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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

A lingering face in the void | Akita Mountain Hunters 3

, 2014/12/26

There is no light outside. It is a dense and timeless blackness, pregnant with the unknown and fear; the kind of landscape our premodern ancestors would have experienced on nights when the moon was clouded over. A pinhead of light pierces the void — a star in deepest space — and we head toward it in a single-car train through the 5,697-meter-long Junidan Tunnel, which burrows into the home of Kitaakita’s bear hunters. “We will soon be arriving at Ani-matagi Station,” says the tour guide as the train leaves the tunnel and the green mountains close in, “this is the traditional home of the matagi, please get off here for the Matagi Museum.” A life-sized wooden bear on the platform stares blankly at disembarking passengers — is this really how the once-great matagi hunters will be remembered? “Being a matagi isn’t just about bears,” says Yoma Funabashi at his home in Kitaakita, “it’s about the mountains.” Funabashi, the youngest matagi in the region (and possibly the country), is an unlikely bear hunter. After studying fashion in Tokyo, then working as a florist, then moved to Europe. He currently makes a living as a freelance photographer and does most of his “forest work” on weekends or public holidays. “I decided to become a matagi after I visited the matagi summit,” he says. It was at this annual meeting in 2012 that he met Kichitaro Matsuhashi, the oldest living matagi, who left a deep impression on him. Funabashi now lives encircled by farms in the tiny village of Nekko, surrounded by the same mountains Matsuhashi spent a lifetime hunting in. Decades of tumultuous social and geographic change separate these two men. Unexpectedly, although the matagi have adapted to the modern world, old beliefs still linger. “Yeah, we always visit the shrine before a hunt … and older matagi believe we’ll be unsuccessful if a woman comes with us — the mountain goddess gets jealous,” says Funabashi. The hunters also perform rites to return the spirit of the mountain, held within killed bears, back to the land. Funabashi takes us to one of his favorite places in the forest: A clear stream cuts through the towering forest — light barely penetrates its interlocking canopies. My mind wanders. I picture the train tunnel again, and see the deep blackness receding. It travels further back, transforming from nothingness into the shape of an enormous bear, towering above us with snow swirling around its snarling jaws. In the 1600s — a world of superstition and unknowns — a close encounter with a black bear in these forests must have been terrifying. But the mountains of those times seem utterly unlike the safe, relaxing landscapes pictured in the glossy travel posters hung in the local train station. Funabashi wanders up the river, skirting the dark boundary of the that forest until he stops for a moment; he turns his head and stares into the shadows.

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name
Kita Akita
place
Akita
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