ASAHIKAWA, HOKKAIDO – The opportunity to see wild brown bears in their natural environment has made a national park in Hokkaido a popular hiking destination.
The hiking route in Daisetsuzan National Park is open for about a three-month period from late June to early October. It is closed when the park’s information center judges conditions too dangerous.
Hikers are allowed to walk along the trail without a guide, but only after attending a lecture about brown bears, including prohibited behaviors such as cooking in the forest, eating at certain locations and leaving waste behind.
The 7-km-long route takes visitors through a mountainous area dotted with ponds in Kamikawa, affording them a good chance of spotting bears from a distance. Since the opening of a supervisory office in 1994, there have been no reported incidents between people and bears.
“If we keep an adequate distance, we can coexist,” the center says.
The writers of Lonely Planet included the hiking route, called Daisetsu Kogen Onsen Spa Numameguri, in one of its travel guidebooks, and through this more foreign tourists have visited the national park in recent years.
One early morning in August a couple from Germany were excited to see an adult brown bear with a cub grazing on grass about 200 meters away. Using telescopes, the couple took a closer look at them, which stood at about 1 to 1.5 meters tall.
“Many of the bears here are gentle in nature and quickly run away when approached,” said Hitoshi Yanagisawa, 43, an official at the brown bear information center.
Because of the area’s lush, rich vegetation, close to 30 bears are spotted at the popular feeding spot every summer.
Hikers can access the route from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the open period. Information center officials patrol the route every day and post information on a notice board in the center on locations of recent bear sightings or where footprints have been found.
According to the Hokkaido Prefectural Government, 14 incidents involving brown bears were reported throughout the prefecture in the five years to March 2016. In some cases, people were attacked when they entered the forest to gather wild plants to eat.
The center plans to analyze the collected data on the biology of wild bears and launch an eco-tour.
“I once thought bears were scary, but they were so cute when I saw them from a distance. My image of bears has changed,” said one visitor.
Yanagisawa said, “Bears are smart, and they seem to understand when and where people are present and thus do not go near them.
“We can get a rare glimpse of bears’ natural behavior, like sliding down snow-covered hills and swimming in ponds,” he added.
Brown bears are distributed across much of Eurasia and the northern parts of North America. In Japan, they are found only in Hokkaido, while smaller Asiatic black bears live on the other main islands.
Adult brown bears can grow to more than 2 meters tall and weigh 300 kg, making the species the largest terrestrial animal living in Japan.
The bears are omnivorous — mainly eating grass, nuts, fish and meat — and mostly hibernate during the winter.
Sometimes, though, brown bears wander into areas inhabited by people, damaging crops, killing domestic animals and sometimes even attacking people they encounter.
Hokkaido’s brown bear population is estimated to be increasing, partly due to a decline in the number of hunters.
“We want people not just to think of bears as frightening creatures, but to really see the bears in their natural environment with a full understanding that this is where they live — and experience a sense of awe,” said Yasuhiro Sato, 75, the center’s chief.