Hunting in Japan

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Another key event from my trip to Japan was a brief introductory course on hunting from my uncle. I’ve always been fascinated by hunting and eagerly tagged along to watch as he set up traps amongst the dry winter mountains of Izu.

As with many temperate countries around the world, Japan used to have its own species of wolves but became extinct about 100 years ago due to human activities. The lack of top predators helped deer and wild boar populations to sky rocket and they are now considered pest species, causing not only damage to human properties but also to the health of the woodlands. If you’d like to know more about trophic cascades – how reintroducing top predators into the ecosystems could re-invigorate bio-diversity, this TED talk by George Monbiot is incredibly fascinating. If you don’t have 15 minutes, this short animation below is a lovely short intro.

Reintroducing wolves in such over-populated country as Japan might be difficult. But we could and should try to replace the function of wolves and keep the numbers controlled. There are movements in Scotland to reintroduce wolves too. So if there are die hard vegetarians and vegans out there, this is quite a convincing argument for hunting over populated species. To a point where it might even be an ethical responsibility – as human species that decimated top predators – to bring a little bit of balance back to nature.

The Tools and Methods

One of the things I was astonished to find was that my uncle had looked carefully at some professional snare traps, each costing upwards of £70, and thought “I could make it better and cheaper”. He then went on to create some simple jigs, purchased basic parts from hardware stores and made fully functional snare traps for a fraction of the price, with parts that are interchangeable and easy to fix. He’d explain to me the explosive power of large boars that could rip off 4mm steel wire and break the trapping mechanisms into smithereens, so being able to fix your own gear with locally available hardware was an important advantage.

The positioning of these traps was critical. It had to be close to the road and preferably above the height of the truck. This minimised the effort needed to drag the beasts, sometimes weighing upwards of 150kg, onto the truck by himself. Not a bad feat of strength for someone nearing 70. He explained, as he showed us to his first trap, how he looks for tracks and movements, loose rocks and mud on the road, and goes upwards to a relatively open area where he has a clear shot from a safe distance. A higher catch rate can be achieved by reading the overall landscape and targeting places where a bottle neck occurs. For example a shallow or slow flowing spot in a river, a gentle entry in an otherwise extremely steep bank, a narrowing path created by fallen trees etc.

The picture shows a wooden plank on top of a trap that my uncle places on his days off. He just removes it the night before to activate the traps. You might be able to see bamboo branches to the sides and rocks before and after the trap. The animals don’t like spiky bamboos and tries to avoid standing on unsteady rocks. A method used to direct their foot onto the trap.

I forgot to take photos of the actual trap mechanisms but basically it’s a DIY steel rim that releases a spring loaded wire snare when a weight is placed on it. It doesn’t break the leg or bite into the flesh like the old traps so it’s safe if, say a child or a pet walks on it by mistake. It is designed to keep itself tightened at a certain tension but never loosen. The other end of the snare cable is tied to a tree nearby.

We also moved pieces of wood and fallen branches to close alternative paths or in some cases cleared paths to direct the animals towards the trap. They move in much the same way as we might do in the wild.

One intriguing thing I’ve learnt is that once you’ve set up your trap, you can keep it there and use the location repeatedly. I thought the animals might learn and start using other routes or a particular population of deer and wild boar might decline and reduce the number of catch, but this is apparently not the case. It seems that these animal tracks are used much like road networks by multiple species and by multiple herds.

Killing and Prepping

After a night of anxious excitement, me and my brother were devastated to find that none of the traps worked. I was confident the traps looked so enticing to step on and was really looking forward to experiencing the full bloody work. But it wasn’t to be this time. Perhaps our scent was too ‘city’ like.

However, it was fascinating to hear the process and I’ll share it with you here. So as mentioned previously, a large male boar can rip the wire and attack the hunter, so even though my uncle specialises in trapping, he carries a gun. If the catch is big, he shoots it from a distance. If it’s a young deer, he’d knock it out with a baseball bat and stab the artery to a) conserve bullets which is a nightmare to get hold of in Japan and b) to let the blood out while the heart is still working to reduce the gamy smell.

In the name of education and to understand exactly how the gutting and prepping work, I reluctantly volunteered to be the boar.

The concave attachment to the wheel barrow frame allows the animal to be kept centred as it’s being transported to the gutting area. The hind legs are then tied to the posts like this to widen the hips and open up the belly.

The belly is then sliced from the anus up to the throat. The innards are released from the rib cage.

The animal is then lifted by the front legs by a pulley system. If you are a child from my class reading this, you might come across this in secondary school. It allows you to lift things at half or even quarter of the force. Which means that my uncle, who is in his late 60’s can lift up a 150kg boar – more than double my weight – up with one arm. I’ve attached a diagram below so you can have a closer look at how it works.

Take note that every piece of equipment you can see here is hand made. The pulley system is also made from pieces from local hardware store.

Once the animal is lifted, the internal organs are released and the body skinned. It was a bit disappointing to find that deer hide is very difficult to process because of the amount of ticks that infests on it. I’m quite sure there are ways to clean it in an environmentally sustainable way without using harmful chemicals and that’s on my list of thing to learn in the future.

Another fascinating thing I’ve learnt is that deer and wild boar have an average temperature of about 40C but with high dose of adrenaline released from a close human encounter, the temperature might soar as high as 45C and above. The speed, he says, with which this temperature is dropped affects the final flavour of the meat. The quicker it is cooled from the moment of death, and cooler it is, the better.

So the body is then dropped into the white bath tub next to me to cool it down. He will add a large block of ice in the summer time to compensate for the hot temperature. All in all, taking about 1 to 2 hours from the moment of kill.

The skinned animals are then broken up from the bottom up into individual parts and my aunt takes over with the cooking and storing.


Cooking and Preparing

Some parts of the venison are sold raw but they are now experimenting with making venison ham.

  1. She raps the meat in a specialist plastic rapper that is water tight but lets air through.
  2. This is then kept in a hot water at a specific temperature (I can’t remember exactly but probably in the vicinity of 74C) for a long period of time to kill harmful bacteria but not cook it.
  3. The meat is then hanged in a home-made smoke machine for an extended period to add flavour.

I tried it and was completely mind blown. I have never tasted anything like it. Juicy, succulent, full of subtle flavours and deliciously soft. It didn’t have the gamy smell or stringy hardness that I’ve noticed in other venison I’ve tried in the past. Easily the best ham I’ve ever tasted by far.

Then came the venison stew using the more tougher pieces of meat. Slow cooked in tomato based soup. Another superior dish to any other meat based stew I’ve ever had. I was so engrossed in experiencing these dishes that I’ve completely forgotten to take photos of it.

As an anecdotal story that might support my strong statement above, my mother learns baking from a well known master baker in Tokyo, who has connections in the high end restaurant world. Mum brought the home made venison soup to a gathering once and the master baker loved it so much that she ordered some meat from my uncle. Then a little later he received a call from a Michelin starred restaurant to supply the meat.

I totally get why it might spread by word of mouth alone. I’ve heard time and again that wild meat is smelly, tough and stringy. These claims are absolute bogus. If you catch it and process it right, and cook it with the right method for the right part of meat, it can be equal to or even superior to the best beef that money can buy. And considering the environmental impact of raising cattle that I touched on in this blog post, perhaps it’s time we start eating more of these over populated species that are wreaking havoc in our local environment.

This article is from a few years back, but the UK wanted to cull 50% of its deer population to make the woodlands more sustainable. Grey squirrel is overtaking the native red squirrels at an alarming pace too. Maybe we can switch from eating factory farmed chicken full of antibiotics and hormones to free range squirrels…

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