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 among the famous five lakes, or go-ko. Two options are possible: a high boardwalk surrounded by an electric fence to prevent Japan’s largest terrestrial carnivore from attacking visitors, or the slightly more adventurous 3-km trail where brown bear encounters are likely.
Obviously we choose the more exciting option, hence the certificate: to be allowed on the trail, we need to become bear-proof! A 10-minute movie subtitled in English and another 10 minutes with a park ranger, speaking only Japanese, is supposed to do the trick. To be fair, since Shiretoko National Park has become Unesco stamped in 2005, the park authorities have to ensure the safety of about two million visitors a year on one hand and the preservation of the bear habitat on the other.
In a nutshell, we learned that brown bears are very good climbers and run at about 50km/h, 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, we do pay a lot of attention to the preventive part: what to do to avoid them! At the same time we drove all the way to this remote peninsula located at the North-East tip of Japan’s northernmost island in the hope of gettin a glimpse of these impressive mamals.
Off we go, with our 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!
Low clouds cover the green forested mountains surrounding the calm lakes reflecting colourful flowers and lush trees. We come across deep claw marks in the bark of a tree, and this is as close as we get on that hike.
Driving off in our rental Mazda towards the visitor centre for another hike, we keep 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 bizar 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 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 two balls of fur digging for some ants: two very young brown bear cubs, most likely born this past winter!!
Weirdly enough the mother bear is nowhere to be seen. Still, we keep our eyes wide open! The cubs seem to be fearless and completely ignore us. These little fur balls are extremely cute, and only the already long and curved claws give an idea of what they will become: about 200 to 400kg for males or 100 to 150kg for females… They cross the road in search of some more insects and clumsily climb a small hill before they slowly disappear into the dense forest.
We look at each other, feeling blessed with this amazing encounter. The brown bear in its own habitat, strong yet so vulnerable!
In the summer brown bears tend to spend more time along the coast to feed on insects, plant roots and fruits. Shiretoko’s summers are short and wild salmons are already gathering to start swimming up the rivers making a delicious sashimi for the bears. Thinking that we would have a high probability of spotting some more along this rough sea shore, scultped by waves, wind and drift ice, we hop on a boat. Indeed, we spot eight more bears from lonely males to a mother with its cubs. Even from a distance, it is quite amazing to see them evolve freely in their habitat with their nonchalant walk.
Claire & Marcella
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.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!