Article updated on May 23, 2020
Text & photos: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
It is early morning when the doors of the visitor centre in Shiretoko National Park open and we receive our bear certificates.
We are about to set out for a walk amongst the famous Five Lakes, or go-ko in this northernmost island of Japan. The name of the park literally means “end of the Earth” and was named by the Ainu, the ethnical group of people that originally populated this part of northern Japan. Today we have two options to hike these lands of primeval nature:
- by following a high boardwalk surrounded by an electric fence to prevent Japan’s largest terrestrial carnivore from attacking visitors, or
- the more scenic and adventurous 3-km trail where brown bear encounters are likely.
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Getting bear-proof in Shiretoko
Bears are the symbolic animal of Shiretoko and they have been worshipped and feared for centuries by its local inhabitants who call them “the God of the mountains”. Obviously, we choose the more exciting option as we would like to see these majestic animals, hence the certificate: to be allowed on the trail, one needs to become bear-proof! A 10-minute video subtitled in English and another 10 minutes with a park ranger, speaking only Japanese, is supposed to get people ready. Since Shiretoko National Park has become UNESCO-stamped in 2005, the park authorities have to ensure the safety of about two million annual visitors on one hand and the preservation of the Ezo brown bear habitat on the other.
What to do in case of a brown bear encounter?
In a nutshell, the Ezo brown bears living in Hokkaido, unlike Grizzly bears, are very good climbers so climbing a tree to escape them in case of an attack is no option. They run at a speed of about 50 kilometres per hour (30 miles per hour), so once face-to-face, there are not too many options left to survive, but gently retreating. Looking at the “safety” position of an actor simulating a brown bear attack, lying on his belly, his hands protecting his head, with the bear repeatedly attacking, we figure that the preventive part needs the most attention: what to do to avoid a close encounter!
With our purchased bear bell half out, half in the pocket translating our dilemma: our desire to see one of these fascinating animals and yet our apprehension to be face to face with one we start our hike!
An encounter with two cubs
Low clouds cover the green forested mountains surrounding the calm lakes reflecting colourful endemic flowers. The lakes open up when the mist rises and the sun pierces through on this chilly Summer day. We continue the trail through a lush forest and come across deep claw marks in the bark of a tree, and this is as close as we get to the bears on that hike.
Driving off, we head out for another hike, while keeping our eyes open for wildlife. The fox we spotted along the road still wanders around, clearly not shy as it literally runs towards our car. I stop the car, open the window and look the beautiful red creature in the eyes. In a bizarre moment the fox stares back at me for a while, before we finally decide to continue our drive down.
When we get closer to our destination our dear wish of seeing the Ezo brown bears in their natural habitat comes true. Too astonished to believe it, we spot two dark brown dots on the side of the road. Getting closer, they appear to be cubs digging for ants. Given their size these very young brown bear cubs were most likely only born this past winter when the Ezo brown bears give birth during hibernation.
The mother bear is nowhere to be seen. This is very surprising as they depend on her for the first two and a half years of their lives. Still, we keep our eyes wide open as she must be hiding somewhere and we do not want to get between her and her cubs! Far from our worries, the cubs seem to be fearless and completely ignore us while they keep foraging. These little fur balls are extremely cute, and the already long and curved claws give an idea of how tall they could become. They cross the road in search of some more insects and clumsily climb a small hill before they slowly disappear into the dense forest.
Increasing chances of spotting more bears: bear cruises
We look at each other, feeling blessed with this amazing encounter that can only occur between April and September while the brown bears are out of hibernation. In the summer brown bears tend to spend more time along the coast to feed on small fish, insects, plant roots and fruits. Shiretoko’s summers are short and wild salmons are already gathering to start swimming up the rivers for their yearly migration, a delicious sashimi for bears!
Thinking that we would have a high probability of spotting some more Ezo brown bears along this rough sea shore, sculpted by waves, wind and drift ice that forms during the long and harsh winters, we hop on a boat. The coast is a paradise for bears as the water is filled with salmon feeding on plankton which is exceptionally abundant in the Shiretoko area: the drift ice brings the plankton that feeds on the salts found in lakes and streams fed by volcanic activity. We spot eight more bears from lonely males to a mother with her cubs from the cruise boat we take. Even from this respectable distance, it is quite amazing to see them evolve freely and undisturbed in their natural habitat where they have coexisted with the indigenous people for over centuries and they hopefully will continue to do so under the protection of the Shiretoko National Park.
Note: the brown bear has almost become extinct in North America (but in Alaska) and Western Europe. The Shiretoko Peninsula is home to the densest population of brown bears in Japan. Within the national park that is only very partially accessible to visitors, they can freely migrate from coastal to alpine areas and their number still increases. Unfortunately, outside of the park, their coastal habitat is destroyed by human activity endangering them.
- Interested in spotting the bears from a boat? Make sure to make your reservation for your cruise along the peninsula.
- Hiking the Five Lakes in bear peak season requires reservations. Please refer to the website of the Shiretoko National Park to make your reservation.
- In Hokkaido for a skiing trip in Winter? The park is open and fantastic for its ice drifts, observations of Steller’s sea eagles, white-tailed sea eagles, spotted seals!
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles (zoom out) about the area!
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