Set in the middle of the Meiji era (1868?1912), this novel describes the life of Tomiji, a man born into a family of matagi?people who make their living as hunters in the wild mountains of the northern Tohoku district, keeping traditions and a language all their own. The second son of a poor farmer, Tomiji sets out at age 14 with his father and older brother to hunt bears and serows in the forest. Bears in particular are a prized source of income for these farmers, providing not just meat but fur and the traditional medicine obtained from the animal's gall bladder, which fetches a considerable price.
The narrative begins when Tomiji is 25. He has distinguished himself as a master marksman among the matagi. His father has retired from hunting, as is the custom after one has slain a sacred bear, and his brother has been gravely injured during a hunt, leaving Tomiji to support the family on his own.
He falls in love with Fumie, the only daughter of the local landowner. When she is found to be pregnant he is expelled from the village and begins a life of wandering. He suffers through the brutal working conditions in a copper mine, making a name for himself in that field as well, but he cannot forget the hunt. A massive avalanche near the mine prompts him to leave that job, and just before he turns 30 he once again joins a band of matagi, eventually becoming their leader. The climax of the tale comes when he is in his mid-forties and stakes his very existence as a matagi on a one-on-one battle with a legendary bear weighing more than 200 kilograms.
This novel paints with brilliant depth and breadth the lives and loves of the matagi, a vanishing breed who move through their days in tune with the spirits of the mountains.