Walking through a primeval beech forest with a Matagi (traditional winter hunter)
Shirakami-Sanchi, a virgin beech forest subjected to exceedingly rare and slight human intervention, which stretches along the border between Aomori and Akita Prefectures, was designated a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1993. When access was thus restricted to protect the designated area, it somewhat baffled the Matagi, who had long been living and moving freely in the area. The Matagi live in close contact with the mountains, hunting bears, making charcoal and gathering wild vegetables and mushrooms. Also engaged in agriculture, the Matagi are well versed in the mountain environment and the ecology of plants and animals, and have long contributed to the creation of the local culture by coming to terms with the mountains while at the same time paying respect to the natural fertility of the land.
Even now the Matagi hunt in permitted areas and periods. As bears are considered a gift of nature, they are not overhunted. In the spring, when the snow begins to thaw, the Matagi hunt bears as they emerge from hibernation, as the bears are easy to spot against the backdrop of snow, and the hunters have a certain ease of movement as the thickets have not yet begun to grow. The captured bear is consumed by the entire clan, who gather around a great pot of bear stew, in prayers for their community’s health. In the past, the dried gallbladder, known as kuma no i, was traded as a medicine effective against a range of diseases, at a price equivalent to its weight in gold.
Today, the Matagi continue to protect and manage the pristine forests and preserve the livelihood and wisdom of their ancestors. In 2000, the organization Shirakami Matagi Sha was established to organize guided tours exploring the Shirakami-Sanchi region. The group is led by Mitsuharu Kudo, heir to a family of Matagi, and managed by Kudo and his nephew Shigeki, as well as Yukio and Hiromi Koike who are from other prefectures but have inherited the Matagi culture through sheer admiration and fascination. Shigeki Kudo led me on a walk around the protected area.
It was late May, a season of soft, fresh greenery and diverse hues. The area is truly a natural mixed forest with a wide variety of flora including mainly beech and clusters of Mongolian oak and Japanese wingnut, of the walnut family. The humus of deciduous broad-leaved trees and the shallow roots of beech trees are highly water retentive, and hold the water from torrential downpours and melting snow before releasing it slowly into the river. Here, we used a Matagi hunters’ hut in the beech forest as a base for sawanobori (stream climbing) and exploring the virgin forest.
Both in the central area of the protected region and its surroundings, the paths on which we were guided by the Matagi were animal trails, hard to discern. Because animals understand where it’s easiest to walk, it makes sense to hike around the woods following the trails of bear and Japanese serow (goat-antelope). Unlike mountain climbing, which requires ropes, these trails allow us to go on impromptu mountain walks. Walking towards the source of a thawing mountain stream, we wore jika-tabi (traditional divided-toe tabi boots) to traverse the stony riverbed and banks. Resisting the current threatening to seize our feet, we savored the sensations of the virgin forest.
I sensed the mystery of life in the forest from the humble likes of moss, ferns, mushrooms and lichens that cling to fallen, decaying trees. The foliage leaves that emerge from the sprouts of the seedling beech are soft, and favored by both caterpillars and bears. May is the season of the awakening of flora, and the virgin forest is full of sprouts and blossoms. The trade winds hit the Himalayas and change direction, reaching the Japanese archipelago as rain and snow. It is a feeling of directly experiencing the climate of the Japanese archipelago, humid and rich in water, and the life that is nurtured here.
The Matagi hut is a very small, simple cabin that serves as a base for the Matagi’s guidework. Both the Matagi and visitors stay overnight in tents set up around the hut. Upon awakening, we build a fire. When we return from our mountain walk, we rekindle it. To keep it burning efficiently and as long as possible, the logs are laid on in a parallel pattern, and we never throw rubbish into the fire. The food is freshly cooked rice and sansai (wild vegetables), including udo (Aralia cordata), azami (thistles), bamboo shoots, mushrooms and wild game meat, even bear. To a bowl of aromatic rice cooked in water from the mountain stream, I add a pinch of pale green wasabi, freshly plucked from the stream and grated on the spot.