"Island of the Spirits"

PBS Airdate: November 2, 1999
Go to the companion Web site

During the following program, look for NOVA's Web markers which lead you to more information at our Website.

Tonight on NOVA: take a journey beyond the edge of civilization, a world of fire and ice. This is the island of Hokkaido, Japan's last wilderness. Explore a remote frontier where each season's passing brings a centuries old way of life closer to disappearing forever. "Island of the Spirits."

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

C|Net, bringing the digital age into focus. C|, the source for computers and technology.

This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

NARRATOR: Hokkaido. Japan's northernmost island. A remote frontier where Russia meets the Far East. In this magical place lives an ancient race called the Ainu. They claim their land is a gift from the gods who turned boiling mud into beautiful mountains and forests. Even today, Ainu people worship the natural world around them. A world in which all creatures are sacred. Seen through the eyes of a rare and remarkable culture, this is the story of life in Hokkaido's Garden of the Gods.

Midwinter on Japan's northern shores. After a night spent in the freezer, Whooper swans stir under the rising sun. Every year, 10,000 Whoopers come here from Russia to escape the fierce Arctic weather to the north. They are drawn to a few special lakes and bays where the waters are warm and ice-free. These winter havens are a godsend for swans. And they only exist because Japan lies on the Pacific Rim of Fire. Like the rest of the country, Hokkaido has been raised by cataclysmic forces. And today its rugged peaks still breathe. This northern outpost is Japan's last wilderness and it is a world apart from the rest of the country.

Most of Japan's wildlife originated in sub-tropical Asia. But Hokkaido is different. Many of its animals and plants once came from Siberia. The same is probably true of Ainu people. The Ainu are hunter-gatherers who have lived in northern Japan since at least the seventh century. Their looks, language and traditions are unlike any other culture in Asia.

The Ainu value animals and plants more for their usefulness than their aesthetic worth. Creatures that once provided food, clothing or medicine are held in the very highest esteem. In prayer, rice wine is offered as a form of thanks to the gods. The Ainu believe that all living creatures are incarnations of gods. Some, like the owl, are helpful gods, while others must be treated with cautious respect.

In Hokkaido, one special creature has caught the imagination of both Ainu and Japanese people. It's a national emblem, and a much loved symbol of happiness and long life. The Japanese crane. For safety, Japanese cranes spend the night in broad rivers. But at daybreak they take to the air. So striking are these birds that Ainu people claim they are dressed in clothes from heaven.

Japanese cranes can live for more than 50 years and usually pair for life. Gathering in farm fields they reinforce this bond with synchronized displays. These trumpeting calls carry for several miles and are often the prelude to a spectacular courtship dance. Dancing is contagious. Soon the whole flock is in motion. The Ainu celebrate this special event with their own dance. It's a way of fending off evil spirits.

Cranes are trusted by Ainu people, but red foxes certainly aren't. Known as the gods of cunning, foxes are credited with supernatural powers and some say they can even disguise themselves as other creatures. In the depths of winter foxes need all their wits to survive, so they'll often excavate leftovers stashed from a previous meal.

Deep snow is also tough on Sika deer as plants like dwarf bamboo are harder to reach. Many will perish in the bitter months ahead. Up in the treetops life is a lot easier. Red squirrels are native to Hokkaido and during winter they defend feeding territories from rivals. The Ainu warn that you should never walk beneath one, because if it spits on you you'll suffer great sickness.

Hokkaido sits on the same latitude as France, yet its climate is far more severe. Swept by winds from the high Arctic, nightly temperatures often plunge to 30 degrees below zero. Sea ice carried here from Siberia locks the shores. But for those brave enough to force a way through it, there are great rewards. Fish is the favorite food in Japan, and Hokkaido provides a fifth of the nation's catch. These ice-breakers are crucial to some very special guests from Russia, Steller's sea eagles. Up to 2,000 of them, a third of the world's population, spend the winter here on the northeast coast of Hokkaido. Each morning the eagles go in pursuit of the boats. Soaring on wings nearly eight feet across, it's easy to see why the Japanese call this bird O-Washi, meaning The Great Eagle. Steller's sea eagles are not the only ones shadowing the boats. They are joined by a smaller cousin, the white tailed eagle, another Russian immigrant.

