Last chance to see Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River at Japan House London

  • Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River is the UK-first exploration of the contemporary stories of this Northern Japanese indigenous culture.
  • Visit in the remaining weeks to experience four central themes of contemporary Ainu culture: the critically endangered language; society and the preservation of the environment; Ainu textiles, song and dance; and woodcarving and tourism.
  • The exhibition is free to enter.
  • To arrange a tour before the exhibition ends on 21 April, please contact:

Now in its closing weeks, visit Ainu Stories at Japan House London to discover the rich cultural diversity of Japan in this UK-first exploration of contemporary Ainu culture. Since the exhibition opening, Japan House London has welcomed over 100,000 visitors. 

Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River has been curated in collaboration with the people of Biratori, an area located in Saru River basin in the south of Hokkaido. The exhibition explores the significance of Ainu culture for this community and the relationships between its people and their surroundings, as well as revealing some interesting historical links between the UK and Biratori. Ainu Stories offers UK audiences a rare opportunity to fully experience the wider contemporary cultural fabric of Japan.

Highlight objects on display include: 

  •        Sekine Maki nuye sirki a=o kan tokkuri – bottle design by Sekine Maki 

Nibutani resident Sekine Make produced a Hokkaido-only design for Hokkaido Coca-Cola Bottling, the first of which featured an Ainu pattern. The ayus thorn pattern surrounds a stylized diagram of a map of Hokkaido, designed in the 1960s by Sekine’s father Kaizawa Moriyuki. 

  •        cepker – salmon skin boots 

Salmon skin can be worn to protect against the cold. It takes the skin of four salmon to make a pair of adult boots, using the dorsal fin of the fish on the side of the boot to prevent slipping on the ice. The word cepker comes from ci ‘we’, ep ‘eat’ and ker ‘shoes’. These were made recently as part of research and learning for members of the Nibutani community.  

Courtesy of the Ainu Cultural Environment Conversation Research Office, Biratori Ainu Policy Promotion Section, Biratori Town Office.

  •        kaparamip 

This type of robe is the one seen most often in the Saru River area. It translates literally as ‘thin robe’ and is distinguished by the extent of white cotton appliqué patterns. 

Cotton, maker unknown, 2003. Courtesy of Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum. 

  •        Wooden carvings from various makers across Hokkaido – various dates

In Nibutani, many inhabitants originally relied on the land to make a living. The income that could be made from catering to tourists changed that. Trinkets were made featuring bears, salmon, stylised Ainu figures and profiles of young women holding lily of the valley flowers. These items contributed to the creation of an Ainu fantasy world, often divorced from reality for visitors to take home. 

Alongside objects, twelve in-depth video interviews provide an intimate visual and oral backdrop to the exhibition’s four central themes, which are further brought to life with displays of contemporary Ainu works and film:

  • Ainu Language – Members of the community in Nibutani are particularly dedicated to ensuring the continued life of this largely oral language, named as critically endangered by UNESCO.  
  • Society and the Environment – This section touches on topics of environmental conservation, contemporary agricultural practices, the largely unknown world of Ainu cuisine and the consultation with members of the Ainu community on major land construction projects such as the recently completed Biratori Dam. 
  • Ainu Textiles, Song and Dance –Through displays, film and hands-on workshops, visitors can discover the importance of song and dance in Ainu culture – not performed for the benefit of others but taking place as part of community life. Richly embroidered robes worn for certain ceremonies tell the story of Ainu textiles and crafts.
  • Woodcarving and Tourism – Japanese domestic tourism in the 1960s and 1970s inspired the growth of the Ainu woodcarving industry in Nibutani, an area which was already famed for its delicately carved wooden trays, household utensils and hunting weapons. Today, Nibutani ita (carved trays), together with Nibutani attus (woven bark textiles), are the only officially designated ‘Traditional Crafts’ of Hokkaido. Visitors will find a range of these objects on display, including a specially commissioned piece by Kaizawa Toru whose work can also be seen in the British Museum.   

The event series continues into March and April with details below: 

  •        21 -25 March 2024 - Ainu craft talks, demonstrations, and workshops. 

Japan House London will host an expert craftsman from Biratori in Hokkaido for talks, demonstrations and workshops to highlight the revitalised practice of Ainu woodwork and embroidery.

