“How to survive a brown bear attack.”
The video’s subtitles offered this one small hope—but only after having convinced me that as a human, I really didn’t stand a chance.
At least the mandatory instructional video at Shiretoko National Park had subtitles. Without them, I would have only guessed at the ominous Japanese voiceover, listened to the heart-thumping drum music and watched the terrifying scenes of mammoth bears baring their teeth, devouring lifeless deer, chewing up giant salmon and tearing down campers’ tents like Godzilla.
Yes, my first Japanese horror movie was required watching in order to enter one of Japan’s wilder national parks. Viewed in league with about 50 Japanese tourists, I learned that when I did get attacked by a Japanese bear, I should take a defensive position: lying down on my stomach, hands behind my neck and legs spread apart.
. . . but then the clincher: “There is no 100% effective way to stop a bear attack.”
I was very disappointed by this information. After so much violent video instruction about Japan’s largest wildlife, it ended with the hopeless notion that there was no way out—resistance was futile.
The video soon picked up with a happy melody, ending the terror for one final piece of advice: “Avoid bear encounters.”
Avoid bear encounters? Huh? But that is precisely why I traveled to Shiretoko—why I had hopped trains and buses all the way across Hokkaido to one of the remotest corners of Japan—I wanted to encounter bears.
About 3,000 brown bears remain in Hokkaido, the southern tail of an arched spread of brown bear populations that extend from Japan all the way to Kodiak Island, in Alaska. Despite my previous attempts in many countries, I had never seen a brown bear in the wild before. Neither have most of the Japanese people I have met. Theirs is an urban society and the notion that their country is home to so many bears comes as a bit of a surprise.
This despite an abundance of bear iconography instilled throughout Japan. The ramen restaurant I visited in Sapporo was called Higuma (brown bear). Cartoon illustrations of smiling happy bears adorn billboards and shopping malls; keychain bear charms dangle from cell phones and bracelets and backpacks—and at the Ainu Musuem in Shiraoi, I learned that brown bears were the sacred totem for Hokkaido’s native people.
I wanted very badly to encounter Japan’s wild bears, but nobody else in my group seemed to share my enthusiasm (In Japan, you are always part of a group). Before we had even hit the trail, the tourists were following the video instruction to a T, clapping their hands in the air and squealing “Hai, Hai!”—scaring away all chances of my seeing a bear.
As we entered the tall forest of pine and birch trees I also heard Santa Claus and his reindeer. Brass bells tinkled in the air—the kind of bells that hang from shop doors and let the shopkeeper know somebody has entered. The bells jingled louder and louder and I soon realized why.
Everybody was wearing bells around their necks—bells to scare away the big scary bears out there. They sold the bear bells in the gift shop and it seemed that everyone in my group had purchased one before heading out into the wild. As souvenirs go, these were a kind of pre-emptive strike. I reasoned that you could buy the little bell and have a 100% chance of not seeing a bear, or else not buy the bell and have a tiny chance of actually seeing a bear, which was the point. But everybody in my group was going with the sure thing—my bear tour was nothing more than a walking, talking bell choir.
Having deleted bears from the morning’s plans, our guide was forced to focus on nature’s tamer delights. After ten minutes of walking and bell-ringing, he stopped with great alarm, held out his hand (“Stop!”) then crouched down to pick up a teeny-tiny rotted acorn.
“This is an acorn,” he announced—and the crowd went wild.
“Ooooooh!” They cooed. “Aaaaaah!” They gasped. “An acorn!” They echoed. Then, one by one, they approached the acorn for a closer look.
I looked long and hard at this very rare Japanese acorn but it looked exactly like the other few million acorns I’ve seen in my lifetime. I was unable to coo at it.
Instead I was remembering the beautiful Sitka deer I had seen this morning—three white-spotted does grazing on the misty roadside. Our car had flashed by them and I had begged the driver to stop for some photos, but no—we had to be at the park office on time so that we could watch the instructional video on how to avoid bear encounters.
I was obediently avoiding bear encounters as well as deer encounters and encounters in general. I had only encountered an acorn this morning and as it turned out, several different kinds of edible mushrooms. As we progressed deeper into the forest, our guide pointed out one edible mushroom after another, with great reaction from the bell choir. Bears be damned—this morning it was all about the mushrooms. I succumbed to this reality and took my turn in line to snap a photo of each new mushroom.
Our naturalist guide divided all of nature into two categories: things you could eat and things you couldn’t eat. Most items fell into the former category, including bears. I had noticed the tuna-fish-can-sized cans of bear meat for sale in the gift shop, complete with cutesy dancing teddy bears on the can. Disturbed, I inquired about this, and was informed that this bear meat was only from the mean bears—the ones that got too close to people.
Suddenly—for the bears’ sake—I wanted to avoid all bear encounters. I wanted to ring all the bells I could ring and let the bears know to stay high up in the mountains, far away from us and the “safety” of the national park.
Shiretoko National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site—a remote peninsula of active volcanoes that sticks out of Hokkaido’s northeast corner. In the native Ainu language, Shiretoko means “Land’s End” and like so many lands’ ends around the world, it remains rather untouched and beautiful.
A crest of volcanoes jutting up from the sea, the Shiretoko peninsula is Japan untamed—where nature has remained natural due solely to difficult geography and the very long, snowy winters. There are few roads or hiking trails—only steep mountains and bears. In this severe natural state, Shiretoko is the opposite of Tokyo.
Of the more accessible highlights in the park are five blissful lakes—all sparkling clear and shallow, adorned with floating white lotus flowers. The five lakes are simply called “The 5 lakes” or “Noko” and are named by number: Lake One, Lake Two and so on. Following the bell choir around the perimeter, I learned to count in Japanese, albeit backwards, for despite the very wide and very manicured pedestrian-only path, the deliberate red arrows all pointed in one direction, underneath very visible one-way signs. The designated tour began at Lake 5, and followed backwards through the forest to Lake 4, Lake 3, 2 and 1. Go-shi-san-ni-ichi.
Looking up from each of the beautiful numbered lakes, I could see bursts of morning mist rising up between each of the chiseled green mountains. One of the taller peaks—Mount Iou—was so pronounced and grand that I couldn’t stop looking at it. My upward stare lingered, even while my feet were walking in the other direction. This mountain felt oddly enchanting, and throughout my morning hike, I found myself checking its emerald heights.
Mount Iou means Mount Sulfur in Japanese, because when it erupts, it shoots pure molten sulfur into the air. The last time it did this was in 1937, and hiking at the base of the volcano, I could see the broken chunks of rock that had exploded from its mouth—some of them now covered in fluorescent moss and twisted tree roots. Prior to this eruption, the Japanese used to mine the sulfur for making gunpowder. Actually, they used prison labor (from the nearby Abashiri prison) to mine sulfur to make gunpowder to fight wars, sometimes with the Russians.
Historically speaking, the Russians and Japanese have not always been the friendliest neighbors. Traveling to Shiretoko, I found I had arrived at the edge of their shared backyard fence, where one great empire meets another and the atlas uses dotted lines and the italic text, Disputed.
Unlike Sara Palin’s Alaska, you can actually see Russia from Shiretoko. That’s because it’s only 10 miles away. The southernmost island of Kuril islands, Kunashiri-to, or Kunashir, lies just off the eastern shores of the Shiretoko peninsula. Although, the Japanese I spoke with do not count this as Russia. For them, faraway Sakhalin Island (40 miles to the north of Hokkaido) is Russia, whereas the Kuril Islands are the “occupied lands”.
I learned more about the Russians from my guide, who became a little more verbal after lunch when I bought her a frosty pint of bright blue beer. Okhotsk Blue Draft is the local specialty in Shiretoko, artificially-colored and brilliantly blue—the same cartoon blue color as the Sea of Okhotsk, which surrounds one side of the national park.
Such a beautiful sea also separates two enemies in a long and complicated conflict. Today the borderlines are fixed but the tension keeps shifting back and forth. In a single day, I heard several stories of rude Russian fishermen who come to Hokkaido, sell their fish for small fortunes, shop like maniacs, get terribly drunk, and then misbehave in the baths. My guide added an anecdote about a Russian man who sold all of his fish, bought a used car with the money and then got so rip-roaringly drunk that he accidentally drove into the bright blue Sea of Okhotsk, never to be heard from again.
“They do not follow our rules,” she finished, explaining that now, many fishing villages in Hokkaido have cordoned-off areas to which they sequester all Russian visitors.
I empathized with the Japanese—Russians abroad can be heavy-hitting and bearish; But I empathize with the Russians, too—I, am still learning the rules to Japan and they are not always self-evident. I had tried following the rules all morning—avoiding bear encounters and following one-way walking signs—and
I felt like I had come up quite short.
I tallied up my day so far:
Edible mushrooms: 17
Tourists with bells around their necks: 50.
Despite the toothpaste grin on my face, my guide could sense my severe disappointment. Intuition is a Japan’s unofficial language and I am a weakling against it.
“I want to see bears,” I explained and she nodded with understanding. Like a mother to a grumpy three-year old, my licensed guide consoled me with candy and promises. The red tomato caramels tasted strange—like ketchup-flavored Starbursts—but I felt hope at her depiction of the afternoon: we would take a small boat (“Only seven passengers maximum, including us!”) and be guaranteed to see bears.
“Only seven people!” she repeated joyously, as we walked down to the dock.
Either I totally misunderstood her or else my guide was totally wrong, for there were not seven tourists on this ship, but seventy. At this point in the day, I was getting very good at counting things and on that ship I counted seventy people. I had a quick flashback to this past January in Australia, when I watched day-tripping Japanese tourists visit the Great Barrier Reef on gigantic, glass-bottomed boats, 400 people at a time.
This time though, instead of bear bells, everybody wore glaring yellow life jackets. Mine was a special huge size pulled from a special box in the captain’s cabin. The jacket felt like a Victorian corset and forced me to take tiny quick breaths.
I hyperventilated through the first fifteen minutes of the boat tour, as we careened along the Shiretoko coast at car-chase speed. I found myself shooting pictures with abandon, racing to capture some beautiful cliff before it disappeared from sight. I was not the only one—all seventy of us were testing the factory warranty on our camera shutters, clicking away—clickety-clack—racing against the rules of the tour. Suddenly I understood the general plight of the stereotypical Japanese tourist—always in a group, always directed with one-way signs and tour guides and restricted views and such moments in which to grasp at a destination. Under the circumstances, it was far easier to focus in on the unmoving tiny dead acorn in the woods.
I joined in the excited panic on board the ship. Shiretoko was happening in fast-forward—this was my life’s moment to have it and no matter how many pictures I took, it was all too fleeting and unattainable.
The chase was exhausting and pretty soon, all seventy us of collapsed into a subdued silence—obedient passengers with glazed eyes, listening to the megaphoned Japanese tour monologue that I’m fairly certain the Russians over on Kunashir could hear, too.
And then there she was.
The megaphone fell silent, dumbfounded, followed by the collective inhale of seventy humans. Oh!
On the shore of broken bits of volcano, heaving along so lazily and unbothered was a bear—a real live Japanese brown bear. Higuma.
Her long fur was wet and spiky, her head massive and rolling from side to side beneath her tall, lumbering shoulders. Twenty paces behind her waddled a living teddy bear cub that was so cute and adorable that I joined the alto section of the cooing chorus.
We cooed and ooohed and ahhhed and giggled and laughed and pointed. After so many days of seeing teddy bear stickers and signs and cartoons and logos and cell phone charms and car decals, Hokkaido’s icon had finally come to life for me.
The tourist race had ended, the boat engine idled and we drifted with the swell of the Sea of Okhotsk. The photo-snapping continued, but with longer pauses in between each shot, as if the collective’s heartbeat had slowed down in simple awe of the megafauna before us.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
The afternoon continued likewise. Each new rocky beach in Shiretoko brought another bear encounter, usually a momma bear with her cubs. We approached each shore with a mission, cooing with adoration and then cooing in retreat. At the mouth of one stream, four bears fished with their plate-sized paws and I could see the glint of falling sun on their claws—really.
I was ecstatic for my bear encounter. Perhaps I had imagined it should happen differently, but in the end, I still got to see my wild Japanese bear—or bears. Suddenly, they seemed to be everywhere and we sat by the shore for an hour, simply watching and enjoying the sight.
And then we returned the way we came, racing along the green cliffs of Shiretoko, and trying to outrun the storm front before us. The camera snapping started up again—snap, click-snap—and then something happened. High up on the cliff, a ray of light appeared in the forest, then grew, like some fantasy beanstalk of glowing white light, growing and growing, then separating into candy colors.
The rainbow grew and grew, taller and longer.
Following the rules, I exclaimed, “Oh!” and pointed out the emerging rainbow to my seatmates, who pointed it out to their neighbors and so on. With each wave of awareness, the rainbow great taller, stretching out into a perfect arch—an over-achieving rainbow that soon framed the entire Shiretoko peninsula.
The scene was dream-like not only for its colorful beauty, but for the strange sequence of events: first the bears back on shore, the sticky ketchup caramel in my mouth, the setting sun in the west and to the east, an approaching typhoon. Like some cosmic comic strip, the forces of good and evil were at war overhead and rainbows had begun shooting out everywhere.
After the first rainbow completed, a second began, and then another and another. As we bounced through the waves, the rainbows shot up in the sky—Technicolor ghosts that shimmered red, yellow, purple and blue on the TV screen of this magnificent Japanese landscape.
Then a final rainbow appeared, painted in a single stroke on the gray-blue sky. By now, the seventy of us had transcended our little boat and were navigating the moment like you do in a flying dream—never asking how, but only flapping your magical arms until you wake up.
We had no words; the rhythm of cameras had gone awry. There were no rules for this moment. Rainbows bent up and over the green gunpowder mountains and then dove deep into the blue beer sea.
It all ended in rain—a downpour on shore that erased all of it so quickly. My guide was silent as we walked back to the hotel, the rain hitting the road like the mechanical rush of camera shutters. This time, my smile was real and I pulled out my pen to take notes.
I marked a slash through that morning’s tally and began counting anew:
Tourists in lifejackets: 70
Miles from Russia: 10
Brown bears: 9
Five rainbows. Ichi-ni-san-shi-go.