On a good day the fishermen haul more than five miles of nets. Some fish slip from the mesh before they're landed. And that's what the eagles are after. The massive Steller's eagles can easily hoist the large pollock from the water, but it's more of a struggle for the smaller white tailed eagle. Ainu people regard eagles as old friends. Legends tell of how their race was once saved from starvation by an eagle who carried a dolphin ashore for them to feast on. Fact or fiction, these birds commonly scavenge from stranded whales and dolphins. Often the sea ice is so thick that the fishing boats can't leave harbor and the eagles may go hungry for days on end. So, when food's on the table, they must grab as much as they can. But there's always competition.

The eagles will stay here until the pack ice retreats, but for now the Garden of the Gods remains in a deep winter sleep. It's so cold that even the air freezes. Wearing extra thick coats, foxes are well protected from the bitter weather. In these lean months they never stop patrolling their territories for food. For winter sometimes brings welcome surprises. Jungle crows are usually first to a victim of the cold. But their noisy squabbling is a dead giveaway to one so cunning. Crows are respected by the Ainu for their boldness but even such a mob of them can't deter a hungry fox. After a night in the deep freeze, the deer carcass is solid but needle sharp teeth can still make light work of it. In winter, foxes lead fairly solitary lives. But as the temperature starts to rise, males and females warm to each other's company. Fox courtship is a playful, flirtatious affair. The vixen will be in heat for just a few days. During this time, the dog fox won't let her out of his sight.

As winter loosens its grip on Hokkaido's shores, the pack ice splinters and melts, pulling the rug from under the swans. In harsh winters many swans can perish on these northern shores. So the milder weather comes as a welcome relief. To the Japanese, swans are symbols of purity and strength. They say they are messengers of Raiden, the god of thunder and lightning, and harming them will bring divine punishment. The Ainu also worship these birds, for in legend a female swan once saved their race from extinction. She was an angel in disguise, who came to earth in a time of war to rescue the last survivor. Together they had many children. And they became the ancestors of all Ainu people. Warmer days bring a restlessness to the flock, as the urge to breed gathers momentum. It is said that swans carry the winter on their wings. They now abandon Japan and head for their nesting grounds in Siberia. The Ainu never knew where the swans went. They assumed it was heaven.

Ainu people worship the shifting seasons. For them, the god of sun is a vital life-giving force. As spring comes to Hokkaido's peaks, the Garden of the Gods is brushed with color. Shrugging off their heavy winter coats, Sika deer now find living easy. The herds leave the shelter of the woodlands and move into open pastures. Steller's sea eagles have enjoyed the profits of a Japanese winter and prepare to emigrate. Like the Whooper swans, they must return to their summer breeding grounds in Russia.

As these last visitors move out, the most highly respected of all Ainu animal gods awakes, the brown bear. Hokkaido is the only place in Japan where it's found. After five months in hibernation, bears are hungry and many head straight for coastal cliffs where the first spring herbs are appearing. Ainu people believe that bears are lords of the mountain, living in a spiritual world where they rule all other creatures. The Ainu once depended on them for meat and fur and when a hunt had been successful, they fired an arrow into the eastern sky. It was their way of returning the bear's spirit back to the mountains. Brown bears live in only the most inaccessible corners of the island, such as this, the northern-most tip of Hokkaido. The Ainu call it Shiretoko, meaning the end of the earth.

Japanese cranes stay in Hokkaido year round. And during spring they travel across the island, heading for coastal marshes to raise their families. As night comes to the wetlands, a new chorus rings out. Hokkaido brown frogs, which have spent the winter under snow, now gather to mate and spawn. The frogs' markings resemble the tattoos once worn by Ainu women. One legend claims that frogs are actually women who have committed crimes and been cursed. But the Ainu are much more respectful of flying squirrels. These rodents can have so many offspring that they are known as gods of fertility. During spring, flying squirrels feed heavily on buds and shoots. But on a bright night like this, they must be wary.

