Bear Necessities by Alyson Hilbourne
We ignored the sign in the tourist office which urged us to rent bear bells. Frankly we’ve seen little wildlife in Japan: a tanuki (raccoon dog) scavenging in a plastic bag in the street at a ski resort, and snow monkeys at the hot water springs, but in all the miles we’ve hiked we’ve never seen anything other than birds.
We were preparing to walk part of the Nakasendo, an old road that ran between Tokyo and Kyoto during the Edo period. The post towns of Tsumago and Magome have many preserved wood and plaster buildings that show how the towns would have looked some two or three hundred years ago, and the seven-kilometre hike between them is along a well-signposted trail.
Our route from Tsumago took us up the river valley. The morning mist was burning off to reveal early cherry trees flowering on the water’s edge. The path was mostly gravelly, well maintained and easy to follow. As we disappeared into the forest, redwoods towered over us and bamboo groves rattled in the wind. We criss-crossed the river on wooden bridges and passed through tiny hamlets, which were probably way stations in the past, with overnight accommodation for travellers. We stopped at a waterfall for photographs and a chocolate break. We ignored several brass bells on poles, thinking they were temple bells of some sort, until we came across one with a notice attached.
“Ring the bell hard against bears.”
We dutifully rang.
And we scanned the path ahead of us, carefully. Asian black bears might be smaller than their brown bear cousins, and might be mainly herbivores, but there is no knowing when they may decide chocolate should be part of their diet.
About halfway along the trail we were welcomed into the Tateba Tea House by an elderly gentleman wearing a conical woven bamboo hat and something akin to blue cotton pyjamas. Actually it would have been difficult not to stop, as he practically blocked our path. He served us green tea and crunchy preserved plums. Since he had almost no English and we had little conversational Japanese there was a lot of smiling and bowing. Because we were getting along so well he broke into some opera and serenaded us, not a word of which we understood. But there was no mention of bears.
The wooden tea house couldn’t have changed in a hundred years. A traditional fireplace, irori, was set in the raised wooden floor, and a blackened kettle hung over the burning embers, while the room beyond had tatami mats for sleeping. When the old man’s song was finished, we signed the visitors’ book, glancing swiftly for any previous mention of bears and waved goodbye.
We continued over the pass, checking the path, and ringing a few more bells on our way. We met a man, a foreigner like us, walking the other way. He was constantly peering about and seemed very nervous.
“Have you seen any bears?” He asked after we’d said hello.
“No.” We laughed. Nervously.
It was then, as we were coming down into the town of Magome, we noticed that the fields and gardens on the outskirts were enclosed with wire fences and topped off with electric cables.
“Maybe there is a bear problem here,” I said, as a vision flashed thorough my mind of a bear sitting in a paddy field, gently plucking the rice shoots.
Since we had elected to walk back rather than catch the bus, we rang all the bells we saw, and checked constantly along the path in front and behind. We returned to out guesthouse much relieved we’d seen nothing but the odd bird on the route and feeling perhaps we’d escaped lightly.
When we got back we asked our host.
“Are there bears around here?”
“Oh, yes,” he nodded. “But not on the hiking trail. People who go up into the mountains to collect mushrooms see them. The bells are to educate the bears and keep them off the Nakasendo. You didn’t see any?” He looked at us.
I shook my head.
“So the bells are working then.”
“But what about the electric fences?” I asked. “Are they for the bears?”
“Wild pigs,” he said. “The eat everything. They have wet noses so they don’t like electric.”
Darn. I rather liked the idea of bears in the paddy fields. Still, I’m glad we didn’t rent bells. The continuous noise would have spoiled the walk.
And the bears are obviously well educated anyway.