The Only Ainu Restaurant in Tokyo

Concealed amid the bustling streets of central Tokyo, a dimly lit porch qualified prospects to a location that feels a entire world absent from the Korean barbecues and neon-lit karaokes that draw night time-time crowds to the Ōkubo neighborhood. Through the doorway, which is often still left open up, is a corridor lined with images and a softly lit place. As it draws nearer, so far too do the sounds of historic chants sung to a hypnotic conquer and the scent of home made stew.

The little izakaya (an eatery-cum-bar) has only 5 tables and a kitchen at the considerably stop. Between the wooden and straw furnishings, artifacts are on display: a wood string instrument adorned with sinuous carvings, an indigo gown featuring intricate designs of interconnected lines and designs, an old map of Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost main island). Every single of these objects is vital to the Ainu, the Indigenous persons of northern Japan and Russia’s Sakhalin and Kuril Islands, whose lifestyle is celebrated below at izakaya Harukor.

The entrance to Harukor.
The entrance to Harukor. Irwin Wong for Gastro Obscura

Out of 150,000 places to eat in Tokyo, Harukor is the only a single serving dishes created by the Ainu, a minority team that has faced discrimination ever since, in the wake of generations of trade, Japan invaded and annexed their indigenous land of Hokkaido and fought with Russia above regulate of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands—a component of whose Ainu populations had been forcefully displaced to Hokkaido—in the 2nd fifty percent of the 1800s.

Subjected to a coverage of assimilation, Ainu men and women missing their common way of lifestyle and ended up compelled to grow to be Japanese citizens. This course of action of cultural erasure, on the other hand, was not completely successful—a simple fact on screen at Harukor, where by Ainu founder Teruyo United states of america serves dishes such as rataskep, a mixture of stewed wild vegetables and beans mashed with pumpkin and animal fats, and sito, abundant dumplings customarily available to Ainu gods, acknowledged as kamuy, for the duration of ceremonies.

At Harukor, United states of america prepares ohaw, a soup that was at the time an Ainu staple manufactured with seasonal elements, as a sensitive broth imbued with wild vegetables and salmon. “It was a fixture when I was a boy or girl, but my mother and father under no circumstances told me it was an Ainu dish,” she recollects. “Up to the age of 10, I lived in Hokkaido. I didn’t know anything at all about Ainu culture and had to conceal my identity because of the stigma.”

Ohaw (left) is a soup, once an Ainu staple, prepared with seasonal ingredients. At Harukor, it is made with wild vegetables and fish, usually salmon. The wild onion kitopiro (right), once widely consumed by the Ainu, prepared in four different ways.
Ohaw (remaining) is a soup, as soon as an Ainu staple, geared up with seasonal elements. At Harukor, it is manufactured with wild greens and fish, normally salmon. The wild onion kitopiro (proper), when extensively consumed by the Ainu, prepared in four different approaches. Irwin Wong for Gastro Obscura

This absence of consciousness of Ainu foodstuff and heritage was commonplace. Usa’s grandmother, who was born on the biggest of the southern Kuril Islands but forcibly relocated to Hokkaido, had to abandon classic customs, these kinds of as women’s tattoos and burning a spouse and children member’s residence following their demise, as these have been outlawed by Japanese rulers. She also attended a segregated university process in which she was educated in Japanese and not in Ainu, a language that was just about completely wiped out as households progressively stopped educating it to young children below the strain of colonization.

The Ainu usually eaten resources in accordance with an animist belief technique based mostly on reverence for divinities embodied in vegetation, animals, and other pure things, and relied on looking, gathering, fishing, and some restricted kinds of agriculture. Typically, adult males hunted game such as bear and deer, and fished salmon and trout. Females foraged wild veggies and leeks, lilies, and ferns, and grew grains such as millet and wheat. Meat and fish were being typically smoked, dried, or boiled to make ohaw—unlike the Japanese, the Ainu didn’t consume uncooked fish—using uncomplicated seasonings this sort of as salt, animal extra fat, or the edible kelp kombu.

