Friday, April 27, 2018

Sacred and Profane: Finding wild meats from Tanzawa

Ever since I have learned deer problems during the training for forest instructors, I simply wanted to try meat of wild games from Tanzawa. Before, I was not sure if it was legal in this country to hunt animals openly. So much so of my naïve understanding as “oh-so-cute-and-must-be-preserved wild animals.” Kanagawa Prefecture is a pioneer in Japan to deal with environmental disturbance caused by exploding deer population. Deer is fecund and eats lots of vegetation, which has created environmental collapse in Kanagawa’s forests of Fagus crenata. That was the finding of researchers for “2006 Scientific Research on the Tanzawa Mountains 丹沢大山総合調査学術報告書.” To make matters worse, about 100 years ago our ancestors exterminated Japanese wolf population. Thus, people of Kanagawa decided to act as the pinnacle of food chain in order to maintain wild animal population at its optimal. The policy trend has spread all over, and now “managed hunting 管理捕獲” is the key word to deal with wild animal problem in Japanese forests. After the education for necessity of hunting, I surmised catches from Japanese forests naturally went into the food chain of our diet. Yeah, the restaurants of gibier are getting fashionable in metropolitan Tokyo. That must be thanks to diligent hunters. The estimated number of deer in Tanzawa was about 7000 in the middle of the 2000s. Now it’s about 4000. 3000 deer must have become meat! Finding lunch menu of Tanzawa deer steak should be easier in the downtown Yokohama! I was damned wrong.


Late autumn to winter is a traditional hunting season in Japan. Chefs who could prepare nice dishes of gibier provide new menus during this time of a year. This winter I tried to find a good restaurant in the downtown of Yokohama where we could enjoy deer and the other wild meat from local Tanzawa mountains. The result of my search was, NONE, NADA, AUCUM. Of course, there are many good gibier restaurants in Yokohama, such as the most famous BiOsteria Komakine or Chohachi Chojamachi Branch 長八長者町店. They serve really good meat … brought from somewhere else. Komakine has a special contract with Elezo Co. of Hokkaido 北海道 so that they have the best quality wild meat in Japan … of Yezo sika deer. OK, theirs is not from Tanzawa for sure. Chohachi is secretly famous for their dishes of pheasant … which are raised by farmers in Kochi Prefecture 高知県. Er, so, their pheasant is domesticated birds, and not from Tanzawa anyway. Maybe, the quality of deer from Tanzawa is not the level of Elezo’s meat? How about less prestigious restaurants? Hmmmm, they also serve meat of Yezo sika deer … Why? A hint to solve my question was found in a magazine article about the philosophy of young chef for Soholm restaurant in Tennozu Isle 天王洲アイル, Tokyo. The chef, Ryutaro Kataoka, serves beautiful sika deer steaks harvested in Honshu Island 本州. He uses only the meat that has the official record of time, place and methodology of blood and tripe extraction, the condition of refrigeration, etc. etc.

Managed hunting is indeed becoming a part of industrial policy in Japanese rural areas. The thinking is, as in Kanagawa Prefecture, the depopulation of rural areas has induced the explosion of number of wild animals. The multiplied deer, boar, bear, et al cause problems in human communities, and so they are “to be controlled.” During the process, wild meat is produced inevitably, and the country people thought “Well, we could make a good business out of this!” The motivation of supply side is now ready for gibier business in Japan. In contrast, demand side is another matter. To begin with the majority of the 21st century Japanese cannot connect neatly packed meat in supermarkets with living animals, even if they are from highly controlled industrial farms. Eating meat from wild animals is almost a thrilled adventure in the other side of the galaxy. Besides, ordinary Japanese would naturally consider “Is this wild meat sanitary?” … er, actually this demand side story was exactly my case, but I don’t think I was an outlier. In 2014, the Ministry of Health and Welfare of Japan issued an administrative “Guideline” regarding the hygiene control of wild game meats. It practically limits gibier for commercial purpose to be processed at licensed meat processing center within 2 hours after slaughter. In addition, the “Guideline” strongly recommends careful cooking for the meat in order to prevent hepatitis E and the other possible illness. To induce popular demand for local wild meats, quite many prefectures and towns have introduced even stricter guidelines than the national government for their product. Businesses followed such regulations to ease the concern of consumers. For example, Elezo accepts Yezo sika catch to be brought in to their laboratory within 1 hour max after the hunt. Chinzeiya 椿説屋, the leading whole seller of Japanese wild meat, is busy popularizing modern hunting technology including the practical and hygienic methodology to bring down the catch and to carry them smoothly to butchers. Thanks to such activities, some department stores and high-end supermarkets have started to deal with deer and the other wild meats. The chef of Soholm made fairly practical decision about the meat of his restaurant to attract customers by making clear his ingredients are strictly following such regulations.

Wild meat from Nagano Prefecture became
 one of the regular menus last winter for Becks Coffee Shops,
 a chain-store diner owned by JR East.

Now, I look at Tanzawa mountains. Unlike flat Hokkaido or large mountains of Nagano Prefecture 長野県, our Tanzawa is made of small but very steep mountains. Worse, clever animals often live in deep mountains … Deer was once animals of lower hills. But industrial and housing development of their home in Kanagawa let them escape to the higher and precipitous mountains where their herds have eaten up the undergrowth and devastated the ecosystem in National and Quasi-national Parks. Imagine you shot 80kg of deer in about ASL 800m of Mt. Oyama 大山. You measure the size and biological data of your catch for scientific and administrative purposes, and now what? Unless you ask helicopters to bring the harvest down to abators in the downtown of Isehara 伊勢原 or Atsugi 厚木 Cities, you can never bring your trophy to commercial meat within 2 hours. According to Dr. Jun Tamura of Kanagawa Prefecture Nature Conservation Center, the prefectural government is subsidizing commercial town butcheries to process the wild meat from Tanzawa, but they are apparently not able to sustain themselves as an independent business. So, more than 90% of slaughtered animals in Tanzawa are buried or simply left to be meals for the other animals in the forest. No wonder I could not find a restaurant of Tanzawa gibier in the downtown of Yokohama. 

Difficulty in consumption of wild meats harvested during “managed hunting” is not exclusive for Kanagawa Prefecture. After all, Japan is a very mountainous country. It is difficult to establish sanitary logistics for wild meat from forest to table. But if we left the animals to multiply freely, the ecological collapse will spread more in deep mountains. So, many Japanese hunters enter the mountain, cull the animals, gather the data, and left their trophy in situ. Dr. Seiki Takatsuki 高槻成紀 of Azabu University laments. Before, when hunters killed animals, they didn’t do that for fun, but to have meat and the other necessary products of life such as fur. They politely asked bounty of animals from the nature. The current procedure is profane to Japanese culture and tradition, the professor said. In 2013 book, Makoto Hanazono wrote there remain several records describing how mountain people hunted animals traditionally. Without exception, the way hunters treated their catch was a part of rituals for Shintoism, thanking the generosity of mountain gods. It was an activity beyond the daily life, he concluded, and here comes the lament of Dr. Takatsuki. Why, then, was it so religiously special to hunt in Japanese tradition? Is it just a matter of logistics due to deep mountain forest? 

