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Saturday, April 19, 2008

JAPAN LITE

A disturbing sign of wildlife


When I first came to Japan, I thought "Where is all the wildlife?" You know, everyday urban-adapted wildlife like we have in the United States such as squirrels, raccoons, and chipmunks. . . Such animals and small rodents can be found living in almost any city or city park in the U.S., but in Japan, with the exception of the City Mouse, animals just don't seem to move to the cities. Less opportunity, I guess.

News photo
A restaurant in Shikoku specializing in wild boar makes use of the entire animal, cut in half and covered in plastic, as its roadside sign.

Even in the Japanese countryside, I've noticed a lack of road kill. On the small island where I live, which is part of the Seto Inland Sea National Park, the only wild animals I've seen are birds, ducks and snakes. I've never even seen a mouse here. A few years ago some deer swam out from the mainland, but apparently the accommodations weren't good enough because they didn't stay long.

You won't find many wild animals in urban areas or on the mainland of Japan unless they've escaped from the zoo. Whether Japan once had a lot of resident wildlife or not, I do not know. But perhaps this lack of animalia is what has caused the Japanese to create "captive wildlife."

The best example of captive wildlife is crickets. So, if you're feeling lonely, or just want someone to serenade you now and then, get a pet cricket. You can order them straight from your local post office in Japan. In the post office on my island, a flyer shows with a giant cricket standing in front of Mount Fuji: "Listen to the refreshing sound of crickets from your home! Easy instructions. Food included. One set of five crickets ¥800."

Then there is domesticated wildlife such as the deer in Nara, which allow people to get up close and personal with wildlife that has converted.

I'm not sure where these deer came from but I imagine they rounded them up from the forest with promises of a lifetime of free food and beer.

These deer are the most raucous bunch of misbehaving wildlife I've ever seen. No longer happy with a handful of tourist peanuts, these deer are now hitting tourists up for a night of karaoke.

I worry that by domesticating these deer, we have ruined their morals.

Wild Japanese monkeys are plentiful in forested areas, which are, no surprise, also tourist areas. You can bathe next to the monkeys in hot springs in Nagano and on Shodoshima island in the Inland Sea, they'll come and greet you in front of the ropeway station. In these cases, however, I'm not sure who is coming to see whom.

Be careful if you see monkeys in sunglasses or jewelry on Shodoshima — they're known to steal shiny, metal things off unsuspecting tourists. More evidence of man's ruining the morals of wildlife.

The tanuki, or raccoon dog, which used to run wild in Japan's countryside, is now a more prominent figure at the door to Japanese restaurants.

The meter-high replica sits on his hind legs and wears a straw hat. He has a big belly, presumably from eating and drinking too much. A highly domesticated wild animal, I'd say.

There is a wild tanuki on Sensui Island in the Seto Inland Sea, but he has become such a big tourist attraction that he no longer has to hunt for his own food. We've spoiled his previously wild life.

Wild boars are still common in the countryside of Shikoku and Western Japan where they are a nuisance to farmers because they eat their crops. The farmers have a couple of ways of dealing with this. One is to put up a scary apparition of a wild boar to scare them away. The other is called "shishi nabe," or wild boar stew!

Indeed, if you've had no luck spotting any wildlife, your best bet may be inside the local restaurant. Here you can appreciate skewered sparrow and wild boar cuisine.

I once saw a restaurant in Shikoku that specialized in wild boar. You couldn't miss the sign on the road 800 meters before the restaurant. It was made from the real animal.

They cut the boar in half, straight down the middle, and put the entire right side of the body, fur and all, on the sign, then covered it in plastic to help "protect" it. I couldn't help but wonder where the other side of the boar had gone.

I did not stop at the restaurant, but after passing it I noticed where the left side of the boar had gone: to make another sign for the people coming in the opposite direction!



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