The Divine Sword of the Bear Hunters of Northern Japan
Over Golden Week I had a chance to take a trip deep into the mountains of northern Akita on a quest to find a rare, hand-forged hunting knife – the Matagi Nagasa. I recently learned of the Matagi culture of bear hunters in northern Japan and how they use a special hunting knife when they go off into the snowy mountains for several weeks at a time. One of my colleagues at work told me about them. He grew up in a mountains village so he knows about them first hand. After a bit of research I discovered the name of the best blacksmith – Minoru Nishime, a fourth generation knife-maker – still making the knives by hand for the hunting community.
Matagi is probably an Ainu word, and the culture of bear hunting is also distinctly Ainu in nature. Among the many animals found in Japanese folklore, the bear is one of the few creature almost never alluded to. Foxes, tanuki, wolves, are all found in the folks tales of the lowland Japanese rice-growing culture, but the bear is only found in the mythology of marginal, mountain areas. The Matagi traditionally hunt in groups during the Spring and Fall, staying in makeshift huts in the snowy mountains for weeks at a time. The traditional edged tool of these hunters in the Matagi Nagasa or Fukuro Nagasa, the version with a hollow steel handle which can be fitted with a haft to transform it into a spear. Before the increased availability of rifles in the early 20th Century, this was the main weapon that the hunters used. Rather than explain the bear hunting rites of the Matagi in too much detail, I’ll attach a .pdf of an academic article by Catherine Knight of Nanzan University. This originally appeared in:
Asian Ethnology Volume 67, Number 1 • 2008, 79-101
“The Moon Bear as a Symbol of Yama: Its Significance in the Folklore of Upland Hunting in Japan”
It was a beautiful spring day, the sun was shining when I left my home in Yurihonjo, on the coast of southern Akita, and drove for three hours up into the mountains. There were still patches of snow next to the road as I crossed the high passes. I had a map from the Japanese website along with the photo of their shop and its sign, so I had no trouble locating the place once I reached Ani, one of the main the areas in northern Akita where the bear hunting culture still flourishes. The blacksmith shop is on the side of the road, just before it reaches the town of Ani-Arase. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that the shop was open. Since it was Golden Week it could have gone either way – closed so the family could travel or open because of the increase in customers.
I had to call out “Sumimasen!” several times before anyone knew I was there. Finally the blacksmith’s wife came into the shop. Her husband was away, but she could show me the knives. I already had an idea about what I wanted; a mid-sized knife with an oak handle, so I compared the 210mm blade to the one with the 180mm blade. Both were the same price: ￥23,000 – about USD $190.00. I found that I preferred the size, weight and balance of the 180mm [7 inch] blade so I bought it on the spot. I took a number of photos of the interior of the shop, as it was easy to see that the knives were each meticulously hand-forge and custom-made.
Ecstatic over the successful conclusion to my quest, I stopped at some shops specializing in local products and bought some handmade, thick soba noodles for my dinner, then slowly drove back home, savoring the pristine scenery, glancing again and a gain at my new prized possession on the seat besides me.
Once I got the knife home I discovered that the only suitable place to display it was on a stand next to a military-grade, hand-forged Nepali Khukri, the knife of the Ghurka mercenaries, that I picked up in Kathmandu.