High in the mountains of Yamagata province, 320km north of Tokyo, winter can bring as much as four meters of snow.
“That’s an advantage for a falconer,” Hidetoshi Matsubara, 66, tells me, gazing out from Tamugimata village to the snowy peak of Mount Gassan.
An eagle’s prey is small animals like rabbits or squirrels. They can easily run into long grass or under bushes. But snowfall over two meters means all the bushes are covered. There’s no place to hide.
Tamugimata forms a tight cluster of fifteen houses perched on thickly wooded upland slopes. Up a roughly concreted track, a rickety farmhouse of wood and tile, built 120 years ago for silkworm-rearing, is Matsubara’s home.
Inside, a kettle hisses on a kerosene stove as a huge, tethered bird of prey – a golden eagle/tawny eagle hybrid – adjust its position on a branch propped across one corner of the dim living room. The bird, staring from its perch, stands perhaps 70 centimeters high. When it opens its wings, they reach almost two meters across the room.
“I’ve been sharing my living space with eagles the last 40 years, day and night,” Matsubara says.
This small, wiry man, with a distant fierceness in his clouded eyes, claims he is the last falconer in Japan to follow a traditional hawking lifestyle. He spends eight or nine months of the year, from fall through to the end of spring, training and hunting with big raptors – leaving his wife and son for weeks at a time over winter to live in the mountain forests with his eagles, hunting to eat and sleeping in a self-made snow cave.
He is eloquent about his passion.
“There are two types of falconry. I’ve never had any interest in flying goshawks and falcons down in the fields, near where people live. Since I was very small I always wanted to live in the mountains and be a falconer in great nature, with nobody else around, just the eagle and me. It’s more difficult – these big birds have strong characters and can be violent – but I’ve never given up. This is my unique way, this is what I wanted to do with my life. I make a very small income, helping out on farms in summer, but I can live with it. I have no regrets. My last dream is that, even when I become old and weak, I can still go out into the snowy mountains to walk with the eagle on my arm.