On tiny Oge Island in the Inland Sea off Imabari, Ehime Prefecture, Yoichi Manabe, 41, a member of the Aishin hunting club in Niihama, hurriedly carried the carcass of a 70-kg wild boar to a breakwater and plunged it into the sea.
After a while, he swiftly removed its internal organs before plunging the carcass back into the water. “Draining the blood quickly is a cardinal rule for enjoying your meal. It should be done while the heart is still beating, and the body should be cooled immediately,” he said of a practice performed by game hunters worldwide to avoid becoming sick.
Manabe had killed two boars that day after people on the island asked him to rid them of the animals that were running rampant in their fields. He occasionally goes to Hokkaido to hunt deer. That evening, Manabe and his club colleagues dined on grilled boar and hot pots.
Game dishes, known as “gibier” in Japan after the French word for game, have been enjoying a quiet boom since the 1990s. The trend has been fueled in part by Hokkaido, Nagano and Shimane prefectures allowing hunting of wild animals that cause damage to crops.
Manabe learned how to hunt, prepare and cook game from Seiji Shimomura, 52, who runs a restaurant specializing in game dishes in Kasukabe, Saitama Prefecture.
Since opening the restaurant eight years ago, Shimomura, a hunter with 30 years of experience, has made annual trips to Hokkaido and Nagano during hunting season from October to December, closing his eatery for several weeks each time.
He freezes animals he catches in vacuum packages so the game can be eaten throughout the year. On weekends, the 30-seat eatery is fully booked.
“Behind the (recent scandals involving) mislabeling of beef and eel is consumers’ judging foods by their brands and labels. I hunt animals by myself and offer their meat,” he said.
At his restaurant, Shimomura serves game dishes using 13 kinds of animals, including boar, deer, rabbit and starling. The 60 dishes on the menu are cooked in all sorts of ways from fried to in red wine stew, and risottos.
There is a “special menu” that has to be booked in advance. When Shimomura does receive an order, he goes to farming areas in Saitama Prefecture with an air gun in hand to hunt for a certain bird. If he manages to catch one, he skillfully removes its feathers with a surgical knife and skins it, disinfecting it with alcohol. He then prepares seven kinds of dishes, including hamburger.
The bird is a crow. But it’s not the jungle crow found in cities eating kitchen waste but a carrion crow that eats earthworms and other prey it catches in fields.
“There is no such thing as inedible animal meat. Crows are hated because they do damage, but I have added them to my menu, wondering whether it is good to judge from their appearance,” Shimomura said.
According to a customer at Shimomura’s restaurant, carrion crow meat tastes like tender grilled rumen and is chewy.
The animals are hunted to protect the crops from being eaten. Some municipalities also believe serving locally hunted game can boost their economies.
In March, for example, the Kinki Regional Agricultural Administration Office held a symposium on game dishes that was attended by local officials as well as licensed hunters and the public.
Some view the popularity of game as also reflecting anxieties among Japanese consumers over food safety. Foods whose producers are unknown are flooding stores nowadays and there have been many cases of falsifying production locations and foodstuffs used after sell-by dates.
“Wild animals are going to become acceptable as food after being neglected in Japan,” said Masatsugu Suzuki, 47, a professor at Gifu University.
But game meat is expensive as hunting season is limited and preparing the dishes requires a great deal of care and time. In some restaurants, a game dish can range from ¥10,000 to ¥20,000.
At Shimomura’s restaurant, where game dishes are available throughout the year, three dishes, including venison in a sauce and wild boar meat pie, are priced at ¥5,000. Crow risotto costs ¥4,500 while a course of crow meat dishes are offered at ¥12,000.