Reprinted from Outing, XXI:6 (March 1893), 427-431. Ed. Note: This article is presented as a companion to "Yumi: The Japanese Longbow," at jcsart_denig_0301.htm.
Sportsmen familiar with the vast game-resorts of mountains, plains, forests and marshes of the American continent perhaps seldom, or never, think of the excellent advantages offered them in many portions of the Mikado’s empire.
Ancient archer with longbow
Ever since European firearms succeeded the famous native longbow, shooting has been one of the leading sports in Japan, among the nobility and lower classes alike, and such amusements as deer and bear hunting have been eagerly followed.
It is necessary to go a long way from the leading ports to get the very best of shooting. Twenty years ago most wonderfully varied sport was to be had within thirty miles of the larger cities.
The best chances for a true huntsman are undoubtedly offered on the island of Yesso [Hokkaido], the most northerly situated and the second in size of the four Japanese islands.
The island Yesso is very little known to Americans, and scarcely influenced by modern civilization. The country about Hakodadi, the largest town in Yesso, is a perfect wilderness of impenetrable forests, growing on a succession of low hills, the small valleys being swampy and thickly covered with rushes, alder, and stunted birch. The natives depend mainly on the export trade of fish, and deer’s horns, which find a market in China.
Hunting is a necessity in Yesso, as the poorer classes live chiefly on game and rice, besides their national beverage, tea. The Ainu still use bow and arrow as weapon, and their archery is unexcelled by that of any other country. Their bows are about three feet high and the arrow twenty inches long, tipped with a poisoned, hard, spoon-shaped piece of bone or iron. Their crack shots do some wonderful shooting at the distance of thirty yards, and hardly ever miss a target of six to eight inches in diameter.
Shooting in Japan
Bear-hunting is the sport during spring. The large brown bear – his track measuring often fourteen by ten inches – comes to the seashore during the night, and it is a mere chance to meet with one of these animals, as their hearing and scent are so extraordinarily keen that they warn them to slip away on the slightest approach of danger. Very few foreigners have succeeded in following this bear into the wilderness of swamps and forests.
Bird shooting is a far easier and generally a very lucrative amusement. The largest variety of the feathered tribe is to be found among the ducks and waders. The favorite resorts of these birds are the flat rice-fields near some lake in the valleys. The best time for shooting is undoubtedly the twilight hour. At certain times of the year large flocks of fowl visit the fields almost every evening until disturbed and driven away by some danger. Generally the first to come in are the teals, a few mallards in pairs; ducks and wild geese follow, and widgeon come later in flocks of five and six. In shooting ducks at this time of the evening one has to be an excellent marksman, as everything appears smaller than the reality and consequently farther off. A piece of white paper around the muzzle of the gun will assist one very much, especially if waiting by water, and the birds alight before being fired at.
A wing shot
The ancient mode of catching wild ducks – now almost obsolete – was accomplished by means of a large silken landing net mounted on long, light, bamboo poles.
There is only one species of deer in Japan, the Cervus Sika, and it abounds all over the islands. Owing to a great difference in the herbage, their size varies in different parts of the country, the weight of a full-grown deer varying from one hundred to two hundred and fifty pounds. Their antlers are finely formed, large and well grown, and remarkably regular in their points. The antlers are shed in March and the velvet entirely disappears by the end of August. The rutting season takes place during the months of September and October. Later the hinds are eagerly slaughtered by the natives for the unborn fawn, which is considered a dainty dish in Japan.
The skin of these beautiful creatures is used for making garments and long walking-sandals, the horns for the export trade, and the flesh for food; consequently they are killed by the thousand, everybody being allowed to shoot them. The deer have naturally become very timid, but nevertheless do their enemies all sorts of mischief in trampling the standing corn and eating the rice which stands ready for harvest.
