“I have something for you.”
One of the wasp hunters in the village motioned for me to sit on a small canopy at the edge of the field. He unpacked a piece of shredded brown wasp nest, his beautiful mosaic interior teeming with larvae. I was offered a rare local delicacy; a single kilogram of this nest is only available once a year in November and sells for 9,000 yen (£ 64). I brought a still wriggling larva to my lips and ate it quickly alive.
It was light, creamy and perfectly palatable. The hunter and I continued chatting, between larvae bursting in our mouths like candy.
We were in the countryside in Gifu prefecture during the biggest wasp festival in Japan: the Kushihara Hebo Matsuri. Hebo is the local word for two species of black wasp, known to be relatively non-aggressive and therefore easy to catch. Each year, on the first Sunday in November, locals bring nests of wasps collected from surrounding forests to be weighed during a competition. Those with the heaviest nests receive a trophy, as well as great pride. Most participants receive a bite or two, and some buy a nest to bring home and cook.
Most participants receive a bite or two, and some buy a nest to bring home and cook
The festival, however, is only the end of a story that begins a few months earlier. At the beginning of summer, a hunting party will start in the hills. At the bottom of the forest, they attach a piece of white paper to a slice of fresh fish and wait. Soon, a wasp rushes over, taking the bait with the white visual marker as it flies to its nest. Hunters chase each other, rush into the bushes, cross streams and valleys. Once they finally located the nest’s entrance in the ground, they set out to dig it and transfer it to a wooden nesting box where they “raised” it in the fall. Hunters feed hebo on a diet of sugar, water and raw meat in order to grow a nest teeming with adults and larvae in time for the November festival.
The consumption of wasps was practiced throughout Japan. However, nowadays this practice has largely disappeared and is mainly limited to the generation of declining elders in the Ena district of Gifu, where the village of Kushihara is located, and in Nakatsugawa in the northeast.
According to Kenichi Nonaka, a professor of interdisciplinary cultural studies at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, who has studied the region for over 30 years, the origins of this unique culinary tradition are somewhat mysterious. While some theories suggest that wasps were once a valuable source of protein for this inner community, Nonaka disagrees: “100 g of hebo is relatively high in protein, but in reality, no one eats this amount at that time.”
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After studying other places in Japan where eating black wasps was once common, Nonaka found that insects were usually only harvested when people came across them and were eaten simply as a source of additional food. Essentially, the black wasp harvest was the insect version of blackberry picking. But Nonaka says that what makes Kushihara and the surrounding areas unique is that while individuals in other Japanese regions harvested nests alone, locals here actively sought wasps for social activity and then bred them to outside their homes. As a result, the hebo was often served during local celebrations, which firmly anchored the practice of wasp hunting in local culture and identity.
Given the community importance of Hebo in Kushihara, it is perhaps not surprising that a large public festival developed in 1993, as the older generation of wasp hunters dwindled in order to save the tradition. And while other regions organize smaller wasp competitions, Kushihara was the only one to receive significant media coverage, which helped to consolidate its reputation.
Yet the Ena district suffers from many problems that affect Japan nationally. A declining population and the migration from the countryside to the cities have left the countryside with empty streets and abandoned houses. Kushihara no longer exists as an independent municipality, having been merged into the city of Ena as the local population decreased (the population of Ena fell by around 12% between 2000 and 2015 to reach only 51,073). And in 2010, older festival organizers started talking about closing the event, until a few young villagers stood up to carry the torch.
“As long as a person who loves hebo is still alive, we will have enough motivation to maintain the tradition,” said Daisuke Miyake, 42, a local ranger. “Hebo is a way to connect people.”
Six years ago, Miyake and a few other young city dwellers took over the management of the festival. Although very few of them collect and raise wasps themselves, they do share an understanding of the importance of hebo for the older generation.
At 7:30 a.m. on festival day, Miyake was already a blur of action, climbing a tree to help hang a banner. Left to myself, I approached the only non-organizers around. Four elderly men had brought camping stools and were patiently waiting in the middle of the green. Even though the festival didn’t start for an hour or so, the men were eager to be the first to make the first selection of nests for sale.
You eat wasps, right?
Once they got their placement locations, we walked together to the festival stands, which offered a variety of dishes related to wasps. I was looking at Hebo chocolate on sticks when one of my new companions produced a pot of fried hornets. Like some other Kushihara elders, men hunt Vespa mandarinia japonica (Japanese giant hornets), which are known for their level of aggression and their powerful bite. These are not insects that you raise at home.
“You eat wasps, right?” he said, the challenge looming in the air.
“Go on! Choose a big one!” Said another.
The group burst into loud laughter. I pierced a medium-sized specimen on a toothpick and nibbled it carefully. It was slightly crunchy and, admittedly, rather more – precisely the type of snack that would go well with a beer. Indeed, one of the men was already sitting on his camping stool with a canned drink and a broad smile.
We were soon to go into a freshly grilled festival favorite, hebo gohei mochi: grilled sticky rice on a stick coated with a thick and sweet sauce made from miso, peanuts and – of course – wasps. It is a dish that requires you to pound the rice and crush the hebo larvae. The preparation takes hours, but it has been served on festive occasions for centuries in the region. A long line wound toward the counter, where a team skillfully coated the mochi with the sauce and roasted them over the flames in a finely tuned production line.
A team of young women dressed in matching t-shirts and reading “Hebo Girls” were selling hebo gohan, a dish of rice mixed with wasps. The group intensified this year after several elderly women from the village withdrew from preparing festival food. The women had been up since 04:00 to prepare hundreds of servings of rice, and they had prepared the hebo gohei mochi the day before as well. “I have been eating hebo since I was a kid – it was just an ordinary food. But since I started making gohei mochi myself, I want to share this culture with everyone,” said Shoko Miyake , Daisuke’s wife.
In recent years, a growing interest in entomophagy, in Japan and abroad, has attracted a wider range of visitors to the festival.
In recent years, a growing interest in entomophagy, in Japan and abroad, has attracted a wider range of visitors to the festival. This represents not only an opportunity for the economic revitalization of the region, but also an opportunity for the inhabitants to reconnect with their cultural heritage.
However, apart from the festival, the question remains whether the younger generations will adopt the tradition of the Hebrew harvest like their parents or grandparents. While many are happy to help the festival, some volunteers are not too keen on snacking on wasps, much less raising them.
The most urgent question is who will transmit the hunting techniques. Many young local people have not yet learned and show little enthusiasm. And as more and more people leave the region in search of work and travel greater distances to return, the inhabitants of Kushihara are left with little time to hunt for wasps as a hobby.
Aware of this problem, the head of the festival’s executive committee, Fumitaka Ando, is organizing a hunting mission next July for a small group of villagers, including the Hebo Girls. He himself did not start hunting until three years ago. But he says the recent popularity of the festival has been encouraging. “The young volunteers have increased and this year we have the girls. Kushihara became one team. “
After the festival ended, I found myself at Daisuke and Shoko’s, sitting around the dinner table with their three daughters. Shoko was in the stove, simmering hebo in a sweet soy sauce to make a garnish for freshly cooked rice. It is something she remembers doing with her own parents when she was a child.
We continued to chat casually while we worked through the nest, the faces of the children crisscrossed in concentration. At the end of the day, the Hebo culture concerns family, friends and local identity as much as the consumption of insects.
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