Long ago, wolves once roamed the length of the mountainous, forested Japanese archipelago. While mountain-dwellers feared the wolves, as they occasionally attacked people and horses, they were also grateful for the natural predators of wild boar and deer—animals that damaged their crops. They eventually came to worship wolves as incarnations and messengers of the mountain gods.

These wolves became extinct more than 100 years ago. According to official records, the last Japanese wolf was captured on January 23, 1905 in Higashi Yoshino, Nara Prefecture. Yet, people continue to report wolf sightings and the sound of their howls. Convinced of their existence, they persistently journey into the mountains in search of the venerated creature.

It was astounding to me when I learned how many people still worship the Japanese wolf in the mountainous areas skirting Tokyo—from Okuchichibu to Okutama—and report sightings. What if, alongside the lifestyle of Tokyo (a completely man-made city, which is all about convenience, economic development and pursuing only what’s useful for people) there was a possibility of wolves, a symbol of the force of nature, still existing? Could present-day city-dwellers, who have lost track of something essential, find a reason to connect with it again? For someone who has never seen, let alone heard, a wolf, I feel curiously compelled to seek out this invisible animal as some kind of prayer for its existence in the mountains.

© Michiko Hayashi

In Japanese folklore, there is a famous belief called the “escort wolf,” whereby a wolf shadows a person walking alone in the forest at night until he reaches home safely. There is a duality in this belief, which reveals both gratitude toward the wolves for protection against evil spirits, but also a humbling trepidation—a fear of being pounced on and devoured should one stumble.

What were Japanese wolves actually like? And what kind of relationship did the ancient Japanese share with them?

This project is a two-volume collection of the fragments and traces of the Japanese wolf as filtered through my eyes and mind. In the first slender book, I have pursued the existence of this beast—the wolf—and its vestiges along the Tokyo-flanking mountain ranges in Chichibu and Okutama, where most wolf sightings are reported (though remain unverified).

In the second book—an accordion-fold format—I have experimented with reinventing the folktales and lore handed down by people living closely with the mountains and nature. My hope is that this work will allow people to imagine and contemplate, even if only a little, the fierce yet revered Japanese wolf and its place in Japan’s nature, as well as its co-inhabitants—the ancient people who fostered these methods of coexistence.

—Michiko Hayashi

Editor’s note: Hayashi and The Reminders Photography Stronghold (Yumi Goto’s gallery) recently released a book that features these images. Hodophylax was printed in both an English-language edition and a Japanese edition.