By Atsushi Kawai / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterKITAAKITA, Akita — Whenever I hear or see news about bears being spotted in human dwellings, I recall touching a bear cub captured at the foot of Mt. Hakusan in Ishikawa Prefecture long ago.
It looked like a stuffed animal, but its stiff fur and sharp claws projected the savage image of a wild animal, even though it was just a cub. It is hardly surprising adult bears are far scarier.
When I decided to visit an area with a deep connection to bears, I chose the Ani district of the city of Kitaakita because it is home to matagi — hunters who preserve a sophisticated hunting culture from olden times as they stalk bears and other animals. Ani is considered the birthplace of these traditional hunters.
To reach the district, I boarded a one-car diesel train on the Akita Nairiku Line from Kakunodate, an old castle town in the city of Senboku that is famous for maintaining historic samurai residences. The train headed north past mountains that were in the process of changing color to reds and yellows.
The Ani district has several matagi communities such as Utto, Hitachinai and Nekko. I chose to visit Utto.
I disembarked at unmanned Ani-Matagi Station and headed westward to a matagi museum about two kilometers from the station. The museum showcases stuffed specimens of Asian black bears, martens, foxes and other wild animals, as well as hunting tools, including guns, traps and a woodman’s hatchet called a nagasa.
I was greeted at the museum by Hideo Suzuki, 69, one of Utto’s six matagi. Suzuki, a ninth-generation hunter who began working in the mountains at the age of 15, told me he has captured dozens of bears with his fellow hunters.
“Bears are the greatest gift from the mountain god,” he said. “We cherish the animal and use every part of the body, not only their meat and fur, but also guts and bones for medicine.”
Matagi hold a ritual called kebokai to return the souls of the bears to the mountain god whenever they kill them. The meat and other parts are evenly shared by the hunters involved.
There are several other customs among matagi, such as using a special language known as yama-kotoba (mountain language) while hunting. I learned that matagi are not merely hunters, but a hunting group that preserves and passes down their traditions, manners and faith.
Suzuki’s story reminded me of Kenji Miyazawa’s “Nametokoyama no Kuma” (The Bears of Mt. Nametoko), a children’s story about a hunter and bears that understand each other deep down. I found that their relationship in the tale is very similar to that of the matagi and bears.
To see live bears, I also visited Kuma Kuma En in Utto, a park for the animal run by the Kitaakita municipal government.
The park has 65 animals — 48 Asian black bears and 17 brown bears — and is divided into areas for female black bears, male black bears, their cubs and brown bears. The animals were constantly moving around.
A bear keeper told me the animals were eating a lot as it was just before hibernation season. I thought if we came across bears in the mountains we would be so petrified we would freeze in our tracks.
Takeshi Komatsu, the park’s director who is also a veterinarian and has studied bears for the past 22 years, described the object of his study as, “an animal that lives in our neighborhoods but still has many things to teach us.”
Although bears are worshiped as a “gift from the mountain god,” they are dangerous. Komatsu said the range of the bears’ activities has increased as more and more areas have become underpopulated.
“It’s time for us to review the distance between bears and people, and learn how to live in harmony with the animal,” he said.
Sampling bear nabe hot pot
When visiting Ani, you should try the local bear-meat cuisine. Next to the matagi museum is Utto Onsen Matagi no Yu, a spa with a restaurant called Shikari that offers a bear nabe hot pot. Shikari is the name of a matagi leader.
Bear meat is usually firm, but the restaurant simmers it until it becomes tender. The dish is seasoned with local miso and doburoku unrefined sake. The blackish meat has a distinctive flavor that goes well with daikon, yamaudo mountain plants and Japanese parsley.
The bear nabe hot pot is ¥2,550, while the set menu costs ¥3,050. Bear meat ramen is also available at ¥1,550.
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