Living with the Gods
Honoring the blessings of the rich forests, rivers, and the sea, the Ainu considered that every plant and animal has a kamuy (god) inside, and lived side by side with the gods. When they made tools from wood, they took care to make the most of it; they carved it without cutting it into small pieces, preserving the beauty of the shape of the wood or the pattern of the growth rings. On the handle or mouth of each tool, abstract patterns were carved to ward off evil spirits. 

The ita (tray) was made without filing or coating, so that the hand-carved wood felt pleasant to the touch.

These tools from olden days have a distinct complexion that comes from exposure to firewood smoke and years of use.

Nibutani Ita: Passing down the Tradition
The Saru River runs through Nibutani, situated in Biratori-cho, Saru-gun, Hokkaido. It is a relatively warm area of Hokkaido, where traces of human life from the Paleolithic era remain. With rich forest resources, the people of Nibutani made active exchanges with people of other districts.Daily tools decorated with patterns were already valued as souvenirs in the Edo period. Since then, the tradition lived on through the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa periods, and the region gave birth to many master craftsmen. Masterpieces of elaborate craftsmanship were being exhibited at expositions as early as the Meiji period.

A man carving its with makiri(small knife) is depicted with a mother and two children. A work of Sekkei Sawada in the Meiji period.

Ita was made from the wood of walnut, katsura, or Japanese pagoda tree of the Nibutani and other areas of Hokkaido. A dried wooden board was carved out to make a tray-shape, and various patterns were engraved on the surface of the tray. It was characteristic of Nibutani that traditional Ainu motifs were used as patterns for ita.


It is said that in the old days, the Ainu carved ita using a single knife called makiri. The beautiful engravings on the makiri itself convey how the Ainu cherished each “tool for making tools” by decorating it with patterns.

Contemporary master wood-carvers also have decorative carvings on their chisel handles. The makiri was an important tool that an Ainu man or woman would always carry about. When an Ainu man proposed to a woman, he carved a makiri with all his heart and best of his skills, and gave it to her as a marriage gift.

The Beauty of Pattern
To avoid attracting evil spirits, the Ainu carved abstract patterns rather than definite shapes of specific objects. Traditional patterns include soft spiral lines like rippling water (moreunoka), thorn motif (aiushinoka), and the diamond-shaped eye motif (shikunoka).An infinite range of expression is possible on a single ita by changing the arrangement of these patterns.

Scale Pattern

A characteristic of Nibutani Ita is the intricate scale pattern that is carved to fill the spaces between the larger motifs. There is a certain rule to which way the scales are facing, and the lines need to be carved only a few millimeters apart to create a beautiful pattern, which is a skill that requires expertise.

Making a Nibutani Ita : Preparation
Prepare a thick board of soft wood, such as walnut, katsura, or Japanese pagoda tree. Choose a board that has been cut parallel to the growth rings (itame-ita), and leave it at room temperature to dry for two to three years. The face of the board nearer the center of the original tree is called ki-ura (back), and the face nearer the bark is called ki-omote (front). As it dries, the board warps and cups towards the bark of the tree. The face that bulges (ki-ura) is used to form the decorated surface of the tray. Flatten the surface of the wood, and cut it into the size of a tray. Plane down the board, then carve it roughly into the shape of a tray with a woodworking router.

Carving the Surface of the Tray

Leaving the rims, flatten the roughly carved surface of the tray, using a flat chisel (reukemakiri or leather knife). Using a round chisel that fits the depth of the tray, smooth out the inner sides. Round off the edges with a flat chisel so that it does not feel sharp when touched.

Carving Patterns
Decide how to arrange the patterns depending on the size of the tray, and make a rough sketch if necessary with a pencil or Chinese ink.Using a v-chisel, carve the lines of the main patterns like morenouka, then use a round chisel to dent the spaces between the lines. With a v-chisel, carve along the lines within the dented area to make double lines.

Carving Scale Patterns

Using a v-chisel, carve straight crisscross lines for the scales. To make small diamond shapes, carve parallel diagonal lines a few millimeters apart, then turn the tray 90 degrees to carve the cross lines. Carve each diamond using the back side of the v-chisel to make the scale pattern.

To make the tray softer and lighter to the touch, the back of the tray may be carved with a shallow round chisel.

The Ainu handled their tools with great care and affection, personalizing each tool by carving patterns on the handle. The wood-carvers today also have patterns engraved on their tool handles.

These tools are used to carve the edges of the inner surface of the tray. There are chisels of various sizes with various curves to work trays of different thickness and depth.

Ita (Round Tray)
This reproduction of ita by a renowned artisan of the Meiji and Taisho period, Utorentoku Kaizawa (1862-1914), was carved by his great-grandson, Toru Kaizawa, who is a contemporary master wood-carver. The patterns carved on katsura wood are soft, and each scale has a roundness that give the pattern a smooth flow like real scales.
This walnut Nibutani Ita is carved to look like a piece of spread-out fabric. Toru Kaizawa feels that copying the past masters is not enough to keep the tradition from fading away. His work, including solid wood carvings of living things such as insects and bears, as well as a realistic representation of cloth, entitled Jufu (wooden cloth), show his pursuit of a variety of new expressions in wood-carving.
This Komochi-Ita in katsura wood is a tray with small sections where different types of food can be served separately. It is another example of Nibutani Ita. The sections are carved out using a curved round chisel that fits the depth of the tray.
This makiri is covered entirely with engraved patterns of spirals and intricate scales.
This traditional wooden bowl is called cepenipapo in Sakhalin Ainu and nima (bowl) in Ainu. Like ita, it is made by carving out solid wood, and is used to serve food such as soup. The handle is carved with traditional curved patterns. The small stone at the edge was inserted while the wood was still fresh, and once the wood was dry, it fixed tightly in place.
Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum
The museum exhibits various Ainu artifacts, including a collection of “Implements of daily life of the Ainu people from Nibutani, Hokkaidō, and surroundings,” which have been designated as an Important Tangible Folk Cultural Property of Japan. Visitors can see a reconstructed exhibit of Cise Village, which has been chosen as an Important Cultural Landscape. Numerous audio material and reference books are also available.
Kyoto Women's University, Lifestyle Design Laboratory
Credits: Story

With thanks to Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum and Toru Kaizawa.
Supervising Editor: Hideki Yoshihara (Ainu Culture Conservation Center, Biratori-cho)
Text by Chisato Kaise
Edited by Masato Sakai (Sakai Editing and Planning)
English translation by Kei Kamoshida
English web page supervised by Kei Kamoshida
Project Director: Shinya Maesaki, Associate Professor, Kyoto Women's University

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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