The Ainu are an indigenous people of Japan (Hokkaido) and Russia (Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands). Theirs was a hunting, fishing, and plant-gathering society and they spoke their own language. Certain pronounced physical characteristics also distinguished them from their neighbors. The word ainu translates to mean “human.” It is estimated that only about 18,000 Ainu now reside in Hokkaido, although the number may be much higher than that. Many with Ainu heritage hide their identities due to confusion over mixed heritages and ethnic issues in Japan. Further, intermarriages with Japanese has blurred the concept of a pure Ainu ethnic group.
Today, you do not have to travel to Hokkaido or the Sakhalin and Kuril Islands to experience Ainu culture firsthand. You can visit a restaurant offering traditional Ainu cuisine right in Tokyo! I am referring to HaruKor located at 1-10-1 Hyakunin-cho in Shinjukuku! It is not far from the Shin Okubo station and is open Mon-Fri from 5pm-midnight and Sat-Sun 4pm-midnight. The restaurant is rather small and accommodates 15 people maximum, including counter seating. In the Ainu language, the word haru means “food,” and kor means “to have,” and so the restaurant’s name!
HaruKor’s interior attempts to recreate a traditional Ainu thatched house. The inside is decorated with wooden carvings, weaving and embroidery.
The menu is posted on the wall and daily specials are written on a whiteboard, but you may have difficulty understanding these, since much of it is in Ainu. Fortunately, the staff is very accommodating and will walk guests through the various offerings.
The meals are not elaborate by any means and utilize typical Hokkaido ingredients such as venison, salmon, scallops, potatoes and mountain vegetables. However, Ainu cooking differs remarkably from Japanese cuisine. The Ainu rarely ate raw fish or meat such as sashimi, so dishes are cooked in nabe pots or grilled. The meals are seasoned sparingly using animal or fish fat, salt and spices and without soy sauce or miso.
The drink menu includes several different Hokkaido sakes, shochu and beer. The prices are rather affordable, a meal with drinks will typically set you back 2500¥.
It is truly an amazing experience to discover the depth of Ainu cuisine in the heart of Tokyo. If you have never tried Ainu cooking, you should definitely go and check it out at least once if you happen to be living in or visiting Japan.