Dr. Hanazono said Japanese have secretly long tradition of eating meat. In the middle of the 19th century just before Japan started to have regular contacts with meat-eating cultures of Europe and America, the large cities in Japan already had many meat serving popular restaurants. Stereotypical concept of “meat absent from Japanese cuisine” is, according to Hanazono, due to numerous governmental ordinances issued over centuries started from the 7th century. They prohibited slaughtering livestock. Ostensibly the rulers of each era declared that their policy was showing puritanical devotion to the teaching of Buddha. Historical scholars of the 21st century concluded it was to secure the land tenure for rice cultivation and the working animals to enhance productivity in the field. Moreover, Japanese farm animals in early centuries were imports from Korea and China, not endemically domesticated wild animals. They first belonged to the ruling families who nurtured their precious animals in barns. The way to keep cattle and pigs in this way gradually spread to the lives of ordinary Japanese under prohibition of livestock processing. Consequently, Japanese dairy farming never demanded a wide open pasture until the Europeans and Americans brought their technique in the late 19th century. Even though, the fact the national government had to issue such decrees so many times tells people never gave up eating meat in the end. So, Japanese have consumed meat for millennia, but meat dishes were not officially commendable for centuries, nor the supply of meat became large enough to be main dishes. In contrast, hunting in deep forests for food was not in such controlled environment of Japanese meat market. Here comes Shintoism gods who preside over the nature, and the rituals of traditional hunters in Japan … Hm, then, almost sterile approach to the present day wild meat in Japan is an example of “sacred and profane” in the style of Claude Levi-Strauss … The uber-sacred meat of the forests is seen by the ordinary city people as potentially unclean exotic products. It requires cautious sanitization before becoming lunch in the downtown, based on the “Guideline” issued by national ministry … 90% of culled deer in Tanzawa are left in the mountain surely for the sake of public health. But they may remain there as a part of conceptual operation in the 21st century Japan … Though, sometimes, really sometimes, they come out to be a meal for novice forest instructors with nice sake in a cup of bamboo.

Bamboos are ready to be nice cups for sake.

I happened to have a chance last winter to enjoy meat of wild deer and boar in Tanzawa. After forest maintenance activities, a landlord gave us a banquet with the harvest from his land. Among the menu was vegetable and wild boar miso-soup, and Sika deer sashimi (woooooooooow), served with nice sake. Yap. If you want to sit in a commercial restaurant, the dishes follow governmental Guideline. Japan is a free country. When a private owner of a forest wants to have food procured from his own property, no one can stop his way of eating. Of course, our host froze the meat which could kill off the bacteria, and gave us such a delicacy of deer sashimi. I tell you both of the dishes were so light and tender. The meat did not show any signs of greasiness. The landlord explained us his gibier was created by eating plants of the mountain so that the smell of the meat is from the vegetation of his forest. If hunters could process them right, they taste pure and delicate even after freezing, i.e. perfectly suitable for Japanese traditional cuisine. Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to provide such meat from Tanzawa in commercial scale so that you have to have a chance to meet with the luck … Yeeeeeeeees. I think it is one of the perks for being a forest instructor to Kanagawa Prefecture. My aseptic cautiousness for the profanity of wild meat was completely melted in the exquisite deer sashimi and aromatic sake in a bamboo cup. It must be semantic operation for the profane to be sacred …What am I saying anyway?

Wild boar miso soup.
 I have found this recipe was already popular 400 years ago in Japan.
 People sometimes used wild boar or even pork for the dish.
Sika deer sashimi!
 The orange plate is for pumpkin salad.

The articles and books I referred in this week’s post are

Beautiful Gibier 美しいジビエ, dancyu 27(12), December 2017.

Seiki Takatsuki, On Deer Problem: the direction of unbalanced nature, Yama-to-Keikoku Sha, 2015. 高槻成紀「シカ問題を考える:バランスを崩した自然の行方」ヤマケイ新書.

Osamu Ishida; Sayoko Hamano; Makoto Hanazono; Akihisa Setoguchi, Japanese Attitude towards Animals: a history of human-animal relations in Japan, Tokyo Univ. Press, 2013. 石田 戢;濱野 佐代子;花園 誠;瀬戸口 明久「日本の動物観: 人と動物の関係史」東大出版会.

By the way, after the banquet I did blood tests twice, one for annual medical check-up and another for the operation to my broken right wrist. No problem was found, nor hepatitis. I should thank God, and sake maybe. Sacred and Profane … it can be interchangeable, hey Durkheim!

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