A long procession of men streams down the country road. Today I am going to take you along with Matsudaira-dono and a large party of his retainers to the western fringe of the city. The shogun is on one of his annual hawk-hunting expeditions, and has asked Matsudaira-dono to come along for a few days and take part.
The shogun has seven taka-jo (hawking estates) strategically located in a ring around the city. From these estates, it is possible to get quickly to any of the major farming villages and small towns in the greater Edo vicinity. The location of hawk-hunting estates is very important, and the first shogun, Ieyasu, spent a great deal of time in planning them. The one that you are going to, in Meguro, is well placed at the center of a busy farming region, and it can serve as a base of operations to visit all of the farming villages in the area. It might seem strange that the head of the bakufu (government) pays so much attention to hawking, but this is because hunting has other roles besides simply a pastime.
Hawking has been a popular sport among the nobles and high-ranking samurai for many centuries. At first, however, it simply involved an overnight outing to the countryside, where each of the participants would show off the hunting skills of the eagles and hawks that they raised and trained. However, during the sengoku jidai (the age of warring states), hawk hunting began to take on several other purposes. Hawk hunting expeditions would often last for months at a time, and the daimyo and high-level samurai would cover wide areas of their domains during their hunt.
The leaders discovered that hawk-hunting gave them a convenient excuse to show up unannounced in villages throughout their territory. This allowed them to see for themselves how daily life was in the countryside they ruled, and make sure that everything was all right in the area. If farmers were cheating on their taxes, he would often find evidence when making an unexpected visit. On the other hand, if the local administrators were treating the local people unfairly, the daimyo could ask the people about their conditions as he passed through the villages on one of his hawk-hunting expeditions. However, since the daimyo was just "out hunting", the people would not have any reason to complain, or feel upset that he was spying on them.
When Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun, he made hawking a very formal part of his yearly activities. He set up hawk-hunting manors throughout his own territory, and encouraged the other daimyo to do so as well. Several times a year he would go on expeditions, and in addition to his hunting companions and hawk-tenders, he also brought along accountants and clerks to check carefully all the local tax and production records of the towns they travel through during their hunts. The shipments of tax rice could be checked and compared with the size of the fields in the town, to see if everyone was paying the proper amount.
In addition, Ieyasu passed a law that allows any farmer or peasant to come forward and make a complaint or petition while the shogun is travelling through their village on a hawk hunt. This way, if the local people have a complaint about how the local government officials are treating them, they can go directly to the shogun with the problem, and don't have to worry that the local leaders might punish them for speaking out. All of Ieyasu's successors have continued the tradition of hawk hunting. The current shogun goes out hawking about six or seven times a year, usually for at least a week.
Although hawking expeditions involve quite a lot of "unofficial business", they are also a chance for the shogun to relax from the dull routine of life at the castle. The shogun is the most powerful man in Japan, but he has to answer to the demands of many different groups -- the Imperial court in Kyoto, each of the local daimyo, the leaders of major temples and shrines throughout the country, the local administrators in Edo, and so on. Back in Ieyasu's day, these demands were still limited, but nowadays the shogun's life seems to be one meeting after another. Hawk hunting gives him a chance to get out of the city and away from all the long, formal meetings. A chance to enjoy the open countryside, fresh air and sunshine!
Hawk hunting is not very strenuous for the shogun and the daimyo who accompany him. However, their main purpose in going on a hawking expedition, in addition to the opportunity to relax and enjoy nature, is to view the farms and villages in the area and study the landscape. Back in the days when daimyo were still fighting one another, the expedition would include many scouts and spies, who would try to find locations for a strong fort, or try to see what was going on in neighboring territories. Nowadays, the men are mainly looking for fields of crops that the farmers did not mention when paying their taxes, or examining new areas where the land might be cleared and made suitable for farming.
Each of the shogun's seven hawking estates, or taka-jo ("taka" means "hawk") is managed by a staff of several hawk supervisors (taka-mi). Their job is to raise the hawks and train them to hunt for small birds and rabbits. They also keep an eye on the local villages and make sure they follow the rules. There are many special rules for the areas surrounding the hawk-hunting estates. For example, local people living near the estates are not allowed to have dogs or cats as pets. They also have to get special permission if they need to do any building work, and usually the permission is only granted at certain times of the year when the noise will not disturp the game birds and animals that live in the area. Most of these rules are intended to ensure that there is plenty of game to hunt. Because of these strict rules, the areas of farmland immediately surrounding the hawking manors are filled with birds and game. In fact, as your company crosses the fields and meadows, flocks of game birds can be seen even right near the homes of the local villagers.
The shogun and his companions ride their horses at the front of the long procession. Their hawks are perched on their arms, the head covered by a tiny hood until it is time for the bird to hunt. When the lead riders reach a clearing that looks like a good place for hunting, they dismount and then send a signal back to the servants and assistants who are following them. The assistants then fan out through the woods and begin moving slowly toward the place where the shogun and his companions are waiting.
The birds and rabbits in the woods run away from the servants, who make a lot of noise as they walk through the woods. The line of servants contines to move toward the clearing, and eventually the game birds have to fly out into the open to get away. As soon as a game bird flies out into the clearing, one of the riders releases his hawk. The hawk flies swiftly after its prey, soaring into the sky and then wheeling to strike. The hawks are well trained, and they rarely miss a kill. The hawk soars like an arrow towards its prey, striking quickly and bringing down its victim. The assistants collect the dead birds or rabbits once the hawk has made the kill, and put them in a large sack. The game that the hawks catch today will be served to the shogun and his companions at dinner tonight.
The hunt covers a wide area of fields and woodland, stopping many times both to hunt and to speak to local farmers and gather information. After a long day of jogging over hills and fields to keep up with the men on horseback, the guards and servants are exhausted. While the shogun, and the other high-ranking officials dine in the taka-jo's main house, the servants and retainers will roast quail or ducks over the fire. After dinner, they will sit by the fire, lie back smoking their pipes, and gaze at the sparkling stars before dropping off to sleep by the fire.