In photos: Ghost houses and wild boar hunting in back-to-the land Japan

In photos: Ghost houses and wild boar hunting in back-to-the land Japan
Young Japanese people are turning their backs on urban life to rediscover traditional skills and breathe new energy into declining rural communities.

It’s a crisp winter day and we’re riding in the back of a pick-up truck stacked with cages, from which frantic whining can be heard. The winding road takes us through the mountains of Chiba, a prefecture to the east of Tokyo, which is covered in thick temperate forest and bamboo. Finally, we reach our destination and the dogs – a Kishu and a Shikoku-ken; both extremely rare breed Japanese dogs – are in a frenzy of anticipation. We begin the hunt. The dogs and their handlers, brothers Shigeru and Aiki Kato, are searching for wild boar, whose numbers have exploded in Chiba.

Rural areas across Japan, such as Chiba, have seen their human populations wane in recent decades as a result of migration to the cities. Traditional hunting is on the decline, too, and without intervention from a new generation, these ancestral techniques are at risk of being lost forever.

Shigeru is part of a growing movement of people who are rediscovering the importance of traditional Japanese arts, heritage and culture. Searching for an antidote to urban malaise and more meaningful lives, young former city dwellers are increasingly taking a leap into the countryside. They're showing that preserving ancestral knowledge, from crafts to agricultural practices, not only creates community but gives practitioners a deeper sense of identity, too.

We arrive in a verdant valley and the dogs canter off until they find a scent. They turn around to communicate with Shigeru in a way that is as evocative as words. Everything in their eyes and body language says: “Did you smell that too? Shall I go check it out?” With just a subtle nod from Shigeru, they begin traversing the side of a steep mountain with agility and intent.

“Hunting knowledge is connected to sustainable methods of wildlife management, which is grassroots and comes from the community itself,” Shigeru explains. “One takes what is necessary from nature and gives back. Humans are caretakers of the mountains that we live in.”

There is always a smile in Shigeru’s light eyes. When he’s out on a hunt, he exudes the tranquillity of a person who knows his calling in life, moves with purpose and enjoys every moment in the mountains with his dogs. Shigeru describes the relationship with his canine companions as a ‘partnership.’ The profound interplay reflects a dynamic that is based on deep mutual trust. “You don’t give them commands; they are hunting on instinct,” Shigeru explains. “It is like hunting with wild animals, essentially, but they check-in with you. They are aware that you have the power to do something with that fire stick that they can’t do.”

This primordial form of multi-species communication follows a tradition that has been in place in Japan since the Jomon period (10,000 BC to 300 BC). Hunting with Japanese breed dogs is one of the archipelago’s oldest traditions.

Shigeru is an ex Tokyo-ite who was living two lives: in an upscale urban area, enjoying Tokyo’s nightlife and hunting at the weekends, until he made the move for good a decade ago. He now resides in a kominka (traditional house) that has enough space, i.e. a stable of sorts, for his six dogs – more when he hosts rescues or his dogs have puppies. His brother, Aiki, a carpenter, also moved to the region with his wife shortly afterwards.

Shigeru and Aiki are part of an exodus from the cities which gained further traction thanks to the Covid pandemic – with 414,734 people moving out of Tokyo in 2021, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communication. While there has always been an inflow of youth to the cities, who typically want to live in newly built houses, more are moving to rural areas, especially those of child-rearing age, to find affordable rent.

The cheapest of all housing options are abandoned houses called akiya, usually in the most remote areas, at risk of becoming ghost towns – victims of Japan’s shrinking population. The Nomura Research Institute puts the number of these oftentimes dilapidated, unsellable houses at more than 11 million across Japan and are often sold for paltry sums.

Shigeru now owns four properties which he has renovated. One, he bought for just two million Yen (roughly $14k), albeit in a state bordering on apocalyptic and, even then, it took him 15 years to find. “There are a lot of akiya but few opportunities to actually get one,” Shigeru explains. “The main issue is that multiple family members own them and all need to put the stamp of approval to sell their ancestral homes. You negotiate for ages, and then say, auntie so-and-so doesn’t want to sell.”

There are still gems to be found. Aiki just obtained a vast property with four buildings, which he predicts will be a ten year renovation project. Yet, for Aiki, the satisfaction that brings is incomparable. “It is a totally different feeling: when you work for a client, it’s their imagination and desires which you try to fulfil,” he explains. “Being able to work on something that is yours, you can make it how you want. I am a perfectionist! For the beach house, we reused recycled material for the most part.”

“One takes what is necessary from nature and gives back. Humans are caretakers of the mountains that we live in.”

Shigeru Kato

Shigeru is involved in various preservation societies maintaining ancient dog breeds on the brink of extinction. Hunting wild boar allows the dogs to maintain their dogs instincts and keep the feral animals under control – which is compensated by the city and the national government. Hunting provides extra pocket money and delicious meat, fulfilling Shigeru’s interests in food sustainability and eating off-the-grid.

“As boar and deer numbers increased unchecked due to lack of predators, we have seen severe damage to delicate island ecological systems, such as complete depletion of the forest understory and disappearance of endangered plants,” Shigeru explains. “In 2019, wild boar in Chiba prefecture did around $1.3 million USD in crop damage. They typically move in family groups, and when they feed, it is like a rototiller has gone through the field.”

With Japan’s ageing and shrinking society, the pain of damaged crops has led many elderly farmers to quit, Shigeru explains. “In a country that has a food sufficiency rate of around 38%, this does not help the nation’s push toward sustainability and less reliance on imported food.”

Wild boars also cause damage to infrastructure, traffic accidents and attacks on people, as Shigeru knows only too well: he’s currently sporting a gruesome black-ish purple eye caused by a boar attack.

Shigeru estimates there are only 200 hunters in Tateyama, a city with a population of 40,000. Across Japan, the number of hunters is equal to around 1% of the US total. “In Hokkaido, we are also seeing a major resurgence in bears getting into conflicts with humans, because people have lost the traditional knowledge of how to hunt them safely,” Shigeru says. “If you have a firearm [in Japan], it is basically because you are a hunter.”

In Japan, it’s difficult to obtain a gun licence and the hunting community can be closed: based on relationships rather than commerce. “If they like what you are trying to do and gain their respect, they will give you a dog, take you under their wing and allow you to hunt in their territory,” Shigeru says. But the reverse is that if they don’t like you, they simply won’t sell you a dog for any amount of money.

Shigeru is the foremost bilingual authority on the topic of Japanese hunting breeds. He works to overcome poor translations and dispel myths around the topic, internationally. He also connects people with dogs, much like a matchmaker. Tony Schult lives in Kyushu and just completed her second season with a Shikoku she received from one of Shigeru’s mentors.

“I’ve always been interested in hunting, that said, it would never have crossed my mind to get the process started if it hadn’t been for Shigeru planting that idea in my head,” Tony says. “We’re both still very green but I feel that the work I’m putting in outside of the hunting season is paying off because he seems to understand that the human has a role in this too. A dog functions as a mediator, a bridge between nature and man, without one, the experience would be lacking in depth.”

Shigeru recognises his lifestyle “will never be mainstream” but despite the dwindling numbers of hunters, he’s adamant the culture will remain. “There is a certain part of the population who find traditional hunting with Japanese dogs a beautiful, romantic thing and will always be drawn to it.”

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