As my wife and I listened to a news bulletin in June about bears killing four people in Akita Prefecture, she gave me one of those silent looks pregnant with meaning. Let me try to translate as best I can: It was one of those looks that say, “You see, you are nuts!” I am guilty as charged, but claim mildly mitigating circumstances.
Since 1991, I have encountered bears on a regular basis while hiking in the hills of Gunma Prefecture. I estimate an average of seven a year, thus somewhere close to 150 encounters. But all encounters are not equal. Most have been the innocuous sightings at, say, 20 to 50 meters that involved the bear running away when it saw or heard me.
In other cases it was decidedly more hairy, with the bear charging toward me or at least running uncomfortably close in my direction.
One time, I heard some heavy breathing from above that made me look upward in the mulberry tree thicket to see a bear happily munching on some berries a few meters away, totally unconcerned by my presence.
I once asked a blueberry farmer what he did if he encountered a bear when he was unarmed. Above the cash register I could not miss the photo of him with a rifle, standing above a dead bear. He told me that humans cannot outrun a bear — they are great sprinters and climbing a tree is no good.
Playing possum works OK, he said, if one is willing to endure a certain amount of roughing up.
Since they are better at running uphill its better to head downhill.
However, his advice was to stand your ground, scream and shout, wave your arms and scare the bear off. He told me they are more scared of us than we are of them. Uh-huh.
So over the years I got to work on my “scare-the-bejesus-out-of-the-bear” routine more times than I would prefer to recall.
There was also the time when a bear chased me around a tree until the dogs chased it off. And then there were the near misses when I basically lucked out as the bear ran close toward me and passed by, one time sending me butt first into an irrigation sluice.
Another time, a juvenile bear popped out of the tall grass just a few meters away, and we had a growling, snarling faceoff. What was I thinking? Sometimes you don’t have time to think and I had no better options. We got into each other’s faces and, luckily, the bear backed off.
By this time I had long been wearing bear bells, but either my bears never got the memo or my bells had the “dinnertime” timbre rather than “run away” sound. So the hills reverberate with the tintinnabulation of my bells these days, but I’m not so confident in their efficacy.
Two years ago in August, I was just starting my walk, not yet really into the woods, when a bear jumped out on the trail 10 meters from me and charged.
There was nothing I could do and it whacked me on the head a couple of times and sent me sailing backward. If my two dogs had not chased it off, I would have been in serious trouble. As it was, I was bloodied, mostly from the clawing of my scalp and some minor neck and arm scratches.
The best part of the story occurred when my wife saw me and said she would drive me to the clinic. She is a “paper driver” with little road experience, so as we were getting in the car, she asked me to remind her which pedal was the brake.
I was not feeling lucky that day, so I got a big towel for my head wounds and drove myself. After getting stitched and bandaged, I bought my dogs a big juicy steak for their trouble.
Later, on Facebook, I suddenly got strange questions asking me how my nipples were. Just fine, as it turns out.
I was pointed to an Outdoor Japan article by a jogger in Minakami, who wrote up a rollicking account of his bar room brawl with a bear that ended with him somehow lifting the bear up from behind and flinging it over a guardrail into a ravine. Right.
In addition to a left nipple, he also lost parts of a few fingers so he has earned a few embellishments.
Now I have to confess that when being charged by a bear, it never occurred to me that, as the creature rises up on two legs, right before it swipes you with its nasty claws, it is very vulnerable to a leg sweep! At least that is what the jogger claimed.
Later that day, the town had heard about my attack and sent the designated hunter, an unassuming guy in his 60s who carried nothing more than a pack of Peace in his pocket as I showed him the site of the encounter.
Anyway, he got around to telling me how he shot the jogger’s bear — it somehow survived the ravine toss — cut off the nipple and presented it to the jogger, a bloody bit of frontier justice. But what might have irked the jogger was the hunter’s mirthful telling of the tale, punctuated by long braying outbursts of guffawing that he would stifle, mutter a few words and then resume with lung-racking gusto.
I never did find out if my bear got killed and was hoping it didn’t, because I have seen hunters stacking carcasses at the trailheads and worry that they may be overhunting.
Still bandaged, two weeks later, I attended an academic conference in Lublijana, Slovenia, and found bear stew on the menu.
The waiter told me Slovenia is the bear mecca of Europe with an abundant population and then showed me some pictures of their behemoths that dwarf the Asiatic black bear.
My revenge stew was quite tasty, but I opted not to go hiking in the local forests.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.