This is the haunt of a creature steeped in legend, Blakiston's fish owl. Flying squirrels are important prey for fish owls. But with their keen eyesight, they're quick off the mark. Fish owls are the Ainu gods of the village, for owls and people once lived together in these river valleys. Both took advantage of the fishing. Despite its name, the fish owl has a very broad diet, and frogs are fair game. Nowadays the comforting songs of fish owls are rarely heard by Ainu people. Times have changed, even though the memories linger on.

The Ainu once believed it was bad luck to make images of their gods. But to survive in a modern economy, they now trade on their practical skills, selling woodcarvings of the creatures that are still so dear to them. In recent years there has been some revival in Ainu crafts and customs. But the future is not promising. Fewer than 100 pure blood Ainu are now left in Japan, although about 20,000 people claim ancestry to the race. This is a tiny minority in a country with a population of 125 million.

As summer comes to Hokkaido, it brings a fresh urgency to life. Female Sika deer, still with last season's calves in tow, will soon give birth again. For safety, many now head for the seclusion of coastal marshes. These freshwater lagoons are also the hunting grounds of white tailed eagles. Most return to Russia in the spring, but about 20 pairs stay here all year to raise their broods. White tailed eagles are bold hunters. They will tackle prey as large as hares or foxes. But most of the time the chicks are raised on a steady diet of small birds and fish. The Ainu admire eagles for their sharp sight, and few good opportunities are missed. In summer, there is plenty of prey for white tails, so it's a mystery why so few breed here. But perhaps it's a shortage of good nest sites. These eagles have demanding tastes, preferring large forked trees with extensive views and easy access.

With predators like eagles around, marshes are important hiding places, which is one reason they're favored by Japanese cranes. Only two days after hatching, Japanese crane chicks leave the nest and follow their parents on feeding excursions. Keeping on the move is their best chance of survival. Usually only one chick survives the rigors of growing up. But each new addition is critical. At the turn of the century Japanese cranes were nearly hunted to extinction for their plumage. But the population has since grown to more than 700 birds.

In midsummer Hokkaido's marshes are a nursery for many new families. Goosander chicks take to the water soon after birth, which is just as well. Foxes may have stealth but when it comes to swimming, the chicks are in a class of their own. The goosanders are quite safe, but the fox will need to find food soon. She has four riotous cubs. At this age, the cubs have an appetite for meat but their mother still provides a welcome top-up. Her milk supply will soon run out. But this female is lucky. Food should never be in short supply. A local Japanese village is a gift from heaven. In summer many people salt and dry fish for the winter months ahead. A tempting feast for the crafty fox. Like the Ainu, the Japanese are very wary of foxes. They think they can possess people and trick them into doing things they wouldn't normally do. The Japanese also think that foxes can forecast changes in the weather. And summer in Hokkaido can certainly bring surprises. Every year, gentle winds from the Pacific slowly gather strength. This is typhoon season, which the Ainu celebrate in their own special way.

For brown bears, summer storms are a blessing in disguise. The fresh rainfall brings a wave of new arrivals to Hokkaido. Drawn by the taste of the waters where they were born, Pacific salmon surge upriver in their thousands. Waterfalls are a tough obstacle for the salmon, but even when they're through the worst, the journey up river is far from over. Japanese brown bears know how to fish, though these waters can be rather chilly. Catching salmon in a flooded river is tricky, so the bear searches for a shallow pool where the fish are tightly clustered. After scratching a living from shoots and herbs, bears now gorge themselves. The extra calories are a valuable boost before hibernation. The rush of salmon marks a turning point in Hokkaido's year. For it is now that autumn arrives on the highest peaks. This is Hokkaido's secret garden, a world beyond the clouds. Arena of the gods.

High in these Alpine moorlands, stone pine nuts have ripened and they're eagerly harvested by many creatures, especially nutcrackers. Nutcrackers live up to their name. Their pointed bills are excellent tools for breaking open cones and extracting the nutritious seeds. Such is the demand for pine nuts that this bounty only lasts a few days. The nutcrackers work furiously, filling their crops with seeds before looking for a place to bury them as a store for when food is harder to find. The pines also benefit from this, as many birds forget where they've planted their seeds.

