Photograph by Michael Yamashita National Geographic August 2008

Japan's indigenous Ainu people called Daisetsuzan, a rugged region on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, the "playground of the gods." The Japanese government thought the remote area's beauty made it worthy of being named one of the country's first national parks (it's also the nation's largest). Intrepid visitors go to hike the park's many mountains: It has 16 peaks over 6,500 feet—some with trails, many without—and they offer some of the most dramatic scenery in Japan.

Daisetsuzan's numerous volcanoes, mountains, wetlands, and forests are home to several animal species, including the brown bear, Hokkaido fox, and Ezo sable. Known for 200 species of alpine plants that flower on the mountains in July and August, the park also draws many visitors in the fall, when they can admire the colorful foliage.

Daisetsuzan Mountains

Daisetsuzan National Park

Florence, Mason, and others. Hiking in Japan. Lonely Planet, 2001.

The Ainu

Calling themselves Ainu, which in their language means "human," the native people of northern Japan have a culture with roots stretching back more than ten thousand years. They used to inhabit the Kuril Islands, southern Sakhalin, and part of northern Honshu, but today live only on Hokkaido. The Ainu mastered seafaring, both as hunters and traders, and from the 14th to the 17th centuries they served as important intermediaries between markets in Japan, Korea, Russia, China, Manchuria, and Holland. As some of these states grew, however, the Ainu's role declined.

In 1868 political upheaval in Japan brought about the Meiji Restoration. The progressive new government encouraged Japanese citizens to move to Hokkaido to exploit its natural resources. A flood of immigrants brought a new way of life to the island, which until then had been the sole province of the Ainu. The Meiji government and the Japanese newcomers saw Ainu traditional life as an obstacle to progress, and they instituted policies to "civilize" the Ainu. Within a few years most Ainu lands, resources, and rights had been taken away, and in 1899 these actions were codified in a "protection act," whose actual intent was to suppress Ainu culture and force the people to assimilate into Japanese society.

Despite these pressures, Ainu culture survived, and in 1997 a new piece of legislation, the Ainu Shinpo, became the first Japanese law to support Ainu culture and language.

Fitzhugh, William. "Ainu Ethnicity: A History." Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People, ed. William Fitzhugh and Chisato Dubreuil. Arctic Studies Center, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and University of Washington Press, 1999.

"Beauty Mark"

The Ainu people of Japan traditionally tattooed mustaches on their daughters by rubbing soot into small knife cuts. "It is begun with a small semicircle on the upper lip when the girl is only two or three years of age and a few incisions are added every year till she is married," read an 1893 account of the practice, banned by the government around the turn of the [20th] century. More effective than law, though, was assimilation. The aboriginal Ainu lived as far north as the Kuril Islands before most were forced to relocate to densely populated Hokkaido. That plus intermarriage with ethnic Japanese helped tattooed mustaches fall out of favor.

"Beauty Mark." National Geographic (October 1996).

Other Resources
Hilger, M. Inez. Together With the Ainu: A Vanishing People. University of Oklahoma Press, 1971.

Shinichiro, Takakura. The Ainu of Northern Japan. American Philosophical Society, 1960.

Watanabe, Hitoshi. The Ainu Ecosystem: Environment and Group Structure. University of Washington Press, 1972.

The Ainu Museum.

Ainu: Spirit of a Northern People.

Ainu textiles.

Daisetsuzan Hiking Guide.

Daisetsuzan. Ministry of the Environment.

Other National Geographic Resources
Hilger, Mary Inez. "Japan's 'Sky People,' the Vanishing Ainu." National Geographic (February 1967).

Lee, Douglas. "Japan's Last Frontier: Hokkaido." National Geographic (January 1980).

Last updated: June 23, 2008