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  • Photography: Cameron Allan MckeanPhotography: Cameron Allan Mckean
  • Photography: Cameron Allan MckeanPhotography: Cameron Allan Mckean
  • Photography: Cameron Allan MckeanPhotography: Cameron Allan Mckean

The wrath of a mountain | Akita Mountain Hunters 1

, 2014/12/06

A bitterly cold wind lashes the faces of three hunters as they struggle through thigh-deep snow. Wearing bear-skin coats and wielding primitive knives and rifles, they’ve left their village and farms to enter the forest in search of black bears — the walking embodiment of yama-no-kami (the mountain spirit). The scene is only an image, taped to a wall of the Matagi Museum, in Kitaakita — a mountainous area of Japan’s far northwest — but the hunters’ frozen movements still hold a faint whiff of terror. These are men up against unforgiving elements, trespassing into a realm of jealous gods — at least they were in the late 18th century. Today, the handful of Matagi who are left are warring against more complex enemies such as depopulation, deforestation and government regulation. The golden age of northeastern Japan’s traditional bear hunters has long since passed but 81-year-old Kichitaro Matsuhashi is still alive. Matsuhashi leads us inside his house, which is a short drive from the Matagi Museum, and sits down on a sofa in his cluttered living room. Photographs of hunted bears line the walls and a jar of bear oil used “for cooking” sits on a small table. He talks slowly, in a thick regional accent: “I realized I’m the oldest living matagi when I went to the last summit,” he says, referring to the annual meeting of the remaining traditional hunters. It’s humbling to think that Matsuhashi has lived through more change than any other bear hunter alive. “My father and grandfather were matagi, but I was the only one of my brothers to become a matagi,” he says. When he began, at age 12, he used only a knife, until he received his first rifle at age 20. But hunting as a matagi was a more complicated process than simply stalking and killing prey. These hunters were extremely careful to appease the whims of the mountain spirit, and believed that killing a black bear could invoke the spirit’s wrath in the form of terrible blizzards and storms. The image of the three matagi trudging through the snowstorm flashes through my mind. To Matsuhashi, however the forest is no threat but “a treasure, it gives us everything: medicine, vegetables, bears, food.” He leads us up small dirt path near his house, to a tiny wooden shrine in the forest. Here the matagi of Kitaakita pray for safety before each hunt and give “a part of one’s self,” in the words of ethnographer Marcel Mauss. But only a part — not everything can be given. As he closes up the wooden doors to the shrine, I notice his knife and ask to see it. “My knife is my spirit,” he says, “I don’t let other people use it.” Their fear of vengeful gods might have vanished, but some resilient spirits still cling to the matagi, premodern stowaways, en route to a world that doesn’t need them anymore.

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