The best method for deer-hunting during the rutting season is to start early in the morning, when the first light steals over the hills, and follow a woodcutter’s path through the forest until some deep cleft in the hills is found satisfactory to the guide. Upon the higher ranges the hinds may be heard calling, and presently a rapping sound, as if caused by some hard substance striking against the bole of a tree, betrays the whereabouts of a stag polishing his headgear. He may perchance be still-hunted successfully, but if the nature of the cover does not warrant an attempt, a beater, or the guide, will in all probability lure the game closer by imitating the call of the hind. This is done by means of imitating the call of the hind. This is done by means of a little instrument made for the purpose from a bit of stag horn. In general principles this sort of sport is something similar to calling moose, only the stag is more easily led to his destruction, generally approaching to within a few yards of the gun, and falling an easy victim.
In favorable country, herds of deer can be intercepted while going to or returning from some favorite feeding-ground. The sportsman, guided by a well-informed native, secretes himself beside the well-used runway, and may presently find himself within point-blank range of fifty or more fat animals.
Shooting deer from horseback, so popular in certain parts of the States, would hardly answer in Japan. The hills are often closely matted with fallen trees, tough creepers, and heavy undergrowth, and Japanese horses are, as a rule, rough, cranky, and uncertain-tempered brutes, far more liable to throw their riders, or to cut up rusty at a critical moment, than to behave themselves decently. The most convenient mode of procedure for a foreigner eager to bag a stag is to hire half a dozen Japanese or Ainu beaters who know exactly where the deer haunt, and let them drive the game to posted guns. As a rule they supply a number of half-wild, wolfish-looking dogs of keen scent, and game and true as the best hounds on a trail.
A wounded deer is a joy to these brutes, and, once upon its track, they are sure to either chase it into an open, where it can be shot, or drive it to water, where it may or may not eventually escape. When the rabble of curs break away, the sportsman follows as he best can, or, under the direction of his guide, make for a point that will enable him to cut off the deer’s retreat. Following Japanese dogs is not altogether a joke, as one may have to run for several miles before heading the game or reaching the water it is heading for.
Guided by the curs’ noise, you plunge through swamps, toil up hills, creep under moss-covered fallen stuff, force your way through snares of creepers, slide down steps on yielding, damp moss, and if fortunate, possibly get a snap shot at the game as it crosses some open. Otherwise it will eventually reach some river or lake, and small-footed and thin-limbed though it be, swim for long distances at astonishing speed.
Boar hunting finds many votaries among the natives, but the wild hog is difficult game. Haunting dense, impenetrable growths of bamboo grass, he seldom leaves his sanctuary save at night, and his successful pursuer must possess knowledge of the country.
One of the shyest and most difficult animals to hunt successfully is the pretty little Japanese chamois, called by the natives nigon. It haunts the loftiest, most inaccessible mountain peaks, and is claimed to be a more wary animal than its famous cousin of the Alps. In color it is brownish slate, which changes to lighter tints with advancing age. The horns are a few inches long, keen-pointed as daggers, and appear to be admirable weapons of defense.
In addition to the game referred to are others – golden-furred martens, foxes, and snip, plover, and a multitude of waterfowl and waders too numerous for mention. A particularly toothsome morsel is the mandarin duck, the flesh of which attains a delicious flavor from the bird’s feeding upon a certain small acorn.
Venomous reptiles cause no trouble in Japan. The varieties are few, and are not likely to bite unless actually trodden upon. A kind of tick may cause a foreigner trouble, as the bite of it irritates the victim for from seven to eight days. The ubiquitous mosquito is common enough, and in certain localities a species of hornet, very large and colored yellow and black, makes matters lively for visitors if disturbed rashly.
Sport in Japan is followed amid most charming surroundings. Every commanding point gained reveals scenes of exquisite beauty; the wealth of flower and foliage, of mountain grandeur, of land- and seascape, baffles description, and there is quite sufficient game to convince the wandering sportsman there is more to be shot than scenery.
JCS Mar 2001