Siberian chipmunks are also fond of pine nuts. Like bears, they hibernate through the winter, so autumn is a time of frantic feeding. Chipmunks, like many of Hokkaido's creatures, probably have their origins in Russia, though the Ainu think otherwise. They say that chipmunks came from the slippers of the gods, which were accidentally left behind when the Earth was made. Chipmunks can pack a lot of seeds into their cheek pouches and like nutcrackers, they bury far more than they can possibly eat.

Living on the very highest peaks, in a fortress of boulders, is a relic of the Ice Age - the pika. Pikas never stray far from their rockeries. It's just too risky. These moorlands are good hunting for buzzards. Especially in autumn with so much activity on the ground. Safe in its lair, the pika busily stockpiles plants for the winter. All too soon his rock garden will be buried under a blanket of snow.

As autumn creeps down the mountains, unearthly cries echo among the valleys. The deer rut has begun. And mature stags now gather to stake their claims for females, marking prominent places with their pungent odor. Even the youngest males are getting frisky, though this is just a friendly bout. By tasting the air, mature stags know when a female is in heat. This one still has her calf from the summer, but it doesn't deter the male.

The Ainu say that when the earth was made, the gods scattered bones in the mountains which turned into deer. Into the rivers, they threw the bones of fish. Nature once provided everything the Ainu needed. From the rivers came trout and salmon for food. From the forests, deerskin and tree bark for making clothes. In the marshes they cut reeds for thatching houses. Even their fishing spears were fashioned from deer antlers.

But nowadays most of these memories have been swept aside. This is the face of the new Japan. A world of extreme efficiency, where huge demands are made on natural resources. Wildlife must be carefully managed to cater for a growing population.

Most of these salmon, intercepted at sea, will have started life in fish farms as artificially fertilized eggs. It's a productive way of keeping stocks higher than they'd naturally be. But relatively few salmon will evade the nets and make it back to Hokkaido's rivers. For those that do, the end of their dangerous journey is near. Up in the headwaters, Pacific salmon now gather for their final act of life. With hooked jaws and jutting teeth, males battle for patches of gravel that will attract a female. Once they are comfortably settled, the pairs shed eggs and sperm into the current. Black-headed gulls are quick to seize this opportunity for a meal, thieving eggs the moment they're released. The Ainu say that salmon are really people who sacrifice themselves. And with their goal achieved, the spent fish now pay the ultimate price, slowly giving up on life.

As winter approaches, the Garden of the Gods has its crowning moment of glory, bursting into a blaze of color. Gathering in their dancing fields once again, Japanese cranes and their chicks prepare for change as icy winds from arctic Russia sweep the land. For Hokkaido's residents, hardship returns. But for the visitors from Russia, there is the promise of good times ahead. And now, piercing the wind, comes a familiar song. Whooper swans, Hokkaido's majestic symbols of winter, are back. The skies fill with a blizzard of wings.

The return of the swans is welcomed by Ainu people, for they still regard them as messengers from heaven, sent to protect their race from suffering. But rescue may have come too late. Today only the oldest Ainu remember a life that was, a life where true harmony existed between people and nature. Though the future of Ainu people is uncertain, their spirit will undoubtedly live on in this otherworldly place, Japan's magical Garden of the Gods.

The Ainu, a legendary people. Anthropologists in recent years have unearthed startling evidence about their origins. See what they've found on NOVA's Website.

Next time on NOVA: the Enigma. To solve it would turn the tide of war. But the Allies had a secret weapon.

Suddenly they were the people who held the keys to the light.

"Decoding Nazi Secrets."

To order this show or any other NOVA program for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.

NOVA is a production of WGBH Boston.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the Park Foundation, dedicated to education and quality television.

This program is funded in part by Northwestern Mutual Life, which has been protecting families and businesses for generations. Have you heard from the quiet company? Northwestern Mutual Life.

C|Net, bringing the digital age into focus. C|, the source for computers and technology.

And by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and viewers like you.

This is PBS.


About NOVA | NOVA Homepage | Support NOVA

© | Created September 2006