But less than the notorious “Hokkaido Previous Aborigines Protection Act,” adopted in 1899 and repealed only in 1997, the Japanese govt pressured the Ainu to adopt rice, beans, potatoes, and livestock farming as a substitute. Usa’s grandmother and adhering to generations shed the relationship to their land and historical food stuff programs.

“My grandmother grew up denying her tradition in general public and training it only in non-public,” states United states of america.

Ainu women in Monbetsu, on Hokkaido island, Japan, circa 1880.
Ainu women in Monbetsu, on Hokkaido island, Japan, circa 1880. adoc-pics/Corbis by means of Getty Pictures

New elements entered the Ainu diet program, like Japanese seasonings these types of as miso. Several factors of Indigenous cooking disappeared, although some others have been assimilated into Japanese delicacies. The name for kombu, one of the principal substances in the dashi broths that are the foundation of several Japanese preparations, for instance, is considered to derive from the Ainu phrase konp.

To openly recognize as Ainu isn’t a basic conclusion. Even nevertheless the Ainu have been officially acknowledged as Japan’s Indigenous people by the govt in 2019, and discrimination from them is illegal, this neighborhood carries on to be the focus on of racism and loathe speech. As a short while ago as 2014, a Hokkaido politician publicly denied the Ainu’s existence, sparking a deluge of racist opinions on the internet and an anti-Ainu demonstration in Tokyo. As a consequence, Usa’s family members was not abnormal in hiding their identification.

Her grandmother, United states of america states, “kept a lot of painful aspects of her everyday living from me up to a few months before she passed away.” At the time, United states also found that her grandmother spoke Ainu. “I would have wished her to teach me, but she saved me in the dim simply because she feared I would reject our heritage if I knew what she’d been by means of.”

When the loved ones moved to Tokyo, having said that, they did not have to hide any lengthier due to the fact “people simply did not know who the Ainu ended up.” Usa’s grandmother grew to become much more open about her identification and even joined an Ainu lifestyle group. In 1994, when Usa was 18, the group, which her mother experienced also joined, opened the restaurant Rera Chise, or “wind property,” in Tokyo.

The photo is of Teruyo Usa’s mother wearing Ainu robes. Teruyo and her mother opened the restaurant together, but her mother passed away a month after it was inaugurated.
The photograph is of Teruyo Usa’s mom wearing Ainu robes. Teruyo and her mother opened the cafe collectively, but her mother passed away a thirty day period after it was inaugurated. Irwin Wong for Gastro Obscura

“They have been searching for a spot in which they could satisfy, but didn’t get any aid from the neighborhood federal government,” United states recollects. “So they decided to do it on their own.” She describes her time at Rera Chise, which remained open up for 14 decades, as “intense but fantastic.” The restaurant unified the local community, which felt empowered by sharing its foodstuff with non-Ainu folks.

When the restaurant closed, Usa and her mom determined to open up a new one to continue selling Ainu culture via food. “We didn’t want to disappoint all the people who experienced provided us their assist and passion,” suggests Usa. Her grandmother also died all-around that time, and Usa believes her mother preferred to much more deeply link to their roots. They uncovered the place in Ōkubo and chose the title Harukor, or “to carry grain.” But just a month immediately after opening, Usa’s mother passed away suddenly.

The void she left powering was not only emotional: a prosperity of culinary know-how was misplaced with her. “Fortunately, although, my spouse experienced uncovered to prepare dinner Ainu by observing her in the kitchen area,” suggests United states of america. Nearly a ten years later on, she’s however managing the business enterprise (when also boosting a daughter) and continues to be devoted to building consumers sense at property even though her husband, who isn’t Ainu, is hectic in the kitchen area.

