near Lake Akan (Credit: Lucie Grace)

“This isn’t cold, it’s a beautiful day,” he laughed, as I hopped about, trying to stay warm in temperatures of 2C. He wasn’t wrong – the sun shone between the colonnades of trees – but I got the impression that for Takiguchi, every day is a wonder.

He’s been leading these tours for three years, dressing in his traditional patterned robe and matanpushi headscarf while doing so. The workshops were launched in early 2020, shortly after the Japanese government passed a bill that recognised the Ainu as Hokkaido’s Indigenous people after 150 years of oppression and hostility. 

I first read about the Anytime, Ainu Time programme in 2021, and had been eagerly awaiting the country’s reopening. Not only are these workshops are among the very few in Japan where you can learn about the Ainu directly from Ainu guides, but by the time of my visit, I’d been practicing gratitude for 1,100 days and counting. In January 2020, I’d started writing five things I’m grateful for every night before bed – and what started as a New Year’s resolution became a strict ritual throughout the pandemic. Reading about the Ainu around that time, I became interested in their reverence and appreciation of every living thing. I wanted to learn more about gratitude from the Ainu themselves. 

“Because Ainu have the perspective that god is everywhere, they appreciate everything. Humans are part of nature, not above or below,” explained Dr Kinko Ito, professor of sociology at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock, who has been interviewing Ainu elders for more than 10 years and making documentaries from her footage. “Ainu people have a symbiotic coexistence with the natural world. They never exploit it. They lead a more ecological life than us.”

The Ainu believe that deities are alive in every being and pray by giving reverence to the spirits (Credit: Lucie Grace)

The Ainu believe that deities are alive in every being and pray by giving reverence to the spirits (Credit: Lucie Grace)

Ainu faith is animistic, believing that kamuy (deities) are alive in every being and every element of nature. This includes mountains, rivers, fire and even tsunamis, as well as all flora and fauna. Their prayers, rituals and interactions with the natural, deity-laden environment are all designed to give thanks and reverence to the ramat (the spirits of the kamuy). The Ainu believe that these spirits are just visiting our world, and when people are respectful to them, once their role here is completed, the ramat will travel through the six layers of heavens to the realm of the kamuy, giving a good report of this world and ensuring their return for next year’s seasons and harvests.  

“[The Ainu’s] prayers show gratitude to nature, but they also pray and give thanks for abundance; there’s always a prayer to the gods first before utilising anything from nature,” Ito explained. 

Traditionally Ainu robes were skilfully made from tree bark, and their homes, altars and food were also entirely sourced from the environment at hand. Ito explained that instead of focusing on what they lack, the Ainu are appreciative and are grateful for what they have. “They are not greedy, they never over-harvest,” she said, “they take only what they immediately need, leaving the rest for the next person.” 

I saw this in action during our Forest Time tour, when we passed a tall lakeside tree that had a red ribbon tied around it. “If we use some tree bark, we tie a ribbon around the tree so it can regrow, never killing a tree,” Takiguchi said, before breaking me off a piece of bark to use in tea if I’m ever feeling sick.

Roughly 24,000 Ainu live in Hokkaido today (Credit: robertharding/Alamy)

Roughly 24,000 Ainu live in Hokkaido today (Credit: robertharding/Alamy)

For centuries, the Ainu lived harmoniously with the seasonally harsh elements, first as hunters then as traders across Hokkaido; the Kuril Islands; Sakhalin Island (which is now Russia – the last Ainu living there were forced off in 1951); and some northern areas of Japan’s largest island, Honshu. They lived peacefully and at one with nature, paying respect to the kamuy, until the Japanese colonised their lands, which started in earnest in the late 1800s.  

Ainu people are not monocultural; there are differences between the communities who live across Hokkaido today. But during their forced assimilation some things were universal: their language was banned, traditional tattoos were outlawed and fishing prohibited – which terminated their way of life, stripping them of any ability to make an income and be self-sustaining. Many ended up working as indentured labourers across Japan. Through remarkable resilience, around 24,000 Ainu live in Hokkaido today (although the number is suspected to be larger, as many still feel safer to go uncounted) and impressively, despite the persecutions suffered, there is a resurgence of their language and traditions. 

The systematically aggressive treatment they sustained only makes the Ainu positivity, gratitude and enduring sense of abundance all the more incredible. “I asked all my interviewees if they’re happy to be Ainu, and they all said they are content where they are and they appreciate it,” Ito told me. “They are very resilient. Wars took place between the Ainu and Japanese, the Ainu were not passive. They are peace-loving people, but they defended themselves where they could.”

As we trekked through the forest, Takiguchi demonstrated the Ainu gratitude for the natural world, not only by talking, but by subtly doing. He knew the names of every tree, plant and animal in three languages (Japanese, Ainu, English), noting any interesting aesthetics and outlining how the Ainu use them. Before the tour ended, I got a lesson in playing the mukkuri, a mouth harp made from bamboo. Takiguchi suggested that “hearing the mukkuri resonate in the middle of the quiet forest gives you the feeling that humans are a part of nature”. It certainly did when he played – each note sent vibrations into my chest, weaving a connection between myself and everything in the forest. I felt this unity starkly in the stillness as the glaring sunlight reflected off the snow.

The mukkuri is an Ainu mouth harp made from bamboo (Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy)

The mukkuri is an Ainu mouth harp made from bamboo (Credit: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy)

After my tour, I visited Takiguchi’s woodwork shop and met his artist wife and skittish old dog. Out of traditional costume, he explained that he set up Anytime, Ainu Time three years ago with support from the elders of his community. “I’m the baby here,” he smiled. It turned out he was hosting me on his 41st birthday, which only made me all the more grateful, as I apologised for having him work. 

“Don’t worry about it,” he grinned. 

I left the Takiguchi woodwork shop feeling an intrinsic connection between nature and people, realising that appreciation and gratitude for every living thing leads to a feeling of abundance. Tuning in and valuing the tiniest details leading to wholeness. I wanted to skip to my bus stop but remembered to walk carefully in the snow, grateful to bursting.

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