Hiking in Hokkaido – Beware of the Great and the Small
Hokkaido offers beautiful bush-walks and treks, but hikers beware. There are two dangerous creatures lurking in those forests. One is gigantic and the other is tiny and both are best avoided.
The large one can outrun you, outswim you, and out climb you. If you come across this behemoth of the bush, your only options are to puff yourself up and try and frighten it, or to collapse and pretend you are dead. Neither of these tactics is guaranteed to work, so it is best to avoid meeting a Hokkaido Brown Bear.
These bears are a close relative of the North American Grizzly so they are omnivorous. While Hokkaido Brown Bears do not prey upon humans, if they kill a person, they are unlikely to let the body go to waste. But the wilderness is a bear’s home and we must be cautious and respectful visitors.
By taking a few precautions, you can greatly reduce your chances of meeting a bear. Tie a bell to your shoe and make sure it rings freely and loudly. When bears have enough warning you are coming, they prefer to get out of your path than confront you. You never want to startle a bear and you never want to put yourself between a mother and her cubs.
In addition to sending bears off with warning bells, make sure you are not accidentally attracting them. If you wear perfume or have recently used scented soaps or shampoo you may smell delicious to a bear. Also, do not carry aromatic food or rubbish. Hokkaido Brown Bears feast on nectar and berries, so no jams, aromatic fruits, honey or other goodies, unless these are sealed in containers you trust to be airtight. Even with these precautions, bears have incredible senses of smell so if you are doing a multi-day trek, never store your food or rubbish near your tent.
Be ‘bear aware’ at all times, but particularly in spring, when they emerge hungry, and in autumn, when they gorge to store fat for hibernation. If you startle a bear feeding at those times they may see you as a threat to their food source and attack.
Compared to bears, the tiny hiking danger in Hokkaido might seem just a nuisance. But these other threats, some as small as one millimeter across, harm more hikers each year than bears. They are ticks and they attack with stealth, so you tend not to know you’ve been stricken. Then a rash sets in, possibly with migraines, nausea or chills. These are some of the symptoms of Lyme disease, which not all ticks carry, but cases are reported every year in Japan and sometimes these are fatal.
This is one reason Japanese hikers usually wear snug leggings and long-sleeved shirts with looser clothing over the top. This protects them from the sun and scratches, and it also prevents ticks from hitching a ride. Wearing layers is brilliant for many reasons when bushwalking because the weather can change quickly in the wild mountains of Hokkaido.
Hikers are well advised to carry food and water, including extra just in case. Check the forecast before you go have a waterproof layer and a thermal layer regardless. Sunshine can become sleet when you least expect it. Think of what you would need if you had to sleep out, and carry the essentials on your hike. Pack a small first aid kit and any medication you need. Ask your chemist about tick extractors, because if you are bitten by one carrying Lyme disease, removing it properly and quickly can help.
The absolute most important precaution to take when you go on a day walk or a multiday trek, is telling somebody who cares about your safety where you are going and when you will return. That way, if you do not report back in with them, they can raise the alarm for a search.
By preparing so thoroughly, even though you are unlikely to need all of your precautions, you are being responsible and reducing your risk. If you never use your rain gear or your overnight equipment or your extra food, that’s fantastic. But on that one occasion that you do need it, you will be safer and more comfortable in the wilds of Hokkaido. And you need never feel lonely thanks to the ticks and the bears.