One day when Asaji Kutsuzawa (right) was 16 he wandered deep into the woods behind his village of Mamuro-gawa in Japan's Tohoku district. There he came upon the hut of a charcoal maker who was also a great falconer. Young Kutsuzawa became the old man's disciple and quickly mastered the art of falconry. It became his life, and through the years Kutsuzawa, now 71, has trained more than 40 hawk eagles—large birds with wingspans of 64 inches. In addition to being Kutsuzawa's great pleasure, falconry has also been a major source of his income. In the days before World War II he earned enough from the sale of skins of game captured by his bird to provide for his family. But where once he could bag 400 hares, foxes and badgers in a season, today he gets only about 20 hares and an occasional fox or badger. There is still the thrill of the hunt, however, and the disappointment that Kutsuzawa felt when his son showed little interest in the birds has been tempered by the enthusiasm his grandson Kunio has for the sport. Falconry is said to have begun in Japan with the first emperor, Jimmu. "The long tradition is often in my mind," says Kutsuzawa. And he hopes that Kunio will keep it alive.
The Old Man, the Boy and the Bird
About the man, Asaji Kutsuzawa, and the bird he carried on his gauntleted forearm there was an aura of strength, a fierce yet unspoken inner pride and courage. Beneath his conical hat Kutsuzawa wore a cotton towel wrapped around his forehead—the mark of a working farmer. He was dressed in heavy layers of simple, indigo-dyed cotton homespun—a short kimono, rough pantaloons with puttees encircling his calves. His feet were bare except for the straw sandals he had tied around his ankles. Across his insteps were the bindings for bamboo rings that served as snowshoes. Although his feet were partially exposed to the snow, the old man said he never felt the cold. Hanging down his back was a dogskin that stanched the wind. From his belt dangled a small wooden box filled with lean strips of hare meat.
Kunio, the grandson, followed along, in time with the old man's pace. Kunio was dressed in a modern sweater, pants and jacket but wore the traditional bamboo snowshoes. Kutsuzawa carried in his right hand a three-foot wooden paddle, with which he measured his step as he glided across the top of the snow, leaving soft indentations.
Fubuki (Blizzard), the 9-year-old falcon, clung to the old man's gauntleted arm, its proud head erect and its feathers sparkling in the white light. The bird wore no hood; it knows its master and the demands of the hunt and it will not fly away. There was a silent nobility of man, bird and boy as the trio gracefully moved through the snow. The preparation of the bird for the hunt had been elaborate and arduous. At the beginning of November, after a summer of gorging on the meat of rats, snakes and chickens, the bird was removed from the cage and placed in a dark box for 20 days without food. It was given only water every two days. The process is called haragoshirae—literally, stomach adjustment. At the end of the fast a chunk of meat (about three-quarters of a pound) was softened in water and given to the bird on the evening of the 20th day. Then another week went by with only water. At the end of seven days the rich red meat was again fed the falcon. The fasting period was reduced to five days, then to three. At the start of the fast there was a hard lump in the stomach of the bird, which could be felt by the falconer. As the fasting process progressed, the lump was reduced, and when it disappeared the bird was ready to hunt.
On the day of the hunt this feeding process became crucial. Now Kutsuzawa's years of patience and skill were tested. In the morning the falcon received a quarter of a pound of meat. Determining how much to feed the falcon before the hunt is to determine the outcome of the hunt. If the bird is given too much meat he may become capricious and fail to attack his prey with the proper élan. Given too little food, the falcon will tire quickly, and after five or six strikes become too weak to continue the hunt. Because its strength is controlled, the falcon cannot soar but can only swoop down on the prey. The bird has no problem attacking through thickets and heavy undergrowth, but must attack from high ground to low.
The old man knows the habits of the hares in the hills beyond the Mamuro River. He and Kunio look to the grassy hillsides in November, then in December to where the plains meet the forests. As the snows deepen in January they move farther into the forest, then deeper still, to the places where there is sunshine and little wind.
On this day the boy and his grandfather moved past the snow-covered fields and across the concrete bridge over the Mamuro River, its banks covered with ice. As they climbed the ridge beyond the village only the snow-laden pines and the shadows of trees on the snow lay before them. The ridge line was clean except for scattered bushes and an occasional chestnut tree, stripped of its burr-covered nuts by the winter winds. The air was crisp, below freezing, but the bright sun played in the clouds and there was clean stillness. There were no tracks of hares or badgers, foxes or weasels—no sign of life, only the unblemished snow. Yet the hawk eagle saw the hare. The bird tensed, digging its talons into the old man's wrist. Kutsuzawa waited only a second, then he released the heavy cords with which he held Fubuki's talons. The falcon swooped away in a great burst of speed, a beating of wings and then a sharp, straight glide. The attack is rarely direct. The falcon slightly overshot the target, flapping its wings with fury and stunning the victim. Then Fubuki lunged with one set of talons at the underbelly of the hare. As the hare raised its head in pain and surprise the falcon's other talons grasped the head and pinned the hare to the snow. With a wild, primeval cry, pay, pay, pay, the hawk eagle announced his triumph. The falconer trundled down the slope with his paddle, the smooth stride of search broken by the thrill of capture and the old man's anxiety to reach the bird before it devoured the rabbit. The falcon's cry was harsh—a cry of pride and fulfillment. "When the falcon starts calling out for me to hurry over I almost become dizzy with excitement—just like a boy," said Kutsuzawa, his high brow furrowed in thought, a slight smile crossing his face.
Atop the quivering brown hare, the falcon ceased its cry and began the victory feast, methodically ripping away at the hare's fur. As the falconer neared, the bird lifted its head, and the old man tapped his wooden feedbox, which was slung from his black obi, the wide waistband that held his kimono jacket in place. He opened the box, lifted a finger-size shred of meat and offered it to the bird. Fubuki grabbed it in his beak, then chomped it down eagerly. While the falcon ate, Kutsuzawa dislodged the hare from the falcon's claws (left), slowly and carefully working it free from the viselike grip. He placed the hare in his game bag and offered the falcon another small morsel of meat before they moved back up to the ridge line and on toward the horizon to continue their hunt.
In the autumn before the snow comes and the hunting begins, Asaji Kutsuzawa and his grandson-disciple, Kunio, train their falcon. On the mountain (left) the weak bird—purposely starved to make it tractable—can only fly downhill to the old man, who holds out a piece of meat as bait. In the paddies (below) the falcon flies level from one to the other.