On Aug. 14, I was attacked by a black bear. It all happened suddenly and in a blur of fur, paws and gnashing teeth as the tsukiwaguma charged out of the trees 10 meters from me in a forested, hilly area in Gunma Prefecture in the Kamimoku district of Minakami.
I sustained light injuries, a few gashes to the head and upper arm, but it probably would have been a lot worse if my dogs, Goro (10) and Rhubarb (14), had not chased it off. They are mostly shibainu, a dog bred for bear hunting. It’s a popular domestic house pet, but somewhere lurking in the DNA is an incredible ferocity and fearlessness when it comes to bears. Lucky me. Boars they are afraid of.
During the past two decades of hiking in Gunma I have encountered bears about a hundred times, but almost all have been unthreatening visual sightings. I’ll be writing, take a break by going for a walk in the woods using an old ski pole as a walking stick, and get lost in my thoughts. It’s good exercise, and the dogs and I enjoy the pleasant natural surroundings, passing abandoned charcoal kilns, irrigation ponds, scattered stone memorial tablets, bamboo groves, streams, a Shinto torii and on and up through abandoned rice fields to stretches of beech and oak forests that have the nuts bears like to eat.
There is nothing quite like a bear to waken one from thoughtful reveries and get the blood pumping. Over the years I probably got too complacent because nothing bad ever happened. Seeing bears just seemed to be a normal thing and only part of the rich wildlife one encounters less than two hours from Tokyo. I also see Japanese serow, deer, boars, raccoons, fox, iitachi (golden-tailed martens), pheasants, quails, hawks and snakes. The most dangerous animal where I grew up in Connecticut was the porcupine, and my Irish Setters never quite learned the part about not biting them.
Since the early 1990s, I have watched Kamimoku’s farming population age and its sericulture all but disappear. The mulberry groves are now mostly neglected and in summer the mulberries, used to make jam and wine in my native New England, are left for the birds and animals. One summer I wandered into a grove and suddenly realized there was a bear snacking up in the branches and quickly walked away.
But it is the blueberry that helped save me from bears. I went to a pick-your-own blueberry farm and at the cash register noticed a picture of the farmer on the wall with him standing over a dead bear, rifle in hand. I asked what he did if a bear charged and he didn’t have his rifle. He warned me not to run, because they are way faster than people, but in a jam he said to run downhill, because its awkward for bears. He also advised against climbing trees — they are better at it — or playing possum, because they can inflict serious wounds even if you curl up. He said the best bet is to stand your ground, wave your hands and yell as loudly as possible. Good advice until now.
Since then I have been charged about 10 times and I did exactly what he said almost every time, and the bear always veered off and ran away. The one time I didn’t it was near dusk and I lost my footing and fell backward in an irrigation ditch as the bear just ran by me.
I started wearing bear bells a few years ago after a way too close face-to-face encounter. Now I wear several bells, clanging and jangling on the paths, relying on the tintinnabulation to warn the bears off. But this has not always worked because some bears apparently didn’t get the memo and don’t run away. One came down a tree nearby, unimpressed by my bells. So I also carry bear spray. But this attack happened way too fast. And that ski pole I bring? Just as useless as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “third arrow.”
Twelve years ago a Danish couple, just weeks from their wedding, asked to come along for a hike and thought I was trying to scare them off when I said I had seen fresh bear scat. So along with my wife and two dogs — Ochan (10) and his daughter Rhubarb (then only 2) — we headed up into the hills. About an hour later Rhubarb tore off barking and treed a bear. But the bear changed its mind and came back down and Rhubarb was not giving an inch, barking furiously. We were about 20 meters away and watched in horror as the bear moved in. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Ochan ran in between bear and daughter, lunging at the bear and chasing it up the hill, nipping at its heels as it ran away.
Lars and Henriette were in shock — way too close for comfort with their wedding approaching — and disbelief that a 14-kg dog took on a 100-kg bear. Ochan’s story circulated around Tokyo, getting better and more improbable with the telling in the way that urban legends are made. A couple of years later at an embassy party a diplomat regaled me with the embellished saga of this heroic dog, by then a shoo-in for the Hachiko Hall of Fame.
That brings me to Ochan’s biological son, Goro, who came running from behind me to chase off the bear after it landed a haymaker to my head, putting a few bear-claw etchings into my scalp with aging Rhubarb barking up a storm in support. They got steak that night — and the next.
I posted a selfie of my bandaged visage and bloodstained T-shirt on social media and got some interesting responses, including a disconcerting 73 likes! Referencing my column, someone said it must be a pro-Abe bear. Others noted that five years ago in Minakami a jogger had his nipple torn off, among other gruesome injuries. That guy actually had a brawl with the bear and insists he ended up tossing it over the railing into a ravine. In my dreams!
I actually met the hunter who killed that bear and he joked about the earlier incident, telling me he presented the jogger with a replacement from the bear. To be honest, I hope he doesn’t kill my bear. I have seen way too may dead bears around here, one time six carcasses piled up, but the farmers I’ve spoken to see them as a pest to be eradicated.
Many people tell me I am dumb to continue hiking after so many bear encounters, and I plead guilty.
It’s one of those fun things that’s just too hard to give up, somewhere on that list with off-piste powder skiing and untracked lift-lines.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.