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On a recent hike in the Tanzawa area we drove past Tanzawa lake in Kanagawa prefecture..  We had never been to this lake and it looked like a nice place for a one day kayak trip so I made a mental note and looked it up on the net a few days later.

It didn’t look all that exciting in truth as far as kayaking is concerned but it had been a while since we broke out the kayak and since it was not too far away we decided to head out there.

What was supposed to be a calm and relaxing paddle around a scenic lake turned into the worst outdoor adventure I’ve ever had; a deer, a deer hunter with a high powered rifle and me and my wife in the line of fire.  It was all a bit surreal.

There were tell-tale signs that something was going on around the lake that day now that I’ve had time to think about it all.  Retrospection is a teacher too late.

A house near where we parked had 3 or 4 dogs caged up in their backyard which was set back at the bottom of a wooded hill.  The dogs were barking incessantly.  Like rabid-zombie-dog incessantly.  Over their barking, I could hear loud voices up in the mountains that sounded like kids just messing around seeing how far they could carry their voices or something.

I didn’t think anything of it.  Dogs bark.  I’ve lived in places where the neighbours’ dogs just bark and bark for what seems like the entire day even with their owners at home.  But this was pretty intense – like rabid-zombie-dog intense.  I felt sorry for the other people living nearby.  Did they always put up with this?

Once we got on the lake we could no longer hear the shouting up in the mountains and the barking dogs, all was calm and quiet.  After a couple of hours of paddling we stopped for lunch on a rocky embankment and made some coffee and noodles and just took in the views for a while.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Lunch on a rocky embankment.

Shot on a GoPro at the wide setting, you can see the fisheye distortion.  For reference, I’m about 1m from my dog (centre frame) although it looks more like 3m.  This will give you more a sense of scale in later screenshots from a video.

We still have a few hours of daylight left and a big lake to explore so we pack everything back up and set out on a proper expedition of the lake.

Just as we head around the corner I can vaguely hear some shouting on the other side of the lake.  It’s 300m over to the other side of the lake from where we were but I can just make out a man on the road above the lake and what looks to be a dog down at the lakeside.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
About 300-350 meters on the opposite side of the lake, a dog is lakeside and its owner up on the road above calling out.

Putting two and two together, my thinking was that on a walk, a dog had fallen from the road, down the steep embankment and was now running along the lakeside confused and trying to figure out how to get back up, all the time, his owner calling for him to come back.  The dog seemed to be agitated, running back and forth but we were still a ways away so I wasn’t really sure.  Being a dog lover, (aside from the incessant barking rabid-zombie kind), I decided we should paddle over to see if we could help in any way.

Only a few meters into this mission, I spot something moving in the middle of the lake and at first I thought it was the dog from the lakeside but it would have been impossible for it to had made it 150m in only a minute or so.  We paddle on just a few more meters and I then realise it’s a deer.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
First sighting of the deer in the middle of a lake.

Here’s where everything went south.

There is some shouting now from a man up on the road to our left, the opposite side of the lake, and he shouts out to us to guide the deer to the shore on the opposite side.  It seems the folks on the other side of the lake are aware of what’s going on and are all concerned for the poor deer and have gathered there ready to help.  It’s basically down to us as we are the only kayak anywhere close to the deer to guide it to shore before either it gets too tired or too cold and drowns.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Man in roadside urging us to guide the deer to shore.

So there we are, paddling into position to guide the deer back towards to opposite shore.  My entire focus is on the deer and we can no longer see the man on the other shore as he is in a cove and we’ve shot past it by several tens of meters.

My concerns here is we guide it as quickly as possible out of the water but not get too close that it decides it wants to get into the kayak.  My dog is in the kayak and I’ve put her under the skirting so she can’t see what’s going on.  If she got sight of it, or the deer decided to try to get in the kayak, it would be a bit of a circus.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Closer to the deer, I can still see the dog on the lakeside.

