Japan: Grin and bear it on Japanese trails

By Victoria Clark

Can a Kiwi cyclist out-sprint a hungry brown bear? In Japan Victoria Clark fixates on this point while pedalling through Hokkaido's forests. She need not have worried.
A sign reading 'Beware - bear haunt' on a Hokkaido forest  trail. Photo / Daisuke Kondo
A sign reading 'Beware - bear haunt' on a Hokkaido forest trail. Photo / Daisuke Kondo

By the time I spot the pile of large, furry skins for sale, it's too late. Apparently, I am in the natural habitat of Japan's brown bears.

My next thought is adrenalin-inducing: "That's a bicycle you're riding, Victoria - not a sealed, armoured vehicle with a V8 engine."

Running my fingers through the brown fur, I calculate: the ¥16,000 price tag for one fur equates to NZ$205. My thoughts see-saw between disgust for whoever would purchase bearskin, and bewilderment; why and how did these bears die?

I have inane visions of hurtling down the mountain road, cloaked in bearskin; its back legs snapping behind me in the wind; me, laughing maniacally. And, an equally ludicrous scene that involves me, boldly flouncing into NZ Customs, wrapped ostentatiously in bearskin.

Hoping my tour guide will allay my fears, I wander out of the mountain-top souvenir shop, just in time to see my fellow cyclists heading off downhill - on a road which will wind for 20km through a bear's favourite habitat.

"Oh yeah, this is bear country," Toby casually confirms. "This is the season when they're out and about a fair bit."

"Er ... you mean, right now?" I ask, trying to sound casual and unfazed.

"Yeah," he says, grinning.

For some reason - mainly, complete and utter ignorance and (embarrassing to admit), only skim-reading the pre-trip notes for this cycling tour - I didn't know bears lived in Japan. I hadn't given a thought to the fauna of Hokkaido.

Turns out, these forests are also home to wild deer, foxes, snakes and snow monkeys. Having recently seen a Liam Neeson film, The Grey, (in which a wild wolf pack feasts its way through plane crash survivors in the wilderness), I'm almost joyous to learn Hokkaido's wild wolves are long extinct.

The most northern island of Hokkaido is the only place in Japan where you'll find brown bears. And, that's where I am.

With two guides and 11 other cyclists, I'm on a tour, covering almost 500km through lush forests, over snowy mountain passes and winding around the coastal road of the Shiretoko Peninsula, which reaches into the southern boundary of the Sea of Okhotsk.

Victoria Clark and fellow cycolists on the road. Photo / Daisuke Kondo

Shiretoko is a national park and a Unesco World Heritage Site, where all things wild are protected.

Toby Washer is a New Zealander who has lived in Japan for seven years, guiding cycling tours, snowskiing and snowboarding, and he's passionate about hiking.

He is guiding our tour for Adventure South, a travel company based in Christchurch, founded by passionate cycling tourist Geoff Gabites. Geoff had mentioned this Secrets of Hokkaido tour was his favourite and that he had done it three times, already. He didn't mention bears, but Toby does.

He tells me a very non-reassuring story of his encounter with a bear while hiking. He had crouched, backed away slowly and the bear lumbered away. He admits it was "pretty scary".

This does not comfort me. On this journey, I will often be alone, as everyone has different levels of fitness and attitudes about how they will cover the 80km-plus mapped out for us each day.

Given we are about to tackle 20km of downhill road, right through prime bear country, I ask how one avoids being attacked by a brown bear?

Toby assures me these bears have no interest in coming face to face with humans.

They don't lie in wait for hikers and cyclists to come around corners, and they certainly don't hunt humans.

He gives me comforting facts. Bears like dawn and dusk so, while we're stretching into wakefulness on our traditional tatami mat beds each morning, bears will be just about finished with foraging.

In June, daylight breaks over this part of the world at around 3am. By 8am, when our day's pedalling begins, bears are more likely to be napping, well away from roadsides.

"We've seen bears beside the road, but not often," Toby says. "A bear would only attack if you came flying round a bend in the road and took it by surprise."

