Japan Travel in the Know: Let’s Eat Deer Meat to Protect the Forest in Hokkaido

Deer meat beautifully cocked as a French dish
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We can tell which animal it is only from footprints on a snow field.

January and February are said to be the coldest months in Japan. It’s in the latter half of winter, and almost all of the fields are fully covered with snow in Hokkaido, the northernmost area of Japan. Some weeks ago, one day in January, I drove out of town with our business partners coming from Singapore. I was just glad to see they enjoyed watching open snow fields. To people coming from a country just below the equator like Singapore, everything would look so new. Needless to say, the local snow fields spreading out at the foot of the mountains just look boring to us, though.

As written above, travelers coming from outside sometimes find beauty out of ordinary life for local people. On the other hand, I found there was something difficult to notice for such travelers. To put it another way, it wouldn’t be the first thing they pay attention to. In most cases, when throwing a question about it, they didn’t understand what I was talking about. Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s signs that some animals leave, mainly footprints on a snow field. Even from inside the car running along a snow field, I think I can tell familiar ones, like those of deer, foxes, and rabbits. For your information, I’m not a hunter, though.

Deer footprints on a snow field are easy to tell because they are much bigger and deeper than those of other animals in Hokkaido. Of course, bears are bigger, but they go into hibernation in winter. Foxes are easy, too. Do you know how they walk? They walk like models walking the runway of a fashion show, and so, fox footprints are aligned in a straight line. You can easily tell the difference from those of dogs. As you know, rabbits don’t walk but hop. The forefeet are aligned in a front-back direction; the rear feet side-to-side. Consequently, their footprints are unique and look like faces (the rear feet are eyes; the forefeet are a nose and mouth).

Forest damage from too many deer in Hokkaido

The reason why I wrote “mainly footprints” above in the second paragraph is because there is another sign that comes to stand out these days. It’s trees with bark stripped off. In winter with lack of food, deer eat tree bark. To be more precise, they eat the soft inside layer of tree bark, and you can see many trees exposing a white trunk without bark. Many of such trees are likely to wither. The number of deer has increased up to about 700,000, which could be one of the main reasons for deforestation in Hokkaido. I know this way of thinking is a kind of human ego, but the problem of deer population poses a big threat to our wooden furniture industry because we make furniture from local trees.

Wood logs are piled up in the snow mountain.

Hokkaido is the kingdom of venison

Every year, about 100,000 deer are hunted in Hokkaido, but that just barely prevents the increase of deer population. If there’s more demand for deer meat, things will become better. It’s still like a chicken or egg situation. As there’s no big demand for deer meat, there’s no improvement in meat-process infrastructure. Accordingly, the distribution amount of deer meat is small, and good deer meat is relatively expensive. Having said that, I believe it’s worth trying deer meat in Hokkaido because Hokkaido is by far No. 1 in deer meat production in Japan. There are many good restaurants serving deer meat dishes. I’d like you to try them when you come to Hokkaido. In addition, we should probably consider using deer leather for our furniture.


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Shungo Ijima

He is travelling around the world. His passion is to explain Japan to the world, from the unique viewpoint accumulated through his career: overseas posting, MBA holder, former official of the Ministry of Finance.


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