We managed to get the deer to the other side of the lake quite quickly and it was now at a very steep man-made concrete embankment that it tried to scale but quickly feel back into the water.  It was obvious it was tired, confused and scared.  It was also quite young.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
The deer on the opposite side of the lake seeking a way out.  The hunter is around the corner to the left out of sight.
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
The deer’s first attempt to exit the lake – in hindsight, it would have been great if he managed to get out here.

The young deer now only really had one direction it could go, into a cove which provided a very gentle slope that it would easily climb out of.  I was feeling pretty good, but then I saw the gun.

If you don’t like sad endings, stop reading now.

As we slowed down a little and entered the cove I was able to stop paddling, drift and take my attention off of the struggling deer and take a look around at what had bought us over here in the first place, the man and his dog.  At this point I don’t remember seeing the dog, only the man and his rifle.  A DMR type high powered single shot rifle that uses much larger rounds than say a pea-shooting .22.  More like 5.56 Nato rounds, the sort of ammunition powerful enough to stop large mammals.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
As we turned the corner into the cove, it became apparent the man had made it down to the lakeside but he had a rifle
© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
3 dimensional measurement interpretation of the incident

I saw the gun and then the math started to happen.  My eyes are darting back and forth between the deer and the hunter.  Is he there to help?  Why does he have a rifle?  He’s surely not going to shoot it?  Is it a dart gun?  We’re not paddling but still drifting forward at speed all this time as you can see by the ripples from the kayak in the above screenshot, and when I see the deer exit the water I immediately look to our right and see the hunter kneel down on one knee and take aim.  What the fuck is he thinking?  We’re almost in the line of fire, 8m offset which must calculate to an degree lower than you can count on one hand.  Is he seriously going to shoot with us drifting into the line of fire?  If he’s looking through a scope, (probably 4x or 8x), then his field of view is only a few degrees, he can’t see us.  At that distance assuming he’s using typically the lowest magnification one would use for this sort of thing, a 4x, his field of view would have been around 5m.  We’re 8m out and drifting.

The deer is about 8m in front of us to our 11 ‘o clock, the hunter is on the embankment, about 25m to our 2 o’ clock, the distance between the hunter and the deer is about 30m.

© Steven West | Photographer in Japan
Measurements at the time if the incident.

A shot rings out, I see the deer roll back down towards the water and my heart sinks.

WTF did you do that for?  I yell out, in Japanese of course.  He doesn’t answer my question, only apologises.  I ask him again and he tells me he’s with the local government, still not answering my question.  Eventually he tells me they’re out hunting today, culling the local deer population.

Great.  So now I have my answer to that, but I got shit load of other questions starting to form in my head and something I feel the local police might be able to help with so after apologising in vain profusely to the now dead Bambi we slowly paddle back in disbelief towards the boathouse.

Ironically, it turns out of course, that I drove that animal into a death trap and I don’t know which I’m was more upset about – my utter cluelessness or whether the hunter broke protocol and shot a live round meters away from two civilians while we were between him and the animal and only off-set by a few meters from the line of fire.

Slowly all the events of the day started to come into focus and form a narrative; the shouting up in the distant mountains, the incessant barking dogs, why a dog was down by the lakeside, the man on the other side of the lake…

In my defence, it’s not the sort of thing you expect to encounter in Japan on a Saturday afternoon in a heavily tourist and fisherman populated lake.  In fact, the concept of civilians hunting in Japan had not even crossed my mind.  I had never looked into the idea of whether we’re allowed to carry weapons and hunt, I just assumed, it being Japan and all, that that was definitely not legal.  I had no reason to believe a man on the other side of the lake was carrying a rifle and intended to kill the animal.  Even when I saw it, I assumed he was some kind of park/lake ranger there to help, not to hunt and even if he was there to hunt, we were far too close for him to fire off a round, surely.

That the animal was killed is what it is.  It happens all day every day all over the world.  One can’t dwell on that forever, you don’t have enough RAM in your head to be sad about every little thing that happens in the world.  But to be feeling like you’re doing the right thing, trying your damnedest to save an animal from drowning only for it to transpire that you were unwittingly drawn into a hunting party of the very animal’s life you were trying to save, is quite depressing.

