TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - As two bulls crush their sweat-drenched bodies against each other with blood-shot eyes and foam dripping from their mouths, the referee shouts "draw" and the moment of truth comes for the Japanese "bull separators".
While the bloody Spanish corrida comes under scrutiny from animal rights activists and politicians, bullfighting in northern Japan is gaining popularity as fans cheer on both the bulls and the brave men who break up the match before the bulls get hurt.
Each match in "tsuno-tsuki", or bullfight, starts with 20 "seko" bull separators leading the animals on as they face off in a ring. But after just several minutes of muscle-straining and horn-goring, the referee ends the fight before any blood is shed.
The "seko" then showcase their skills as they catch the feisty beasts weighing over a tonne by their rear leg with a rope and separate them, often risking their lives.
"I can't imagine bloodshed in our ring," said Haruji Matsui, a bullfighting veteran from the tiny village of Yamakoshi in Niigata, northern Japan, as he sipped iced tea sitting among the bulls before the matches started.
"We grew up with them sharing the same earthen floor."
Older farmers in Yamakoshi speak fondly of the bulls, remembering the times when the animals were necessary to move supplies in winter and for help in the fields.
"We treat them like our children," said Fumihiro Aoki, an 80-year-old rice farmer, who started as a "seko" 65 years ago.
"I named my bull after my youngest son, Mitsuru. It loves like a human, behaves like a big dog and even recognizes the sound of an engine when I come back from the fields."
Tsuno-tsuki is steeped in Japanese culture, with salt and sake rice wine poured around the arena at the opening.
"The same ritual is performed during sumo fights to ward off evil spirits as fights carry a semi-religious meaning," said University of Tokyo professor Yutaka Suga, a researcher of the sport's tradition and an owner of a bull.
Bullfights between bulls are performed across Japan with the most famous matches on the southern island of Okinawa.
"But our area is special," said Matsui with pride, as he watched another pair of fighting bulls with a spark in his eye.
"Not only is it just here that we end matches with draws, but also unlike in other parts of Japan, we don't make bets."
According to professor Suga, Niigata is the only place in the world where animal fights end in a draw.
"One of the legends goes that these communities are tiny and heavily reliant on each other, so they avoid gambling and fights with clear winners and losers."
The biggest challenge facing tsuno-tsuki is keeping up the rising interest in the sport that was named an "important cultural property" by the Japanese government in 1978.
After an earthquake in Niigata in 2004 killing 65 people and injuring 3,000, many families fled to cities and never returned, but those who stayed say they would never let the tradition die.
"We organized bullfights even when we lived in temporary housing after the earthquake and the bulls gave us the energy to overcome our hurdles and carry on," said Aoki, the rice farmer.
"In a sense, we owe them our lives".
Editing by Nick Macfie