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LIVING OFF THE LAND

In praise of the ‘mountain whale’

by C.W. Nicol

Not long after I arrived in Tokyo for the first time in October 1962, Klaus Naumann — a childhood friend from Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, in the rural southwest of England, who had come to Japan ahead of me (and is still here) — took me on a magical trip to the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka Prefecture.

That first experience of huge hot-spring baths with icy-cold mountain streams rushing by had me hooked.

A month later I went to Izu again, to a different inn, and was astonished to see a wild boar hanging in the entranceway. The beast must have weighed well over 100 kg; it was dark brown in color and had evil-looking curved tusks.

I’d never seen a wild boar before, but I’d read stories of Celtic warriors fighting to the death over who should have the best cut of boar meat at a feast. That never happened in my time, though, because wild boar were hunted to extinction in Britain in the 17th century. (They have been re-introduced in some places in the past few decades.) Certainly, I never expected to see one so close up in Japan.

That evening, among many other wonderful treats, we had a dish called botan nabe (“peony pot”). The contents of the hotpot, however, had nothing to do with flowers; it was all kinds of vegetables, mushrooms — and thinly cut slices of wild boar meat. I became even more confused when the lovely kimono-clad lady who was kneeling beside our table and adding things to the pot told me that the slices of meat and fat she was so deftly handling with long chopsticks was known as “mountain whale.”

Later it was explained to me that about 1,500 years ago when Buddhist edicts came into Japan condemning the eating of four-legged animals, mountain folk renamed two of their favorite game animals to confuse the issue. One was the wild boar (inoshishi), whose meat and fat were somewhat close in color and texture to baleen whale meat, and which was renamed yamakujira (mountain whale). The other was the hare (usagi), which was redesignated as a bird. This, I have been told, was because of its large, winglike ears.

Here at home in Kurohime in the beautiful Nagano foothills, we had wild boar stew for lunch yesterday — and we’ll have it again today. For my staff and guests it is a special treat. No, the meat is not at all smelly, and if properly cooked it is very tender.

Our forester, Mr. Matsuki, who has been charging around the wintry mountains on a snowmobile, chasing wild boar tracks and planning ambushes ever since the hunting season opened in mid-November, shot this boar when he and his companions managed to ambush four of the hogs a few days ago.

Wild boar are common enough to be a serious pest in many parts of Japan, where they raid fields, orchards, paddies and gardens, do a fair bit of damage to young trees, and sometimes even attack people. Here in Kurohime it is only in the past few years that they have invaded “our” territory. This is probably due to us getting far less snow than we used to. Right now there is about 70 cm of the white stuff on the ground around my house, whereas 10 years ago at the same time of year we would have had 1 1/2 meters at least.

In the last five years, I have been able to stock my freezer with the meat of one or two boars and four or five deer each year. Although I eat imported beef when traveling, we don’t use it in this house. It takes about 11 kg of grain to grow 1 kg of beef, and with the rising cost of grain and the huge areas it takes to grow it — not to mention the cost of shipping and so on — eating imported beef doesn’t make environmental sense to me.

I really like wild boar meat, but I have been a bit horrified to see it served up raw in some parts of the country. I will eat pretty well anything that is considered as food by whichever culture or region I visit, but when offered raw boar meat — or bear meat — I have politely asked for it to be cooked. Apart from the risk of hepatitis, however small, wild boar and bear can be infected with trichinosis, a nematode parasite that causes digestive upset, fever, muscular rigidity and even death. Eating raw polar bear meat killed quite a few early Arctic explorers — and I’m not talking about polar bear liver, which contains so much vitamin A that it is toxic. Boar or bear is best eaten very well cooked.

Wild boar, Sus scrofa, are the ancestors of our modern domesticated pigs. Their natural habitat is broad-leaved woodland and wild grassland. The adults weigh 50 to 100 kg and measure 90 to 108 cm from snout to tail, and they have very tough, thick skin that is covered with coarse hairs which is pale gray to brown to black in color. They can be formidable animals, and are renowned for charging at enemies and for inflicting terrible wounds with their tusks. The lower canines especially curve out and up, and are sharpened against the upper canines, which are a bit smaller but just as nasty and sharp. A boar can slash with an upward movement of its head, often disemboweling hunting dogs and severely injuring opponents when fighting for mating rights.

The baby boars, or uribo as they are called in Japanese, are born in spring. They are really cute, with striped coats that act as camouflage in the woods. A sow can give birth to as many as 12 of these youngsters at one time after a gestation period of about 3 1/2 months. It is a really comical sight to see a whole line of the small creatures, with their little straight tails, trekking along one after another behind mum. They stay with their mother until the next spring, when another litter is born.

Males become sexually mature at 1 1/2 years old, but cannot compete for the females until they get much bigger and stronger, which takes about four years. By then the males will have left the group and be leading solitary lives except for in the mating season. Consequently, a mature sow leads the group, and these big old ladies can be every bit as fierce and courageous as the males in defense of their young.

Hunters will attest to the intelligence and cunning of wild boars.

The animals have a superb sense of smell, excellent hearing, and pretty good eyesight. Their ears are never floppy, always pricked and alert. They are leaner and more streamlined in shape than pigs, and their legs seem rather long and skinny. Their snouts, which look like mobile disks, are both tough and sensitive. They snuffle and root around for all manner of treats, from tubers and truffles to earthworms and beetle grubs. They love acorns, too, as well as wild fruit and berries of all kinds, and will readily eat snakes, rats and even carrion.

Irate farmers have told me stories of wild boar shaking orchard trees to make fruit drop, and of some even climbing on the lower branches. I’ve seen whole banks of flowers dug up in a park by wild boar rooting out earthworms. They will eat shiitake mushrooms, and are very fond of sweet potatoes. In fact, there is very little that they won’t eat, and in monetary terms, they cause more damage than deer.

For this reason, many wild boars in Japan are trapped and killed as pests. In many instances, their bodies are then buried or incinerated — which is a terrible waste. However, although I’ve never eaten wild boar taken in summer, hunters insist that the ones taken in autumn or winter are better.

Nowadays there are fewer and fewer hunters in Japan as the human population ages, and I’m afraid that the general level of field expertise and marksmanship is dropping too. Another problem is that the territory of wild boar, deer and monkeys often overlaps that of humans.

The task of culling animals that raid fields should be controlled and recorded by experts, preferably rangers with a deep knowledge of local conditions. The meat, once it has been inspected and passed as fit for human consumption, should be used wisely. That way, both deer and wild boar could be valuable local assets, with their numbers managed to allow them to live in natural, wild conditions.

This means that we must bring more of our forest areas back to being natural mixed woods with more broad-leaved trees.

I was very happy when a few wild boar started using one of our new and shallow ponds in our trust woodland here in Kurohime as a wallow. I like to see them in the wild. But I’m just as happy when their numbers are enough to justify a hunt — which brings more delicious meat to my table.