Mapping Isabella Bird: Geolocation & Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880)

The Saru River Valley Today

Biratori is a city in the Hidaka region of Hokkaido in the Saru River valley. While you can still visit Biratori today, the town of Nibutani, just a mile and a half north, is considered the area that most closely preserves Ainu culture and tradition. As of 2010, Nibutani had a population of 395 people. With over 80% of its residents claiming Ainu heritage, it makes Nibutani the largest town of concentrated Ainu residents in all of Hokkaido. Even shortly after the time of Bird's travel, it was viewed as a cultural center of sorts by outsiders.

Click on the red pins on the map above for some notable sites in the town of Nibutani in Biratori, Hokkaido.

Today, Nibutani is a site of both cultural preservation and tourism. It is the home of the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum (est. 1992) and the nearby Kayano Shigeru Ainu Museum. Together, these museums hold over 1000 artifacts related to contemporary and historical Ainu culture that are designated "Important Tangible Folk Cultural Property" [重要無形民俗文化財] . Many contemporary artists and artisans call Nibutani home, including wood carvers such as Toru KaizawaHaruo SuzakiKoji Kaizawa, and textile artists such as Yukiko Kaizawa, who works on attus (weaving made from elm bark) and Akiko Hiramura, who focuses on traditional embroidery. For a full list of artists, please see the Nibutani Ainu Takumi no Michi.

Nibutani is also the site of the controversial Nibutani Dam. Ainu landowners Tadashi Kaizawa and Shigeru Kayano filed a landmark case in 1989 alleging that the government illegally seized indigenous land and ritual grounds. Although the dam was brought to completion in 1997, the case illustrated the systematic oppression of the Ainu people and rights that should have been recognized under Article 13 of the Japanese Constitution.

For more information on the Nibutani Dam and its implications in English, please see: Georgina Stevens, "More Than Paper: Protecting Ainu Culture and Influencing Japanese Dam Development," Cultural Survival Quarterly Magazine (December 2004).

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  1. Photograph: Nibutani Dam, Nibutani, Biratori, Hokkaido
  2. Map of Nibutani Ainu Takumi no Michi