Through this video installation, I raise a question: Do you ever envision the kind of cultures your neighbours grew up with and lived in? I start a conversation about the inter-relationship between culture, history, emotional life, and natural landscape by focusing on food and cooking.
Between 2020–21, I learnt Ainu traditional cooking from an Ainu elder, Ms Kane Kumagai, in Samani in Hokkaido, Japan. Traditional Ainu cooking practices are considered to be ecological and community-oriented. In this film, you see how kombu – kelp – is picked and cooked in Samani, Hokkaido, by Ainu elders Ms Kumagai and Mr Shuji Kukuchi. Samani is famous for high quality kombu, and during my time there, I experienced different seasons filled with a variety of smells of kombu and the sea. It made sense to me that the kombu sito, known as Ainu cuisine – which you also see in the film – originated in this area.
It is said that ‘kombu’ originated in the Ainu language, where kelp was called kompu or kompo. There is also a theory that word was imported into the Chinese language and later adopted by the Japanese. So the word ‘kombu’ is an Ainu word, translated through a Japanese phonetic reading of Chinese characters. After the middle of the Kamakura period (1192 to 1333), kombu trading ships began to actively travel within what is now Japan. This may have been the result of the Ainu people passing on their long-cultivated relationship with kombu to the Japanese people, and beyond.
By looking at kombu, we can see that what we take for granted as the produce of a particular culture can be something that has developed through the interaction of people within various cultures. The joy of eating good food is common to all human beings. Through learning Ainu kombu cooking from Ms Kumagai and sharing food with her community, I was able to connect with people and learn from Ainu values in a way which goes beyond restrictions imposed by national borders and historical-political backgrounds. I continue to explore how our sensory knowledge-based engagement with both people and nature contributes to a diverse eco-system.