Nibutani Ainu Crafts

What are Nibutani Ainu Crafts?

Rituals of prayer to the spirits, ancient ritual dances, and techniques of creating artifacts locally continue to be treasured and passed on in the Nibutani region of Biratori Town in Hokkaido’s Saru District. In all of Hokkaido, this area retains particularly rich traditional Ainu culture.

In 2013, two of the Ainu crafts made here, Nibutani-ita and Nibutani-attus, were Hokkaido’s first crafts to receive official designation as Traditional Crafts of Japan by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. These traditional techniques continue to receive acclaim throughout Japan and from around the world.

Meanwhile, the world-renowned fashion designer, Junko Koshino has been welcomed as a general design director for initiatives using traditional techniques in the creation of new artisanry through collaboration with external creators.

Ainu Culture

The Ainu are an indigenous people who live in the regions around the northern Japanese archipelago. The Ainu have a particularly strong connection to the island of Hokkaido. 

The Ainu worldview is deeply rooted upon a tradition of thankfulness and respect for the bountiful nature of their homeland, and it incorporates the belief that all objects in the natural world hold spirits. The Ainu language is distinct in lineage from Japanese. 

Over a great many years, the Ainu have developed a unique culture including ritual, dance, oral tradition, and the creation of artifacts. These cultural traditions have been passed on through generations, and are carried on to this day.

Photo Caption: Ainu ancient ceremonial dance has been passed on through generations to the present

What is Nibutani in Biratori-cho?

All over Hokkaido, the region retains a particularly rich tradition regarding Ainu culture, including the cultivation of such important elements as rituals of prayer to the spirits, ancient ceremonial dance, and techniques of making woodcraft, clothing, and other artifacts that continue to be treasured and passed on, even to this day. 

The restoration and renovation of traditional Ainu dwellings (cise) is another example of efforts to preserve Ainu heritage being made today. 

In 2013, the eminent Ainu crafts, Nibutani-ita and Nibutani-attus, received the official designation as Hokkaido’s first Traditional Crafts of Japan by the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry.

Photo caption: Nibutani Kotan features restored cise (traditional dwellings), a pond, and a stream

What are Ainu patterns?

Ainu patterns typically consist of a combination of fundamental designs and motifs, or a number of smaller elements, and are expressed via techniques such as wooden engraving or embroidery. The natural features of the materials used, be it wood, cloth, or the like, also affect the pattern. 

Nuances such as the spatial placement of the pattern on the piece reflect regional cultural history, as well as the artist’s own personality. It is not known (academically) if entire Ainu patterns have meanings, however, it is a common practice for the artist to consider the user while composing the pattern. Some artists believe that these patterns ward off evil spirits.

Photo caption: Clothing made using attus

What is Nibutani-ita?

Since ancient times, the traditional manufacture of Nibutani-ita has been passed down from generation to generation in the Saru River Basin. 

These flat, shallow trays are made from woods such as katsura and walnut, and are characterized by designs featuring Ainu patterns such as morew-noka, ayus-noka, and sik-noka, with the gaps filled by scale-like patterns engraved into the items, known as ramram-noka.

Ramram-noka: Scale-shaped patterns

Ayus-noka: Thorned patterns

Sik-noka: Eye-shaped patterns

Morew-noka: Spiral-shaped patterns

What is Nibutani-attus?

Nibutani-attus is a textile woven from yarn made from the inner fiber of the bark of certain trees that grow in the forests of the Saru River Basin, such as the lobed elm. It is distinguishable in particular by the twists given to the yarn as its produced. 

Nibutani-attus is characterized by excellent water resistance and breathability, as well as remarkable durability for a natural textile. Prized for its unique texture, it is often used to make kimono, hanten short coats, obi belts, and other accessories.

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