So it was that I woke up this morning, and, as my first act as a registered alien, set off to (what else?) get a peek at the traditional ways of local bear hunters.
|Artist's impression pictured.|
Though their fame has been somewhat eclipsed by the beauties, rice, and traumatic celebratory traditions produced by their strictly agricultural neighbors, communities of hunters known as Matagi have existed for centuries in Tohoku, trapping marten, fox, and rabbits, and hunting for larger game among the mountains, taking serow, boar, and, most famously, bear. Their descendants are still permitted to hunt in the mountains, and AIU's local outreach club had organized a trip to go and meet a few.
We got up early this morning, bound by bus to the village of Nekko, a speck on the map accessible only by roads of rickshaw-ready width and hilariously terrifying steepness-- like some fantasy-novel hideaway for elves, the town was in fact surrounded on all four sides by steep mountains, and was, I later learned from our guides, in fact locally reputed to have been a hiding place of the similarly legendary Minamoto Yoshitsune. Several times the bus was forced to stop in order for the driver to make the go/no go call on a low-clearance bridge or unusually tight turn. The final hurdle was the tunnel into Nekko itself, a narrow quarter-mile bore that the bus barely fit, despite entirely taking up both lanes. Supposedly the local elementary-schoolers hike through it every day-- if the story's true, the route really is uphill both ways!
|Every bit as tight a squeeze as it looks (12ft 3in h, not very wide). Stand by for the Youtube video.|
|The village of Nekko.|
|End of the line.|
We walked to a large whitewashed home on a rise near the edge of town, where we were met by our guides-- three gregarious fellows in their late 60's, dressed for a day outside. As we were being ushered into the front room of the house, I realized several things in quick succession:
1. This was really cool
2. Two of the guys were named Sato, one was a retired school-teacher, the other had been hunting bears for years and kept at it now
3. At least 75% of every utterance made by our hosts was totally incomprehensible to me
In fairness, it looked like I wasn't the only one struggling to understand, judging by the expressions on the faces of my Japanese group-mates. The Satos and Guy 3, whose name I hadn't even caught, were all speaking to us, not in the schooled, officially-sanctioned Japanese of college and the TV news, but in Akita-ben, a dialect so distinct from Standard Japanese as to push very close to the ragged edge of 'new language'. To a Japanese speaker the dialect apparently makes you sound like a muddled hayseed. To this Japanese learner it's like being hit on the head so hard that you can't see straight and then being asked to speak Korean.
Our hosts ushered us into the front room, and launched into an animated lecture on the matagi lifestyle and history. I'll abbreviate what I caught:
Very few matagi hunt at all anymore. Like most traditional professions, the younger generation doesn't see any future in the business, and by and large, have decided to make their living in other, less potentially dangerous lines of work. Our hosts kept at it, although they no longer used the traditional methods to find and kill the bears. The bears too, have changed-- we were told that contact with humans had made the Asian black bears in the region meaner and more carnivorous than the old days. Their fur had changed color, Sato-san claimed. Now their hides were bluer than before and their bodies larger.
We were shown a variety of tools, plants, and implements of the old ways:
|This tree is called kuroji. If what I heard is correct, the wood makes snowshoes and the leaves make tea.|
|Dried mochi of uncertain flavor, traditionally eaten while in the woods. The color does not match the taste.|
|A geography lesson. Nekko and the nearby village of Ani are in the area of the right-most dot.|
|Sato-san's personal nagasa, or knife. One must remember always to pray in thanks before making the first cut on your quarry.|
|Bear gallbladder. Worth $1000 on the open market. Cures what ails ya.|
|An offering to the goddess of the mountain. Some say she is hideously ugly, and for this reason women may not hunt-- the goddess will become jealous and bring them bad luck for having the temerity to look better than her.|
|Not exactly the traditional method for firestarting.|
|Kiritampo-- mashed rice spread on sticks, grilled over charcoal.|
|Best eaten topped liberally with a miso-shouyu blend. Pairs well with beer.|
|One of the best soups I've ever eaten-- kiritanpo-nabe, a chicken soup flavored with cress, maitake, green onions, and nira, ('garlic chives').|
We parted ways after the demo, stopping in the next town to see a small and somewhat cheesy museum of matagi artifacts, attached as a kind of bonus attraction to a hot-spring resort. It was not a model of good museum design-- the tags were mostly each object's name in dialect, with cryptic definitions in Standard Japanese that evaded my abilities to translate.
|Various tools of the trade at the Matagi Museum in Ani.|
|Snowshoes on the left and... I have no idea on the right. The words are in dialect, and the translations weren't too clear in Standard Japanese.|
|Various tools of the trade. The oar like sticks are for support in snow.|
All in all, a good long day in a good long weekend. All that remains is to do my homework!