Pickled wild vegetables and berries in the restaurant.
Pickled wild greens and berries in the cafe. Irwin Wong for Gastro Obscura

Ingredients served at Harukor such as venison, salmon, and root and wild veggies are sourced from Hokkaido. Accompanying the menu is an rationalization of Indigenous foodstuff, together with turep or wild lily, just one of the most critical greens in Ainu cooking, which is designed into a crispy and gentle tempura, and pukusa or kitopiro, a wild onion served boiled, marinated, or with dumplings, and that is creating a comeback after its usage dwindled as a result of the Japanization of Native cuisine. Harukor also gives Japanese izakaya classics this kind of as edamame and fried chicken, as perfectly as common Hokkaido fare these kinds of as grilled hokke, a style of mackerel, and a mutton barbecue identified as Genghis Khan.

“The exchange that normally takes put at the table is vital to maintain and endorse our lifestyle,” United states of america describes. “Instead of going to a museum, if you want to study about the Ainu, the best issue to do is sit all-around a desk and talk.” She encourages clients to question her thoughts, which are normally prompted by the unconventional dishes, posters of Ainu cultural events, and Indigenous artifacts these kinds of as the tonkori, a lengthy and slender string instrument that United states often plays at the conclusion of services when the ambiance feels right.

This exceptional location, in which people can freely explore Indigenous ancestry in Japan, draws in a heterogeneous crowd: from Ainu descendants, to very long-time supporters of the local community, to those only curious about Indigenous foodstuff. Admirers of Golden Kamuy—a manga and anime sequence with lots of Ainu figures that is set throughout the time period of Japanese colonization of Hokkaido—figure prominently in the latter team.

Harukor has only five tables and the kitchen is at the far end of the restaurant. The fabric on the right features an Ainu pattern, and the poster is of an Ainu dance performance.
Harukor has only five tables and the kitchen area is at the significantly close of the cafe. The cloth on the correct options an Ainu sample, and the poster is of an Ainu dance functionality. Irwin Wong for Gastro Obscura

The launch of Golden Kamuy’s 3rd time this drop is possible to attract new buyers, and primarily younger individuals, who are eager to consider Indigenous cuisine whilst exclaiming “hinna, hinna,” an Ainu phrase expressing gratitude to the gods that has turn out to be a thing of a catchword among the supporters of the collection. These buyers are a welcome inflow thinking of the pandemic’s effects on dining establishments, though business is buying up again thanks to Japan’s relative achievement in containing the unfold of Covid-19.

Harukor is not by itself in serving and sharing Ainu food stuff. Kerapirka, in the Hokkaido cash of Sapporo, specializes in Ainu-Italian fusion. Poronno, a café around Lake Akan in eastern Hokkaido, has been serving Ainu cuisine for 40 a long time. A recent cookbook, The Spirit of Huci: 4 Seasons of an Ainu Female, shares the delicacies and culture, and the Ainu Women’s Affiliation Menoko Mosmos and Gradual Food have organized Indigenous foods festivals.

This momentum all over revitalizing Ainu delicacies is complemented by authorities aid for regular crafts and musical performances carried out in the recently opened Upopoy Museum, the very first national museum devoted to Ainu tradition, as nicely as a increasing selection of Ainu language courses. Irrespective of this visibility, although, the Ainu stay dispossessed of ancestral lands and experience unequal access to economic opportunities and political participation.

“When I was in school, what we were taught about the Ainu was limited to a web site in our textbook,” Usa suggests. “Nowadays, a great deal extra notice is becoming compensated to our society. Even so, it’s significantly from more than enough: Some men and women still ask no matter if the Ainu actually exist. What I want is for modern society to come to be mindful of what the Japanese did to us.” While Ainu people nevertheless have very little voice in mainstream discourse, there’s a compact izakaya tucked away in central Tokyo wherever truthful conversations are held about dishes whose flavors explain to the tale of a diverse, multicultural Japan.

Gastro Obscura addresses the world’s most wondrous meals and drink.

Signal up for our e-mail, sent 2 times a 7 days.