So, number one rule: do not startle a bear. And, definitely don't try scaring off a bear by waving your arms and shouting "Rrraaaarr!"

Taking a break. Photo / Daisuke Kondo

It's best to forewarn bears you're in their patch. Hikers affix bells to their backpacks. We often heard the mellow, rhythmic chimes long before we saw the hiker.

Local women play transistor radios while picking a popular mountain vegetable called warabi, which is also a favourite food of bears.

And, the alternative to bells and transistor radios?

"You can always sing," Toby says. "Hey, better get going. You're the last one here."

Not surprisingly, I immediately become a composer. I write rhyming verses in my head - and a chorus to sing between every verse, so I can drag out the song on the long hill climbs; too steep to traverse at the pace of a startled bear.

My fellow cyclists spread out to such an extent that I cannot see the fast ones in front of me, or the slow-but-steady ones behind me.

There's the super-fit couple, always first to hit the road each day; I doubt any bear could catch them, no matter how startled it was.

There is a group of friends who have cycled Adventure South's tours in Vietnam and through New Zealand's South Island, and now have their sights set on Adventure South's newest cycling tour in Korea. They alternate between cycling many kilometres and hitching a ride in the tour guides' vans, especially when mountain roads wind forever upward.

And, there are the two friends from Brisbane, always "proudly last" who never once catch a ride in the vans. Toby and our second guide, Daisuke (pronounced Dye-skay), drive the vans, one out front, one behind us. They check regularly on our progress.

We each have detailed daily maps in weatherproof pockets atop our handlebar pannier box, but Toby draws giant arrows on the tarseal with chalk at easy to miss turn-offs, and he and Daisuke take turns to wait for us in strategic spots.

Not until I was safely down from Bihoro Pass, where I'd seen the bear furs, did the animals' presence in the area became more apparent to me.

At a lakeside museum, we see a real brown bear, albeit a taxidermied specimen. Another stands guard at the entrance doors to Kawayu Eco Museum Centre and yet another at an information centre on the peninsula coastal road, gaudily wearing an "Open" sign around its neck.

The roadside silhouettes of wild deer have given way to signs warning travellers not to try feeding bears, let alone approaching them.

I photograph them, taking close-ups of claws, paws and teeth, and feel better when I realise they're smaller than their grizzly cousins, black bears and polar bears.

I rarely cycle looking straight ahead, instead scouring forests either side of me, searching for the telltale chocolatey mass that could only be a brown bear among the ubiquitous pale grey tree trunks and the lime green sea of foliage across the forest floor.

Just once, I'm so convinced I see one, far back among the trees, I almost throw my bicycle to the ground and run back, hunched over, to peer into the forest from the roadside. Disappointment mixed with relief slows my adrenaline rush.

"Fool," I chide myself.

And later, in the warmth of our nightly soak in an onsen (Japan's natural spring-fed hot baths), I cringe at my stupidity. What was I thinking, running back along that road?

Cruising downhill through bear country. Photo / Daisuke Kondo

As the final day pedals by beneath my singing, I have the bittersweet realisation I am not going to see a live brown bear.

I so wanted to see one in the wild - yet, my heart pounded in fear every time I imagined it.

By the time we reach the city of Abashiri for our final night on Hokkaido, all I have to show for my experience of Japan's brown bears are photographs of taxidermy specimens, a song I know by heart and, I suspect, a reputation for being bear-obsessed. I prove it when a couple of my fellow cyclists cajole me into singing my "brown bear" song at dinner.

The reality is, cycling on Hokkaido is likely to be bear-free. Bears do not want to see humans. They will avoid you - especially if you sing.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Tokyo.

Further information: Christchurch-based Adventure South runs international cycling tours.

Number one rule: Do not startle a bear. And, definitely don't try scaring off a bear by waving your arms and shouting "Rrraaaarr!"

Victoria Clark travelled to Japan and did the Hokkaido cycling tour courtesy of Adventure South.

- NZ Herald

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