Akita locals are extremely proud of their culture, with good reason too, it is an interesting one with a long and rich history.
Separated by several hundred kilometers from Japan’s principal centers of commerce and politics, Akita’s early history was influenced by the indigenous Ainu people from Hokkaido, a people who were highly skilled hunter-gatherers used to working in extreme terrain and weather conditions. These early influences are still very much visible today through Akita’s long standing Matagi culture.
Matagi are a type of mountain hunter from the Akita region that adhere to strict religious principles regarding the surrounding mountains. Traditionally they made their living by hunting local game, as well as engaging in agricultural work. Although their numbers have severely dwindled over recent decades Matagi are still active as licensed hunters in Akita today. Matagi will be the base for several aspects of Akita culture we will introduce in this article.
The traditional clothes of a “Matagi” Hunter
Matagi-no-Sato in the Utto Onsen area is the ideal place to learn all about the Matagi, their customs and history. Matagi-no-Sato houses a museum that offers a glimpse into the unique lifestyle of the Akita hunter with detailed explanations of their hunting rituals. The museum details how the Matagi have a long history of hunting wild game for sustainability, and how they have used bears within their culture for many years in a number of ways including for medicinal purposes and as a rich source of nutritious food for their communities.
Also on display at Matagi-no-Sato are the hunters traditional clothes and the tools they have used over the years including the meticulously crafted Nagasa knives – extremely sharp blades made locally for generations for the Matagi and their hunting trips. Matagi-no-Sato also offer the opportunity to try bear meat for yourself, in a freshly cooked stew. Rich in natural oils this delicacy has been a firm favorite in the region for many years!
Using a “Nagasa” to finely chop part of a bear’s stomach, used for medicinal purposes
Bear Stew Lunch Set at Matagi-no-Sato
Another type of food closely linked to Matagi culture is Akita’s famous “soul food”, Kiritampo – freshly cooked rice that is pounded and formed into cylinders around skewers, then toasted on an open hearth. It is often served with sweet miso or used as a kind of dumpling in various soups.
Kiritampo can be found all over Akita but it is widely recognized as the food of Odate City, where a number of restaurants serve it alongside other traditional Japanese foods.
It is said that Matagi would often fill a sack full of Kiritampo when heading into the mountains as they often didn’t know when they’d be back, it served as an essential source of energy and nutrition for them.
Preparing Kiritampo in a large broth
Kiritampo Lunch in Odate City
Another facet of Matagi culture that has proven popular well beyond the Akita region is the Akita Inu – recognized as one of Japan’s oldest native dogs it is somewhat considered a national treasure, so much so that it was even appointed a National Natural Monument in the 1930s! It has remained a popular draw for visitors to the Akita region ever since. Although Akita Inu were used primarily as hunting dogs they are considered very friendly, gentle and loyal companions. It is not unusual to see Akita Inu’s out and about in Akita with their owners, and many hotels and businesses also keep them as pets, meaning encounters with them while travelling in Akita are fairly common.
Akita Inu Dogs
We hope you enjoy exploring the many cultural avenues Akita has to offer, and highly recommend starting your journey at Matagi-no-Sato, as mentioned above, in the Utto Onsen area. More information available here:
Supported by Akita Inu Tourism