Nibutani board |Ainu’s ethnic culture in traditional craft


Nibutani Ita (Board)

Different traditional crafts have developed in different parts of Japan. They are diverse, ranging from the famous to those known only in that region. There are 48 prefectures in Japan, so I will go on to explain the major traditional crafts in each of them. Today, we will dive into Japanese traditional crafts developing in Hokkaido. The first topic is Nibutani Board, brought about by Ainu culture.

Nibutani board

Nibutani Ita is a wooden tray made using traditional techniques, mainly in the Nibutani district of the town of Hiratori in Hokkaido.  It is made of katsura, walnut, etc. The flat surface decorations are Ainu patterns such as more-unoka (vortex shape), ayusinoka (spiny shape), shikunoka (eye shape), and ramramunoka (scale pattern) without any space. The ramuramunoka, in particular, is a pattern that appears in the crafts, and a major feature of the design is that the spaces between the patterns compose of Ramuramunoka design.

History of Nibutani Board

The history of Nibutani Board is long. In addition to the role as utensil to serve foods in daily lives, it played an important role as donations for the shogunate at the end of the Edo period;  that half-moon trays and round trays made in the Saru River basin were the presents. In the Meiji period (1868-1912), master craftsmen, Kaizawa Utorrentoku and Kaizawa Uesanashi, began to produce and sell the board and small articles carved with patterns unique to this region. Their reliable technics have been passed down to the present-day craftsmen.

Blades were indispensable to the Ainu way of life, and men’s status determined by their dexterity with blades. Therefore, when the Ainu men reached the appropriate age, they would present the woman of their wood carving that they had put their heart and soul into. Despite this background, Ainu wood carvings, including Nibutani Ita, have had highl value in commercial transactions such as gifts, exchanges, and sales.

In March 2013, Nibutani Ita got awarded the “Hokkaido’s first ever Ainu Wood Carving Award” by the Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry. It was the first traditional handicraft to be accredited as a traditional handicraft.

Production Process of Nibutani Board

This traditional handicraft is a continuation of the traditions of the Ainu people, the indigenous people of Hokkaido. As a result, the terminology used is unique, and there are many words that are unfamiliar to us Japanese. The main process is to carve a board to decorate with Ainu sense of design with knife. You can also enjoy carving traditional crafts, such as Kamakura-BoriInami Carving, or Osaka Ranma.


1. Shaping the bottom

They dry Materials for Nibutani Board such as katsura and walnut for three years or more to completely remove moisture. The depth of the tray is in accord with a certain degree by a process called Arabori (rough carving). The “sokotori” process involves carefully carving the inside of the rough-carved boards with a kawadachi-bocho, a flat, spatula-like knife with a blade at the tip, to smooth out the surface to a uniform depth. In the rough carving process, it takes longer than the process for disk-shaped ita because a lathe, a machine that carves while rotating, cannot be used for the square-shaped nibutani ita.

carving a board
From Nibutani Ainu Craft

2.Backside Finishing

Craftsmen carve the backside of this traditional crafts to improve touch and remove the corners. This process determines the tactile quality of the work.

3. Carving

A design on the surface is crucial, and it determines the value of this product. The design of Nibutani Board contains a combination of three patterns: a whirlpool pattern – Moreunoka, which means gently curving, a thorny shape -Aiushinoka, and a shape that resembles an eye – Shikunoka. The balance and arrangement of these patterns determines the face of each Nibutani Board.

decorating a board craft
From Nibutani Ainu Craft

Once the design set up, they draw outlines of the pattern with a triangular knife.  And then, the outline is delved into with a round knife to create a three-dimensional effect. In modern times, they carve the designs delicately with a carving knife, but in the Ainu period, people did it with a single short sword called Makiri. On the contrary, ancient versions had more simple yet powerful lines.

4. Double line carving

The main pattern of Nibutani crafts is often “Ayusinoka”. Craftsmen cut woods away to decorate the pattern with small knife like picture below. The three-dimensional effect created by this method further enriches the expression of the board.

Nibutani Ita manufacturing process
From Nibutani Ainu Craft

5. Inserting lines in the “ramuramunoka” scales

Lines called “Ramuramunoka” exsists between “Moure-noka” and “Shikunoka” using an engraving knife called “in-tou.” The grain of the wood design of “Shimanoka” should be vertical.  In contrast,  “Ramuramunoka” often invovles space between patterns in a piece.

Nibutani-Ita manufacturing process
From Nibutani Ainu Craft

6. Making the scales (ramuramunoka)

The squares made in step 5 are raised one by one in a scaly pattern. At this point, it is necessary to carve from the left and right sides so that they face each other in the center. Half of the squares are carved in this process.

Ainu decoration board
From Nibutani Ainu Craft

7.Finishing touches

Finally, craftsmen carefully and meticulously adjust the entire detail to balance  the total outlook by which all processes to manufacture Nibuta Board ends.


This traditional craft has a very distinctive pattern. It is hard to imagine such a pattern from the traditions of the Japanese mainland, and it is truly a distinctive traditional craft that has been handed down by the Ainu people.

On the next page, we will introduce another traditional craft in Hokkaido. This is another traditional craft that embodies the traditions of the Ainu people, and was born in the same Nibutani region.

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