Even within Japan, the food, culture, and history of the Ainu—an Indigenous people native to the country’s northernmost main island, Hokkaido, as well as Russia’s Sakhalin and Kuril Islands—is not well known. But at Harukor, a small izakaya in Tokyo, diners can order ohaw (a delicate soup of wild vegetables and salmon that was once an Ainu staple), a crisp and light tempura made from the wild lily turep, and other dishes that combine Indigenous and Japanese influences.
Opened in 2011 by Teruyo Usa, Harukor is both a gathering place for her fellow Ainu in Tokyo and a venue where non-Ainu can learn about the group and their history and culture, which the Japanese government spent decades repressing in the name of assimilation as they colonized Ainu homelands. The Ainu language was nearly wiped out by Japanese officials who banned cherished customs and allowed education only in Japanese. Ainu food faced similar stresses as Japan forced Ainu who mainly fished, hunted, and gathered wild ingredients to take up farming.
The Harukor menu is an example of Indigenous resiliency and the Ainu’s success in safeguarding elements of their culture. Usa and her husband source ingredients such as venison, salmon, and root and wild vegetables from Hokkaido. The menu contains helpful explanations of little-known ingredients and dishes, including an entire section devoted to pukusa or kitopiro, a wild onion once widely eaten by the Ainu, who dried it and added it to soups, but whose consumption declined as its strong taste became a negative symbol of Ainu identity and culture. At Harukor, it is boiled with dried salmon flakes, marinated in soy sauce, and used as filling in dumplings.
While welcoming Ainu guests who have few venues to safely express their identity—due to continued discrimination in Japan—Usa encourages non-Indigenous customers to ask questions. She often shares personal experiences; if you’re lucky, you’ll hear her sing while she plays the tonkori, a long and slender Ainu string instrument.
Know Before You Go
Harukor is located within walking distance of either Okubo Station or Shin-Okubo Station; the bar is rather easy to miss, so keep an eye out for the little wooden sign that reads ハルコロ (Harukoro). It's closed on Thursdays, and is open for lunch and dinner on weekdays and dinner only on weekends. English menus are available.