07 September 2005

The Wild Pigs of Ashikaga

One day last weekend, an early morning walk turned into a full morning's hike along mountain trails near our apartment. We started at Ashikaga's Orihime Jinja, a textile industry shrine established in 1937.

FIRST DETOUR: Orihime is 織姫 'weaving princess'; textiles are orimono 織物 'woven things'. Orihime is the heroine of the Tanabata story. "The legend was probably imported from China in the Heian Era (794-1185), and its associated Tanabata Festival has developed through the centuries. The story involves the stars of Vega and Altair and their apparent proximity to the Milky Way." Although July 7 marks Tanabata in much of Japan, Ashikaga and other northern cities follow Sendai in celebrating it on August 6-8.

Behind the shrine's parking lot were markers of several trailheads, and we saw some old folks setting out for hikes. So we kept going. The first sign we saw as the trail left the parking lot was a warning about イノシシ (inoshishi 猪 'wild boar') on the mountain trails. We hesitated for a moment, but then forged ahead. Near the top of the first crest, near the upper parking lot, we encountered an old lady who was so excited about having seen two wild pigs that she had to tell the first people she met, even if they were foreigners. (My Japanese is just good enough to get people talking, but not good enough to follow more than the gist once they get wound up. I need subtitles when the vocabulary gets away from me.)

"I saw two inoshishi," she said, "They were so cute. Don't worry. They're used to people and won't attack."

"What do they eat?" I asked.

"They live on fresh roots, fallen fruit, and the food left on graves."

SECOND MEANDER: Sure enough, a few days later, we saw another sign warning about inoshishi, this time at Hôrakuji (1294), a temple that served as a model for the much more famous Ginkakuji (1460) in Kyoto, both built by Ashikaga clan leaders, as was the more spectacular Kinkakuji (1397). It asked people not to put food on the graves in the large cemetery behind the temple that climbed halfway up the same hillside we had hiked.

We thanked the lady for her advice and set out on a well-traveled trail. We never saw any inoshishi, nor did the other people we queried as they were returning. But once we got to the shrine at the top and decided to take a less travelled path back, we began to see constant signs of pigs rooting beside the trail. We never saw--nor even heard--the pigs themselves, but when the path turned out to be a little less well beaten than we had hoped, we were sometimes heartened to see that at least the pigs recognized it as a human thoroughfare likely to attract the odd bit of food waste. Near the end of the mountain trail, as we slowly approached civilization by way of overgrown cart trails past overgrown vegetable gardens, we even saw a real pig wallow at a bend in the road, with the water still murky from recent use.

It's good to see that even larger Japanese animals are making a comeback, even if they do make pests of themselves from time to time.

FINAL TRAIL OFF: According to an abstract in PubMed, there are two subspecies of wild pig in Japan, Sus scrofa leucomystax and S.s. riukiuanus (the latter from the Ryukyus), both more closely related to the Far Eastern (S.s. ussuricus) than to the Middle Asian (S.s. nigripes), Transcaucasian (S.s. attila) and European pigs (S.s. ferus).

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