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Saturday, Jan. 30, 2010


How to ship a bison omiyage

I have a confession: I've always wanted to be a bison.

There's just something about those big hairy shoulders, trim waists and their calm, cool disposition even under adverse circumstances. I'd love to be able to amble across the plains the way they do, seemingly without a care in the world. They're just what I've always wanted to be: big, hairy and threatening.

Besides, baby bison claves are so cute! I already have two calves — just the wrong kind. And why oh why are we females limited to underarm body hair?! As a bison babe, I'd never have to worry about being cold in the winter time again.

Bison once roamed the American West (and Canada) by the millions. They are now a "near threatened" species. In 1869, when the Central Pacific Railroad was completed, suddenly the West was accessible to people in the Eastern part of the country. Eventually, settlers hunted the bison to near extinction. They were hunted for their meat and their pelts (a bit of species cross-dressing by the settlers?).

But living in Japan, where there is a traditional belief in reincarnation, I'm still holding out for coming back to this world as a bison some day. I wonder if anyone has considered reincarnation as a way to bring back endangered species. I would especially like to come back as one of the 3,500 in a herd of free-range bison in Yellow Stone National Park. Who knows? That could be your grandparents out there, obaachan and ojiichan, helping to bring back the species.

These days bison are raised domestically — for bison burgers, steaks and something called "Rocky mountain oysters." Oysters they are not, but rather the gonads of the male bison, buffalo or bull. (Makes you wonder why Americans are so squeamish about eating fish sperm in Japan).

One Web site describes Rocky Mountain Oyster testicle preparation: "They are usually peeled, coated in flour, pepper and salt, sometimes pounded flat, then deep-fried." Ouch.

Not surprisingly, this "delicacy" (talk about delicate!) is most often served as an appetizer. After all, who would eat an entire meal of bovine testicles? Another Web site goes on to say, "Usually this meat product is sold frozen, as it is inconvenient to get them fresh." Uh-huh.

So it wasn't a total surprise when Bison enthusiast and Japan Lite reader Vicki Bohn, who lives in Nebraska, informed me that some bison have successfully emigrated to Japan. ("C'mon Brutus, let's relocate to a country where they won't eat your testicles and the next door neighbors don't have guns!") The bison gifts were made possible through a sister city relationship between Omaha, Nebraska and the city of Shizuoka. I'm not sure why the bison were living in the city in the first place, but nonetheless, Omaha gave two bison calves to Shizuoka in a zoo exchange — these were the first bison omiyage!

The bison were sent to Japan by passenger plane. I wonder exactly how this works. What if you discovered you had to sit next to a bison on your international flight? Would you be responsible for distributing oxygen to the bison in the case of an emergency? And how did the bison fit through the airport security screeners?

It turns out there are restrictions on bison as passengers. So, before you run out and buy a bison omiyage for that special Japanese person on your list, please be aware that early planning is a must.

According to a written report by Mr. Lawrence F. Uebner, who was chairman of the Omaha Sister Cities Association at the time of the bison gifting:

1. Bison can only be transported in the spring or fall, for minimum exposure to hot or cold temperatures. (So this rules out ochugen traditional summer gifts and oseibo traditional winter gifts.)

2. Bison must be transported in a temperature-controlled truck after getting off the plane.

3. Bison must be shipped in appropriate crates for the size of the bison at time of shipment. (This is critical. The first bison calves Omaha sent had apparently already outgrown their crates by the time their flight took off. Remember, flight delays can be long.)

4. After arrival, the bison must be quarantined for 30-60 days in a zoo-qualified quarantine facility. (In other words, you can't just drop them off at a karaoke bar somewhere and come back to get them in a couple of months.)

But despite the hassle, there is no doubt that bison make great omiyage. Just one tip on wrapping them. Bison are hard to disguise even with the best Japanese wrapping techniques. So let their own furry coat serve the purpose. A big red bow around the horns would be a nice touch though.

After a bit of savvy genetic mixing, two bison gifted to Japan in 1969 produced children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and "other offspring," eventually populating 30 different zoos in Japan. Vicki confirmed that she visited some of the offspring at the Shizuoka Nihondaira Zoo in 2004.

Just think — if we can get more Japanese people to take the bison option for reincarnation, we could have bison roaming Japan in no time.

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