When I moved to Japan, the first thing my coworkers told me was “watch out for bears”.
According to them, you’ve got bears ziplining through the forest, bears setting up in front gardens, bears sitting down for a luncheon at the soba-shop down the block. Bears with a taste for quality sashimi and lightly-seasoned tourists. Bears that never bothered learning the English word for “mercy”. Venturing anywhere near the Japanese Alps is like swinging around a loaded pistol–you might not get shot today, but it’s really only a matter of time.
There are some precautions you can take, of course. Never go out alone. Carry a bear bell. Get ahold of some bear spray. Brush up on your mammalian psychology so you can look convincingly unappetizing if (when) they decide to take you down. Maybe then, if you’ve got the gods on your side, you might make it back to the parking lot.
Not everyone can say they spend their free time narrowly escaping death, but when I started hiking here it felt like Shrodinger’s Bear around every corner—both there and not there until I could see for myself. The rush was incredible, but hypervigilance gets old. After three curiously bear-free hiking seasons I was starting to have some doubts. Maybe Japanese people describe their bears the way I talk about America’s eagle population whenever the topic comes up.
“Eagles? Heck yeah, we’ve got ’em. Why do you think they’re our postal service mascot? They’re trained to deliver the mail.”
I didn’t need a mauling, but I hadn’t even gotten to feel vaguely threatened. It was starting to seem almost deliberate. When one of my students wrote about her own after-school bear encounter in the school yearbook–“Thanks for saving me from that bear that one time, Akiyo! I hope I can return the favor someday.”–my vague suspicions hardened into certainty.
I’ll admit, it had turned into a matter of personal pride. I was not about to lose to a stringy junior high school student. I started hiking by myself. “Misplacing” my bear bell underneath the refrigerator. Strapping a live salmon to my hiking pack. Still nothing.
I’d like to tell you that this story ends in hand-to-paw grappling and a fight to the death, but it doesn’t. When I finally met him, he was just a little guy intent on some single-minded errand elsewhere. I think life is like that, sometimes. The things you expect to be big and frightening end up being nothing more than a quiet black bear plodding across a dirt road at twilight.