  •        3 April 2024 – Film screening of Ainu Past and Present: The Legacy of Neil Gordon Munro’s Film, 2007
     A recent documentary made between 2005 and 2006 by Uchida Junko and members of the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku) with the assistance of Tokyo Cinema Inc, the films and photos of Neil Gordon Munro, who had studied the Ainu culture for thirty years before settling in Nibutani for the last twelve years of his life.

Bookings opening from 20 March 2024

  •        10 April 2024 – Gallery tour with Director of Programming Simon Wright
    Uncover little-known historical links between the UK and the Ainu community of Biratori with a guided tour of Ainu Stories: Contemporary Lives by the Saru River led by Japan House London Programming Director and exhibition curator Simon Wright.

Simon Wright, Director of Programming at Japan House London, said: 

“We’re so pleased to have welcomed so many visitors to explore this exhibition, the first time these contemporary stories have been told in the UK. Collaborating with the Ainu community in Biratori has been pivotal and has ensured an authentic presentation of Ainu community and culture today. Our sold-out events series that focused on themes of culture, song, food, and dance have been a wonderful way to bring the exhibition to life and in its closing weeks, we look forward to welcoming even more people.” 

Look ahead to the 2024 programme at Japan House London: 

Spring Exhibition 
Design Discoveries: Towards a Design Museum Japan
May – September 2024

Japan is synonymous with exemplary design and yet has no dedicated national museum of design. Leading Japanese designers from different disciplines were asked, “If there were a permanent Japanese design collection, what would you put in it?”. Their diverse responses are the subject of an exciting new exhibition opening at Japan House London in the spring, following successful shows at the National Art Center in Tokyo and at partner sites in Los Angeles and São Paulo.  

Seven major Japanese creators, from filmmakers to architects and fashion designers, present their chosen national treasures, spanning 10,000 years from a variety of locations across the country. Each choice represents something from a specific prefecture, and the exhibition presents the background story of each example of design, its specific connection to the region, and in-depth perspectives from the experts who chose and researched the objects. 

Autumn Exhibition
Food Samples
October 2024 – February 2025

Food samples are the replica food models found outside restaurants in Japan to advertise what is on offer inside. The production of these replicas was developed more than a century ago and requires great attention to detail. Specialist craftspeople work across Japan on this art form in workshops of varying size.

In Autumn 2024, 47 new replicas will be commissioned by Japan House London to explore food sample culture, one from each of Japan’s prefectures. The exhibition will feature regional dishes from across the country whilst exploring the history, current use and future of the art form. 

2024 Film Screenings
As well as regular Ainu film screenings until April, 2024 introduces Japan House London’s Mizoguchi Kenji season, presenting five films by the legendary director over the course of six months. Curated by academic and Japanese film critic Alex Jacoby, the selection includes Sansho Dayu, The Life of Oharu and Gion Bayashi. All screenings are free, but booking is essential.

The Shop at Japan House London
Throughout 2024, The Shop at Japan House London continues to offer guests the opportunity to learn about artists, designers, manufacturers and regions of Japan. Visit the Kensington High Street store and the Shop online for new products and thoughtfully curated collections that reflect the ever-changing seasons. Many items are available exclusively at Japan House London in the UK. 

Ikebana and library displays
Japan House London’s Month-by-Month ikebana displays continue until July, presenting Japanese flower design by members of Ikebana International London Chapter. Each display takes inspiration from wafu getsumei, the evocative names for the months of the old Japanese lunar calendar.

From January, the Library at Japan House London will feature a new collection of books on music from Japan. The books will cover a breadth of musical genres, including rock, city pop, video game music and contemporary classical. The display will also include the Ainu string instrument tonkori.

Notes to Editors

About Japan House London
Japan House London is a cultural destination offering guests the opportunity to experience the best and latest from Japan. Located on London’s Kensington High Street, the experience is an authentic encounter with Japan, engaging and surprising even the most knowledgeable guests. Presenting the very best of Japanese art, design, gastronomy, innovation, and technology, it deepens the visitor’s appreciation of all that Japan has to offer.  This year, Japan House London marks five years of bringing the best of Japan to the UK and beyond.  Part of a global initiative, there are two other Japan Houses, one in Los Angeles and the other in São Paulo.