Japan from the inside out

Getting boared in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Monday, August 10, 2009

PICK ALMOST ANY TOPIC as a point of departure for exploring Japan, and it’s a near certainty that a fountain-full of serendipitous discoveries will emerge in short order. Even when the topic is boaring!

inoshishi hiroshige

The Japanese have eaten inoshishi (boar) meat, sometimes known as brawn, since ancient times, most often in stews in the winter. But boars are extremely skittish around people, perhaps as an evolutionary response for staying out of boiling cauldrons of water. They usually hightail it for cover as soon as they spot a human, making them difficult to hunt.

The meat of wild animals was considered taboo at times in the past in Japan, though that taboo was often ignored in mountainous areas. The hardy mountaineers kept eating boar meat, which was also known as yamakujira, or mountain whale (not to be confused with mountain oysters), due to a similarity in taste and texture. That’s a yamakujira shop depicted in the Hiroshige print. A Kansai rakugo comic routine called Buying Boar in Ikeda, which dates from 1707, relates the story of a man with gonorrhea who travels with a hunter in search of some wild game. (No, no, not that kind of game!) Izu, Shizuoka, was once the home of the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park, and was enough of an attraction to draw as many as 400,000 visitors in 1985. It was shut down for good last year due to declining interest and the economic turndown.

The Japanese also consider the animal a pest, both in urban and rural areas. Packs of wild boar have been known to roam city streets at night, rooting through garbage and generally being rude and ugly. Farmers dislike them because they trample, root up, and eat crops. In fact, they’ve gotten so boorish in Takeo, Saga, the municipal government established a department this April and assigned it the task of finding ways to reduce the local population.

wild boar sausage

In a classic case of making lemonade when life hands you a lemon, the city employees hit on the idea of making boar meat a special local product and marketing it nationwide. To give local hunters an added incentive to track down the animals and sell the meat, they worked with a local butcher to create food products that can be eaten year-round.

The accompanying photo was taken at a recent event in which sausage and bacon-like products made from 100% boar meat were presented to the public for tasting. The boar for the breakfast table will hit the market later this month, selling for JPY 1,000 (about $US 10.25) for a 200-gram package. Lemongrass and spices have been added to the sausage to enhance the taste. The butchers have also developed a lunchmeat product resembling smoked ham, which will sell for JPY 500 yen for 60 grams. They plan to roll out hamburger- and roast ham-like products this fall.

Though the Amagi Wild Boar Theme Park no longer exists, those people who can’t live without boar exhibits in their lives might consider a trip to the Go’o Shinto shrine near the geographical center of Kyoto. All Shinto shrines have statues of what are called koma-inu, or guardian dogs. In 1890, the Go’o shrine took the somewhat eccentric step of replacing their statues of guardian dogs with those of boars.

inoshishi jinja

Since most boars are chicken and likely to run in the other direction when they sense a threat, they would not seem to be a logical candidate for selection as the guardian of anything. Ah, but the shrine had its reasons. One of the shrine’s tutelary deities is Wake-no-Kiyomaro, a Japanese government official who lived in the 8th century. He is known for his efforts to separate church (or rather, Buddhist temple) and state. After he became entangled with Imperial succession intrigues and fraudulent oracles at the Usa Shinto shrine, the ruling powers exiled him, had the sinews of his legs cut, and nearly killed him. He was later recalled from exile to serve in government again, and convinced the tenno (emperor) Kammu to build a new capital at Kyoto instead of Nagaoka.

The story goes that he was set upon by assassins as he was limping along the road on his way to exile. He was saved in the nick of time by the sudden appearance of a herd of 300 wild boars. Sometimes the cavalry arrives on something other than horseback!

The Japanese expression chototsumoshin (猪突猛進), the first kanji of which is that for boar, means a headlong rush, and also has the nuance of rashness in action. Now combine that with the boars’ providential rescue of the hobbled Wake-no-Kiyomaro. That was enough to make the shrine a destination for those seeking divine assistance to ensure sound lower limbs, regardless of their current condition. Petitioners include both those in wheelchairs or people who use canes, as well as ekiden runners and soccer players.

Given the ever-fertile Japanese imagination, it was inevitable that someone would put two and two and two together to combine boar cuisine and their straight line foot speed to come up with a new form of entertainment. The folks in Sasayama, Hyogo, have been holding Inoshishi Festivals for several years now in January that draw upwards of 20,000 people. What’s the big attraction? After dining on different dishes featuring wild boar meat, the revelers head for a nearby track to watch the boar races.

wild boar races

But the feast comes first, of course, and several well-known area restaurants set up a special area where they offer original cuisine, including boar meat soup, boar croquettes, and oden. The meals are reportedly so tasty that the diners form lines to enter one shop while eating the offerings of another. The restaurants usually sell out their stock every year.

Then it’s time for the main event, which features wild boars sprinting around an enclosed track. The trotters are given ear-catching names, just as if they were thoroughbreds running the Triple Crown. Can’t you almost hear the track announcer barking out the name of one contestant? “Heading into the far turn, it’s Dekan Showboy by a snout.” The reports don’t mention whether parimutuel betting is allowed.

Now I ask you–where else can you get the chance to spend a day at the races and eat the entrants!

The idea of making lunchmeat out of brawn is not originally Japanese, as a look at this British website will show. They even sell boar meat salami. Note the high protein and low fat content compared to other meats.

2 Responses to “Getting boared in Japan”

  1. Bender said

    “Yamakujira” is an eupherism disguising that boar is actually “meat”. Fish was not considered to be “meat” and whale was considered to be a kind of fish.

  2. Mac said

    Yah … agreed. They probably called boar “mountain whale” for 1,000 years in order to fool the Buddhist monks that laid the edicts down.

    Having said that, all of the achievements of Edo, which was at the time the largest and by far most orderly city in the world then, were established on a largely sustainable, plant-based culture. The theory made very good common, practical sense in a closed system with relatively few resources.

    We should be voluntarily heading back to that – now – and away from a “SAD” (Standard American Diet) … and Lifestyle before the crazies uses up all the oil with their 4x4s. You are not going to be able to build enough nuclear power stations in time, or at all, Ampontan.

    The words were pronounced ‘isana’ meaing (brave fish) and ‘isona’ meaning whales near the beaches.

    The ethical dilemma human kind faces in cohabiting the environment with other ‘higher’ mammals, e.g. those competitive for the space we want and food crops we eat, is a question for another day. Of course, in Europe they killed them all off a long time ago. In Africa, India and elsewhere, they are stilling doing so with a vengeance and eating them … vis-a-vis The Great Ape debate.

    Science shows that if humankind annihilate one species it tends to bring down an entire group or family, and numerous other related species, both flora and fauna. No one really knows what will happen if we keep pulling ‘cards’ out of the Tower of Life’, and we cannot easily stop it without reviewing our legal and economic systems.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: