The Bear Necessities Of Cycling In Japan

A few weeks ago, I watched a short series of beautiful BBC natural history films called Japan: Earth’s Enchanted Islands. Alas they are are no longer on the iPlayer but a few short clips are available on YouTube. Here’s one of them:

Bears… They featured several times in the series and, clearly pandering to the Japanese stereotype, they do come across as a friendly bunch. That was especially so of the bears of the remote Shiretoko Peninsula in the Hokkaido episode of the programme. You can watch that clip here. Surprised by a quiet cyclist, they might not be so friendly.

I’ve been thinking about the bears of Japan quite a lot since seeing the documentary and I am put back in the position that I was in prior to setting off to cycle the length of Europe in 2015. That involved a journey along the coast of northern Norway. There are bears there too, albeit in the mountains, not by the sea. When I wrote the book Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie, I made the following comments about bears in Norway, starting with a quote from the Norwegian authorities::

Around 150 years ago, there were 4,000–5,000 brown bears in Scandinavia, roughly 3,000 of them in Norway. Bears were ruthlessly hunted in both Norway and Sweden in the early twentieth century, and almost exterminated. Today, the stronghold of bears in Norway is along the border with Sweden, Finland and Russia.

So said the Environment Agency. They went on to admit that it wasn’t easy to count bears, as they spent much of the winter in hibernation. However, the Altposten newspaper reported that walkers were being encouraged to collect bear scat (yes, that’s bear shit to you and me, presumably found in the woods) for DNA analysis. The important thing was not to contaminate it and to freeze it as soon as possible, before sending it off to the authorities for checking. This research had revealed there to be at least 128 bears in Norway in 2015, of which 53 were females and 75 males.

So, my chances of coming face to face with a brown bear were also slim. But the burning question – was the brown bear dangerous? – had yet to be answered. It was thus useful to discover a publication written by a certain Jan-Erik Olson for the Scandinavian Brown Bear Research Project, handily entitled Is The Brown Bear Dangerous?

The good news was that the last reported death by bear in Norway was way back in 1906 when a 13-year-old boy surprised a bear that was in the process of munching away at a carcass. The boy didn’t quite provide dessert but he was seriously injured and succumbed to meningitis a month later in hospital. The most recent death in Scandinavia had been in Finland, in 1998, when a jogger again surprised a bear. It was suggested that the surprise might have been due to the jogger’s almost silent approach into a headwind. It could be argued that a cyclist’s approach in similar conditions might also provoke alarm in a bear. This I could understand. Whilst commuting to work in the open countryside of South Oxfordshire, I would often surprise the local deer population and as a result get a little too up close and personal with the fleeing animals.

Although the report by Mr Olson said that the Scandinavian brown bear was not dangerous, he did go on to state that many people had been ‘hurt, scratched and bitten by bears’. I suppose it depends upon your definition of danger. In fairness, I could see where he was coming from. I have fallen off my bike on many occasions over the years and hurt myself but I don’t consider cycling to be a dangerous activity.

The publication rounded off with some useful advice about encounters with bears: signal your peaceful intentions, no uncontrolled movements, don’t run and retire cautiously. I’m sure I was given similar advice at teacher training college about dealing with 15-year-old boys. If the bear stood on its hind legs, it was doing so not to scare the living daylights out of you but in order to see or smell better. If the bear roared, snorted or uttered ‘sounds reminding of murmurs or whistles’, it was trying to scare the living daylights out of you so run like hell. No, sorry, forgot… Don’t run. And you shouldn’t shoot: ‘A wounded bear is a dangerous bear!’

If you were attacked, the choice was between climbing a tree (best option) and playing dead (worst option). Although this latter strategy has been proven to be successful, bears have learnt to associate human scent with food either left as refuse or as bait placed by hunters and photographers. They smell you and think food…

Mr Olson concluded his pamphlet thus: ‘If you treat him with respect and do not threaten or hurt him, he returns his respect by withdrawing.’

Wise advice indeed and just as applicable to teaching teenagers as confronting bears in a Norwegian forest.

Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie, published by Summersdale, 2017

I suppose all of that is still relevant to cycling the length of Japan. But there is one key difference between Norway and Japan when it comes to bears. In Japan, there are far more than 128 bears. There are thousands…

Photo credit: BBC

The black bears that inhabit Honshu (the largest island) and Shikoku (the smaller island to the south of Honshu) number upwards of 10,000 “with some living a few dozen kilometers west of central Tokyo in the Kaone Mountains and Tanzawa Mountains of western Kanagawa Prefecture” according to this informative webpage. In Hokkaido (the northernmost island) there are around 3,000 brown bears and the same webpage makes the following rather blunt comments:

“This is about four times the number of grizzly bears found in the continental United States. They occasionally eat livestock and kill people. Mushroom hunters and fishermen have been mauled but mostly the bears keep their distance from people.”

At least that ended on a positive. The webpage goes on to add the following words about bears as ‘pests’:

“Hunting of brown bears was banned in 1982. Since then the sighting of the bears has increased – from 41 in 1993 to 489 in 2003- – and there has been more potentially dangerous encounters. Because they are no longer hunted brown bears don’t fear people like they used to. They no longer are fazed by noise makers, whistles or bells and have made half -hearted charges at tourists. In 2004 some footpaths were closed because of worries about bear attacks and elevated walkways were built to protect tourist in the future.”

…and goes on to recount many stories of encounters that didn’t go well for the humans concerned.

On the positive side of things, it’s worth noting the words of Rob Thomson on his excellent website

“I’ve lived in Hokkaido for almost 10 years now, and I’ve not yet seen a bear in the wild. A few of my friends and acquaintances have, however, and the encounter has always ended amicably, mainly due to distance between said friend and bear.”

Rob adds some familiar useful advice on his website regarding making noise and not leaving food hanging around and ends with the following words:

The likelihood of being attacked by a bear is laughably low. A much more real threat takes the form of the Japanese giant hornet, contracting lyme disease from ticks, or getting an echinococcus parasite from drinking untreated water from streams (see our advice here). If you do happen to encounter an aggressive bear in close quarters, follow the advice of the Internet.

All I need to do now is worry about the giant hornets…

Header photo credit:

Categories: Adventure, Cycling, Japan 2020, Travel

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1 reply »

  1. Yes, they look cuddly Andrew and I’d love to see one up close. Not too close though and preferably with a nice steep downhill escape route. I’m sure I’d be able to beat my PB with one of them in pursuit.

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