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Discover the Unique Marimo Festival Organised by Japan’s Indigenous Ainu People

The Ainu people, an indigenous community in Japan, are said to be the oldest inhabitants of the country. Many of them still live in the northern part of Hokkaido and the nearby areas of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands.

The Marimo Festival began in the 1950s as a divine traditional ritual of the Ainu people. Marimos are green algae balls that take about 100 years to fully grow. The marimo balls that grow in Lake Akan in Kushiro, Hokkaido, are the largest in the world as they grow to a diameter of 30 centimetres. The Ainu people run the Marimo Festival annually in October to protect the endangered marimo.  

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

Traditionally, the Ainu hunted deer and bears using a ku (bow), paired with poison-tipped arrows. Their bows were typically crafted from the Japanese yew or kukeni – a name derived from the Ainu words for bow, make (ne) and tree (ni).

See also: How Tiny Japan Survived the Great Mongol Empire Invasion

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

A protected species in Japan, wild marimos are recognised as an Important Cultural Property. It takes natural marimos over 100 years to grow to a diameter of 10 centimetres, but the marimos in Lake Akan grow to a diameter of 30 centimetres!

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

Ainu craftsmen often created wood carvings of animals that held special significance to the people. A common Ainu carving is that of the owl god Cikap Kamuy, who is revered as the village guardian, and is responsible for overseeing the behaviour of humans and other gods.

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

Ainu elders and a Shinto priest bless the marimo at a Shinto shrine before the green orbs are returned to the lake. Though a relatively new celebration with no historic or religious ties to the Ainu, the Marimo Festival is imbued with the ancient Ainu reverence for nature, reflecting the spiritual beliefs of the Ainu for whom kamuy (spirits) reside in all living things, natural phenomena and elements like water and fire.

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

Ainu clothing is embroidered with designs that vary slightly from region to region. When new, these dresses are worn on special occasions, and as daily attire once old. The decorative headbands or matampus were traditionally sported by men only but have recently become popular among women too.

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

The annual Marimo Festival, which takes place on the shores of Lake Akan
in early October, was conceived in the 50s to protect the lake’s endangered marimos – green spheres of algae – that had almost become extinct due to
poaching for the ‘pet’ market. Every year, after a special ceremony to clean and bless the marimos, an elder paddles a canoe out to return the velvety balls to Lake Akan, praying for their protection for the coming year.

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

This is a wood carving from the collection of Kenji Matsuda, a former artisan working with wood, who now heads the Akan Ainu Preservation Society. The connection with Lake Akan and woodwork dates back to 1959 when the Lake Akan Ainu Village was established upon a plot of land donated to the Ainu craftsmen who used to visit the area to sell their carvings to tourists.

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

Often located by water bodies, Ainu villages traditionally comprise between four and seven families. Before modern housing became ubiquitous in Hokkaido, the Ainu lived in houses called chise, which were made of straw or bamboo grass. These small dwellings featured three windows that included a rorun-puyar or ‘god window’ through which the gods were believed to enter, and ceremonial items were passed. Looking through this window into the house was forbidden.

See also: Spotting Manholes is a Thing in Japan, Where Even the Drain Covers Get the ‘Kawaii’ Treatment

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

The marimo blessing ceremony at the shrine ends with the sharing of rice wine amongst the male members of the procession. A large lacquer ware bowl is passed around the group and then returned to the priest.

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

Combining typical Ainu designs and representations of the owl and salmon, this totem pole overlooking the Ainu kotan (village) alludes to the story of how the owl god taught humans to pray to the fish god in order to overcome a famine.

Image: Adam Isfendiyar

On a chilly morning, an Ainu man takes a walk towards Pennishiri, an active volcano that overlooks Lake Akan, a crater lake in Akan Mashu National Park that serves as a backdrop for the Ainu kotan or village. Meaning ‘Male Mountain’, Pennishiri, which stands at 1,370 metres, is said to have been named for its conical shape.

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