Matagi: Local protectors of the forest
The Matagi (マタギ・又鬼) are hunter-gatherers from the Tohoku Region (東北地方 Tōhoku-chiho) and are said to originate from the Ani Area (阿仁) of Kitaakita City (北秋田市 Kita-akita-shi) in Akita Prefecture (秋田県 Akita-ken). They follow 400-year-old sacred rituals for living and hunting which are deeply rooted with the belief that a goddess resides within the mountains.
Two Matagi performing the Kebokai ritual to release the soul of the bear. (Image credit: Hideo Suzuki)
The Matagi share many similarities with the Ainu people from Hokkaido. The word Matagi is even said to originate from the Ainu language matangi which loosely translates to “man of winter” or “hunter”, which is an apt description. They hunt only during the winter months, and for the rest of the year, they live off the mountains in many other ways—during spring, mountain vegetables are harvested; in the summertime fishing in the nearby rivers; and in autumn, wild mushrooms are gathered.
Lighting of the Morobi as part of the cleansing ritual. (Image credit: Guesthouse ORIYAMAKE)
The mountains are always treated with respect and before entering the mountains, a simple purification ritual is conducted at a temple. A morobi fir branch is burnt and smoked to remove the scent of the village and a prayer is offered to the mountain goddess. Anything from the mountains are considered as gifts from the mountain goddess.
Wild Nameko. (Image credit: Akita Inu Tourism)
Being a Matagi is not a full-time profession but rather a lifestyle choice. Sustainability is an important factor when it comes to the Matagi. Often referred to as protectors of the forest, they have a profound understanding of local ecosystems and the need to maintain nature’s balance. When foraging for mountain vegetables and mushrooms, they do not take more than what they need and ensure that the plant will continue to bear fruit. When it comes to hunting, their prey (usually bear) are killed as swiftly as possible, usually in one shot, to keep its suffering to a minimum. The meat is then divided equally between all who participated in the hunt and no part of the animal wasted. The most important thing is that the Matagi never hunt more than needed.
Guesthouse ORIYAMAKE. (Image credit: Guesthouse ORIMAYAKE)
To experience the lifestyle of a Matagi, visit Guesthouse ORIYAMAKE. This guesthouse is run by a Matagi who is keen on educating and sharing with guests what it’s like being one. From trekking in the mountains, to making butter mochi (a high calorie staple brought into the mountains during a hunt) and mushroom foraging, there is so much you can learn! For more information, visit https://oriyamake.com/.
Header image credit: Hideo Suzuki