Red in Tooth and Claw

Posted By on May 8, 2017 in Columns, Japan |

Our wasabi farmer, David Hulme, finds himself not just living with nature but occasionally against it.

Years ago, on winter treks in Okutama, I longed to see an animal. Many hikes traversed stretches as sterile, to my mind, as a moonscape. Endless stands of plantation sugi and hinoki might as well have been plastic replicas for all the wildlife they supported. Winters were especially bleak. Not a spider or insect stirred, no bird sang, no mammal crept or hid in the shadows.

I was totally deceived. I knew the Australian bush, where there is no hibernation. Each tree, shrub and bush made sense to me. Every spider-web, birdcall, grass clump, flower, seedpod and fruit occurred in a context that I could read and interpret. The Northern Hemisphere was a different planet to me. The animals remained invisible.

Until I had something they wanted.

Our new home in Okutama came with about 100 tsubo, roughly 300 square metres of “hatake”, or gardening area. In the first spring, we got to work raising vegetables in ambitious variety. Cabbage, tomato, beans, peas, sweet corn, potatoes – some 30 different types.

One night, just by chance or impelled by a subconscious hint, I left my bed about 3 a.m. to inspect the hatake. I beheld the shadow of a large sow, and minutes later stumbled upon her litter. The little piggies scattered in all directions, leaving me to ponder the implications. Our sweet potatoes were certainly at risk.

We called the “yakuba”, or town office. They installed a large trap, which I baited with compressed maize for a couple of weeks, while a night camera fixed to a nearby tree informed us of nightly porcine approaches.

We set the pressure plate of the trap for the sow, but she was wary.

Eventually, four of her good-sized offspring in the cage at once added up to around her weight. Bang! Four very annoyed and aggressive youngsters were in the trap. Yakuba representatives came and shot them. We claimed a small portion of the meat and re-set the trap in hopes of catching the remaining, fifth, piglet.

No such luck. Instead, the pressure plate was triggered by a raccoon. The pet trade carelessly brought this North American invader to Honshu, where it went feral. A trap for pigs will not hold a raccoon for very long. I found the animal halfway out one of the grid spaces, and when it saw me coming it calmly slid back inside. It squatted there, regarding me with calm innocence. I went to fetch my camera, returning just in time to catch the crafty alien oozing its way out in a different place.

The piglets had spent all their energies charging at the bars, bruising their snouts and distributing spittle far and wide. The raccoon wasted no energy at all. Having no grudge to bear at that stage, I accepted its escape plan. Given five minutes alone, it was gone. My attitude became less charitable the following summer, when a bloc of sweet corn became Raccoon Heaven. Now I want one of those Davy Crockett hats.

Wild boar and raccoons are nocturnal, but monkeys, Japanese macaques, raid in broad daylight. Last year a small family of them visited several times, snatching sweet corn, tomatoes, cucumbers and even small pumpkins.

So far, we have not seen a bear, but there are occasional sightings throughout the region. Earlier this year, several kilometers downriver, a bear entered a restaurant, and destroyed a refrigerator to get at the contents.

Our wasabi patch also needs protection from various invaders. The main threat is deer, which are partial to wasabi leaves. So far, the surrounding nets we laid have been an effective barrier.

We also keep the interior as clean and weed-free as possible. A mossy, weedy area will attract pigs that root for worms and crabs. They did this on one occasion before we first tidied up the planting beds. Not only did they rip up the surface, but they also smashed parts of the stone terraces.

The power in those snouts is alarming.

If monkeys wish to enter the wasabida, there is no way to deter them and they can be very destructive. We are told that they will uproot the plant, pick off the little crustaceans and gastropods clinging to it, then simply discard the plant.

Other wasabi pests include the grubs and caterpillars of moths and butterflies, plus one bird. The copper pheasant eats wasabi leaves, though not in significant volumes.

We do sight kamo-shika (“Japanese goat-antelope”, according to Wiki) nearby and, fortunately, they are not such a nuisance as deer. I am pleased to report that these animals, now well protected, appear to be thriving after once being hunted almost to extinction. We have also encountered tanuki (“Japanese racoon dog”), badgers and the Japanese weasel (a terror on caged chickens or pigeons).

One local we have not seen (due to not trying hard enough) is the Japanese giant flying squirrel, or “musasabi”. A friend rescued a flying squirrel that had been savaged by a dog, and when the animal recovered from its wounds it refused to leave the house. Its new guardians named it Mu. Mu quickly dispelled my misconception of a timid, fragile, harmless little occupant. Mu weighs in at 1.5 kilograms or so. It evicted the resident cats. It is also the reason we cannot visit the house, as the possibly rabid squirrel attacks visitors of any size.

The 72 seasons of Okutama bring a parade of insects and arachnids, fish, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The types of snake in our lives so far number four. They are the aodaisho (rat snake, loved by farmers), the placid yamakagashi, the shimomada (nocturnal and therefore seldom seen) and the aggressive and dangerous mamushi (a pit viper – so-called because of a heat-sensing pit in the face).

Of all local forest (and plantation) residents, it is the Japanese black bear that I least wish to meet. Even so, with wild boar and deer in mind, next year I will probably take a course and apply for a gun license.