Some days you get the bear, other days the bear gets you
Once the island inhabited by the Ainu Tribe, the region used to be called “Ezo”, meaning “Land of the Ainu”. As the indigenous people of Hokkaido and Russia, this isolated group had their own language, religion and customs.
Ancient Ainu Ritual: IYOMANTE
Known for being a hunting tribe, the Ainu people had many fascinating ceremonies and rituals. One such example was Iyomante (イヨマンテ), where a brown bear cub is raised for two years and then sacrificed.
Literally meaning “to send something or someone off”, this elaborate ceremony takes about a month for preparation.
The bear cub is first captured in a hibernation den during winter and then raised alongside with the tribe as part of the family. Sake and dango are prepared and offered on the day of the ritual, together with prayers to the deities.
As the women gather around it and dance, the bear is eventually shot with arrows by the men of the village.
Although the bear was not considered part of the sacrifice, the people believed that they were freeing the spirit of the gods trapped in the bear into the divine world.
After the bear’s death, villagers mounted the bear’s skull on a spear for worship and drink its blood.
To find out more about the East Hokkaido region, click here.
(This feature first appeared on WAttention Singapore magazine, Sep/Oct 2018 Vol. 46)