SAPPORO -- The Ainu, Hokkaido's indigenous people, used to joke that one could put a pan on the fire, go hunting for deer, and have the pan filled with venison before it got too hot. That was more than a century ago.

Ezo shika deer were abundant then, and an indispensable part of Ainu life. In fact, the Ainu language has more than seven different ways of referring to a deer according to gender, age or physical features. And these expressions may again see the light of day -- 121 years after the Meiji government banned the Ainu from hunting deer. The Environment Agency gave permission this year to Yay Yukar Park, a group trying to restore the Ainu tradition of hunting deer.

The end of Ainu deer hunting began when the Meiji government hammered out the Hokkaido reclamation plan in 1869, encouraging settlers to emigrate to the northern island. As a result, the population of Hokkaido increased nearly 1,000 percent within 30 years.