To see it scared and confused, swimming for its life, getting tired, trying to scramble out of the water only to fall back in from exhaustion, and then when you think you’ve finally done a great thing and saved a life from all that trauma and certain death, it gets picked off the face off the earth like someone flicking dandruff off their shoulders.

What if I had a child in the kayak and she was all excited that we were going to save Bambi and BAM it gets shot non-fatally and is squealing in pain and agony while the child is there witnessing it all?  That could traumatise a kid for life.  What if the hunter slipped on the embankment and his shot was a few degrees off to his left – might have shot me or my wife in the head.  Accidents happen everyday, all day long.

Surely there was protocol with hunting and civilians in close proximity.  It was this point that I really wanted some answers on.

On returning to the boathouse, I mentioned the incident to the boathouse master who assured me he wasn’t informed that there was any hunting scheduled for that day and he told us to take it up with the lake authority whom we called.

They led us to the police and of course there was nobody at the koban (police hut) so we had to call someone and wait for about 15 minutes for them to arrive.

Long story short, he didn’t exactly know the rules.  It’s illegal for hunters to reveal their weapons in a place where civilians might see them, but as this was a local authority culling deer, not private permit-holding hunters, he said he would have to investigate it further.  It was getting late and being a Saturday everywhere he called wasn’t picking up so we left him to do his thing and went home.  After a wait of a couple of days he got back to us and told us that while it was not illegal for that authority to shoot where they did with us in such close proximity, it was definitely not OK and they would make sure to alert all nearby prefectures and police stations in the future ahead of hunting schedules.  Case closed.

I have my doubts what they did was legal and it still seems such an unlikely thing to happen in Japan, especially with their over protective safety measures.  I was sure that they were not supposed to fire anywhere where civilians might tavel, such as a hiking trail, a roadside, a beach, shoreline or lake, no matter how qualifies they were or what their intention was.  There were in fact dozens of fisherman scattered along the lakeside on its shoreline, exactly the sort of place where the hunter fired into.  I know he was a professional and from the shot I saw, an excellent marksman, but surely civilians in close proximity overrides all of this?

I mean we’ve all seen video of soldiers training with rifles, laid out on the ground shooting targets while officers watch over them.  I guarantee even in those highly controlled environments with highly trained people, that nobody, under any circumstances, officer or not, is allowed to be in front of the weapons while they’re being fired.  Adjacent or behind, yes, but not in front.  Just like at a shooting range.  And here we are in a highly populated tourist area in high season on a Saturday afternoon with some dude with a hunting permit shooting for the local government at an animal while civilians are about to pass into the line of fire.  Try convincing me that’s normal procedure.

What I imagine happened was a deer got past a group of hunters, made it out of the forest and down to the road, then the embankment, then the lake.  Apparently deer do try to escape into waters when running from humans or other threats (something I looked up online after the incident).  The hunters followed while another individual or group set up on the opposite side of the lake so there would be no escape should it manage to cross.  I’m pretty sure they were not supposed to fire their weapons down by the lake on a Saturday afternoon with families kayaking and fisherman on the shoreline.

I guess I’ll never know – I’m sure they have protocols but truth be told, I was more annoyed at myself than what happened so I feel it would be an exercise in blaming someone else for my own mistake should I pursue it anymore.  Had I a kid in the kayak at the time however, I would definitely not have let this go.  Since it was all recorded at 1080p/60fps in close proximity I have all the evidence I need for a case and a boatload of compensation money, but it is what it is.

All said and done, do I think I or my wife were in any danger?  No.  Especially after I saw the shot the dude took.  Do I think that makes it OK to shoot high-powered rifles in populated tourist areas on a Saturday afternoon in high season?  That would be a No also.

Still, they’ve told us they’ve changed the rules and will give the appropriate heads up to tourists and tourism offices in areas where there is hunting scheduled so maybe that deer’s life might prevent an accident waiting to happen because with hunting like that, in areas like that, its surely only a matter of time.

Sorry, deer dude.


If you want to learn more about Japans hidden gems and places you can enjoy from beaches to mountains, cities to backstreets, join my journey on my Facebook fan page because it’s chock full of rarely known incredible places to explore!